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View from the street: Lost For Words



“The Scots language” declares Scottish government policy on the subject “is an essential element o the culture and heritage o Scotland”. Among linguists, however, the status of Scots – whether it is a language in its own right or merely a dialect of English – remains up for debate.

When making their case, detractors of the language designation have sometimes pointed to the state of Scots Wikipedia –  the largest open-source corpus of Scots available anywhere –  as being plagued by mistakes and inconsistencies. If Scots is a formal language, they argue, how could this source be such a mess?

The culprit, it turned out, was user ‘AmaryllisGardener’, an American teenager who spoke no Scots. In the seven years to August 2020, the user had authored an astonishing 49% of Scots Wikipedia. Done with a significant degree of artistic license, the result was a linguistic hodgepodge that sometimes bordered on parody.

The unmasking prompted soul-searching within the online Scots community. “Here’s what happened with Scots Wikipedia,” tweeted fellow admin, ‘MJL’. “Nobody cared about maintaining it. Someone stepped up because no one else did.”

Here, ‘MJL’ hit upon a sad reality common to many minority languages: apathy. This, coupled with the lingering effects of historical suppression, can lead to widespread disuse, and, all too often, extinction.

This may seem hyperbolic, yet available evidence suggests both of Scotland’s official minority spoken languages: Scots and Gaelic, are on the decline in a serious way. As of the 2011 census, 1.5m of Scotland’s inhabitants said they could speak Scots, but just 1.1% of adults reported speaking it at home. We can expect an update on these figures soon, following the latest Scottish census.

Gaelic, though its linguistic status is far less debated, suffers even more because it differs so greatly from English. It has just 57,000 speakers, according to new research, down from 59,000 in 2001.

Education is key to turning the tide. Not so long ago, Gaelic and Scots were both banned in schools. By conferring the status of official language and investing in conservation efforts like Gaelic schools, the Scottish government is aiming to right what it believes is a historical wrong, and limit future risk.

There are those that denounce these conservation efforts as cultural posturing. Such critiques are often political in nature. For example, the decision to translate a consultation on Scots and Gaelic into said languages has been derided by opposition figures as wasteful. Likewise, Gaelic education has been branded by some as a misuse of resources amidst declining literacy rates. But one has to ask, where will we find our own native languages if not in our educational institutions, much less in a public consultation on that very subject?

Minority languages will never be without their challenges, but without care, we risk politicising ours out of existence. Enthusiastic Wikipedia editor ‘AmaryllisGardener’, for all the errors, seemed to be passionate about the language. Without continuing debate and effectively harnessing sort of enthusiasm, this element of our culture could be consigned to history.


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