Although little-known outside of Scotland, the Scots language is distinct from Scottish Gaelic and survives as a spoken language to this day.
If your sum total knowledge of Scotland, Scottish translation services and the Scottish people and culture comes from films like Braveheart, you might imagine that the Scottish people have always spoken English, just using a very broad Gaelic-type accent. While the accent you’re imagining is very real, Scotland has always had its own languages – known as Scots and Scottish Gaelic, which are in fact two distinct languages.
Scots is generally spoken in the region known as Lowland Scotland and in parts of Ulster, and itself has several dialects. Scots has proven itself to be a very sturdy and robust language that has defended itself against centuries-long attempts to suppress it.
History of Scots
In a nutshell, the Scots language originated in the language spoken by the Angles, one of the German tribes that crossed to the British Isles in the 6th and 7th Centuries, eventually forming one-half of the concept of “Anglo-Saxon” (the other half, obviously, being the Saxons). This language developed on a different course from their cousins in the south, eventually diverging from English altogether and becoming a distinct language known as Scots. Scots was for a time the official language of the Kingdom of Scotland, spoken by the Scottish kings and used in all official business. The Kingdom of Scotland was joined in personal union with the English Crown in 1701 (thus creating the United Kingdom), and Scots lost its official status to England.
Over the next two centuries or so, Scots was discouraged. While there was never any official effort to eradicate it or punishment for those who persisted speaking it, it wasn’t taught in schools in Scotland and was referred to as “slang” to make people ashamed to speak it. Even today, people often refer to their Scots as “slang” and in the modern day there are no television programs or newspapers in Scots. Yet Scots persists; although there are only 100,000 native speakers of Scots and its main dialects (Insular Scots, Northern Scots, Central Scots, Southern Scots, Ulster Scots – although in Scotland itself these dialects often have more colourful names taken from the local areas they are spoken).
It’s important to note that Scots is distinct from Scottish Gaelic, which is a Celtic language, descended ultimately from Old Irish. While the two have shared status in Scotland, they are not in any way the same language except in the sense that all languages probably evolved over thousands of years from a single parent.
Scots today is mainly a spoken language; very few people are able to read and write it. It is a living language, however. Due to the decades of attempted suppression, many Scots speakers have two modes: Formal and informal. With strangers they will speak a different way, often mixing in a lot of English, while with intimates they will speak a purer form of the Scots language.
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