Does It Matter If God Speaks Scots?

Daily Mail (London), July 30, 1996 | Go to article overview

Does It Matter If God Speaks Scots?


TO ASSERT that there is no such thing as a Scots language would, in some quarters, be a lynching matter.

While this signals the emotions inspired by our linguistic loyalties, the truth is more complicated.

Before one can participate in the debate about whether Scots or English should be used in Church of Scotland worship, it's worth taking time to ponder the historical perspective.

At the heart of the Kirk's controversy lies the Lorimer Bible, a Scots version of the New Testament which sold out almost immediately when it was first published in 1983 and is now used by some ministers.

Although it has pride of place on many bookshelves, I would question how many people actually read it.

For while W.L. Lorimer's translation is an academic masterpiece, it is not written in any recognisable Scots dialect. Instead, Lorimer devoted years of intense study of different present-day dialects, to create a completely new idiom which no one uses in real life.

The warm reception towards his work can be explained by the fact that it answers a widespread emotional need for affirmation of the Scots identity.

A similar exercise was undertaken at the beginning of this century by the poet Hugh McDiarmid, and others, when they invented Lallans (Lowlands). A synthetic mixture of Scots dialects, Lallans was born out of a desire to establish nationhood.

How many Scots - of any time in history - would comprehend McDiarmid's poem, The Watergaw, without a glossary?

IN truth there is no genuine standard Scots language, universally spoken and understood. Rather, there are many different dialects, such as Doric, Ayrshire and Glaswegian, and these vary within every little locality, and indeed, almost within every household, depending partly upon social class and aspirations. This is perhaps one of the reasons people have become so confused about what language should be used for worship.

The numerous dialects of English and Scots now used derive from Anglo-Saxon, the language of the Germanic settlers of the fifth century AD.

Angles moved North, taking their dialects into Scotland. Remnants have survived in the myriad of Scots dialects used today.

However, attempts to develop standardised written Scots did not survive the cultural and political upheavals of the late Middle Ages.

Modern scholars have detected a standardised norm of written Scots, comparable with that found in present day English, in 15th and 16th century texts.

Even before then, in about 1520, the earliest known Scots version of the New Testament had been created by the scholar Murdoch Nisbet.

But whereas standardised written English subsequently became the educationally enforced norm, in Scotland this process was interrupted by the Reformation, the subsequent circulation of the English vernacular Bible, and the Unions of Crowns and of Parliaments. …

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