3.2 Prejudice - the language of Burns
From the late nineteenth century until well into the 1980s, Scottish teachers worked hard to eliminate Scottish forms of language.
The teachers’ behaviour reflected the views of educational leaders of the time, many of whom favoured the promotion of the ‘The Queen’s English’, or the English of the BBC, at a time when the corporation delivered its entire output through the medium of ‘Received Pronunciation’ - sometimes referred to as the ‘dialect’ of the British aristocracy.
John G. Shearer is remembered as a kindly and well-respected Director of Education at Orkney County Council during the 1950s. He nevertheless made the following controversial and provocative public statement at meeting in Kirkwall during October 1952:
“The schools have been urging the use of formal English for many years, but it is doubtful whether there has been any improvement during the twentieth century. It is equally likely that the language has become debased in that time. Most people dislike interference with their accustomed manner of speaking, and though they learn to speak Standard English in school, they revert to their accustomed idiom outside. No part of our work suffers more from the opposition of outside interests than this.
The use of dialect along with Standard English imposes on our young people the handicap of bilingualism that they habitually use two languages. This is a real impediment to progress. Further, the dialects are not pretty and their literature is small. Therefore, as we now have the assistance of the radio service – the BBC News is usually a standard of modern English pronunciation – we should discard our inborn prejudice in favour of our own dialect and make a serious effort in school to raise the level of spoken English”.
It has often been remarked that prejudice against Scots language originated most often amongst those Scots from the aspirant middle-classes who sought to abandon the linguistic heritage they associated with their past, with rural speech, or with working-class speech.
So, some people in Orkney may have been willing to consider John G. Shearer’s comments, but the poet Christina Costie reacted by writing what became a very well-known protest poem – ‘Speech’ – in defence of indigenous local language (Costie, 1974).
Costie’s poem is a dramatic monologue in the voice of a schoolboy who has been bullied by his teacher for using Orkney words of legitimate Scots and/or Nordic origin.
You will now work in some more detail with a sections of Costie’s well known protest poem ‘Speech’. To start with, you will hear and practise speaking Costie’s poem, then you will analyse aspects of the poem and finally, you will practise acting out the poem rather than just reading it.
First of all, listen to the poem, then read it out recording yourself while you are doing so.
DON’T say “Nu”, say “Now.”
And don’t say “Ku”, say “Cow.”
An’ the bairns aal shouted an’ roared wae laughter,
When I said “efter” instead o’ “after.”
Sheu gaed me the klipe ‘cis I said “Liv,”
Instead o’ the palm o’ me haand,
An’ sheu haaled i’ me gansey an’ gaed me a rive,
When I couldno’ understand!...
Then listen to the model again and finally compare your own recording with the model. Feel free to repeat the process a few times until you are happy with your pronunciation of the Scots words.
Now you have taken a closer look at the poem, try to read it out in a way that expresses the drama the poem depicts. Listen to the poem, then read it out recording yourself while you are doing so. Then listen to the model again and finally compare your own recording with the model. Feel free to repeat the process a few times until you are happy with your expression and pronunciation of Scots words.
- Please note: We have asked a speaker of a West Coast Scots dialect to record a dramatized reading of Costie’s poem to provide you with a range of dialects to listen to. The recording in Part 1 was made by a speaker of the Shetland dialect, who produced a version close to the Oracadian used in the poem. Note the differences in pronunciation by both speakers.
Costie was an Orcadian speaker whose family had been using Orcadian for generations. She was a quiet, unassuming person, who nevertheless gave voice to a strong feeling among Orcadians at the time that their language had real value. Costie had studied Norwegian and Icelandic, and knew the connections between her local language and these Nordic languages.
In the end, the persecuted little boy of her poem declares in almost full Norwegian Ah’ll … cheust ging hjem till Bergen, making the point that this derided home language is considered to be completely legitimate just across the sea in Norway (where language policies have always been much more enlightened).
Scottish literature includes many examples of how Scots language has been driven out of classrooms, and out of the mouths of youngsters. In Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song (1932), young Chris Guthrie appreciates the richness of the Scots that is spoken by her family and neighbours, but in the school she becomes the ‘English Chris’.
William MacIlvanney based the famous scene in his novel Docherty (1975) where young Con is belted for saying Ah fell an bumped ma heid in the sheuch, sur on the real experiences of Scots speakers in Ayrshire.
And also in Ayrshire and the West of Scotland more generally, many middle-aged Scots speakers today will remark on the irony of the fact that, while Robert Burns’ Scots poetry was celebrated with recitals and prizes on the poet’s birthday on January 25th, on all other days of the year the use of Scots was punishable by a blow from the tawse, or leather strap; the language of Robert Burns was permissible in school on one day of the year only.
Whether you went to school in Scotland, or in a different country, what memories do you have of how you were taught, what was considered, ‘proper pronunciation’?
Your experience may take place in Scotland, and your memories may be about learning the sort of ‘BBC News pronunciation’ or ‘The Queen’s English’ as mentioned above.