When Did Scots Become Scots?
This is no matter for surprise. The original speakers of the language were the Angles — as they said it, Engle — and their language was Englisc. The language was called so, that is, long before the mediaeval kingdoms of Scotland and England had begun to take shape. As it gradually spread over much of the island of Britain, it changed and diversified, assuming different dialectal forms in the various parts of its domain; but its name of Englisc simply remained; and by Barbour’s period, what time the familiar situation of two rival monarchies dividing the island unequally between them was well established, nothing in that respect had changed: even though, for historical reasons beyond the scope of this essay, Englisc (now spelt Inglis) had superseded Gaelic as the language of king, court and government in Scotland. Barbour and Blind Harry (no other name is known for him: it is not even clear whether Harry was his given or his family name) were key figures in what is arguably the greatest period in the history of this language as a literary medium: a period in which poets of the calibre of Andrew of Wyntoun, King James I, Robert Henryson, Richard Holland, William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy and many lesser figures (some of them anonymous) gave Scotland a national poetry to compare favourably with any in Europe.
Taking Pride in Scottis
Yet it was not until well into this period that anybody in Scotland was inspired to recognise the language itself as something which the nation could claim as its own. Gavin Douglas, in the prologue to his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (the first, and still the finest, complete translation of this classical epic into any European vernacular), proudly proclaimed that he was kepand na sudroun but our awin langage, and mentioned Inglis along with Latin and French as a foreign language from which he borrowed words, when necessary, to enrich his Scottis. Douglas was not strictly the first to use the word Scottis of the tongue in which he wrote, but he was the first to recognise its potential status as a prized national possession, a language unique and proper to the Scottish people in which they could take a patriotic pride.
What had prompted Douglas to this revolutionary new perception of his native speech? Certainly he was a scholar and poet with an unsurpassed command of the language: his Aeneid is by some estimates the finest single work in the Scots tongue. But in this he is, at best, primus inter pares with a whole school of great poets writing at or about the same time. He had travelled to England and must have been struck by the differences between Scots and English speech (no doubt far more conspicuous than between the written forms); but he is not unique in that respect. Nor does the political situation of the time provide any obvious reason for his stance: uneasy truce or open war between the monarchies had been the normal state of things for centuries. The brilliant idea seems, for all we can tell, to have struck Douglas almost as a revelation; and though some of his compatriots followed him in adopting the practice of calling the language Scottis and placing emphasis on its distinctiveness from the language of the southern kingdom, others were content to retain the old use of the term Inglis.
And when we examine the question whether Scots and English had actually become different languages from a linguistic point of view, we find that though the substantial differences in spelling, grammar and vocabulary already visible between Barbour’s language and Chaucer’s had substantially increased in the intervening century, even by Douglas’s time the Scottish and the English forms still showed a high degree of mutual resemblance. Writers in each country read and were influenced by those of the other as they always had done: Douglas’s Aeneid itself was read, criticised and imitated in England. Two speech forms do not require to be mutually unintelligible in order to be classed as different languages, and there is no precise degree of differentiation beyond which this classification automatically becomes operative: modern Europe shows several examples of “languages” which differ from each other no more — possibly less — than did Scots and English in the early sixteenth century; cases in point being Czech and Slovak, Finnish and Estonian, Dutch and Flemish, Danish and Norwegian. But the concept of an official national language existing as part of the defined identity of a nation-state was nothing like as fully developed, if indeed it can be said to have come into being at all, in the sixteenth century as it had become by the twentieth and twenty-first. Scots and English, in fact, showed (and still show) a degree of differentiation such that either their essential identity or their essential distinctiveness could be argued with equal credibility.
And that is precisely what we find. In the Reformation period, spokesmen for the old Catholic church made a debating point of the fact that the documents of the Reformers were printed in England and in English: would James V not have called them triple traitouris for abandoning their own tongue? — yet the passionately anti-English author of the Compleynt of Scotland makes an equally good debating point by claiming that though the Scots and the Engish are “of ane yle, and nychtbouris, and of ane langage,” they are as antithetical as any two peoples in the world. James VI as King of Scots argued that since Scots differs from English it requires a distinct set of rules for poetic composition; but having become King of England as well he argued that “identity of language” was one of the factors that had made the union of the two peoples desirable.
Dialects of the Same Language
Perhaps the most balanced view was taken by Francis Bacon, who in a carefully-worded letter to the King noted that the difference between Scots and English, though strong enough to serve as an obstacle to union, was “a diversity of dialect rather than of language”. They were not, in the judgement of that eminent scholar, sufficiently distinct to be separate languages; but he did not call Scots a “dialect of English”, a phrase which implies that the English form has or should have precedence: they are dialects of the same language, forms of equal antiquity and equal respectability. But few people then or since have been as perspicacious as Bacon; and the status of the Scots tongue has never ceased to be the topic of impassioned debate.
Prof. J. Derrick McClure, University of Aberdeen