General Guide to Scots Language

1. Language in Scotland

There are three languages spoken in Scotland, Gaelic, Scots and English - four, if we count the Norn language of the Northern Isles as seperate from Scots.

And there is a great deal of nonsense spoken about them as well as in them.

The historical evidence is that prior to the coming of the Gaels and Vikings, the spoken language throughout most of Scotland, indeed throughout most of Britain, would have been a dialect of what we now call Welsh, or what linguists like to call Brythonic, or 'P Celtic' as contrasted with Gaelic which the linguists term Goidelic, or 'Q Celtic'. The modern Brythonic languages are Welsh, Cornish and Breton and the modern Goidelic are Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic and Manx Gaelic.

That this Brythonic language was spoken in at least Southern Scotland is supported by the evidence of the 8th century epic poem Y Gododdin (relating the death-or-glory attack by the inhabitants of Lothian against a huge Saxon army at the Battle of Catterick in the middle of the 7th century) and by the numerous Brythonic placenames like Pentland, Penicuik, Pencaitland etc.

When I first encountered the terms P and Q Celtic it seemed to be some highly complex arcane terminology, like some secret code. When I discovered what they meant, I laughed. They derive from the fact that frequently words which begin with a 'P' sound in one language will actually be the same word but beginning with a 'K' sound in the other. For example, the word for head in Brythonic is 'Pen' whereas in Goidelic it is 'Ceann'.

Yes, I've grossly over-simplified that but it'll give you a rough idea of what it's all about.

Over a period of several hundred years, Scotland was invaded by various incomers, with the Gaels gaining the ascendency culturally. By about the 8th century Gaelic had replaced Pictish as the dominant language throughout most of Scotland. People will try to tell you Gaelic was only spoken in the North West. Utter nonsense, completely contradicted by the evidence, like the large number of Gaelic placenames throughout most of the southern part of the country.

In time, the Gaels were joined by tribes of people speaking one or other dialect of Germanic languages, Vikings and Angles being the most influential, Angles in the South East and Vikings throughout most of Scotland. Eventually, the various Germanic dialects coalesced into what by the Middle Ages was regarded as the Scots language (sometimes also called Lowland Scots, Lallans or Doric).

Various dialects of this Scots language began to replace Gaelic, beginning in the south east in Lothian then north along the coastal areas through Fife and what is now known as Grampian region. The Borders and Caithness developed their own dialects, the Borders being greatly influenced by Northumbria and Caithness being under Norse control for much of its history. The Norse influence is also strong in the dialects of Gaelic spoken in the Western Isles.

Part 2


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