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Scots, more than one word


I was busy working on my edits and up it came, the dreaded question mark. The Editor is quite happy with one of my characters speaking in Scots. Even though she doesn’t speak it herself, she understood what Old Tam was saying. But not that one word though. Perhaps because it wasn’t Old Tam that said it, it was included in the main body of the text.

I do use the occasional Scots word here and there in my writing. I refuse to apologise for it though. It is still a living language and is as valid as English. This subject raised its head recently in an event, held by the Society of Author in Scotland (SoAiS). Someone mentioned that publishers didn’t like to see the use of Scots within their writing. Unless of course, it was a book specifically looking at the language or watered down and reflected in a character's speech.

This raises a few questions, not least about the variety of language that is acceptable. Are writers being led down the path of all sounding the same? Or in fact, only encouraged to use the same words put together differently? Who exactly decided that certain dialectics were acceptable or understandable? Surely if it is ok to use a French word for example within a text, it should be ok to use a Scots word in that text. After all, as readers, we are quite capable of understanding the meaning of a paragraph, even if we don’t totally understand the exact meaning of each and every word.

Look at fantasy books and their use of language. Whole worlds are made up, names of countries and objects and just generally lots of things. The reader still copes with totally invented words. Whole languages are often created specifically for that world. So what is the difference between their acceptability and Scots? When Scots in actuality is real, used for centuries and understood by millions.

Ok, I understand that particular genres use keywords in a certain way. However, are these same acceptable words also used in other genres, only put together differently in a sentence? Just how many different words are encouraged within publishing?

Does it matter in the end? Well, yes of course it does. If there is an unwritten practice of encouraging writers to only use these acceptable or prescribed words, then we are continually diluting our language. We the writers and readers, will all end up talking and sounding the same. Our rich variety will become stifled as language becomes homogeneous.

The use of an occasional word of Scots from my youth is all I use in my speech. My children have none. I never passed it on. Why? Because where I stayed, no one spoke it. I suppose I didn’t want to be different.

I did exactly the same as many a Gaelic speaker did. I stopped speaking my natural way and slipped, almost without being aware of it, into the use of a more Standard English.

Thank goodness we already have works from Burns. Would he have been published now I wonder? Perhaps, publishers such as Luath Press would have published his work. Thankfully, there doesn’t seem this barrier with books written in Scots for children, as more and more of these hit the shelves.

But what is Scots? We have the distinct Doric and West Coast Scots, both often seen and heard. But what about the places in between like Dundee or Fife?

This takes me right back to where I started. The word my Editor picked on ‘clorty’. This is the word I was familiar with when we were covered in mud. Then the doubts started to set in. So straight to a source, another Dundonian. “Yes, we were clorty.” My West Coast friends were quick to point out their use of clerty, clarty, or even clatty. But clorty it is for me, even if its use appears to be disappearing fast.

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