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A Critical Inquiry into the Scottish Language

Scottish CultureScotland HistoryA Critical Inquiry into the Scottish Language

by Francisque-Michel, 1882

The Scotch language is acknowledged to be a dialect of the Saxon or old English, with some trifling variations; indeed the two languages originally were so nearly the same, that the principal differences at present between them are owing to the Scotch having retained many words and phrases which have fallen into disuse among the English. So says John Sinclair, in the introduction to his “Observations on the Scottish Dialect”; but he seems to overlook that there are many Scotch words and idioms which cannot be traced to an English source. Moreover, he fails to show how the uniformity he points out could have taken place between two countries so long strangers to each other — divisos toto orbe Britannos, if we may say so in a figurative sense—and where a Southron was at a loss to understand a North Briton.

The Scottish and the English languages were both formed in the same manner and of the same elements, but independently of each other. This fact did not prevent them from running in parallel lines without meeting. As might be expected, North Britain was, to a certain extent, peopled by Norsemen; and Jamieson has remarked that among the common people, the names of herbs, in the north of Scotland, are either the same with those still used in Sweden and other northern countries, or are nearly allied. The same observation applies pretty generally throughout Scotland to the names of quadrupeds, birds, and fishes.

A Teutonic dialect was the generally spoken language of Lothian, Merse, and Teviotdale, from the time of David I. When that prince succeeded to the throne, he appears, with a generous and an enlightened policy, to have endeavoured to introduce civilisation into the ruder part of the island, by encouraging the emigration of the Normans into his new dominions. It may be mentioned as a circumstance which confirms, in a striking manner, the above remark regarding this policy, that the names of the witnesses to a charter of William the Lion still extant—Moreville, Fitz Allan, Umfra-ville, Lovel, and De Hay — are all, without exception, of Norman origin.

The men who bore those Norman names did not stand alone in introducing the French language into Scotland, then swarming with English men and women, enticed thither by the liberal policy of the kings. Many who followed the profession of arms reached the country with the wave of foreigners that flowed northward after the Conquest. We, in time, got our own share, says Professor Innes, of those dashing adventurers who introduced among us the customs of chivalry and the surnames they had adopted from their ancestral castles across the Channel.

The courts of David I. and his grandsons were full of knightly men, bearing the names of De Brus, De Balliol, De Morevil, De Umfravil, De Berkelai, De Quinci, De Vipont, De Vaux, and a hundred others ; so that these princes had to recognise the importance of the French element among their subjects. Many of the names of those adventurers have disappeared from the land in which they were once so illustrious, and many of them have been altered past recognition.

The grand old Norman name of De Vesci is now Veitch; De Vere, once still greater, is in Scotland Weir. De Limessay, which is inferior to none of them, has become Lindsay. De Montaut has been transformed into the respectable but not illustrious name of Mowat. De Montfiquet is Muschet, pronounced Muchet in Portugal, to which the family emigrated perhaps at the same time the Gordons settled at Xeres de la Frontera in the wine trade. De Vaux, if it lives still, does so in the shape of Vans, by turning a letter upside down; while De Bellassize, carrying us back to the times of the Crusades, has become Belsize in England, and in yet homelier northern mouths has degenerated into Bellsches. In fine, who could recognise in the name of Wishart the French huissier, corresponding to Doorward, Scotch Durivardf.

We learn from a curious passage in the Latin chronicle attributed to Walter of Coventry, that as early as the reign of William the Lion the Scottish Court had adopted the manners, dress, and even language of France, then fashionable in England. We are also aware that during the long wars in which Robert Bruce wrested the kingdom from the English, many Scottish estates were bestowed by the Southron mon-archs upon their nobles.

It is true that the thorough Court French imported by them never gained much ground in Scotland; and although, doubtless, it was exclusively used by the English settlers of that disturbed period, it seems not to have long survived their departure, when Latin became the universal language of public business, and continued to be so down to the end of the fourteenth century.

But the taste for French manners and language was not utterly lost. It continued to prevail more or less to a comparatively recent period, and must have had a considerable influence on Scottish literature in general. That such was the case at the close of the fourteenth century, there is abundant proof in the various poems composed by Huchowne, which exhibit not only a familiar acquaintance with French compositions, but abound with words and phrases borrowed from the French language.

The Scottish clergy, being generally educated abroad, chiefly at the University of Paris, in spite of the exertions of England in opposition to this custom, imported thence THE SCOTTISH CLERGY. improvements in all the useful arts, with the words pertaining to them, and planted them in Scotland. They cleared the land of brushwood, drained the marshes, enclosed the fields with hedges, made orchards, laid out gardens, erected mills and farm granges, and encouraged their serfs and cottagers to settle in little villages and communities, which they protected and fostered. They were the great architects and builders. Beautiful churches, and princely convents and monasteries, rose under their hands, with a splendour of ornament, and an imposing grandeur of effect, which contrasted with the houses of the nobility, and much more with the huts which crowded round the walls of those huge piles which not unfrequently were called by French names.

The construction of these buildings demanded, and of course encouraged, the arts of numerous workmen and craftsmen. The iron work required the labour of the smith; the timber work, that of the carpenter; the exquisite carved screens and painted windows, the silver shrines and ornamented vestments of the priests, and their processional banners, encouraged the painter, glass-stainer, carver, jeweller, and embroiderer; and by affording these artisans constant employment, increased their skill and ingenuity in their crafts. The domestic arts, too, which might minister to the comfort or comparative luxury of a rude life (for one who studies the progress of society must observe in the statutes of the churches a union of provision for magnificent religious solemnities with the antique simplicity of life and manners in the actors in the pageant), the management of the dairy, the rearing of domestic animals, the erection of dovecots, the enclosure and preservation of rabbit-warrens, and numerous other branches of domestic economy and “outfield” wealth, undoubtedly owed to the Scottish clergy of those remote times their highest improvement, if not their original introduction.

They were, besides, the greatest mercantile adventurers in the country, employing ships which were their own property, and freighting them with their wool and hides, their cured fish and skins, to Bordeaux, Flanders, and other parts of the Continent. For these goods they received in return the silks, spices, and other rarities of the East, along with the richest productions of the Flemish and Italian looms. What has just been said applies chiefly to the wealthier bodies; but in a humbler sphere the mendicant friars likewise contributed their part to the progress of civilisation in Scotland, and deserve to be mentioned. Mostly of low extraction, those orators who boldly delivered their passionate sermons before crowded assemblies, not only in the churches, but in public places, at the corners of the streets, in the open air, and in the fields, had also pursued their studies abroad, chiefly in France, and must have got into the habit of imitating certain preachers on the Continent, who liked to give a relish to their Latin sermons by inserting into them words and sentences in the vernacular.

The most celebrated of those forerunners of the Reformation, Olivier Maillard and Michel Menot, are well known to us, especially since Mons. Antony M6ray has rescued them from oblivion, along with the Alsatian Franciscan Johann Poli, Geiler of Kaisersberg, Cesarius of Heisterbach, Jean Cleree, and Guillaume Pepin; but who remembers those who in Scotland paved the way for Calvin and Knox? Either the fanaticism of the Reformation times has made us lose the very remembrance of those mighty trumpets whose sound had overturned the walls of the ancient Church, or, if the sermons of these forgotten preachers had been collected, the fruits of their eloquence must have been destroyed amid the turmoil that convulsed Scotland during that troublous period.

The fact is, that nothing whatever remains of those Scottish preachers of the Roman Catholic Church, except that we may trace back to them the custom of preaching in the open air. We can therefore only surmise that the friars of North Britain did not act otherwise than their French or Flemish brethren, in whose company a great many of them had pursued their studies ; and that, on their return to Scotland, they had brought over a large number of words and phrases, which, in preference to English terms, were introduced into a language as poor as those by whom it was spoken.

In concluding this picture of ecclesiastical industry and improvement, with its lights and shadows, it must not be forgotten that within the walls of the same religious houses was preserved that small portion of knowledge and literature which was then to be found in Scotland; and that in the cell of the monk, the feeble and wavering spark of science was saved at least from utter extinction. “Ptholome, Averois, Aristotal, Galien, Ypocrites, or Cicero, quhilk var expert practicians in mathematic art,”  — their names at least — were known to Scottish clergymen; but their works did not leave the shelves of the monastic libraries, on which they were very seldom displaced, while the French romances, that lay by them, very often found their way to the feudal mansions, and sowed there many words and idioms which were afterwards transplanted into the national language.

We will only mention a single instance, which is supplied by an archdeacon of Aberdeen. From many passages in his great poem, Barbour appears to have been, like Dunbar after him, well read in the romances of the day, as well as in classical literature. The fidelity of the wife and of the sister of Bruce, as well as that of the wives of his companions, is illustrated by a parallel instance of female heroism taken from the Romance of Thebes:

Men redys when Thebes wes tane,
And King Arista’s men wer slane
That assailyt the citd,
That the women of his cuntrd
Come for to fetch hym hame agane
Quhen thai hard all hys folk wes slayne.

On another occasion, alluded to in the life of Bruce, when the king, by an exertion of great personal strength and courage, escapes from the attack of John of Lorn, this Celtic chief, with much propriety, alludes to an adventure which befell Golmak Morn, or Gaul the son of Morni, a hero of Irish story; but Barbour, judging from the name, a poet of Norman blood and nursed in the lap of romantic fiction, observes it would have been *’ mar manerlyk,” or more appropriate, to have compared him to Gaudifer de Laryss:

Quhen that the mychty Duk Betys Assailyeit in Gadyrs the forrayours, And quhen the king thaim maid recours, Duk Betyss tuk on hym the flycht That wald ne mair abide to fycht; Bot gud Gaudiffer the worthy Abandonyt hym so worthily For hys reskew, all the fleirs And for to stonay the chassers, That Alexander to erth he bar. And alswa did he Tholimar And gud Coneus alswa, Dankline alswa, & othir ma; Bot at the last thar slayne he wis. In that failyeit the liklynes.

A little further on we are presented with the romantic picture of the king reading to his faithful friends, as they sat on the banks of Loch Lomond, the romance of the worthy Fer- ambrace with the brave Oliver and Duke Peris, who were besieged by the Soldan Lawyne, or Laban, in the renowned city of Egrimor or Agramore, on the river Flagot :

Throw the rycht doughty 0lywer, And how the Duk Peris wer Assegit intill Egrymor, Quhar King Lawyne lay them befor, With ma thousands then I can say: And bot elewyn within war thai And a woman — that war sa stad That thai na mete thair within had, Bot as thai fra thair fayis wan. Yet sa contenyt thai thaim than That thai the tower held manlily, Till that Rychard of Normandy. Mare hys fayis warnyt the king, That wis joyful off this tything: For he wen’d thai had all bene slayne, Tharfor he turnyt in hy agayne, And wan Mantrybill, & passit Flagot, And syne Lawyne and alle his flote Dispitously discumfyt he, And delevyrit hys men al free.

This romance of Fierabras, which derives an additional interest from its having been a favourite book with Bruce, must have been, from the similarity of the names, the Norman French original of the same story, which has been epitomised by Ellis in his Specimens of the Early English Metrical Romances. Sir James Douglas, and probably many of the barons who followed the king, had been educated in France, and were well acquainted with the French romances of the time; of which Fierabras, from the variety of its incident, and the humorous descriptions in which it abounds, was one of the most popular. In later times, the institution of the Scottish body-guard and the settlement of some of its members in France, in which they planted new branches of their families, and from which they kept up a correspondence with their relatives in Scotland; and the successive emigrations of Roman Catholics faithful both to their religious convictions and political principles, combined with other minor circumstances, fully detailed in a book of ours, Les Ecossais en France, les Frangais en Ecosse,’ must have been the means of maintaining a close and constant inter- course between the two countries, and thus of adding a certain amount of French idioms to the stock already in existence in North Britain, and of giving refinement to a country whose civilisation required improvement, even at the beginning of last century.

Our conclusion therefore is, that French literature, being thus spread in Britain as well as in the rest of Europe, was a natural channel for the introduction and diffusion of French words into the Scottish language. The northern and the Gaelic elements in the Scottish language will be dealt with in an Appendix. It is proper to state at the outset that we treat not merely of the popular element in Scottish derived from French, but of the literary and what may be called the technical element in the language. There is no doubt but that Dunbar and other sixteenth -century poets affected a Frenchified style, and that many of the words used by them never became folk-words. This affectation of what was of France, however, only goes to strengthen our position—the influence France exercised over the civilisation of Scotland.

The same remark must be made regarding many, if not the greater part, of the terms used in law, medicine, building, hunting, etc. Not only the learned professions, but also those engaged in the different callings common to the country, seem to have borrowed, under the influence of France, the technical terms of their professions and callings. It may be safely stated that not a few of the words discussed were at one time words of the people, but that they have fallen into disuse by the substitution of others, or from a change of the circum- stances that called them into use. Some of the words have lost their primary meaning, but still linger as folk -words with a figurative sense. Thus runcy is still applied in Banffshire, and, it may be, in other districts, to a woman of coarse manners and doubtful character. Morthead is another word to the point.