Monday 20 September 2004

Politics and dialect.

There is a dialect of English known as Ulster Scots. Even though it's just a slang dialect, it has become an official language. How comes?

Well, before Northern Ireland's government was suspended, they had time to do lots of really stupid arguing at the taxpayers' expense. Sinn Fein insisted that all Stormont's paperwork had to be produced in Irish as well as English. This wasn't for practical reasons — no-one in Northern Ireland speaks Irish unless they've gone out of their way to learn it — it was just to make a cheap point: "Look! We produce documents in Irish, so we must be Irish. That's logic, that is." Well, the Unionists couldn't think of any sensible grounds to oppose the move (when local councils produce all their literature in Urdu, who can object to Irish?), so they decided to sabotage it instead: "If our literature is to be produced in the language of the South, it should also be produced in the language of the North!" What, you mean English? No, that'd never work politically: the Unionists needed some sort of concession to match the concession they were giving the Nationalists, and demanding something that is already happening isn't much of a concession. So they went for Ulster Scots, and the Nationalists okayed it and sat back and smirked.

Not one single person in Northern Ireland thinks that Ulster Scots is actually a language. I doubt that anyone who speaks it would ever dream of writing an official letter to their solicitor in it, any more than a Cockney would start an official letter with "Awwight, me ol' china?" Yet the Northern Irish Executive now employ a translator to render all their official documentation into slang, which no-one will ever read. This tells you a lot about why government is a bad idea. But, hey, if a bunch of paperwork in a joke language is what it takes to bring us peace, it's cheap at the price. The Northern Irish have a good excuse for this silliness. Not so the Scots.

Ulster Scots comes, as you might guess, from Scotland. People from the West of Scotland migrated to Northern Ireland, taking their English slang with them. A lot of Scots call this slang "Scots" and claim that it's a language. But it's not a language: it's just English, with a few quirky words and expressions thrown in, and a load of phonetic spelling. Example: "wean" means "child". Oo, you might think, that's an interesting word. Well, no it isn't. "Wee" means "little" and "wean" is just a way of writing "wee un", meaning, obviously, "little one". It's not a word, any more than "saaf" is a Londonese word meaning "south". There is a difference between speaking a different language and attempting to spell a strong accent. People from Surrey pronounce "trousers" as "trizes", but they still spell it as "trousers". If anyone were to start spelling it "trizes" and claiming that it's part of a language distinct to Surrey and separate from English, everyone would just look at them odd. Because the English, like the Northern Irish, don't have a giant chip on their shoulder.

And so Mr Hinkley brings us to this idiocy:

The Scottish Pairlament is here for tae represent aw Scotland's folk.

We want tae mak siccar that as mony folk as can is able tae find oot aboot whit the Scottish Pairlament dis and whit wey it warks. We hae producit information anent the Pairlament in a reenge o different leids tae help ye tae find oot mair.

"Wey" means "way"; "reenge" means "range"; "oot" means "out"; "aw" means "all". If anyone anywhere else in the UK wrote like this, it would be called "very bad spelling"; in Scotland, it's called "our proud heritage" or possibly "oor prood heeritage". The Scottish Parliament haven't produced that site as the result of some silly political compromise: they actually take it seriously, as do most of their constituents. Sad.


David said...

I went and read that website - the one on the official website and read it open-mouthed in amazement.

What puzzles me is where did they get the language from? It seems to be a bastardisation of Auld Scots (burns, et al), various local dialects from around Scotland and Oor Wullie. (although there is a definite east-coast bias on it - surprise surprise) OK, I don't have a particularly strong Scottish accent but I've lived in various areas and spent time with loads of people with different accents and I honestly don't think any person I've ever met could pronounce any of that without sounding like Prince Charles trying to do an impression of Rab C Nesbit. (Qualifier - I could probably pronounce all of that effortlessly after a few beers)

The other thing is that choice of words. Anyone who speaks in that sort of accent (OK - I'm making the assumption that there is such a person (I'm guessing he's Welsh, lived in a cave all his life with only the collected works of Burns, Oor Wullie and Shareen Nanjiani to keep him company)) would not construct a sentence like that. For example....

"We want tae mak siccar that awbody is able tae visit the Scottish Pairlament biggin. Wir premises is awready designit tae be as accessible as possible. Hooanever, gin ye are disablit and hae ony specific requirements, ye’re gey walcome tae contact us afore yer visit. "

Eh? What the hell does "biggin" mean? "Wir premises is awready designit tae be as accessible as possible."? Proclaim that in certain areas of Glasgow and you'll no be able to see "wir premises" as "yer heid" will be firmly inserted into "yer jacksie".

This is closer

"See if yoose wannae come roon as an see us like its cool man. Gettin inter oor gaff is a doddle man. If yiz naw got auny legs or airms then thats pish but dinnae mind pal cos we'll gie ye a haund. shiters - A dinnae mean tae be a funny***t there man wi the haund pish cos ye might na huv wan anat. Aye, geez a shout aun we'll get they ramps and shit man, ya rocket. Sorted."

Or something. ;-)

Gary said...

"when local councils produce all their literature in Urdu, who can object to Irish?"

The translation into other languages is perfectly sensible, especially in areas where other languages are very common - so for example Urdu is very important in most of the UK, where it's hundreds of times more commonly used than Gaelic. It's when translation is done for no good reason, such as the Executive's wheeze, that it's a waste of money.

Squander Two said...


Your translation is much better. The Paiiirliament should hire you.


I didn't mean to give the impression that there's anything wrong with council literature being produced in Urdu; I wholeheartedly approve of it. I just meant that it makes it politically impossible to object to Irish.

Gary said...

Ah, sorry. Misunderstood.

Anonymous said...

David's translation is excellent, but it's not into Scots, it's into NED which is a different thing entirely.

Is this Farrer by any chance?


PS Rude comments about Scots' language are accepted, but you have to admit they do add some brilliant words to the language, whatever it is. How about "dreich" which just about summarises today's weather. There is no English english equivalent is there? Similarly clype (tell-tale), moger (sp? a mess), stushie (fight), and many more. Dialect indeed. And what a great one.

Squander Two said...


I don't think that's Mr Farrer, no.

Many Scots words are indeed brilliant, and "dreich" is one of them. It is actually a distinct word, though, unlike "guid" or "oot".

As far as I know, the English equivalent of "dreich" is "normal".

Hi, Mr Brown.

Have you read my FAQ yet? You're in them, you know.

Now, can all you Scots kindly stop agreeing with me? I'm trying to slag off your country here. Any passers-by who read this might get the wrong idea, and start thinking you're a sensible, easy-going, tolerant race. Or something.

Squander Two said...

Oo, it does my heart good to see you sign your name like that.

I have, in turn, just gone and perused your complaint blog, and found it much to my liking, even if you are Scottish. In fact, I shall blog about one of your posts shortly, it being on a subject close to my heart.