16.8.11

Mither Tongue (Mother Tongue)

Tuesday, 27 November 1888 - Glasgow, Scotland

I haunted the bookstores today, taking a trip back in time from 1888 as it were. I have a long list of books to look for from the University of Glasgow and Strathclyde. Many are lost textbooks, but they also have me on the look out for first editions of classics by David Hume, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, George MacDonald and others. I found a copy of Study in Scarlett by Arthur Conan Doyle published last year. And of course anything by Robert Burns.

Robert Burns
I mentioned yesterday that Robert Burns has a statue in George Square with other illustrious Scots. It was only erected in 1877 I think as a reaction to his being censored by the Victorian English when they figured out what some of his poems actually meant. The Scots no doubt see it only as a slam against the Scots.

You see back in the 1700s, after the Union of Scotland and England and the creation of the Great Britain, the Scots decided to make the most of the situation. (I mentioned that in a previous blog The Industrial Age and Other Scottish Inventions.) Unfortunately trying to speak to the English proved to be a problem. While the Highlanders continued to speak Gaelic like their ancestors from Ireland, the Lowlanders had been speaking English for centuries--at least they thought it was English. Why did the people of London just stare at them confused when they talked?

True, the Scots spoke English with a Gaelic accent, and had borrowed many words not only from Gaelic, but from Norse, French and anyone else they came into contact with. Apparently the words that sounded oddest to the English were in fact English words--they were just words the folks down south no longer used.

Scot had become it’s own language. (Yes, some contend it’s only a dialect, but most agree it’s a bonified language.) The Scots had to learn modern English, which they did so well that many of the great “English” writers of the 1700s and 1800s are in fact Scottish. However, while they wrote impeccable English, they continued to speak Scots, or at least English with a thick Scottish borough. The Londoners looked down their noses at these “bumpkins” much like New Yorkers look down their noses at people speaking with an Appalachian accent (which by the way, has a strong Scottish influence from Scottish immigrants.)

Robert Burns also learned to write English well, but he preferred to write in his native tongue of Scots. He was a romantic who was proud of his roots and not afraid to thumb his nose at the people south of Hadrian‘s Wall. He was a rebel who stood up for the lower classes, which might be why he later became so popular in Soviet Russia.

Burns message was “you can be Brits if you want, but remember, you are Scots first!” Since 1803, only six years after his death, his countrymen have been celebrating Burns Night with a Burns Supper. On the twenty-fifth of January, people throw a birthday party for Robbie. They dress in kilts, play bagpipes, drink whisky, eat haggis and recite Burns, all the time speaking their native tongue. If anything it has only gotten stronger over the years, since it is still celebrated in the twenty-fifth century as an international day of Scottish pride.

Haggis - the star of the Burns Supper
Luckily people I’ve met have been tolerant of me when I stare at them uncomprehending. I tell them I’m just an ignorant foreigner from down south and to speak slowly like I’m an idiot. They find that amusing--until they have to repeat it slowly three times. I’ve had to look up more than a few words in my Scot Dictionary.

So cheery-bye the nou and mey the moose ne'er lea' yer girnal wi the tear drap in its ee. [Translation: So goodbye for now and may the mouse never leave your grain store with a tear drop in its eye.]

A handy collection of Scots phrases

A dictionary of Lowland Scotch, with an introductory chapter on the poetry, humour, and literary history of the Scottish language and an appendix of Scottish proverbs (1888)
I’ve been carrying this about in my pocket, and it’s quite useful.

Recipe for Haggis

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