Learn one language, get one free

My Dutch-language book Taaltoerisme (2012) included a chapter about Limburgish, the regional language that ‘I was fed with the porridge spoon’, as the Dutch idiom goes – my mother tongue, that is to say. For the English-language edition of the book, titled Lingo (2014), Katy McMillan-van Overzee was kind enough to translate and radically localise it to reflect her own Scots-language Edinburgh childhood. In the end, however, the publisher and I settled on a different kind of chapter for Scots. Reading this interview with the Scots Scriever, Michael Dempster, and a Twitter exchange with Peter Blake led to the idea of publishing it here for the first time.

When I was growing up in central Edinburgh in the 1960s, the people on the TV spoke a different language from the one we spoke at home. But I still understood them. When I went to school I discovered that the language I was expected to speak was not the ‘home-grown’ variety but more akin to the BBC English of Listen with Mother. I don’t remember that being a problem. I just went with the flow.


Picardy Place roundabout, Edinburgh, late 1960s (source)

But how? How did I learn ‘English’ when I had communicated in Scots all my young life – with my friends, the local shopkeepers, my family … ? I have absolutely no idea. When I had to do it, I just did. Not perfectly of course, but certainly without inhibition. So did my sister, and all the other kids in the neighbourhood.

What may have helped was my total unawareness of the concept of ‘language’. English wasn’t another language exactly; it was more a different way of speaking. Where exactly the difference lay did not concern us one way or the other. The fact that we spoke Scots did not fill us with pride or shame. It was just part of life, like gravity, or a shower of rain. The way you spoke, the fact that things fell downwards and not upwards, and getting soaked to the skin now and then – well, these were things that just ‘were’.

English kids who had moved north of the border and who came to our school understood Scots, because that was the official language of the playground. When we spoke to them separately, we used English. Not because we were all that polite, or to show off – we just did. It simply went without saying.

When I learned to write, I dutifully copied words like ‘house’, ‘flower’ and ‘head’ from the blackboard. It never crossed my mind that, in my world, these should be spelt hoose, flooer and heid. Because when you wrote down words, you used English. That was common knowledge. I knew that.

But speaking was a different matter altogether. People did that in lots of different ways. For example, Mrs Wycisk, who lived around the corner, was married to a Pole who couldn’t speak English – but had developed his own brand of Scots, complete with the rolling rrr at the end of words: ‘Zat’s a braw carrrr ye’ve goat zerrr’. Glaswegians took some getting used to. Even in central Edinburgh we would say ‘it’s the wrong one’ and not ‘it’s the wrang wan’. And my granny, who came from the borders, called a dog a doag, while we called it a dug.

As for me, well, I took this wide-ranging vocabulary in my stride. Not for one second did I stop to think why people said dog, dug or doag, wrang wan or wrong one, gel or girrrl … After all, I understood it all – or at least most of it.

What I did find strange was when people suddenly used words in an unaccustomed way. I remember feeling confused when my Sunday school teacher suddenly spoke Scots to me when she met me in the street. And when my mother broke into ‘Jean Brodie English’ every time the GP came on a home visit. She would then address me in the same way – which I found seriously disconcerting.

That naïve idea somewhere at the back of a child’s mind that gravity, rain and language are just things that are dies pretty soon when you go to school. At school, all these things are explained. You learn about Newton who sat under a tree and was hit on the head by a falling apple. You hear that rain clouds are made of evaporated seawater. And, in the English lessons, you have to think about why you say what you say and why you say it in one way and not another … and how to spell. You discover that there is actually a system of sorts, an underlying structure in English – something you’d never even thought about before.

If one manner of speaking has a specific system, then another is bound to have a specific system as well, or so you would expect. And it’s true, but the deeper implications of this didn’t hit home until years later – when I started learning foreign languages, with systems of their own. Only then did I start to understand the logic of my mother tongue. For instance, the patterns in I dinnae (‘don’t’) and he disnae (‘he doesn’t’) were repeated in I havenae (‘I haven’t’) and he hasnae (‘he hasn’t’).

Once I started analysing all of this, it was one surprise after another. Why did I use the word yon for both ‘that’ and ‘those’? Why did I say yon book and yon books? Was yon plural or singular? Why did people north of the border ‘go the messages’ while people south of the border ‘did the shopping’? Was ‘going the messages’ some sort of domestic ritual from an era when there were no shops, before money was invented and when people bartered goods?

For a long time I made forays inside my own head. All the things I knew – and I never knew that I knew them! Just when I was slaving away at French, German and Latin, here was a language that had been bestowed on me – effortlessly and free.

Scots was certainly different from English, with its own influences from French brought over by the Stuart entourage. What other person in the English-speaking world would understand expressions such as Dinnae fash yersel (‘Don’t get angry’)? But a Frenchman would recognise se fâcher (‘to get angry’). The syntax and grammar of Scots and English might be largely – though not entirely – the same, but we had our own pronunciation and vocabulary. What I did was more than just speak a bit differently, I concluded: it was another language – anither leid, to put it in Scots. At first, I felt that calling myself bilingual took some stretch of the imagination, but to my surprise, it became official in 2001, when Scots was recognised as one of Britain’s regional languages.

Not that bilingualism is all that uncommon these days, of course. Most British cities have grown so multicultural that being bilingual is no longer exceptional. In the Gaelic Highlands and Islands and much of Wales, too, having two languages is nowadays a cause for pride, not shame, and even Cornwall and the Isle of Man are trying to revive their Celtic heritage. What all this means is that English, for all its world-language status, does not reign supreme in this linguistically not-so-United Kingdom of ours. The only parts where such a claim would be justified are the rural areas of England – the Conservative and pro-Brexit strongholds, to put it in political terms.

Which goes to show what monolingualism does to people.

5 thoughts on “Learn one language, get one free

  1. Hi Gaston, thank you for sharing.

    I can definitely relate with your comment on systems: “If one manner of speaking has a specific system, then another is bound to have a specific system as well, or so you would expect. And it’s true, but the deeper implications of this didn’t hit home until years later – when I started learning foreign languages, with systems of their own.”

    That’s what makes it so difficult to learn a foreign language in my opinion. You need to understand the whole logic behind it. And the “logic” is about history, customs, and specificities – a system indeed – that foreigners may not be able to fully grasp. That’s why I admire multilingual speakers, for they have access to several different toolkits to understand the world.

    P.S. I ended up on your blog after reading a review of your latest book “Babel”. I can’t wait to read it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I found the following statement in the blog post to be quite interesting: “Why did people north of the border ‘go the messages’ while people south of the border ‘did the shopping’?”

    The Dutch do something remarkably similar. “Ik deed de boodschappen en stuurde de boodschappen.” (I did the shopping and I sent the messages.)


  3. I like the ideas and the memories you share. As usual in this area, there is some doubt about what is a language and what is a dialect. The nearest definition I have come across (not perfect, but workable) is that one can recognise a dialect as more than just an accent, but that a different language will simply be incomprehensible to a non-speaker. Well, having spent about 40 years in Scotland myself, but as a Welsh person, I came to see that Doric (which is what is spoken in and around Aberdeen) may appear as a dialect but really is impenetrable – at first – to outsiders. Rather like your Edinburgh Scots, it is full of new vocabulary, though in a sense one can say that the syntax and grammar are just like English. Nothing like the difference with Welsh, say. But I can see why one might put forward a very good case for it to be a language.

    So when you say that BBC English sounded different, or like another language, I reckon that form of RP sounded different from what *most* people in the UK spoke or recognised back then. Scots would have those deliciously regional words and expressions,and it does seem to be on a different scale entirely from the relatively small dialectal shifts in (say) Devon or Dorset. However, in all these places – and certainly in Aberdeen – people would learn to switch from one style to another, depending on the audience..

    I would also say that for people to be proud of speaking Welsh is something that was true a long time ago, not a recent phenomenon. It was certainly true when I fell in love with the language after being told I had to learn it in secondary school back in the 1950s. And this leads to my main point, agreeing with you entirely on the issue of what bilingualism does for you. I believe that when people grow up in a truly bilingual atmosphere it does massively shift their perception, in that they realise more or less consciously that the word for a certain thing isn’t fixed or “right”, and that there are other ways of saying things. This openness to accept what other languages/cultures have is a crucial feature. The trouble with so many monolingual areas in England (word used deliberately) is that the assumption is that the English word is the obvious one and that anything else is strange. I’ve rather thought that this explains so much of the bad humour and sneering addressed towards (notably) the Welsh and the French – people who are near neighbours but who are perceived to manage perfectly well in a language other than English. (How dare they? Must be something wrong with them! They are talking about us behind our backs!) And this leads me to agree with your final ideas, even though those ideas may be contentious for some…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! And I agree: the difference between English and Scots is more like that between the Scandinavian languages, or between Czech and Slovak. Welsh is a different thing altogether of course.


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