This is a perennial question which Emma Grieve, the Orcadian poet, answers brilliantly in The Queen’s English, recently published as part of Orkney Stoor by Abersee Press. The poem opens,
Every year I hiv the bairns
write a poem in ballad form
And use a twathree Orney words
tae mak them more the norm
Normalisation is a big part of what the Scots Language Co-ordinators are working towards. If we don’t all use the Scots we have, it will never become any more acceptable to do so. This is why I deliver most of the training and other speaking engagements I give in my Doric – regardless of the variety of Scots likely to be spoken by my audience. Matthew Fitt pointed out to me long ago that if you want folk to value the language, you have to demonstrate that you do too. The best way to show this is to use what you have. And giving learners permission to use what they have can only help.
And lit them enjoy the words they ken
and hiv a bit o fun
And sometimes finned a voice
whar they thowt that they hid none.
This is a major factor in encouraging teachers to include more Scots, when they have once tried to include it. The bairn who has never really engaged but writes screeds when asked to do so in Scots is a common feature of feedback from colleagues. I promote Scots largely as a result of seeing a learner (he was a wean called Scott in Glasgow), jumping out of his seat to answer questions about Scots language. He had never previously volunteered to answer in class and this sealed the deal for me. Scots is fun. And it does help many learners to discover that literacy can be for them.
The poem goes on:
When I mesel geid tae school,
there were glandulous plans afoot
Tae standardise all English,
and gae dialects the boot
I asked the teacher tae spell ‘twathree’
and she wrote ‘two or three’
And I kent right then hid dinda mean
tae her what it meant tae me
Fur every Orkney buddy knows
that ‘twathree’ is a few
Like mibbe sivven, or mibbee nine,
bit nivver three or two!
Most Scots speakers, or even Scottish Standard English speakers, will testify that there are words which do not translate directly or well into English. Chris Guthrie knew it and so do those who use ‘dreich’ habitually and recently, ‘sleekit’, dumfoonert’ and, gloriously, ‘fur coat and nae knickers’ on the hallowed airwaves broadcast by the BBC.
Greive’s reaction in her poem:
Bit wi embarrassment and confusion
I geed back tae me sate
Me spelling corrected, me sense obscured
and me cheeks all fill of haet
Thousands of Scots-speaking learners have experienced similar emotions through the generations since the Education Act of 1871. The recently departed and much lamented William McIllavney famously explored a similar incident in Docherty, where the hero is belted and belittled for refusing to substitute ‘gutter’ for ‘sheugh’.
In the lines:
I nivver thowt tae argue principles
wi the education board
Fur evrywan kens when yir peedie,
the teachers’s a kind o god
the poet puts her finger on why such discrimination was allowed to thrive. And she continues:
And imagine me faither’s irritation
when I geid hom that night
And said tae him, in all earnestness,
that HE wisna spaekin right.
Sadly, many parents would instead support the teacher, advocating that their offspring should learn to ‘talk proper’. Having gone through a similar experience themselves at school, many feel as the poet does:
So whatever I said wis wrong
and me voice chist wisna mine
I learned tae spake as I wis spoken tae
and hid changed all the time
Whether chantan or a yoakle,
me tongue wis always tied
Nivver given permission tae articulate,
and me left, cleft inside.
The end result of such confusion and discrimination?
I learned tae haad me tongue,
and I mean that in both weys
In English, ‘hold’: keep quiet
and don’t say whit you wir gaan tae say;
Bit aalso in an Orkney sense:
tae stap the dialect altogether
And howldan wir tongues is hoo we kill
A language daid forever.
This is the potential tragedy and crisis which Scots faces: if we don’t use this minority language, it will go the way of the dodo. We need to nurture and protect it, much as we try to do with the panda.
After repeating the first stanza, Grieve ends on a more positive note:
Havan spent a generation
knockan words oot o folks’ heids
The government’s decided
education’s what folk needs.
This, I hope, is where the Scots Language Co-ordinators come in. We all share the view:
I hoap hid’s no too late
Tae claim them back their tongue
Yi canna force a dialect:
Hid’s learned fae when we’re young.
I would offer an additional hope here: I spoke no Doric until I was five. And I know adults who are learning, or have successfully learned, Doric or another variety of Scots. Some only in writing, others with an accent which would convince anyone of their fluency since bairnhood.
Grieve’s poem ends by further elaborating on the best answer to the question I posed at the beginning:
There’s that peedie boy that’s at the back
And disna add that much
And thinks that English isna fur him
What wi the books and poems and such
Who aalweys luks for alternatives
Tae the words he kens and needs
Till writing is a minefield –
Bit noo he’s writan screeds and screeds!
He’s fund a task he’s chist right good at
Dialect! Whit a choice!
Ivvery word he needs is right tae hand
And he finally his a voice.
Why teach Scots? To answer simply: why wouldn’t you, if you want the best for all your learners?