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Scots an the smit: a language unner lockdoun

Frae here at ma desk ah can see richt doun ontae Hawick high street. It’s ten weeks noo syne ah left the hoose for ony ither reason than tae tak the bins oot, but ah get ma vicarious kicks in ither weys. A single loun ploddin throu the rain wi a Kwik Save cairier bag is a mystery ye could scry intae for decades. Cyclists swerve tae the opposite sides o the pavement, as if joukin some invisible obstruction. Hale hoosehauds stagger doun the street in socially-distanced diamonds, stoatin past the phone shop like a Zucker Brithers parody o Reservoir Dogs. Comin the ither wey, an auld wifie threids her wey throu the crood, staps deid at the furniture shop, presses her haund-cupped coupon tae the clatty windae, squints intae the daurk. There’s naething in there wirth leukin twice at, but ye cannae blame fowk the noo for no bein able tae see past the end o their ain nebs.

Dinnae get me wrang. Ah’m no auditionin for a pairt in Rear Window, here. Every noo an then ah think o something equally pyntless ah could be daein — ironin ma wark claes, plannin for ma futur — an ah teir masel awa frae the windae lang eneuch tae notice whit’s really unco aboot the ongauns in the ootside warld; no the shutterin-up o the local shops, or the deepenin intervals atween the passin o wan sowel an the nixt, but the quiet. Thon sílence that haes fawen on oor streets like a smirr o punctuation, a cauld stream o full stops rinnin senselessly doun the back o yer neck.

Weel, gie’s peace, Garfunkel — wha couldnae dae wi a bittie mair sílence in their lives these days? An ah dinnae juist mean the turnin oot o pubs on a Friday nicht, the tumult o a misread Tweet. Ah’m talkin aboot the peace that, like Yeats’s, comes drappin slow; the bite that disnae gang doun in lumps, the hush that lies atween the testimony an the verdict, the thocht that’s cast afore it’s echoed.

But the unexpectit virtue o haudin yer wheesht haes taen a richt batterin this past wee while-o, as mair an mair o us come tae realise that sílence isnae a space but a vacuum, a brief lull atween oor serenity an whitever second-haund car salesman gets in there first tae smash it. Sílence isnae calm, but a kin o spiritual violence — it’s fowk bein shoutit doun, telt that whit they’r sayin isnae valid, an neither is their wey o sayin it.

We aw ken that guid news for the Scots language an its spikkers haes been rinnin on a Sunday service for a lang spiel, which maks this new muteness imposed on us bi Covid-19 aw the mair frichtsome. We’r lang accustomed tae bein talked richt ower, weel-acquentit wi the mockin echoes o the Mail an the Murdos… But coronavirus haes set oor collective gas at a peep simply bi giein us naething tae say an naebody tae say it tae. The loss o oor freedoms haes makkit us prisoners no juist in oor hames, but in oor minds, the circumferences o oor lives drawn tichter an tichter until we cannae see onything but whit’s richt in front o us — electric límits, as Larkin said, tae oor widest senses.

The things we’r lairnin aboot oorsels in isolation ar faur frae revelatory. Ah’v spent ower muckle time hunkert doun on ma lavvy’s fluir wi a screwdriver an the scaitert remains o a toilet seat tae hae ony illusions aboot ma ain sel-sufficiency. It’s nae news tae me or onybody else that ah wadnae last twa meenits in a warld ’ithoot YouTube tutorials. But ah’v ayeweys thocht the social affcomes o the apocalypse wad scud me nae warse than watter aff a duck’s back, an that the warld micht profitably end wi juist me an Burgess Meredith lootin the libraries an tryin no tae mak ee contact wi each ither.

Weel, the actual experience haes lairnt me ithergates, an it turns oot that the level o human interaction that ah need in order tae keep functionin is a wee tait mair than a haird hee-haw, an that the spreidin sílence in ma hert is dissolvin mair than juist ma wark-life stresses an clogged-up arteries; it’s devourin awthing that ah am, includin the rusty wirkins o ma lang-lown tongue.

Onything that threitens oor mithers an grandmithers threitens oor entire language — thon’s a gien. Ally Heather’s ‘Rebel Tongue’ telt us whit we awready kent, that the lívin dictionars o oor leid ar no tae be fund on oor shelfs but in oor care hames, oor miners clubs, oor boolin greens. These deiths ar mair than juist personal tragedies — they’r naitional yins, losses no juist tae oor freends an oor faimilies an oor communities, but tae awthing we ever were or micht hae been.

Thon’s aw real, and ayont ony pouer’s capacity for settin richt. But as George Orwell kent, it’s no juist the loss o its spikkers that maks a language vulnerable. A lívin tongue is buiried wi its final herald, but the Darwinian gate tae linguistic extinction begins no wi a heidstane, but wi the end o the things we needed it tae communicate tae each ither — thocht, sense, feelin. A language dees no whan we stap uisin it, it dees whan we stap uisin it tae talk aboot onything that maiters.

The existential threit tae Scots haes lang been the salty lap o the English tongue, erodin the grund aneath oor feet, shrinkin oor common launds an, thereby, the wirds we need tae describe them. In the same wey as the Dutch haes dredged new cíties frae their seas, sae haes oor language strauchelt tae reclaim its auld areas o discoorse frae the absentee landlairds o the sooth — politics, morality, the present, the future. An it wis happenin. But noo, at wan straik, Covid-19 haes driven us frae the leas, sent us back tae sílent spaces whaur we need nae mair Scots tae talk aboot oor lives than wad busk the front o a tea-towel. A sma haundfu o wirds — Hoose. Cauld. Fower. Waws.

Mind, mebbe wirds arnae aw they’r cracked up tae be. Ye mind sílent films? Buster Keaton an that? Man, ah wis obsessed wi thon loun, for a while. Ah’d watch onything that haed him in it, except for the wans whaur he stertit talkin. Yap, yap, yap — aye, we get it. Juist cut tae the chase. Frae ma windae, the skies ar monochrome, the streets ar gray wi rain. The toun haw clock begins tae chime, staps itsel, embarrassed. Stap-motion the caurs jerk discontinuously past, an on the pavement a faimily pairts for the comin o some cyclist, castin ahint him a lang radius o naething.