Imagine a world in which weather was only dull or dismal but never dreich, or in which you chatted or nattered to friends but never blethered.
A world, in other words, in which those Scots words we have come to rely on just weren’t there. Because, after all, how would you describe that bone-piercing Edinburgh wind without the word snell? Whatever synonym you choose just doesn’t cut it, rather like a flimsy umbrella in the face of a Scottish squall.
In the news recently was the story that Oxford University Press has compiled a database of more than 32 million words of children’s writing from across the UK, drawn from stories submitted to the 500 Words story competition run by BBC Radio 2.
A team of lexicographers and linguists, including myself, have begun to analyse the data and we have already found some interesting trends. Amid all the headlines about the influx of Americanisms and the long, drawn-out death of the apostrophe is a quieter, but vital story. It is the fact that Scottish children – who submitted around 5000 entries altogether – are confident using words like crabbit and blether in stories submitted to a national competition. Why is this significant? Precisely because the authors were not specifically asked to use Scots words for the competition. Neither were they asked to avoid them, as they might have been in the past. They just used them naturally, as being the best words to describe what was in their imaginations.
Sometimes the word is irreplaceable. In stories that deal with Hallowe’en, the characters still go guising and not trick-or-treating. Of course, Hallowe’en is a Scots word itself, but one that has now gone global, as has eerie (another word invaluable for budding young writers of ghost stories) which was originally a Scots word before entering the mainstream.
One of the most frequent Scots words to appear in the data is jag, meaning an injection. It’s still far more common than the more southerly jab in writing by Scottish children.
There are plenty of Scottish cultural references, too. Edinburgh children are more likely (this year at least) to write about pandas than children in other parts of the UK. Hardly surprising, you’d say, but there are also stories which deal with native supernatural creatures, such as selkies and kelpies, and plenty of Loch Ness monsters both within and furth of Scotland.
Let’s not get this out of proportion. There are ten times as many zombies in stories from children in Edinburgh and eastern Scotland as there are selkies and kelpies put together, and that is true across Scotland. But the statistics only prove the hardiness of these words. A cultural item like a selkie or kelpie that can survive alongside creatures with global marketing power has a lot going for it.
If you believe, as I do, that part of a nation’s soul resides in its language, then the simple appearance – even in modest numbers – of words like crabbit and blether among 32 million words of standard English is important. They are part of our cultural eco-system. It is also vital that the younger generation use these words not in a protected environment of couthie, nostalgic stories, dealing with the past – and I’m happy to report that they don’t. Here we have stories in which characters are blethering about e-readers and (my favourite) skooshing zombies. At a critical point in one young Edinburgh writer’s story, a character cries, “Let’s skoosh some zombies!” Both skooshing and zombies have been around for a long time (skoosh, meaning to gush or squirt, dates from the 19th century), but this may be the first time they have been put together.
Another point to emerge from this research is that children in other parts of the UK are aware of regional differences, including Scots usage, and are keen to explore this in dialogue. Stories from outwith Scotland have Scottish characters who refer to “wee lassies” and eat “neep and tattie soup” – an argument, perhaps, for including more Scots words in dictionaries aimed at a UK-wide market. I recently wrote some web activities on “Scots weather words” as extra teaching materials for users of the Oxford Primary Thesaurus.
There has been speculation arising out of this research that children’s writing is being influenced by American English. This is undoubtedly true, especially for the older age group of over-tens, but the situation in Scotland shows that it is possible for two related languages – Scots and English - to co-exist. In some ways, British English faces some of the same challenges that Scots faced in the 18th century, under pressure from a related form of the language with global prestige, and it is far from certain how things will turn out.
It is my job to track, not to prescribe, what is happening; to point out what is an Americanism, or what is a Scots word, without quashing either. But it is also the job of all of us to try to retain as much of the unique vocabulary of Scots as we can. Without it, Scottish English would be little more than standard English with a Scottish accent. And that would be a sair fecht, indeed.
• Susan Rennie is an Edinburgh-based lexicographer and author of several dictionaries and thesauruses, both in English and Scots. Her works for children include The Oxford Primary Thesaurus and Animal ABC: a Scots Alphabet.