Fluent in 1½ Languages

On Friday, I attended the premiere of a play written by John Quinn, whom I’ve known for several years.

In O Halflins an Hecklers an Weavers an Weemin, he tells the story of the jute industry in Dundee. The play was staged in the round within Verdant Works, which used to be a functioning jute mill and is now a museum dedicated to the manufacture of the material. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, particularly the satirical in-jokes that only locals understand.

A large portion of the dialogue is in local dialect; in fact, even the title seems like gibberish to those who aren’t familiar with the vernacular. Helpfully, however, the programme contains a glossary of the terms used in the production. The title translates as ‘The Mother Tongue’:

Glossary from the play
Glossary from the play

In everyday life, I speak and understand standard English. I also understood almost every word of the play without looking at the definitions, and I’d be able to decipher the dialect’s parent language: Scots. But to say anything in dialect or Scots, I would have to make a conscious effort to work out my sentences.

That’s why I say I’m fluent in 1½ languages.

There’s a long tradition of English as a written language, with dictionaries and grammar guides going back centuries. Scots, on the other hand, is more of an oral language and there’s no commonly-accepted way to render it on paper. As such, I find it easier to catch what’s being said than if it’s written down.

The problem is most apparent with the sound at the end of the word ‘loch’, which is pronounced like ‘huh’, but said from the back of the throat; a similar sound appears in German. This guttural noise is usually written as ‘ch’, but in English, those letters are pronounced as in the word ‘church’. There are also less obvious issues. The word ‘yes’ can be translated as ‘aye’ or ‘ay’, but depending on the context, the word ‘ae’ might mean ‘always’.

In modern times, there’s been a revival of the Scots language. Perhaps it’s down to the formation of the current Scottish Parliament in 1999; perhaps it’s because Scots speakers can now easily find one another online.

In my experience, there’s a minority of people who use the language merely to show off or to exclude non-speakers. But spoken for the right reasons, it’s full of rich expressions that often have no direct translation.

‘Tartle’ is the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name, and is under consideration by the Collins dictionary. ‘Driech’ can be used to describe any weather except warm and sunny, and can only be used in relation to weather. There are even informal neologisms such as the word Facebook being split into its component words and translated to ‘Pusjotter’; there’s no one definitive reference for this, so here are my search results.

I’ve no plans to start writing in Scots myself. But I am pleased to be fluent in half a language and I appreciate the insight it gives me.