How many Scots words do you use in everyday conversation?
One area of your vocabulary is stuffed with Scots words. It is when you refer to geographical features. I don’t mean academic terms like isthmus or plateau, I mean words like burn, glen, or strath. People who aren’t Scottish rarely use such words. And there are lots of them: inch, craig, neuk, heugh, rhin, law, loch, muir, and more.
The weather also gives words that only we Scots use: haar, snell, nippit, gloaming, spitters, smirr, and everyone’s favourite Scots word, dreich.
I like these words. They are highly expressive. Haar isn’t just mist. A snell wind bites harder than a cold wind.
I enjoy using these words. They enrich my writing.
You might hear a few of them spoken this evening if you are attending the Scots Language Awards at Dundee’s Gardyne Theatre. The awards are a wonderful thing. I admire the study of language.
But I have an argument to bring up.
I have purposefully used the first half of this column to celebrate Scots words – and pointed out that I use them, we all use them. As you read on I will thole no accusation that I hold Scots words in anything but the highest regard.
My passion is for written English. I could hardly say otherwise, it is the discipline I have worked with and studied throughout a 42-year career in newspapers.
I scatter Scots words throughout my writing, but I don’t use Scots all the time. And I don’t like articles, stories, or books written solely in Scots. I find such things hard to follow.
There is a lack of precision. Spellings, for instance. My Concise Scots Dictionary gives ceetie, cite and cete as Scots for “city”. Which is correct? For “paper” the alternatives are: peyper, pipper, pepper, peper, paiper, and peaper.
Sometimes spellings change depending upon location. “I” can be Ah if written by a Glaswegian, but Eh to a Dundonian. I know Scots scholars have divergent opinions on the apologetic apostrophe. They argue over whether a (all) should be a’. Or whether wi (with) is wi’.
These ambiguities can obscure meaning.
I make a clear distinction, I hope you notice, between the spoken and written word. This lies at the heart of how I feel about Scots.
I don’t mind what sort of accent you use when talking. Use and pronounce words as you see fit. Call a ball a ba, say eh eh um for yes I am. Your accent is part of your character and identity. Be proud of the way you speak and tolerant of how others speak.
But when writing, we should all use standard English. It belongs to everyone on this island and is easily understood by everyone.
Getting your meaning across in a clear, precise, unambiguous way is the essence of good writing. It is more difficult to achieve wide understanding if you are writing in Scots.
Word of the week
A youth or boy. EG: “I’m just a callant whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”.
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org