The Oor-Wulliefication o Scots?

After publishing some poetry and some horrible horror stories, and a spell writing for Theatre About Glasgow with the Citizens’ Theatre, Robert Duncan spent over thirty years as a TV producer. In 2018 he won the Wigtown Scots Poetry Competition and was Highly Commended in the main (English) Competition. In 2019 he was runner-up in the Wigtown Scots Poetry Competition, and he won it again in 2020 and 2021. 

In 2020 he was Jynt Rinner-up in the Poesie Section o Sangschaw 2020 and had several ither poems highly commendit. In 2021 his translation o Sappho’s ‘Ode tae Aphrodite’ was highly commendit by Sangschaw. These and ithers hae been published in Lallans,The Journal o Scots Airts an Letters. He is workin tae reclaim his Scots language ruits. 

He’s had ither poems publisht in Poetry Wales, Magma and Searchlight. In 2020 he was yin o six winners o the Federation of Writers (Scotland) 20 Words for 2020 competition.


Scots

‘In my bairn days, I hed the speech o a bairn, the mind o a bairn, the thochts o a bairn, but nou at I am grown manmuckle, I am throu wi aathing bairnlie.’ 

(1 Corinthians 13:11 – New Testament in Scots, William Laughton Lorimer, 1983)

As a bairn, my first leid was Scots. Till I was five, it was aa I spoke. Syne, I went tae schule. There, I was taucht tae speak English, abeit ‘Scottish English’. Mony a time, teachers would scaud a bairn for speakin the same wey as their mither and faither. But I was a biddable laddie and learnt tae speak, read and scrieve English. (It’s interestin hou we say ‘Scottish English’ in relation tae speech, but no in relation tae scrievin.)

Nou, even my first paragraph kythes some kittle questions o what I mean by ‘Scots’. Words like ‘speak’, ‘teacher’, ‘speech’, are aa English words. Sae hou is this Scots? This question would never occur tae a speaker o ony o the Scandinavian leids. The word ‘hus’ is the same in Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. Naebody says ye cannae uise it in yin leid in case fowk think ye’re speakin yin o the ither leids. In Scots, it means ‘house’ – the same word as in English. In the Dictionars o the Scots Leid (DSL), the heidword is ‘house’ – the maist frequent spellin o a word that’s sometimes spelt differently – ‘hous’, or ‘hoose’ (see later). There are even instances o the spellin ‘hus’ in Scots.

Why does this maitter? Should I no juist leave the speech o my bairn days ahint me, and say I’m ‘grown manmuckle … throu wi aathing bairnlie’? Gin ye luik at what follows in St Paul’s sentence – ‘the mind o a bairn, the thochts o a bairn’ – what it mints tae me is that the speech (leid), the mind and the thochts are unseparably flauchtit wi yin anither, and gin ye loss your speech, ye loss some o your mind and thochts alang wi it. Aiblins Paul had a different braith on bairnheid and bairnly things tae Jesus: ‘Lat the littlans abee, hender-them-na tae come tae me; the Kingdom o Heiven is for sic as thir.’ (Matthew 19:14, Lorimer)

What I lost uisin English maist o my workin life micht no hae been the Kìngdom o Heiven, but siccarlie pairts o my mind were occludit (‘like luikin in a mirror an seein aa thing athraw’? 1 Corinthians 13:12, Lorimer), and thochts vital tae understandin my place in the warld were happit. Betimes I wrote in Scots, maistlins in verse, but, sailin in a sea o English, the feck o my thochts hoved up in that leid.

Nou, efter mair than forty year o exile, ettlin tae retrieve and scrieve the Scots I kent as a bairn, I’m confrontit wi a number o blecks. In speech, I find a creepin Glescafication, leastweys across the Central Belt. And in the resurgent scrievin o Scots, no juist a creepin, but a rampant (tho no universal) Oor-Wulliefication. 

In the Burns sang, it was Willie that ‘brew’d a peck o’ maut’ (pace the apostrophes – dinnae get me startit on thon!), no Wullie. In the sixteenth century, the Border reiver was Kinmont Willie, no Kinmont Wullie. Even in the 1950s, my fitba hero was Willie (no Wullie) Fernie. The pronunciation was the same. Sae why, in the 1930s, did Robert Low (né Dundee) and Dudley D Watkins (né Prestwich, Lancashire) decide tae spell it Wullie? I can only jalouse it was tae help an English-readin audience (includin Scots never exposed tae the Scots leid in print) pronounce it richt.

Likewise, wi ‘Oor’. The heidword in the DSL is ‘our’. In the Dictionar o the Aulder Scots Leid, there are 61 citations for ‘our’, no a single ane for ‘oor’. Even in the SND (post-1700), there are 18 for ‘our’, 15 for ‘oor’, tho the latter has heezit in the twentieth century. In the poetry o Burns and the Scots dialogue o Scott, it’s ‘our’. In Scots generally, the vowel sound is as aften – aiblins mair aften – representit by ‘ou’ than ‘oo’. Naebody would cry a dour Scotsman a ‘door’ Scotsman!

Nouadays, even the National Library o Scotland has the ‘Oor Wullie guide tae Scots language’ on its wabsteid, descrivit as ‘A guid fun wey tae lairn oor language’. In the SND, ‘lairn’ is a variant o the heidword, ‘learn’, wi only 3 citations tae the heidword’s 15. Here, I suppose the reason they uise ‘lairn’ is tae threap that ‘This isnae English – honest!’ But I would suggest that gin we want tae set our Scots linguistic house, hous, hoose or even hus in order, we should get awa fae this notion that ye need tae bend ower backwarts tae differentiate ilka single word fae English. They’re sister leids, descendit fae a common forebear. They still share a lot o the same DNA, includin mony spellins. In the desperation tae assert their difference, ‘methinks the laddie doth protest ower muckle’. This luiks like a corollary tae the ‘Scottish cringe’ – the ‘aggressive’ side o ‘passive-aggressive’ (creengin-crabbit?).

The same ower-steer protestation seems tae afflict even our legislature. The Scots Parliament publishes a guide tae its workins in Scots – ‘Your Scots Pairlament’. The word John Barbour uises in his Scots epic poem ‘The Brus’ (c. 1370) is ‘parliament’. This is faur the commonest spellin, fae aulder Scots richt up tae the present day. ‘Pairlament’ is rare. When an MSP stands up in the Chamber, they dinnae say ‘Pairlament’, they say ‘Parliament’. Sae, whatna effect does this weel-intendit (?) ettlin tae threap the separateness and validity o the Scots leid hae? I aince winched when a Deif frien o mine, campaignin for the recognition o British Sign Language, descrivit the Parliament’s Scots publications as ‘like Oor Wullie’. But she had a point.

Twa mair examples fae the very first page o ‘Your Scots Pairlament’:

  • Memmers o the Scots Pairlament’. A search in the online DSL finds: ‘Advanced Search for memmer (full text, both SND and DOST) – No results were found.’ An Advanced Search for ‘member’ gies 231 results in the SND and 169 in the DOST – and that’s only a ‘partial set’, because there are ower mony results. ‘Member’ is a heidword in the DOST (pre-1700), and that entry alane cites 58 instances. Sae whaur did they dreg up ‘memmer’?
  • The natural surroonds’. Online DSL: ‘Results of Advanced Search for surroond (full text, both SND and DOST) – No results were found.’ Sae whaur did ‘surroonds’ come fae? (And if the aim is tae threap that, ‘This isnae English – honest!’, why did they no scrieve ‘naitural’?)

Sic examples seem tae come fae the ‘please yersel hou ye spell it’ schule o Scots orthography. I’ve seen this uphauden by mony fowk even on wabsteids dedicatit tae the preservation o Scots. It’s a thraw back tae the sixteenth century, when neither Scots nor English had a sattled orthography. In the case o English, twa monuments laid the grund for a standardisation o spellin – the King James Bible (1611) and Johnson’s Dictionary (1755). There is still nae complete owersettin o the Bible intae Scots, and Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) cam lang efter the domination o English in Scottish education had set in.

Sae, what’s the wey forrit? Neither in my bairnheid, nor in the bairnheid o the leid itsel, has the Kìngdom o Heiven in Scots ever been ‘naurhaund’ (Matthew 3:2, Lorimer.) My hert greens for the leid Scots micht hae been, gin John Knox, Jamie the Saxt, the ‘parcel o rogues’ in the Parliament o 1707 and siclike had never wrocht their damage. But my harns say thon’s the Kìngdom o Never-Never: ‘Bot gif I knaw nocht the virtue of a voce, I salbe to him, to quham I sal speke, a barbarik; and he that spekis to me, salbe a barbarik.’ (1 Corinthians 14:11, Murdoch Nisbet’s Scots New Testament, c. 1520.) 

Hou can we speak tae ilkanither and scrieve for ilkanither in a decent Scots that mines the riches available in the DSL – a Scots wi beauty and dignitie, no open tae mockery, yet a Scots that is common tae the fowk, without whase daily speech it’s as guid as deid? The fact that the DSL is online, wi the ‘Search’ function – yon byous tool – does mak it seem possible. 

Yet, tae me, twa things seem necessary for this tae happen. Yin is, tae loss the ‘creengin-crabbit’ conceit that says, ‘dinnae spell it the same as English, nae maitter hou muckle ye deform the leid!’ That cuts us aff fae hauf our DNA.

And, for aa I love Oor Wullie (tho I prefer The Broons – ‘broun’ was the form in aulder Scots, but that pass was lost a lang time ago), the second thing is tae luik for inspiration tae the Dictionars o the Scots Leid raither than the Fun Section o the Sunday Post.

English

When I was a child, I had the speech of a child, the mind of a child, the thoughts of a child, but now that I am grown up, I am through with all things childish.’

(1 Corinthians 13:11 – translated from the New Testament in Scots, William Laughton Lorimer, 1983)

As a child, my first language was Scots. Till I was five, it was all I spoke. Then I went to school. There, I was taught to speak English, albeit ‘Scottish English’. Often, teachers would scold a child for speaking the same way as their mother and father. But I was a compliant boy, and learned to speak, read and write English. (It’s interesting how we say ‘Scottish English’ in relation to speech, but not in relation to writing.)

Now, even my first paragraph demonstrates some ticklish questions of what I mean by ‘Scots’. Words like ‘speak’, teacher’, ‘speech’, are all English words. So how is this Scots? This question would never occur to a speaker of any of the Scandinavian languages. The word ‘hus’ is the same in Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. Nobody says you can’t use it in one language in case people think you’re speaking one of the other languages. In Scots it means ‘house’ – the same word as in English. In the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (DSL), the headword is ‘house’ – the most frequent spelling of a word that’s sometimes spelled differently – ‘hous’, or ‘hoose’ (see later). There are even instances of the spelling ‘hus’ in Scots.

Why does this matter? Shouldn’t I just leave the speech of my childhood behind me, and say I am ‘grown up … through with all things childish’? If you look at what follows in St Paul’s sentence – ‘the mind of a child, the thoughts of a child what it suggests to me is that the speech (language), the mind and the thoughts are inseparably interwoven with one another, and if you lose your speech, you lose some of your mind and your thoughts along with it. Maybe Paul had a different take on childhood and childish things from Jesus: ‘Let the children be, do not stop them from coming to me; the Kingdom of Heaven is for such as these.’ (Matthew 19:14, translated from Lorimer.)

What I lost by using English for most of my working life may not have been the Kingdom of Heaven, but certainly parts of my mind were occluded (‘like looking in a mirror and seeing everything awry’? – 1 Corinthians 13:12, translated from Lorimer), and thoughts vital to understanding my place in the world were buried. Sometimes I wrote in Scots, mainly in verse, but, sailing in a sea of English, most of my thoughts hove up in that language.

Now, after more than forty years in exile, trying to retrieve and write the Scots I knew as a child, I’m confronted by a number of challenges. In speech, I sense a creeping ‘Glasgow-fication’, at least across the Central Belt. And in the resurgent writing in Scots, not just a creeping, but a rampant (though not universal) ‘Oor-Wulliefication’.

In the Burns song, it was Willie that ‘brew’d a peck o’ maut’ (pace the apostrophes – don’t get me started on that!), not Wullie. In the sixteenth century, the Border reiver was Kinmont Wille, not Kinmont Wullie. Even in the 1950s, my football hero was Willie (not Wullie) Fernie. The pronunciation was the same. So why, in the 1930s, did Robert Low (né Dundee) and Dudley D Watkins (né Prestwich, Lancashire) decide to spell it Wullie? I can only surmise that it was to help an English-reading audience (including Scots never exposed to the Scots language in print) pronounce it correctly.

Similarly, with ‘Oor’. The headword in the DSL is ‘our’. In the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, there are 61 citations for ‘our’, not a single one for ‘oor’. Even in the SND (post-1700), there are 18 for ‘our’, 15 for ‘oor’, though the latter has come up in the twentieth century. In the poetry of Burns and the Scots dialogue of Scott, it’s ‘our’. In Scots generally, the vowel sound is often – possibly more often – represented by ‘ou’ than ‘oo’. Nobody would call a dour Scotsman a ‘door’ Scotsman!

Nowadays, even the National Library of Scotland has the ‘Oor Wullie guide tae Scots language’ on its website, described as ‘A guid fun wey tae lairn oor language’. In the SND, ‘lairn’ is a variant of the headword ‘learn’, with only 3 citations to the headword’s 15. Here, I suppose the reason they use ‘lairn’ is to assert that, ‘This isn’t English – honest!’ But I would suggest that, if we want to set our Scots linguistic house, hous, hoose or even hus in order, we should get away from the notion that you have to bend over backwards to differentiate every single word from English. They’re sister languages, descended from a common ancestor. They still share a lot of the same DNA, including many spellings. In the desperation to assert their difference, ‘methinks the laddie doth protest too much’. This looks like a corollary to the ‘Scottish cringe’ – the aggressive side of ‘passive-aggressive’ (creengin-crabbit?).

The same overcharged protestation seems to afflict even our legislature. The Scots Parliament publishes a guide to its workings in Scots – ‘Your Scots Pairlament’. The word John Barbour uses in his Scots epic poem ‘The Bruce’ (c. 1370) is ‘parliament’. This is by far the commonest spelling, from older Scots right up to the present. ‘Pairlament’ is rare. When an MSP stands up in the Chamber, they don’t say ‘Pairlament’, they say ‘Parliament’. So, what effect does this well-intentioned(?) striving to assert the separateness and validity of the Scots language have? I once winced when a Deaf friend of mine, campaigning for the recognition of British Sign Language, described the Parliament’s Scots publications as ‘like Oor Wullie’. But she had a point.

Two more examples from the very first page of ‘Your Scots Pairlament’:

  • Memmers o the Scots Pairlament’. A search in the online DSL finds: ‘Advanced Search for memmer (full text, both SND and DOST) – No results were found.’ An Advanced Search for ‘member’ gives 231 results in the SND and 169 in the DOST – and that’s only a ‘partial set’, because there are too many results. ‘Member’ is a headword in the DOST (pre-1700), and that entry alone cites 58 instances. So where did they dredge up ‘memmer’?
  • The natural surroonds’. Online DSL: ‘Results of Advanced Search for surroond (full text, both SND and DOST) – No results were found.’ So where did ‘surroonds’ come from? (And if the aim is to protest that, ‘This isn’t English – honest!’, why did they not write ‘naitural’?)

Such examples seem to come from the ‘please yourself how you spell it’ school of Scots orthography. I’ve seen this upheld by many, even on websites dedicated to the preservation of Scots. It’s a throwback to the sixteenth century, when neither Scots nor English had a settled orthography. In the case of English, two monumental works laid the ground for a standardisation of spelling – the King James Bible (1611) and Johnson’s Dictionary (1755). There is still no complete translation of the Bible into Scots, and Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) came long after the domination of English in Scottish education had set in.

So, what’s the way forward? Neither in my childhood, nor in the early days of the language itself, has the Kingdom of Heaven in Scots ever been ‘at hand’ (Matthew 3:2, King James Version). My heart yearns for the language Scots might have been, if John Knox, James VI, the ‘parcel of rogues’ in the Parliament of 1707 and suchlike had never wrought their damage. But my brain says that’s the Kingdom of Never-Never. ‘But if I know not the meaning of a voice, I shall be to him, to whom I speak, a barbarian; and he that speaks to me, shall be a barbarian.’ (1 Corinthians 14:11, translated from Murdoch Nisbet’s Scots New Testament, c. 1520.) 

How can we speak to one another and write for one another in a decent Scots that mines the riches available in the DSL – a Scots with beauty and dignity, not open to mockery, yet a Scots that is understood by the people without whose daily speech it’s as good as dead? The fact that the DSL is online, with the ‘Search’ function – that wonderful tool – does make it seem possible.

Yet, to me, two things seem necessary for this to happen. One is, to lose the ‘passive-aggressive’ notion that says, ‘don’t spell it the same as English, no matter how much you deform the language!’ That cuts us off from half our DNA.

And, much as I love Oor Wullie (though I prefer The Broons – ‘broun’ was the form in older Scots, but that pass was lost a long time ago), the second thing is to look for inspiration to the Dictionaries of the Scots Language rather than the Fun Section of the Sunday Post.

Robert Duncan

Our monthly flash theme for February is Love Languages

Our flash competition this month honours our ‘love languages’ theme. If you are aged 60 and over, and want to write a short piece about your own love of language, we’d love to hear from you! This could be a poem, flash fiction or flash memoir about any language at all (that might even include computer languages!). We’re especially keen to hear from you if you are an older person new to the UK, and have learned English or one of the UK’s other spoken languages for the first time. We’re also keen to hear from people who have discovered a love for learning languages for the first time as a person over 60.


Entries will be accepted until midnight on February 28th, and the winning entry, chosen by Autumn Voices, will receive a copy of Chuckies Fir The Cairn. This is a collection of poems in Scots and Gaelic, edited by Rab Wilson and kindly donated as a prize by Luath Press.

7 thoughts on “The Oor-Wulliefication o Scots?”

  1. Hoo tae screive wi dignity? Thou I gree wi muckle o fit ye say, I think it’s nae sae much dumbing doun, as nae wantin tae sneck the door on fowk faa are streivin tae reclaim the leid o thair parents an graunparents. Kep up the guid wark Robert Duncan.

  2. As an auld poet trying to reaquaint myself with the Scots Leid, I found this a really interesting article. I find myself sometimes doing as you say, changing English words for the sake of it. I have done the memmer thing and usually found this unsatisfactory.
    The DSL online usually gives a much better, and more poetic word anyway.
    I also, shamelessly poach great words from better contemporary writers who have Scots as their first Leid.
    The biggest problem for new Scots writers or speakers is using some new found words in the correct context.
    I sometimes write in my native Glaswegian where at times phonetics play a big part of spelling. However, I feel that I can now do this much better since learn ling more about Scots.
    Scots is a wonderful language to write in.
    I understand your concerns over the Oor Wullie and The Broons thing. However, Jings, Crivvens and Help Ma Boab, though I have never understood what it means, is a phrase I adore and use a lot. I will continue to use it and hae nae big riddy daein it either.
    I love using Jings at the start of some social media posts when responding to stupidity, it beats Jeez hands down and saves me from using f***.

    Joe

    1. Jings, crivvens, help ma Boab, Joe, I’m wi ye there, laddie. Burns uised the phrase ‘by jing’ in ‘Halloween’ (1785). ‘Crivens’ or ‘crivvens’ gangs back tae at least the 1890s. ‘Helpmabob’ is fand in print in 192, wi a source fae 1894, and accordin tae the SND, ‘bob’ is a euphemism for ‘God’. Sae they were aa guid Scots uisage lang afore ‘Oor Wullie’ cam alang,
      And ye wadnae believe hou mony times I’ve had tae correct the Predictatext even in this short reply, when typin Scots.

  3. Hi, I’m Scottish, Edinburgh born and bred, and do TRY the odd bit writing in Scots, but I get kind of discouraged on reading this (brilliant though) article. I always classify stuff as MY VERSION of Scots, which is a bit derogatory in itself, is it no? I should maybe be more confident. But, having learned more of it all over recent years, and really appreciating it, I’m still very (verra? I’d never use that) unsure (unshair?) when (whin?) it all (aa?) comes doon tae it (duin ti it?). If it was to be used (by me) as you suggest (I’ll be wrong, correct me!) I should write it as taught at school, in English, and just pronounce it differently, either in my head or when reading aloud? I doubt I’ll ever ‘get’ it. I don’t speak the Doric and am aware of LOADS of words I just never would use but… SHOULD I? I mean, if wanting to use Scots… at least WRITE them, what I at least know them, It’s all so confusing. But again, great article, enjoyed that a lot.

    1. Caroline, dinnae fash yersel. For aa I’d like tae see a mair agreed standard Scots orthography, the maist important thing is juist tae scrieve and whaur ye can speak Scots. Mair pouer tae your elbuck ( and your fingers!)

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