By Thomas Clark
It stairts like this. Ye’re on yer traivels somewhaur — Malta, could be, or Spain. Weel, mebbe no Spain. But whauriver. Somewhaur warm. Touristy. Nice, but no too nice. Say, Turkey. An ye’re in a bar. This daurk wee howff for fowk wha cannae staund the heat. Weel, there’s a queue in this bar, an here’s you, staundin in it. Fower places back fae the front, an there’s nae twa people in the place speak the same leid as ony ither twa. This micht tak a while.
It daes, o course. But at lang an last ye’re ane awa fae the bar, an prayin that the chiel in front o ye’s o a mind tae keep it simple. Peely-wally fellae. Sunglesses. He raises his haund, flashes up the wee peace sign.
“Twa mair beer,” he says.
Yer jaw draps. Gin ye’d a drink in yer haund, ye’d be wipin it aff the fluir. O aw the gin joints in aw the warld..! Ye’v heard it aw, bi nou; the Serbo-Croat for can ah hae a Black Russian, Mai-Tais magicked up in Madeira Portuguese. Yet wha’d hiv thocht? The wunner o thaim aw! A Bud Light speirt for in guid braid Border Scots! Ye sidle on up tae the bar wi a smile. The boy shoots ye kind o a leuk. But that’s awricht. He disnae ken that ye ken.
“Awricht, mun?” ye say. “Far aboots are ye fae?”
The far is a bit o an affectation — ye dinnae actually speak Doric — but the occasion seems tae warrant something a pickle out o the ordinar, a wee bit pruif o yer outstaundin credentials. The chiel glences ower at ye, obviously impressed, an clinks up his bottles bi their green gless necks.
“Flanders,” he mutters, an scleushes aff out the door.
A mínit passes. Forgettin yer drinks, ye daunder out intae the sunlicht as in a daze. Flanders, ye think tae yersel. But fit wey… Ah mean, whit fur wis he speakin in Scots? An than it hits ye, like a blockbuster twist. He wisnae speakin in Scots at aw. He wis speakin in Flanders… ese?
Flemish. Awricht, whitiver. Pynt is. Suddently, out o naewhaur, yer leid is nae langer some evolutionary deid end, a doomed aff-brand Betamax affshoot o a faur superior product. Yer leid, ye see, haes got connections. It’s in wi the boys; it’s pairt o the scheme o things. This leid o yours, man, it’s gaun places. It wad be missed gin owt wis tae happen tae it.
Because — let’s face it — even the maist enlichtened views o Scots still hae it doun as a failed experiment, a foustie graft ontae a gowsterous tree. It’s Poundland English, uised anely bi the puir out o necessity an the enthusiasts out o thrawnness. Scots beirs the same relation tae its paurent tongue that phonographs dae tae Spotify, or Grease 2 daes tae the oríginal. Some fowk micht prefer it, but ye’v tae wunner at their motives.
It’s no juist tae dae wi language, like. Our pairtnership wi England haes dominatit us, linguistically, polítically an in aw ither weys, tae the extent that ye juist cannae speak o Scotland wi’out reference tae our southren sibs. Throu nae partícular faut o onybody’s, the exclusivity o that relationship haes lang preventit us explorin our relationships wi ithers. That’s a loss felt richt across the buird. But our associations wi ither kintras are vital tae the story o Scots, if for nae ither raison than that they explain hou the leid we speak the day isnae juist Swamp Thing English.
We’re trippin ower oursels richt nou tae link airms wi the Kurds or the Basques or the Catalans or ony ither polítical minority wi a faintly romantic cast. Awricht — guid. But our historical affinity wi the fowk o Flanders is as lang an strang as ony ither. Like oursels, Flanders haes its ain pairlament, language, an independence muivement — but the relationship atween us rins deeper as that. In 1154, whan Henry II shawed England’s Flemish population the door, it wis tae Scotland that mony o thaim neist brocht their talents. The naitur o their national skillsets — weaving, seafaring, an tred — transformed the local economy, turnin Scotland fae a mere producer o raw guids intae a major processor o thaim. Nearlins a thousand years efter, thae chynges can still be witnessed in the mills an ports o the eastern coast, whaur the Flemish mainly sattlt.
But haud on, tho. That’s no the hauf o it. Tak a keek at a map o our principal Flemish sattlements. The lang straik rinnin up the hale eastern lenth. The three prongs, like a backarties E, stickin out intae the tap, middle an bottom. Gin ye’re no seein owt, set it neist tae a linguistic map o Scotland, an staund richt back. It micht tak a mínit, but it’s wirth it. It’ll be like ye’re the polis chief at the end o ‘The Usual Suspects’. Kobayashi. Guatemala. Awthing stairts makkin sense.
Sae keep diggin. Scots, Flemish, 1154, whan the influx fae Flanders arrives in Scotland. Whit else is gaun on? Weel, for the Scots leid, no an awfu lot. It haesnae really got up an rinnin yet. But gin ye wantit tae pit a date on it, the pynt at which Scots begins tae branch awa fae English an become a leid in its ain richt… Och, ah widnae want tae haggle ye doun tae the exact mínit. But gin ye jaloused in the region o the 12t century, ye’d certes be in greeance wi the bouk o the evidence.
Aye, awricht, ah ken, ah ken. Post hoc ergo propter hoc an aw that. Ah’m no staundin here sayin that the Flemish inventit Scots. There’s a bit mair tae it as that. But the quaisten is, whit happens at the fork in the road whaur ae language stairts tae become anither? Whan a tongue taks on an identity o its ain? Weel, ane o the maist important things that’s gaun on is that ae variant o that language is developin its ain distinct lexicon. Simply — Scots becomes Scots whan it haes different wirds for things fae English. An the principal source for this chynge in vocabular is borrowins fae ither leids.
The languages o the Law Kintras hae contríbuted mair tae Scots than mebbes ony ither tongue outside o English. A puckle wirds, still in common uiss, that we pauchelt aff the Flemish: callant, scone, craig, howff. No bad for a day’s wark. Some o these treisurs were shiny eneuch that the English than stole thaim aff us in turn: golf, lambkin, masterpiece. There’s a wheen mair, some o which hae syne fawen out o uiss. We dinnae really need wirds tae descrive the individual pairts o a crossbow nou, or the partícular riggins o a ship. But gin we iver did, it wad be cantie tae think we micht ance again leuk tae Flanders or Holland for our borrowins insteid o juist turnin up aye at the OED, a nuisance neebour cadgin for a cup o sugar.
Still, wha needs new wirds whan we’v awready loads? There’s plenty o fowk wha’d like tae see Scots pit in permanent stasis; nae mair borrowins, nae mair neologisms, naething like that. Juist guid auld-farrant Scots the wey yon Gavin Douglas scrievit it. But a leid is like ony ither lívin thing; it wants stimulation tae thrive. An for Scots richt nou, that’s no forthcomin throu commerce wi ither tongues, the wey it should be. Wi’out fresh wirds comin in, fresh ideas, Scots, as a language, is mairchin on stairvation rations. Our leid is dyin o cultural malnutrition, an it’s anely shapin up tae get warse.
Sae, the European Union is naebody’s flavour o the month at the mínit. Shouldnae be. But resistin Brexit wis niver about our affinity wi Guy Verhofstadt or Donald Tusk. It wis about our relationship wi our sister cítizens an brither culturs on the Continent. Keepin thae links alive haes aye been hard eneuch — Scottish playdates wi ither kintras bein sae vigorously chaperoned — but in the wake o Brexit, our límitit cultural commerce wi ither nations will dwyne awa tae nearly naething. GDP, halth care indexes, unemployment rates — aye, we should be wirrit, awricht. But these are aw fígurs that can be meisured an (possibly) managed. The cost tae our cultur, on the ither haund, o a stagnant, narrae nationalism, driven bi the politics o isolation, is ayont ony reckonin.
Efter Catalonia, ah dug out ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’ again, G.K. Chesterton’s auld yarn about a Lunnon borough turnt brakawa nation. Ye can read it, gin ye’v a mind tae, as a satire on parochialism an secessionist politics; a cantankerous auld bugger like Chesterton couldnae help but gie ye that option. His wis a pint-stowp that wis niver hauf-gates full. But whan it cam tae bress tacks, an he’d tae speir hissel — whit if a kintra haed juist niver existit? — even yon age-auld cynic, in the end, turnt saft in hert an heid:
“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”
Och, dry yer een, eh, big man; we’re no there yet. But we’re on the road. The loss o a kintra, the extinction o a nation, is no a thing that happens on the signin o a treaty, or at the business end o a gun. It isnae the stickin o a Union Jack on a pund o Ayrshire tatties. The deith o a kintra is no a chynge. It’s the lang, protractit absence o chynge, the weirin out o tired seimbols, the dullin o a deid flag in the gradual sun. This is whit the Brexit voters dinnae unnerstaund — that ye can hae a gurly nationalism, or ye can hae an actual nation, but ye cannae ultimately hae baith. A kintra is juist an idea like ony ither, an tae reclaim an idea disnae mean tae wheech it aff the shelves. It means tae circulate it, tae get it out there. The Magna Carta, the Bill o Rights, the Constitution o the Unitit States; these are no items for a private collection. They belang, as a great man ance said, in a museum. They belang tae awbody.
Oh wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, etc. But than, hou we see oursels haes ayeweys been the problem. A quick typology o staundart Twitter metaphors for Scotland’s relationship wi England: battert houswife, neglectit wean, underappreciatit scuddler-for-hire. The stories ye tell yersel, eh? But the futur narrative ah’m descryin for the UK outside o Europe is something muckle less blythesome. Scrievit in French, bi an Irish carle lívin in Paris — hou else? — it involves twa auld hobos wi naething tae say tae thaimsels or ilk ither, sittin on a bench bi the side o the road, spraffin awa about killin theirsels. Waitin for something tae happen. But naething iver happens. It niver will. It’s awfu. Naebody comes, naebody gans. There’s naething tae be duin.
Thomas Clark is a makar an scriever fae the Scottish Borders. He is praisently editor o Scots at Bella Caledonia, an poet-in-residence at Selkirk FC. He gabs awa at www.thomasjclark.co.uk an on Twitter: @clashcityclarky.
(Ye can translate ony wird atween Scots an English at the Online Scots Dictionar.)
|cadgin||hawking or peddling wares|
|foustie||in a decayed state or smell|
|gowsterous||hearty and healthy|
|pint stowp||pint glass|
|straik||a long and narrow strip of land|