DIVIDED BY A COMMON LANGUAGE
English is technically the official language of both Scotland and England but the Scots have twisted the language they speak over the last few centuries into something almost unintelligible. Whether they have been trying to evolve an entirely new language to safely discuss their independence plans in front of oblivious English people, or simply to stop any non-Scot enjoying golfing holidays, we will probably never know.
In England, however, we developed a manner of communicating – called speaking – a very long time ago, during a period when the Scots were at the gesticulating-and-grunting stage. Out of the wheezes and squawks of Geordie, Brummie, Scouse, Manc and Mackem, our public-schooled elite nurtured a rarefied form of their mother tongue, nourished by Milton and Wordsworth, and enunciated in tones purged of the guttural Northern vowels and Essex glottal stops: Received Pronunciation. How – the argument ran – could provincials so benighted as to mouth words like clarty, stottie, minging or alreet be thought to animate such linguistic monstrosities with wit or intellect? It stood to reason that the upper classes – to whom girls were ‘gels’ and your father was ‘deddih’ – had happened upon a language fit for angels. ‘Do pa-ass your mathar the ba-ath bans and the batter-dish’.
Throughout England different regions have slowly developed their own dialects, perhaps the most famous being Cockney rhyming slang. When I was growing up this was used widely in our house, so I always knew when it was time to head for the ‘apples’ or ‘up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire’, or if Granddad was ‘having a sherbet in the rub a dub’ of a Sunday dinnertime.
So what can anybody who speaks proper English expect when they visit our Caledonian cousins? I’ll start by asking the one question any visitor to Scotland needs: ‘Please could you direct me to the nearest bar?’ (Fortunately because of the BBC they can easily understand our English accents, but of course this might not last in an independent Scotland.) So far so good, until they reply, ‘Alreet big mon, yer lukkin fur a’ wee dram? Neigh dangur, hees wat ya wann doi, reet. Reet dunn tha reed reet, bat ha bus stop on yer lift. Un maind ha ya gee,’ which translates as: ‘Hello, sir, are you looking for a drink? No problem. What you want to do is go straight down the road and the bar is on the left by the bus stop.’ No wonder all the guidebooks on Scotland advise you that the best thing to do is to get so drunk that it all makes sense (not their actual words, but you get the drift).
It’s not really their fault though. The English have Shakespeare: the Immortal Bard, spouting pentameters as easily as breathing, his pen charged with manna rather than ink. The Scots equivalent is Robert Burns (aka Rabbie Bins); and what hope can you have when the finest flower of your literature is a pedlar of folksy jingles, barely legible behind the mush of phonetic spelling? This is the first verse of his famous ‘Address to a Haggis’, the centrepiece of any Burns Night celebration:
Fair fa’ yer honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak yer place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s me arrrm.
Ignoring the question of why on earth anyone would want to write a poem to a glorified pile of tripe in the first place, what he means is this:
Good luck to you and your honest, plump face
Great chieftain of the pudding race!
Above them all you take your place,
Gut, stomach lining or intestine
You are well worth a grace
As long as my arm.
Which raises the question: why couldn’t he just say that in the first place? The reason, I believe, is that the Scots do not want us to understand what they are saying. So, although an independent Scotland will be taking the English language with them, without us to translate for them they will have to start learning it properly if the rest of the world is going to understand anything they are saying.
If the English language made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur.
English, a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages and rifles in their pockets for spare vocabulary
HOW THEY SAY ‘ENGLISH’ AROUND THE WORLD
France – Les Rosbifs: the ‘roast beefs’. A Gallic commentary on the national cuisine, not just the sunburn.
Malaysia – Mat Salleh: ‘mad sailor’. The crews of English sailing ships got pickled as newts in port and the name has stuck.
Roman Empire – Brittunculus: translates from Latin as ‘wretched little Brit’.
South Africa – Soutie: from soutpiel, meaning ‘salt penis’ in Afrikaans. The idea is that the English have one leg in South Africa and one leg in England, leaving a certain appendage dangling in the brine . . .
America – English are called ‘Limeys’ since Royal Navy rations included limes to prevent scurvy. However, they could have been ‘Krauts’, as Captain Cook tried them on sauerkraut first but his men refused to eat it.
NB (Cockney rhyming slang for a Scot is ‘sweaty’: ‘sweaty sock’ = ‘Jock’.)
[The English] have a lot of trouble with pronunciation, because they can’t move their jaw muscles, because of malnutrition caused by wisely refusing to eat English food, much of which was designed and manufactured in medieval times during the reign of King Walter the Mildly Disturbed. Dave Barry, Dave Barry Talks Back
A cut glass English accent can fool unsuspecting Americans into detecting a brilliance that isn’t there. Stephen Fry
Thistle vs Rose (700 Years of Winding up the Scots) by Albert Jack is available now
Albert Jack books available for download here