“For many people in Scotland and Ulster, the vocabulary we used to describe our world as children is fading into the past. If we are not careful, what these words meant and how we used them will never be recorded and barely remembered, if at all,” is the stark warning from a leading linguistics expert.
Scots has 1.6m speakers in Scotland, with more in Ulster, making it one of the largest minority languages in Europe.
But much of our understanding of ‘contemporary’ local and national usage is based on linguistic surveys conducted more than 60 years ago, such as the Linguistic Survey of Scotland and the material from the Scottish National Dictionary found in the Dictionary of the Scots Language.
Robert McColl Millar, professor in linguistics and Scottish language at Aberdeen, said it is essential that we gain a better understanding of the way words are used in Scots spoken today and in the recent past if we are to assess how it has changed and how the language might be preserved.
Researchers in Aberdeen and Edinburgh are planning a new linguistic survey of Scots, covering the Scots-speaking territories of both Scotland and Ulster, which does not have an equivalent of the Dictionary of the Scots Language. They plan to trace, among other things, change in knowledge and use of the vocabulary of Scots from the 1950s until now and across contemporary speakers of different ages and social background.
The researchers will attempt to establish understanding of Scots across the generations and for both men and women and Professor Millar says they expect to see significant change.
“Language naturally changes over time. Words are replaced and cannibalised but with Scots, we see words that fall out of fashion being replaced not with other Scots words but more likely with colloquial English words.
“Much of what makes Scots so distinctive is entwined with occupations and pastimes that have changed beyond recognition since the surveys of the 1950s.
“In fishing and farming, for example, there are many words associated with machinery or equipment that is no longer in use; the technology now utilised does not have a name in Scots, the standard English word being used universally. A good example of this is barkin, referring to a water retardant substance with a pungent smell painted onto clothing and ropes to protect them at sea. While, as earlier research we have carried out demonstrates, older people remember the word and the process vividly, new oilcloth and later plastic clothing, used globally, have set barkin adrift on a sea of memory.”
Professor Millar says that in order to succeed, the new initiative needs the input of Scots speakers and local archivists and commentators.
“We know that many communities have produced wordlists and dictionaries of local words and usage. I am personally aware of many, but by no means all, of these. We are also aware that many people have compiled lists of words and phrases which have never been published; some have inherited lists of this type from friends and relatives. Other people may have notes and recordings produced for local history projects or for other purposes. To make any new survey truly representative, we need a greater understanding of what local and regional resources we have.”
With this in mind, Professor Millar has teamed up with other experts from Scots Language Dictionaries and the University of Edinburgh, to stage a two day colloquium. Scots Words and Phrases in the Contemporary World: Back to the Future, on April 8 and 9 2019, in Edinburgh.
“We want this colloquium to be open to everyone with an interest in Scots, both in Scotland and Ulster. With this in mind, costs have been kept as low as possible and everyone is welcome.
“Before the colloquium, however, we call on all interested parties to contact us with information on the resources which they are aware of for the use of words and phrases in their regions; particularly if these resources are not well known.
“The Scots language is the possession of all speakers, in Scotland and Ulster. It is also their responsibility. The message is ‘your language needs you’.”