Universiteit Leiden

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Mo Gordon
Anna Loh

Digging for treasure in archives: what did spoken Scots sound like?

How did Scottish speakers sound hundreds of years ago? University lecturer Mo Gordon thinks the answer to that question can be found in church archives. 'It can be a boost to your identity to know the history of your language.'

'The spoken language in Scotland has long been Scots, a sister language to English,' Gordon says. 'We just don't always realise that anymore, because the upper classes spoke and wrote in English. Much has been preserved about their lives in particular, so now it seems as if English has always been dominant in Scotland.'

That effect is amplified by the fact that English functioned as a written language. Even lower-class Scottish people who otherwise communicated only in Scots used English for their written business communications. 'We know that there must be letters in archives from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, for example, in which poorer Scottish people asked their church community for help,' Gordon explains. 'Often they couldn't actually write very well in English, but did so anyway. That gives us a lot of information about their command of English as well as the language they normally spoke. From the letters, for example, we can see which Scottish forms crept into English.

Ploughing through archives

There is a problem, though. it will take Gordon a lot of effort to track down these letters. Because the writers have long been considered unimportant, their documents have not always been carefully stored. However, with an NWO XS grant, Gordon hopes to find some of them. 'The grant allows me to travel to Scotland and delve into the archives there instead of teaching,' she explains. There have been times before when I've also managed to find some things, so I'm hopeful.'

Variety as a sign of wealth

Why is it so important to her to know how Scots was spoken more than a hundred years ago? Being half-Scottish, I studied English, but I still get corrected on things that are just the norm in Scotland,' she explains. 'That continues to make me insecure. You also notice this in Scotland, where there has long been a kind of inferiority feeling toward Standard English. It can help to know that there is not one kind of English, that a language cannot be identical everywhere in such a large linguistic area. On the contrary, it’s a sign of richness that all these languages and variants have influenced each other over the years.’

Empathising with writers

And then there's the content of the letters she expects to find. ‘I really enjoy looking in those archives because it feels like a kind of treasure hunt, but transcribing and reading the letters is also fantastic. For example, a previous find included a letter from an old woman with very bad teeth. She asked if she could please have some softer meat, because she couldn't chew properly. When you read something like that, you really start to sympathise with the writer. I’ll be focusing mainly on language myself, but it would be nice if these letters not only help my research, but also that of social historians, for example.'

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