Scots: an indigenous language or a dialect?

Most Americans, I’m sure, hold an erroneous belief about languages in Scotland. Here are some common beliefs on this subject:

  • Some Americans think that all Scots speak Gaelic. Not true. (And more on this one below.)
  • Some — most, probably — think that all Scots speak English. Closer to the truth, but still not true.
  • Some —but very few — think that there’s a third major language in Scotland, called Scots. This is true.

Scots is controversial. Some say it’s a language, some say it’s a dialect. This sort of issue keeps appearing around the world, and it’s as much a political issue as a linguistic one. Linguist Uriel Weinreich is famous for defining the distinction by saying “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” A more standard distinction is that if two people can reasonably hold a conversation together, they must be speaking the same language, even if they speak separate dialects. By that definition, Scots and English are separate languages, as are Mandarin and Cantonese to take a more familiar example. But then Weinreich’s definition comes into play: Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are also considered separate languages (primarily because of the national boundaries) even though a Dane, a Norwegian, and a Swede can walk into a bar and hold a conversation together. (What’s the rest of the joke?) Likewise, Flemish and Dutch are called languages for political reasons, but Cockney and Brummie are dialects. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Returning to Scotland, I just wanted to comment on the “Gaelic” issue. Some people in Scotland still speak a dialect of Gaelic that we often call Scots Gaelic, to distinguish it from the dialect spoken in parts of Ireland (primarily the far west). That dialect — or language, if you prefer, as I do — can logically be called Irish Gaelic, but in Ireland they prefer simply “Irish.” I hope that’s clear. And I want to close by observing that I was inspired to write this by a recent video on All Things Linguistic, a video that you should definitely watch:

Categories: Linguistics