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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

IV. The Scottish Language.

§ 1. “Scots” and “Ynglis”.

THE HISTORY of the Scots vernacular is, in its earlier stages, a recapitulation of the tale of Northumbrian Old English and northern Middle English. It is perhaps, too dogmatic to say, especially when the documentary evidence is so slight, that, in the earliest period, the language north of the Tweed was identical with that between the Tweed and the Humber; but we may reasonably conclude that the differences were of the narrowest. The runic verses of The Dream of the Rood on the cross at Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, might have been cut on the shores of the Forth, or in Yorkshire. Later, though local differences may have been accentuated, chiefly by the intrusion at one point or another of Scandinavian or other words, the structural identity of the language in the two areas was maintained. The justice of this assumption appears when, in a still later period, we have an opportunity of comparison by written texts. It is unnecessary to point out the close kinship, in the fourteenth century, of the language of Barbour’s Bruce, written in Aberdeen, with that of the writings of Richard Rolle, the hermit of Hampole, near Doncaster. The likeness is the more remarkable, if we accept the opinion that Barbour’s text, in its extant form, was written out in the fifteenth century. It is, therefore, not only scientifically accurate to treat the language of the Bruce as northern English, but it is historically justifiable to call that language “English.” To Barbour and his successors—till a change in political circumstance made a change in nomenclature necessary—their tongue is not “Scots,” but invariably “Ynglis,” or English.   1
  The name “Scots” or “Scottish” has been applied to the language of the whole or part of the area of modern Scotland in such a variety of senses that some statement of the history of the term is a necessary preliminary to even the briefest outline. Modern associations and modern fervour have too often obscured the purely linguistic issues. In its original application, “Scots” is the speech of the Scottish settlers in Alban: that is, Celtic of the Goidelic group, the ancestor of the present Scottish Gaelic. In due course, the name was applied to the vernacular of the entire area north of the dividing-line between the estuaries of the Forth and Clyde. As this extension covered the eastern Pictish territory, then under the rule of the kings of the Scots, it is possible that some change was ultimately effected by the political association of these several northern non-Teutonic communities. Whatever be the outcome of speculation on this point, the only consideration pertinent to our present purpose is that the speech of this wider area was known as “Scots” to all peoples south of the dividing-line, whether Anglian settlers in the Lothians or Bretts (or “Welsh”) in Strathclyde.   2
  When the limits of the “Scottish” kingdom were enlarged southward and had, in the thirteenth century, become identical with those of modern Scotland, the name “Scots” was no longer applied to the language of the rulers. The process of amalgamation was, in every sense, an anglicisation, which became more effective as the Scottish kings carried out their policy of intruding Teutonic culture into the eastern fringe of their ancestral “Scotland.” Thus, when the wider political idea of a “Scotland” takes shape, we find “Ynglis” the name of the speech of the “Scottish” court and of the surrounding Anglian population in the Lothians and Fife, and “Scots” that of the speech of the northern and western provinces. This alienation of the anglicised Scot from the Gaelic Scot—illustrated in the story of Duncan and Macbeth—was completed in the wars of independence, in which the Teutonic or “English” elements representing “Scottish” nationality were hampered in their resistance to the Anglo-French civilisation of England by the vigorous opposition of non-Teutonic Scots. When the struggle was ended and Teutonic Scotland started on a fresh career of national endeavour, the separation from the Celtic Scots was absolute. On the other hand, certain elements of Anglo-French culture were readily assimilated. The guiding factor was race. For some time after this, even at the close of the fifteenth century, “Scots” is the name for the Gaelic speech of the north and west. By writers of Lothian birth, this tongue is spoken of disrespectfully as the tongue of “brokin men” and “savages” and “bribour bairdis.” These Lothian men are Scots, willing subjects of the king of “Scots,” proud of their “Scotland”; but they are careful to say that the language which they speak is “Ynglis.”   3
  Later, however, with the political and social advance of the kingdom and the development of a strong national sentiment during the quarrels with England, it came about, inevitably, that the term “Ynglis” no longer commended itself to northern partiotism. It was the language of the “auld enemy,” an enemy the nearest and the most troublesome. If these northerners were proud of Scotland and of being Scots, why might not their tongue be “Scots”? In some such way the historian guesses at the purpose of sixteenth century literature in taking to itself the name of the despised speech of the “bards,” and in giving to that speech the name of “Ersch” or “Yrisch” (Irish). The old reproach clung to the new title “Ersch”: and it was to be long before the racial animosity, thus expressed in the outward symbol of language, was to be forgotten in a more homogeneous Scotland. No better proof of this internal fissure can be found than in Dunbar’s Flyting with Kennedie, 1  which is, in first intention, an expression of the feud between the English east and the Gaelic west. If the poem be, as we are asked to believe, a mere bout of rough fun, it is none the less interesting as evidence of the material which gave the best opportunities for mock warfare.   4
  This break with the family name and historic association indicates, in a blunt way, a more fundamental change in the language itself. The causes which produced the one could not fail to influence the other. For “Scots,” erst “Ynglis,” had, for some time, lived apart: during more than two centuries there had been little intercourse with England by any of the peaceful methods which affect language most strongly; closer association had been enforced with the unreconciled Gaels within its area or with new friends beyond; generally, a marked differentiation had been established between the civilisations north and south of the Tweed. These considerations, among others, prepare us for the changes which soon become evident, though they may not be very helpful in explaining the details of these changes. It may be that some of them were longer in the making than our study of the few extant documents of the earlier period has led us to believe. We lack evidence of the extent of Scandinavian interference in the northern Anglic dialect, structural and verbal, and we know too little of the Anglo-French influences resulting from the Norman culture which had grown up in the Lothians. Yet, while allowing for possibilities, or probabilities, of this kind, we may conclude that, on the whole, the literary language of Scotland down to the early fifteenth century was in close conformity with the usage of northern England. The texts of Barbour and Hampole force us to accept this. Any qualification which may be made must be due, not to the testimony of facts (for they are wanting), but to an acknowledgment of the general principle that languages and dialects change slowly and that the differences in the latter part of the fifteenth century (to which we are about to refer) are too fundamental to have taken shape of a sudden.   5
  A change in the habit of the literary language is discernible from the middle of the fifteenth century. It is definite and of general occurrence; and it continues with but few variations, which are due to the idiosyncrasies of writers or the circumstances of publication, down to the opening decades of the seventeenth century. To this period (1450-1620) the name of “Middle Scots” has been given. The title is not altogether satisfactory, but it is the best that has been found; and it is useful in suggesting the special linguistic phase which intervened between earlier and later (or modern) Scots. It is applied only to the literary speech. The spoken language pursued its own course and showed fewer points of difference from both the literary and spoken dialects of northern England. When the middle period closes, spoken Scots is again restored to something of the dignity of a literary medium. This is said advisedly, for diversity of dialect and the lack of a fixed orthography in Modern Scots are the denial of the main characteristics of a standard instrument. In Middle Scots, on the other hand, the linguistic peculiarities are, with the allowances already noted, uniform within the period, and deliberately followed.   6

Note 1. See Chapter X [ back ]

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