Fact check: Claims about the Scots language 7

Fact check: Claims about the Scots language

The Scots language has become part of the political debate in Scotland in recent years, promoted by activists, artists and academics and gaining greater prominence.

But Scots has also been drawn into online discourse around Scottish independence and the SNP.

Ferret Fact Service was asked by Scots poet and activist Len Pennie to examine some of the regular claims about Scots. 

Len’s Scots Word of the Day videos on TikTok have seen her gain more than 500,000 followers on the platform. She also works for the Scots Language Centre.

Here’s what we found out.

Ferret Fact Service | Scotland's impartial fact check project

Scots language or dialect?

Mutual intelligibility” is often-cited as a distinction between a language or dialect. This is the ability of people speaking one language to understand another without dedicated learning. 

However, many linguists see the situation as far more complex and subjective, and while the terms ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ are widely-known and used, it can be difficult to define between them.

It is common when languages exist in close proximity to one another they will be mutually understandable to some degree. Spanish and Portuguese, for example, are two languages which share significant vocabulary.

Scots and English come from the same West Germanic language family, alongside German and Dutch. The earliest written records of Scots date from the late 14th century.

Scots is recognised as a language by the Scottish Government and is protected by the UK Government under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. It has been included in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

Are modern Scots words ‘made up’?

Every word in every language is made up at some point, and new words being added to a language is a sign of its living nature. 

The Oxford English Dictionary’s latest update included 650 new words, senses, and sub-entries. Some words enter the lexicon, while others fall out of use. New words are created in numerous different ways. 

Some come from proper nouns, such as sandwich, which is named after the Earl of Sandwich who popularised the snack in the UK (although it has existed in various forms for thousands of years). Oftentimes brand name nouns become used as verbs, such as Google or Hoover

More common are new compound words or phrases, such as fast food, or smartphone.

Modern Scots compound words include wabsteid (a combination of the words for web and site), and fankle-fixin (troubleshooting). 

How widely is Scots spoken in Scotland? 

It is very hard to get a full picture of how common Scots speaking is. There has been limited and inconsistent surveying including Scots as an option, and much is out-of-date. 

The Scottish census, which is due to be published in 2023, should give us a more accurate sense of the use of Scots. However, it is clear that a significant portion of Scottish society speaks it to some degree, and it is one of the country’s most-widely spoken languages. 

In the 2011 Scottish census, 1.54 million people said they could speak Scots, while another 267,000 said they could understand it but not read, speak or write it. 

The census also found 1.23 million people said they could speak, read and write Scots. 

Scots was most commonly spoken in Aberdeenshire, Moray, and the Orkney and Shetland isles.

Around one per cent of people said they spoke Scots at home.

A Scottish Opinion Survey in 2009 asked 1,000 people to rate how often they spoke Scots. Forty-three per cent of respondents said they spoke it either a lot or fairly often. 

Was Scots promoted before the SNP took power?

Scots has a long history of formal use and recognition in Scotland. It was used in the Parliament of Scotland prior to the Act of Union, and has a significant history in literature and arts. 

Modern promotion of Scots has increased since devolution. Questions on Scots were included in the 2011 census, and the first formal Scots language policy was published in 2015

The Scots Language Centre and Dictionary of the Scots Language also both predate the SNP government at Holyrood. The Scottish Government is currently consulting on its commitments to Gaelic, Scots and a potential Scottish Languages Bill.

You can read Len Pennie’s column in The Herald.

Photo credit: Len Pennie and iStock/g-stockstudio.

Hi! You can login using the form below.
Not registered yet?
Having trouble logging in? Try here.