How the English Failed to Stamp Out the Scots Language

I came across an old article, from Atlas Obscura, that echoes something I’ve been saying for years, how governments work to destroy native languages and dialects. The article tells the story of the Scots language, not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic. It’s well worth reading.

I’ve written in the past that both Mizrahi Hebrew and Southern English are truly marginalized dialects. Neither has official recognition as “endangered languages (or dialects).” Both have been relegated to low status, with the ultimate goal of eradication.

There is a class of dialects that falls somewhere between the dominant dialect and a truly marginalized dialect: The faux marginalized dialect or FMD. A good example of an FMD is Black Vernacular English. It’s officially “marginalized,” but very much promoted in reality. In the Atlas Obscura article, Dan Nosowitz fails to make this distinction:

This strategy takes a lot longer than a linguistic military invasion, but it serves to put a feeling of inferiority over an entire population. How good a person can you really be, and how good can your home be, if you don’t even speak correctly?

Scots is a language and not a dialect, but this strategy is not too dissimilar from what happens with African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, in the United States. Instead of recognizing AAVE as what it is—one American English dialect among many—education systems in the U.S. often brand it as an incorrect form of English, one that needs to be corrected (or as a “second language”). It isn’t different; it’s wrong. Inferior. This is a wildly effective, if subtle, ploy of oppression. “There are plenty of people in Scotland who actually think it’s a good thing,” says Hance. “The narrative is, we’ve been made better through this process.”

For the record, I’m in favor of American blacks retaining their own dialect of English; it’s part of their heritage, and they should maintain it. But “AAVE” is not a true “marginalized dialect.” How can one make such a claim when multitudes of American whites adopt it for themselves? Witness “Cash me outside” girl for example. Only a couple of days ago, I was speaking with a government worker by phone. She told me she had to “axe me a question…”. Young blacks who speak in Standard American English are the ones who are stigmatized by their peers, not the other way around.

In contrast, among the younger generation, it’s almost exclusively rural white Southerners who maintain their ancestral dialect to any meaningful degree. I’m pretty sure that if a young white Southerner speaks in Southern English in a big Southern city, he’ll immediately be identified as a “country hick.” I’ve met many Southerners who visit my area as tourists or new arrivals. Only a tiny minority of them speak Southern English. A few of them “code switch.” Had Mr. Nosowitz cited Southern English as his American example, his words would not only have been more truthful, they would also have been more powerful. After all, Southerners are largely descended from Scotland.

My blog ramblings aren’t going to change any of this; forces more powerful than our own have already set the course of modern languages. All I ask for is honesty. If we’re going to use the word “marginalized,” then let’s use it accurately.

Here’s a talk, delivered in Scots, about the history of the Scots language:


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6 Responses to How the English Failed to Stamp Out the Scots Language

  1. 370H55V says:

    I remember the controversy over “ebonics” back in the late 90s, and Prof. Walter Williams sitting in for Rush Limbaugh, opening the show “Dis here be de Rush Limbaugh show wit Walter Williams sittin’ in. If you gots a question you wants to ax me, call 800-282-2882. . . “

  2. Stealth says:

    Rural Southerners? Is there any other kind? I think white people in the Deep South surrendered their cities to black people a long time ago. Many of the whites in places like Raleigh, Atlanta and Nashville are recent gentrifiers from the northeastern states.

    No culture lasts forever, but we’ll persist a little longer than you might expect. As far as the NY/NJ/PA/MA invaders are concerned, there are (semi) hard limits on their expansion. For the most part, people like that are unwilling to move to areas that lack mountains or beaches. Notice that it’s Idaho, Vermont, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, etc. that have been overrun by outsiders, and not Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi. Also, even though they would never admit it to save their own lives, these transplants can’t adapt to places that are half or more black. I lived in one of the poorest regions of the South, and, try as they might, the “yankees” that moved there just couldn’t hack it for more than a year or two.

    Why they would want to move down there is a real mystery to me, but relocating to the South, even if temporarily, has become a rite of passage for people in New York, my current home.

    • jewamongyou says:

      The cost of living is much less in the South. Now that so many people are working from home (and it may become a new norm), even more of them will migrate to the South.

      • 370H55V says:

        And unfortunately bring their pernicious voting habits with them.

      • Stealth says:

        To be blunt, I imagine it’s more than just affordable housing and low property taxes. Thank God the Northeast has its natural beauty, because many of the towns and cities up here aren’t much to look at (There are, I admit, exceptions).

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