The skeels o Jock Tamson’s bairns

Humans is ainimals like ony ither in that we eat, sleep, muive about an dae the auld hochmagandie. But, at the same time, we arenae the same as ither ainimals, pairtly acause we are the anerly species that can unnerstaund whit A’m scrievin. We are the anerly species that haes gane fae bein an endangert species in an East African glen tae bein the anerly species tae bide on thairsels on aw the continents; the last ane, Antarctica, designtly, an it isnae even acause it haes onything tae eat on it. An we’re the anerly species tae transmogrify the face o a feck o the globe. An even the anerly species tae send itsel an its companions intae space. Hou is that humans did that an no ony ither species? Whit gars us homo sapiens sae sonsie?

A few thochts tae stert wi wad be weel-kent phýsical attributes includin strang opposable thumbs an a muckler brain. A muckler brain wad seem a help, inspecially confeerance wi ither primates, but wir brains haes scrinkit ’ithin the past twinty thousand year.

As for opposable thumbs, there is a few definítions o whit that constitutes but thay aw involve bringin yer thumb the conter side o yer ither fingers. It is a potential aspect o human beins that expleens hou we got sae sonsie. It’s wi opposable thumbs that we can mak aw wir technology. This capacity can be found in ither primates an aw: aw the great apes, mony lesser apes; even Auld Warld monkeys like the macaques.

An it isnae even restrictit tae primates aither, even gif the ither tetrapods wi sic haudin haunds dinnae uise thaim sae weel as primates: pandas, opossums, koalas an some tree puddocks like the waxy monkey leaf frog hae the same distinctive gresp that we associate wi wir ain species. But human opposable thumbs is obviously the best anes acause thay’re mair advanced acause the thumb is faurer fae the ither fingers an can turn aw the wey round on the ithers.

The technology we uise wir opposable thumbs for tae create isnae specífic tae humans itsel, aither: while the technology o humans is och that bit mair spectacular, ither ainimals can uise technology an aw. Ither mammals, inspecially primates, an birds (inspecially craws) an octopuses is amang the ainimals that can uise technology. Housomiver, there is major differs acqueesh human technology an maist ither ainimal technology in that humans fashion thair ain, an wir technology is perqueer an ever-chyngin.

The ever-chyngin naitur o human technolgoy is due tae wir creatívity. Creatívity is a new-fangle o the Homo genus, wirsels an wir naurmaist forbears. Humans is that innovative that, fae aichty thousand year syne on, chynge haes become ordinar in humans. Creatívity is connectit wi adaptabílity an humans is maistlike the maist adaptable species, capable o bidin in mony different environments atour the warld, pairtly due tae wir ingenious development o technology. We can even gang intae caulder environments nor whit wir Neanderthal cousins war uised wi, an thay war uised wi the geal. This new-fangle an creatívity can be seen in airt, whilk can anerly be conclusively seen in humans.

Airt isnae the anerly cultural activíty that appluises the naitur o humanity: cultur itsel is anither thing that could be seen as specífic tae humans. It haes been uphauden that Japanese macaques haes cultur: lair an pratticks passt doun throu the generations. Resairchers commune yet anent whither thir behaviours is cultural or no.

A major aspect o human cultur is leids. Language is wir creative cultural capacity for communication. A say it’s creative acause wirds can be uised in new-fangelt weys thereby expandin the realm o the leid; ainimal noises cannae be uised in new-fangelt weys like the noises o us humans can. An the cultural aspect o leids is partícular important acause humans haes different leids dependin on the kintra, or whiles even the clachan. This is in contrast tae ither ainimals wha aften haes the same caw ower several continents. This cultural an linguistic diversity is therefore pairt o wir skeels specífic tae wir species an something tae uphaud.

Anither contrast we can mak wi ither species is that thay can communicate but no in a abstract mainer. Wirds itsel is specífically human: the wey we structure wir communication intae discrete units isnae something we can see in ither inhabitants o the planet Yird. Polysemy is a notably human characteristic, as is uisin different sounds ’ithout waitin on a stimulus for thaim. The wey we pit sentences thegither uisin the wirds is unique an aw: we can produce a infinite nummer o utterances, unalike ither ainimals that haes a fixed set o cries.

Anither human characteristic that isnae found in ither species is the wey fowk spik specífically for tae spik; it isnae juist a rackless eftercome o anither behaviour. This means that this is a central aspect o wir behaviour; it isnae juist a wee extra on the tap. We communicate for tae communicate.

The meanin o wirds isnae relatit tae the form. This can be seen in some bird caws an aw, but birds lack ither chairactertistics o human language, like productivity. Likewise, whan bees dance, thay shaw that thay communicate anent events that isnae thare.

Wir leids is uised for tae interact in society an we humans is gey an sociable. Wir sociabílity is ane o the vicks that distinguishes us fae wir naur relatives, the Neanderthals. An it enables divíson o labour, something that allous fowk tae focus on specífic tasks, preferably tasks that we’re better at an we’re greeshochie about.

The foresaid social skeels includes cooperation an skarin, naitural human skeels that even bairns daes. Whit we skare isnae juist objects, but thochts an aw, enablin thochts tae spreid fae ae body tae anither. Anither o the social skeels that distinguishes us is wir cognitive empathy, the abílity tae unnerstaund whit ither fowk is thinkin, is forby specífic tae humanity, an fair helpfu for haein meaninfu interactions.

A wad hypothesise that, for tae empathise wi ithers, we wad need tae uise abstract thocht. Abstract thocht, thinkin on things that isnae here the nou, is a important aspect o the human essence, that distinguishes us fae wir primate maiks. This can be linkit wi language in that wirds is specífically human, but abstract wirds like ‘freedom’ an ‘equality’ is even faurer remuived fae the capacities o ither ainimals. There is different degrees o abstraction an aw: dates seem abstract for a bairn, but quantum phýsics is even mair abstract.

This abstract thinkin is manifest in the wey we can think aheid o time an back in time. Baith reminiscin an imaiginin is ane o the maist fundamental human vicks. An the connection acqueesh wir thinkin anent the futur an anent the past is stranger nor we realise acause we big wir ideas anent the futur wi wir mindins o the past. We uise mair or less the same pairts o the brain for thinkin anent the past as for the futur an, gif we forget wir mindins, we lose wir capacity tae imaigine wir futur an aw. An, imperfect as human memory is, humans haes a spectacular memory ower a lifetime whan compared wi ither ainimals. This gies us a richt guid advantage ower ither species acause we can plan for the futur an be better prepared for it.

Sae Jock Tamson’s bairns is bairns that spik leids, an sicweys we communicate in multiple iver-chyngin new-fangelt abstract weys. In the communication sýstems, we can descrive no juist whit we see, whit we hae seen an whit we will see, but even things that we could niver ken even gif thay could exist. An aw the vicks can be seen in the behaviour o wir species in ither weys an aw. Jock Tamson’s bairns wirks thegither, cooperatin an skarin mair nor ony ither species on the Yird. We are forby creative an innovative, wir society chyngin ilka day acause o wir ain thochts. Abstract thocht, thinkin anent the futur an the past, is forby a vick that gars us humans a lanerly species, as is wir capacity for adaption. Leids is tharefore the kythin o several o humanity’s heichmaist capacities. Sae lat’s haud on bein the cooperative, creative-thinkin, adaptive ainimals we are.


James McDonaldJames McDonald is a Scots polyglot steyin in Réunion. He is keen on different leids, inspecially local leids, an thair forderin, whether it’s Scots, Gaelic, Réunion Creole or ither leids. He wirks in schuils, helpin bairns wi thair hamewirk an giein chess lessons. Ye can contact him on jmcd89 [AT] googlemail [DOT] com.

Scots-til-English glossar

A I; acqueesh between; anent about; anerly only; appluises makes available to; atour all over; big build; caw call; clachan village; confeerance wi in comparison with; descrive describe; designtly deliberately; eftercome effect; feck large proportion; gars makes; geal extreme coldness; gif if; greeshochie enthusiastic; haud on carry on; hochmagandie fornication; housomiver nevertheless; kythin manifestation; lair learning, knowledge; lanerly exceptional, unique; leid language; maiks relatives; mindins recollections, memories; perqueer skilfully made; pratticks habits, customs; rackless accidental; scrinkit shrunken, shrivelled; sicweys thus; skarin sharing; sonsie successful; vicks traits; whiles sometimes; Yird Earth

Social media ímage: Girl with a Book by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior

A dangerous thing wi style

Tae dae a dangerous thing wi style is whit ah caw airt — Charles Bukowski

As a scriever ye’re no meant tae read ablo-the-line o yer ain airticles, gang gallus intae yon dour Apache laund o Unicode emoticons an racist GIFs an illíterate comments bi fowk wha micht mean wan thing an micht mean anither but neither thing maks ony sense. Ye’re no meant tae dae it, ah say, but ye dae it onywey; an as a scriever o Scots ye can be gey shuir that a smaw but faithfu minority o commenters (ah’ll no say readers — wha’s got time tae read onything these days but heidlines?) are giein ye a hefty shirrackin for writin the wey ye dae.1

Sae tae be treatit like a scriever o English — that is tae say, tae tak a skelpin for whit ye actually scrievit, raither than the leid ye chose tae scrieve it in — is kind o a tonic. Somebody’s taen the time tae disagree, repone tae ye like ye war a plausible human bein raither than some wee bauchle shoutin the odds outside the Sports Direct on Argyle Street. Anither ane o Adam’s bairns is pure ragin at ye, wad tak a flier richt at ye, if they could — an, in short, ye’v duin no bad for yersel.

Like, twa-three weeks syne, sowt ah scrievit got somebody’s back up a bit, an they got wired intae the comments section wi a dissentin opínion. It wis awfu polite, ye ken. Weel-trickit, ye micht even say. Ah mean, they war talkin out their hint-end, but the thocht wis there. Ah’d hiv felt quite chuffed wi masel, if they haednae obviously got me mixed up wi ma guid fere an colleague Rab Wilson.

Weel, awricht. There’s mony a makar out there — masel includit — wha wad hae a celebratory dram gin a scribblin o theirs wis miskent for ane bi the Bard o New Cumnock. Yon’s nae calamity.2 But whit got me doun a bit wisnae the subject o the unkennin identity fraud ah’d cairit out, but the fact that a perfectly mensefu reader3 couldnae tell the odds atween twa awfu different scrievers — seein Scots, in effect, as a kind o linguistic tredmerk, like e e cummings an his lower case or David Foster Wallace an his fitnotes.4

Acause that’s whaur we are richt nou, like it or no. Scots disnae hiv styles; Scots is the style. Whether ye’re Rab Wilson or Matthew Fitt or Irvine Welsh or Hugh MacDiarmid, tae a substantial subset o the population it’s aw ane. Scots, as is, is juist a genre; which micht, dependin on the laziness o the reader, be chairacterised as ‘kailyard’ or ‘folksy’ or ‘earthily humourous’ or whitiver, but is still mair or less identifiable as a discrete tradítion, an a tradítion whase individual contríbutors are as anonymous as the compilers o the New Testament or the scrievers o auld Punch an Judy shaws.

In the same wey that Hollywood films uised tae recycle the same auld sets ower an ower again — the palace yetts, the hotel lobby, the suin tae be cowped ower saloon — ilka scriever o Modren Scots is stuck daein their wee pairty piece in front o the same exhaustit bourach o deid or deein ímages. That’s chyngin — a bit — thanks tae outlats like The National an Bella Caledonia an Mak Forrit, whaur sic hithertae virgin subjects as economics an current affairs an gender politics are nou bein scrievit about in braid Scots. But whit Scots needs — whit ony leid needs, an whit the current state o Scots is a cautionary tale regairdin — isnae juist new things tae scrieve about; it’s new weys o scrievin them.

Saul Bellow ance glaikitly speirt whaur the Hemingway o the Zulus wis. G. K. Chesterton lauched aff the notion that the Chinese micht iver produce a Wordsworth.5 Lat alane the cultural insensitivity o the question for nou, an speir yersel: whit about Scots? Whaur’s our F. Scott Fitzgerald? Whaur’s our Virginia Woolf? An, mair importantly, hou will we find them? Hou dae we bend the leid awa fae its present gate; a gemm-chyngin makar ilka twa hunner year, an naething but saund inatween?

The central tension o Modren Scots is that, for want o ony ither viable authority, the responsibílity for representin an codifyin its scrievit form haes fawin tae the verra fowk wha are in the warst posítion tae dae it: the scrievers.6 The writers wha should be stormin the tours insteid hae been left mannin them; airtists wind up as advocates; an makars are laundit wi the psychic cost o scrievin warks that act príncipally as their ain glossars. The pressure on ony Scots writer tae conform tae a uniform ideal o the leid is enormous7 tae the pynt that it drives out aw ither consíderations. The Faulkner o Fawkirk wad niver hiv been alloued tae scrieve ‘The Sound and the Fury’, nor Glesga’s Ginsberg ‘Howl’, nor the Joyce o Johnstone ‘Ulysses’. It couldnae hiv happent, acause fowk wad hae duin their bunnets8 about whit it meant for the Scots leid. Currently, the primary function o a wark in Modren Scots is tae evangelise for Modren Scots — an ettlin at which nane o the scrievers abuin wad iver hae strived or succeedit. ‘Ceptin mebbes by producin somethin o lastin vailue in the leid, if that counts for owt.9

A fair bittie o whit ah’m mumpin about, ah jalouse, is juist the sílencin effects o capitalism, scrievit about mony pairts elsewhaur bi thinkers cantier than masel. Mercat forces hiv pit the leid’s airm up its back, for shuir, but there’s as much pynt girnin about that as there is complainin that the air’s no got eneuch oxygen in it or the muin’s no a muckle chocolate orange. If there’s onything we can dae tae keep the leid alive, it’ll need tae stairt a wee bit smawer than social revolution, a wee bit muckler than ‘Downfall’ memes.

Scots scrievin is hingin on in there, but it’s in intensive care. The first team squad is as strang as it’s been in a while; the forementioned Welsh, Wilson an Fitt, Liz Lochhead an James Kelman an Stuart Paterson an Chris McQueer, Ally Heather an Ashley Douglas an Antonia Uri, Itchy Coo an James Robertson an Matthew Mackie an Michael Dempster an Hamish Macdonald… an that’s aff the tap o ma heid an nae dout lea’s out a hantle o fowk.10 That’s a group that should provide style eneuch for onybody. But ah’m aye mindit how guid the Leeds United squad wis juist afore they went bust.

The talent is there, an mebbe ayeweys haes been. Whit’s needit nou, aye, is tae support these fowk; an tae dae that, amang sindry ither weys, bi lattin them the hell alane. Lea them tae get on wi pushin the limits o the leid, an stap thristin ontae them the burden o preservation forby. We cannae hae a meaninfu leid wi’out a meaninfu líteratur; an we cannae hae a meaninfu líteratur wi’out scrievers wha are alloued tae be scrievers first an language activists a distant saxt. There’s a wheen o fowk out there wha’v got muckle ideas about whit they’d dae if they war in chairge o Scots — weel, guid. Here’s their chance. It’s past time for the makars tae muive up an muive on. As lang as the scrievers are stuck playin Gatekeeper an Keymaster baith, the maist we can howp for is that the leid steys juist whaur it is, a tradítion; no quite in assistit lívin, but no faur aff it; wi naething tae come but a couple mair generations o Scots Language Power Rangers, colour-codit scrievers distinguishable fae each ither anely bi shade an action pose.11

Niver mind the Creative Scotland definítions; tae dae a dangerous thing wi style is airt. An whit could be mair dangerous tae ony scriever than tae thraw ower the hale global jingbang, this readership o potential billions that we’v aw got access tae, an scrieve anely in this disreputable, deein leid o ours, for a haundfu o radges an a skailin o bawbees? Stephen King could write for a hunner years an niver rin the thing close — but scrieve in Scots, ma fríends, an ye’re haufgates tae maiterin. Aw ye need than is a wee bit style, an that’s a thing ye can pick up juist about onywhaur. Check out the outlaws, check out the dugs. Check out the tramps an the ticket inspectors, the fowk wha’v got somethin at stake. Than get up on that bollard at Sports Direct an staund an sing yer hert out.


Thomas ClarkThomas 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.

The Scots leid in Australian líteratur

Onybody that kens anent the Scots leid kens that Scots is spoken in Scotland, whaur the leid first upbiggit. Fowk will like eneuch ken that Scots exists in anither pairt: thare the Ulster Scots, the Scots spik o Northren Ireland. But whit isnae sae weel kent is the Scots uised in Australie.

It’s kenable that the main leids o Australie for hunneryears wis the aborigine leids, Dyirbal an Warlpiri amang ithers. An thae leids is gey an interestin thairsels. R.M.W. Dixon an Kenneth L. Hale amang ither linguists haes written beuks anent thae leids that is orra unalike fae ither leids in the warld. Amang thair partícularities is coverbs, whaur the verb is for common formed fae a coverb an the main verb, coverb specifeein the main verb. Thare is forby the mony places o articulation o consonants (distinction acqueish sounds produced at different pairts o the gab). An thay aften uise the selsame wird for an object an anither object that could potentially become it, for ensaumple ‘ainimal’ an ‘meat’.1

For thair nummers, it is upcast thare wis thareabout 250 aboriginal leids in 1788. The feck o thaim is misfortunately endangert or weedit awa, wi anerly 130 bein uised in ilkaday life, an nae mair nor twinty bein leart by bairns.2

Thir days the leid that’s the maist spoken in the southren continent is the Southspik. But thare is forby ither leids that haes come tae Australie by recent immigrants, the main anes thir days bein Mandarin, Italians an Arabic. But Scots wis amang thaim, inspecially in the nineteent hunneryear.

Haud on readin . . . “The Scots leid in Australian líteratur”