The Place of Vernacular Languages in the Cultural Identities of Québec and Scotland

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Historically, the sense of a distinctive identity in both Québec and Scotland has been strongly sustained and projected through the vernacular form of French and English that is spoken in each country. These vernacular languages have evolved over time and are continuing to do so at an increasing rate. The use of the vernacular has considerably receded in everyday life in favour of more standard forms of each language, although these standard forms continue to be flavoured and coloured by the older usages. Standard English in Scotland is not quite the same as standard English elsewhere, and the same is true of the standard French of Québec. Yet the vernacular has not disappeared. Quite on the contrary, it has not only retained but strengthened its role in the domain of the language arts, by becoming the principal vehicle of expression in theatre, television and the cinema, while still maintaining a presence in the novel and poetry, which were its original strongholds.

It is the extension of the vernacular from the realm of the local and the everyday into that of the symbolic and the imaginaire which distinguishes both Québécois and Scots from regional dialects, as these are normally defined. Québécois and Scots, while sharing many of the formal features of dialects, find themselves being used, not simply for local everyday matters (the domain of the dialects), but for the most sophisticated and valued forms of language use in society: those that occur in the expressive arts. Hence their centrality to collective identity: it is often through the vernacular in the theatre, cinema or literature that people in Québec and Scotland gain their most significant insights into their culture, their history and their shared values, and thus reinforce their collective sense of belonging.1

However, Québec and Scotland arrived at this shared position by quite different routes, and, looking to the future, it may well be that the special circumstances of each country will have a different impact on this area of cultural identity. Québec and Scotland have different pasts, and different geo-political situations today, while French and English, as world languages, have different linguistic characteristics, especially in the status they allow to vernaculars. All of these factors may have an influence on the future of the vernacular in each case.

A difference appears immediately in the political and cultural history of each language. In origin not only was Scots a separate branch of Old English, linguistically different from, although related to, the southern form used in England, it was also the language of an independent state. Hence, from the earliest records, there are instruments of state written in Scots, as well as a powerful medieval literature in prose, poetry and theatre, centred on the Royal court, which is the equal of the medieval literatures of England and France (Robinson 1985: ix-x). Although signs of the strong influence of southern English on Scots can be discerned as early as the fifteenth century, it was the move of the Royal court to London with the Union of the Crowns in 1603 which was the first major haemorrhage in the distinctive culture and language of Scotland. The Union of the Parliaments a century later, in 1707, amplified this loss of prestige. Even by 1707, the distinction between Scots and English had narrowed to one between different varieties of the same language, rather than of distinct but related languages. But, from the Union on, strong pressures to conform completely to usage determined in the seat of power in the south became an inevitable social consequence of the changed political position of Scotland. The most famous evidence of this, very shortly after the Union, was the concern of eminent Scottish philosophers to purge their publications of shameful Scotticisms (Kay 1986: 75-92).

Nevertheless, there was a strong counter-reaction to the pervasive influence of English. It was the eighteenth century itself which saw the very pinnacle of literary achievement in the vernacular. …