Public Policy and Scots in Northern Ireland

By Falconer, Gavin | Scottish Language, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Public Policy and Scots in Northern Ireland


Falconer, Gavin, Scottish Language


In a remarkable scene in Jean Cocteau's 1950 film Orphee, an acclaimed poetry review entitled Nudisme is revealed to be nothing more than a series of blank pages. While Cocteau may have wished to satirise the existentialism of the day, contemporary campaigners for state spending to develop Scots in Scotland might recall his visual pun when discussing the substance and funding of policy in the language's homeland. In Northern Ireland, however, there is a comprehensive legislative and non-legislative framework for its promotion.

Academics broadly agree regarding the position of Scots in Ulster. Robinson (1997: 1-2), alone in postulating separate status on structural grounds, mentions 'the Scots language itself, at times indistinguishable in literary form from Ulster-Scots'. Adamson (1982, 1991: 76) terms the local variety 'a purer form of Lallans than that spoken in Scotland', (1) while Herbison stresses that the common literary dialect of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries does not stem from affectation, emulation or an unsuitable standard:

   It used to be asserted by critics [...] that Ulster-Scots poets
   were slavish imitators of Burns. Yet there can be no doubt that the
   Rhyming Weavers were using their own language, not some artificial
   literary imitation. (1989, 1999: 7)

Mac Poilin supports that view:

   While most argue that Ulster-Scots is a dialect or variant of
   Scots, some have argued or implied that Ulster-Scots is a separate
   language from Scots. The case for Ulster-Scots being a distinct
   language, made at a time when the status of Scots itself was
   insecure, is so bizarre that it is unlikely to have been a
   linguistic argttment. (1999:116)

John McIntyre, from the UK committee of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL), has said that it 'accepts Ulster-Scots as a variety of Scots and that is probably the view held by most people'. (2) That the utility of Ulster Scots depends on links with Scotland is commented on by Mac Giolla Chriost (2002: 466), who states that 'those promoting the interests of Ulster-Scots could forge energising linkages with the Scots language community in Scotland'.

Academic debate regarding status appears to centre on whether Ulster Scots is best regarded as one of five major dialects of Scots or as a sub- or contact variety of the main Central (Mid) Scots dialect, which, extrapolated from the 1996 GRO Scotland study, may account for two-thirds of Scots-speakers. The Scottish National Dictionary states on page 32 of its introduction that 'Ulster Scots is in the main a variant of wm. [westmid] Scots.' Macafee (2005: 71) states that 'Ulster Scots is [...] clearly a dialect of Central Scots (Mid Scots).' Milroy highlights the basic identity of Ulster Scots and Central Scots as follows:

   It must be emphasised that in their strongest rural form these
   dialects are Lowland Scots dialects. Those of Antrim and North
   Derry are barely distinguishable from Ayrshire dialects. (1982: 27)

Using criteria developed by Kloss (1952) to determine whether a speech variety is a language or potential language, one can construct a flowchart. In Fig. 1, Abstand refers to divergence between a high language and a given idiom, Ausbau to the latter's degree of codification, standardisation and functionality, Spielart to a national standard variety codified separately but without the structural divergence necessary for classification as an Ausbau language, (3) and Mindestabstand to the minimum divergence distinguishing a dialect with structural potential to be developed as an Ausbau language from one with structural potential only to be developed as a Spielart.

Although Scots can prove difficult for English-speakers, it is not a structurally divergent Abstand language. However, its traditional dialects, attested in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, have enough structural divergence to fulfil Kloss's Mindestabstand criterion, constituting a potential Ausbau language. …

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