February 24, 2014, by Nicola Royan

Older Scots and Middle English: mutually comprehensible dialects?

The witticism that Britain and the US are countries divided by a common language might equally apply to Scotland and England. To avoid too much controversy, I am neither going to attribute the thought, nor am I going to discuss contemporary linguistic matters, but instead limit my discussion here to the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when varieties of English were gaining or regaining prestige, and moving towards full elaboration. Elaboration is a key linguistic measures of a language (as opposed to a dialect): this means that the language can be used for all purposes and for all functions and registers, from government and legal documents, through literary usage, all the way down to effective flyting (insults or abuse).

Having established that, there follow other questions. In what ways can we differentiate Older Scots from Middle English? Can we or should we designate both as languages rather than dialects? What wider cultural points derive from our assumptions about the languages? These questions are not limited to what might be deemed linguistic technicalities, but stretch into political and social assumptions about language status, and political borders.

Linguistic Differences between Older Scots and Middle English

We might hope that this question – surely simply a matter of observation – would be easy to answer. The observing part is: there is a reasonably established corpus of Older Scots and Middle English texts, and, moreover, there are dictionaries (Dictionary of the Older Scots Tongue, available at www.dsl.ac.uk, and Middle English Dictionary, available at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/). However, there are some hard decisions to make first, since the number and form of observable differences vary depending on which form of Middle English is selected, and which writing styles are compared. Differences between the language of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight  and Troilus and Criseyde, for instance, are perhaps more striking than between Troilus and Robert Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid, both as a result of geographical origin and of literary form. Some features of Older Scots which don’t appear in Chaucer’s south-eastern English can be found in Northern Middle English texts, so differences are rarely as absolute as might be most convenient.

Having said all that, there are certain recurrent differences that can help identify a Scottish text. These include: the regular use of <quh-> for <wh->, so quha, quhair, quhen instead of who, where, when; the familiar /e:/ sound, so stane, haill for stone, whole; and an earlier use of Present-day English pronouns, scho, thay, thaim, thair, most probably derived from Norse. Texts with these features are clearly distinguishable from Chaucerian usage  but less so, say, from the York Plays. In enough quantity, however, together with other markers, these features help identify a text as Scots.

Dialect or language?

As a rule of thumb, it can be argued that a language is a dialect with a flag, or perhaps an army for the belligerent. Under that rule, then Older Scots is a language (although of course not the only one used within the realm of Scotland). The same applies to Middle English, notwithstanding the evident linguistic variation between different parts of England. Under the linguistic definition of elaboration, Older Scots qualifies as a language earlier than Middle English, as Older Scots was used more widely and in more consistent forms in documents slightly earlier than any other variety of Middle English.

What does that mean, though? Middle English is clearly still a language, but available in more, and in more diverse, forms than Older Scots. That begins to change in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for a whole number of cultural, technological and political reasons. But that’s a discussion for another place.

For a systematic account of Older Scots, see Jeremy Smith, Older Scots: A Linguistic Reader, (Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 2012), and for Middle English, see Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smith An Introduction to Middle English (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Posted in Language and LiteratureMedievalOld ScotsUncategorized