Rise and Fall of a Language-Form: The Story of Older Scots.

Fiona Coll

copyright 2005

Scots is the name given to “the principal linguistic medium of face-to-face communication used by the vast majority of speakers who live within the boundaries of Scotland today” (Jones 1). It is important to note that this “linguistic medium” is not Scottish Gaelic, nor is it simply British English spoken with a Scottish accent. Historically speaking, Scots is a separate and relatively distinct descendant of Anglo-Saxon, and can thus be considered something of a cousin to English.


Today, Scots is the flashpoint for a number of political, social, and cultural concerns, as questions surrounding the autonomy of a modern Scottish identity run up against the historical legacy of cultural hegemony in England. One area of linguistic debate asks whether, today, Scots really constitutes a language unto itself, or whether it has evolved to become closer to a dialect of English. Another area of concern seeks to determine the best way to protect Scots against what is understood to be the pernicious process of “anglicization,” or the influx of Standard English vocabulary and syntax into Scots. Still other areas of scholarly and critical attention seek to regularize a written form of Modern Scots (Stirling 89), and to catalogue the influence of Scots on dialects of English spoken around the world (Jones 78). What will be examined here are those factors which conspired to facilitate the evolution of Scots into a rich and robust language during the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and which subsequently oversaw the devolution of Scots into a disparaged and embattled minority language several centuries later.


At the turn of the seventh century, modern-day Scotland was known as the Kingdom of Alba and was a Gaelic-speaking region. However, the Anglo-Saxon language was introduced to the area by the Angles in the seventh century, who settled in the Northumbrian region of England and the adjoining southeast corner of the country they called Scotia or Scotland. Despite this incursion, Gaelic remained the predominant language of Scotland for several more centuries. Then, during his twenty-five year reign over Scotland, King Malcolm III (reigned 1058-93) decided to reform the structure of his monarchy along the lines of the stronger and more efficient Anglo-Norman system. The reforms were a success in terms of Scotland’s political and economic strength, and resulted in the introduction of a number of legal and bureaucratic words from Anglo-Saxon into the vernacular language, such as craft, guild, alderman, toll and gate (McClure 5). Gradually, the business sphere became more and more infused with aspects of Old English. Around the same time, William the Conqueror’s triumph at Hastings prompted a significant number of Old English speakers to flee to Scotland, and before the end of Malcolm’s reign, Old English had established a strong foothold in the region. King David I (reigned 1124-53) continued Malcolm’s program of administrative reform and introduced a network of English-speaking centers of trade, or burghs, which cemented a foundation for the development of a distinctive branch of Anglo-Saxon across southeast, or Lowland, Scotland (Gaelic remained the language of choice in the northwest, or Highland, region of Scotland for several more centuries) (McCrum et al 142). Scotland’s distance from the socio-cultural centres of England, as well as the unique Gaelic and Scandinavian influences on the region, allowed the Anglo-Saxon language to evolve along different lines in Scotland than it did in the more southern parts of England, and so Scots was born (McClure 3-7)


The Modern Scots of today can generally be differentiated from Older Scots, the language form that existed from 1100 to 1700. Older Scots can be further divided into four more-or-less distinctive forms: Pre-literary Scots covers the period from 1100 to 1375, when the earliest extant literary text in Scots – the Brus – was written by John Barbour. Early Scots extends from 1375 to 1450, after which a number of phonological and syntactical changes distinguish a form of the language known as early Middle Scots, which existed from 1450 to 1550. Late Middle Scots, marked by increasing anglicization, encompasses the period from 1550 to 1700 (McAfee 10).


What can be traced here is a rise and fall in prestige and use of the language.      Scots achieved its crowning height during the Middle Scots period, when it served as both the language of poetry and the language of administration in Scotland. One feature which distinguishes Scots from the English of the time, and which can thus be used to trace the changing fortune of the Scots language, is found in the inflection of the present participle. In Middle Scots, the –and ending, as derived from the Old Norse –inde, was used to indicate the present participle, while the Middle English equivalent was –ing (McAfee 22). Thus, a Scots formulation of the present participle would proceed as follows: Obseruand also that no domesticall beast, sic as Dog or Cat, vaig abroad in time of pest (Dons and Moessner 21). However, by the end of the eighteenth century, this –and inflection had been almost completely replaced by the more “English” –ing ending.


The compilation of the Helsinki Corpus of Older Scots by Anneli Meurman-Solin has made possible a series of detailed linguistic investigations into the specific distribution of the –and inflection in Middle Scots. In 1999, Ute Dons and Lilo Moessner determined that the use of the –and ending began to decline at the end of the sixteenth century, and had been replaced by –ing by about 1700 (30). The biggest factor influencing the decline of Scots at this time appears to be a political one – in 1603, the crowns of Scotland and England were joined under James, who then turned the Scottish court into an English-speaking one by moving it to London. A century later, the Parliaments of the two countries were united into one, and Scots was essentially cast off as an inferior tongue (Crystal 53). From this point on, Standard English became the goal towards which most self-possessed Scottish people aimed, and by the nineteenth century, Scots was understood to be a “second-class” language, traces of which were eagerly erased from the speech of such Scottish luminaries as Adam Smith and David Hume (Herman 116).


What emerges from this history is the stunning influence that the administrative forces of Scotland had upon the development and loss of the Scots language. From Malcolm’s early reforms to James’ later abandonment of the land and language, the decisions made by the rulers of Scotland served as extraordinarily important extra-linguistic influences on the fate of Scots.


For Further Reading

Special mention must be made here of the exhaustive Selected Classified Bibliography of the Scots Language, compiled by Caroline Macafee and maintained by Marina Dossena. The bibliography is searchable by name or topic, and can be found online at http://wwwesterni.unibg.it/siti_esterni/anglistica/slin/scot-bib.htm

Corbett, John, J. Derrick McClure and Jane Stuart-Smith, eds. The Edinburgh Companion to Scots. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2003. 

Crystal, David. The Cambridge History of the English Language. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Dons, Ute and Lilo Moessner. “The Present Participle in Middle Scots.” Scottish Language 18 (1999): 17-33.

Devitt, Amy J. Standardizing Written English: Diffusion in the case of Scotland 1520-1659. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Glauser, Beat. The Scottish-English Linguistic Border: Lexical Aspects. Bern, Switzerland: Verlag, 1974.

Herman, Arthur. How the Scots Invented the Modern World. New York: Three Rivers, 2001.

Jones, Charles. The English Language in Scotland: An Introduction to Scots. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 2002.

McAfee, C.I. “A Short Grammar of Older Scots.” Scottish Language 11/12 (1992/93): 10-36.

MClure, J. Derrick. Why Scots Matters. Edinburgh: Bell and Bain, 1997.

McCrumb, Robert, William Cran and Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986.

Meurman-Solin, Anneli. Variation and Change in Early Scottish Prose: Studies based on the Helsinki Corpus of Older Scots. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1993.

Reeves, Willima Peters. A Study in the Language of Scottish Prose Before 1600. Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft, 1975.