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Ayrshire Language



THE natural language of a district, which the natives gather up - almost make - while learning to speak in that early period of life when humility, simplicity, joy, and love rule the being, abounds with these fine qualities. And youths of all grades in the social scale amass it with avidity - some of them against the will of their clerical parents and tutors; yet, as soon as they have fully acquired it, fear of being regarded as of no higher birth and education than the people in general causes many of them to labour in vain for the rest of their lifetime to get rid of it. Talking of this the other day to an old lady, she said her Ayrshire tongue had been the sorrow of her life. Her parents were farmers, and she was bred an Ayrshire lass, milking cows and making cheese with her mother. But, with a few months of a boarding school  and assistance from Walkerís dictionary, she got a clerical gentleman for a man. The pair sorted very well until they got a baby, when, all of a sudden, her heart began to bound and swell with motherís love, or something indescribable; the artificial voice and tongue deserted her, and her own soft, guttural voice and vocables of Ayrshire came back to her with all their vulgar simplicity. Her husband was alarmed, raised high his voice, stern, trumping-hard, making a contrast quite absurd, left the house, and in two days returned with an English nurse, with whom alone he loved to talk. 

It is a prerogative of literary language to command the admiration of scholars, and a misfortune of oral dialects - and those who use them - to be disrespected and evaded by the learned. With the increase of education now going on, there must be a corresponding increase of disrespect for unwritten language, and in a short time the use of it must be greatly diminished. The language of Ayrshire is not an unwritten dialect; it is a literary language, and, as such, has the love of students, who are at this moment learning it with energy and pride in all parts of the world. On account of the valuable literature which it contains, especially the literature of Burns, we feel assured that it will continue to be acquired and John Knox. Though it has been in use by the people all that time, it has not altered the pronunciation of the older literary and oral language peculiar to Scotland and perfected by Burns, because it has all along - until recently - been pronounced the same, according to the old Scotch alphabet. That common literary language was established, in its present form, near the beginning of the fifteenth century, by the printing of the Kingís Bible - the Bible translated into the " Britain tongue " by command of James VI. of Scotland and I. of England. The "Britain tongue," now called the English language, was then constructed by a scholarly selection from the united dialects of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and was dignified - in the scholarís view - with many words drawn from the classical languages of Greece and Rome. For the sake of British union, just then accomplished, as well as for the sake of truth, an effort was made by the Scotch or Kingís party to style this united literary language of Scotland and England the Britain tongue; but the effort failed of success, the obvious reason for its failure being that the English party were more numerous than the Scotch. For every Scotch person there are about six English, and therefore about six chances to one that the united " Britain tongue" will always be called English, though, indeed, it is, and ever has been, more Scotch than English. That it is Scotch rather than English is clearly demonstrated by its orthography being in harmony with the pronunciation of the Scotch dialects and quite out of harmony with the pronunciation of the English dialects. How it came to be so can only be surmised. Did the English tongue, for want of reading everywhere, immediately drift into disagreement with it ? or did the Scotch tongue, by constant reading everywhere, immediately come to agree with it? or is it, possible that the translators of the Bible, overawed by the dignity of their great literary Scotch King for whom they were working, showed too much deference to his taste by spelling more in harmony with the pronunciation of the Scotch dialects than simple justice to the pronunciation of the English dialects would have allowed? This, however, is certain, that either their spelling, in disregard of the pronunciation of the English dialects, or English speaking, in disregard of their spelling, or the work of one John Walker, authorizing a perpetual continuance of the disagreement, has produced an incalculable mischief. It had always been the opinion of scholars, and the opinion was endorsed by the great lexicographer and talker, Dr. Johnson, that those who pronounced the nearest to the spelling were the best speakers. But, after three centuries of trying to speak according to the spelling, John Walker came forth and explained to the United Kingdom that those who pronounced in accordance with the spelling, as the Scotch did, were provincial and vulgar, because his own pronuciation was not in accordance with the spelling; and his was right, he said, because he lived in London. He marked the whole of the words in a dictionary, showing where and how much his own pronunciation fell short of the spelling, and kindly informed the people of Scotland that, to "attain a just pronunciation of English," they must no longer pronounce the words spelt hot, pot, as hot, pot, but as hat, pat, for that was his way of disregarding the spelling; and, for the same reason, he said they must abandon their practice of sounding the words spelt hat, pat, as hat, pat, and must sound them het, pet, as he did; and that their pronouncing of the words spelt het, pet, as het, pet, was equally an unjust pronunciation of English, for he sounded them as hate, pate. In short, he expounded clearly that a just pronunciatian of English did not mean a just pronunciation of the literary language called English, but meant a just pronunciation of his own unwritten  English dialect. As a guide to the unwritten English tongue, Walkerís work has been largely used by the Scotch; but the English people have made no further use of it than as a grant relieving them from the labour of conforming their speech to spelling. The millions of England have hitherto been little schooled, and unable to conform their speech to any spelling at all. It is the everlasting sounding, sounding of their unlettered but sweet living tongues that is known to the world as current English, or the English accent, and not that of the few English scholars, nor of Walker, nor of any system of spelling. Current English in spelling is about the same in all parts, and ever has been since it was founded by the spelling of the Kingís Bible. Though English speech has never been governed by it, still, in many places, it coincides with it in most respects better than Walker does; and, were the great seducers, Walker and the anomalous English alphabet, abolished, and the old, classical Scotch alphabet reinstated, it is highly probable that, with the commanding system of national education now in force, the English people would, in a short time, acquire the long-confirmed Scotch habit of pronunciation by spelling. It is clearly practicable: the Scotch people never experienced much difficulty in pronouncing the same language in accordance with the spelling. Their perfect success was in some measure due to the Scotch alphabet, which appears to have been the one used by the translators of the Kingís Bible. It is similar to the alphabets of other European languages. The English one differs from them all in having four of its five vowels wrong named. It continued in use in Scotland until the fantastical English one was introduced with Walkerís dictionary, which inaugurated the Walker style of pronunciation now taught - with shortcomings and very mixed success - in all the schools. It was still in use in Ayrshire at the beginning of the present century. People we have known, who were schooled in different schools from 1805 to 1815, at that time knew of no other. We got it from them, and find it useful as a key to the pronunciation of old Scotch literature. Those who went to school towards the middle of the century got the English one. It was the Scotch alphabet, therefore, that was in use in the time of Burns. The national language, called English, and the language of Burns were both pronounced according to it. They were the same language in pronunciation. They differed widely in so far that the language of Burns contained a large number of words which the other did not contain, and a large number of words differently spelt, because differently pronounced to bring out different meanings. Words spelt the same in each were pronounced the same in each by the same alphabet. Now, what we seriously apprehend is that the pronunciation of the English or Walker dialect and alphabet, now being sedulously applied by the people of Scotland to the common literary language, will come to be applied by them also to the literary language of Burns.  If that is done - and it looks as if it will be done in a few generations-- Scotland will be without her great Burns forever. She will still have Rabit Bains, wentin, wouvin Wabin, the pouet, end pouetwe uv thet sawt, A menís a men faw wa thet, end Auld lengsawen. But will she then be Scotland ? In our progress through Ayrshire we have met with a few of what might be called painfully genteel natives treating Burns in this fashion, as if they were helpless Eenglishmin bawn trying to read a foreign language they had never heard. But this is not the character of the Ayrshire people. They speak the language of Burns, their own natural tongue, and use no other in the native home circle, where it is to them the only language of true-hearted friendship, love, mirth, wit, and wisdom. English they have, but they use it only for communicating with strangers, and in addressing mixed assemblies where there may be those present who would not fully appreciate the local language. 

With the language of Burns so fully in use as it is, the people in general have not the slightest thought about the works of Burns getting impaired by contamination with the English tongue taught in schools. Those who do think of it know that, in the preparation of youths for important positions as lawyers, physicians, members of Parliament, and what not, in the great world beyond Scotland - and even in Scotland - it is a necessity that they be carefully taught the prevailing English style of pronouncing the common literary language, not that it is so classical or scholarly as the old Scotch method which agreed with the spelling, but because it is that of a far more numerous people, who have talked it into the current familiar usage in all parts of the world. Therefore they have their children taught the best English possible in the district. No parents in Ayrshire like to hear their children speak in a different tongue from theirs and Burns's. At the same time, when a son is addressing a public meeting, the mother can hear his fine English dialect, knowing it to be required for the occasion, without getting exasperated, and, in some cases, even with pride and pleasure. Yet, a few minutes after, when he has returned to the bosom of the family, his tongue must be as it was before, for there, as in almost every family circle in the county, an English style is heartily scouted. It is so with all classes. The more highly educated, who are skilled in language and literature, make a regular practice of speaking the English of England and the pure Scotch of Ayrshire alternately, as the occasion demands; and, to those who do not know Scotch conversationally, the transition is about as great as from English to French. Instead of one language that cannot possibly do justice to both fashionable English and Burns, they have two clear languages, both well practised and beautifully spoken. The plan is admirable. To give children or advanced students a discriminative taste for the two distinct styles, they should be taught the Scotch alphabet and made commit to memory poems and songs of Burns in the real Ayrshire style. It would give them a key to the whole ancient language for lifetime. It should be done in the schools, and a day in the week, called the Scotch day, could be devoted mainly to Scotch reading and song singing. The scholars, as well as their parents and teachers, would enjoy it thoroughly. It was Ayrshire, by her Wallace and Bruce, who preserved the independence of Scotch nationality; it was Ayrshire, by the heroism of her martyrs, who preserved the independence of Scotch religion; it was Ayrshire who gave to Scotland her Burns; and it is for Ayrshire now to organize for herself and Scotland a system of teaching the young to preserve the language of Burns from ill usage and destruction. 

The mother tongue of Ayrshire has some bold characistic features of voice and pronunciation that do not appear very distinctly in the spelling of the poet. In this island we find three distinct classes of voice - the nasal, which is English; the guttural, which is Scotch; and the dental, which occupies a narrow irregular strip the whole west coast of Scotland and England, from Cape Wrath to Landís End. The guttural voice is chiefly confined to the thickly populated part of Scotland extending from Ayr to Montrose, though it is also heard in Aberdeenshire. But along the Moray Firth, and more especially in Sutherland, Caithness, and the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the voice is nasal and the language spoken is real English, having no resemblance to Lowland Scotch, On the banks of the Forth the voice is guttural, though not nearly so much so as it is in Clydesdale, and becomes gradually more nasal past Edinburgh to the Border. At Old Cumnock the voice is less guttural than , Kilmarnock, but still much more so than it is at New Cumnock, which is on the River Nith, and therefore on what might be termed the English side of the watershed. Previous to a large influx of miners to that district from the banks of the Irvine, Garnock, and Clyde, within the last 25 years, the voice was comparatively English, and certain vowels were very often sounded according to what called the Nithsdale twang, or Nithsdale tone, which has in it a good deal of the Cumberland twang or tongue. Passing south of the Doon at Alloway, the gutturul voice disappears and the dental voice is heard through the whole district of Carrick. Though there has been no Gaelic spoken in Carrick since the twelfth century, the tongue has still a strong resemblance to that of Arran and Cantyre, where a little Gaelic is still in use. North from Ayr, the voice does not become very guttural until reaching Kilmarnock and Irvine; and from there to Greenock and Glasgow, and up the Clyde to the town of Lanark, it is excessively guttural. In Glasgow, it is mere throaty on the south than the north side of the river. 

The effects on articulate speech of these different classes of voice are considerable. From the lips to the throat is a graduated scale of sounds, represented by the letters p, b, t, d, k, g (guttural), and h (guttural) - which we ought to call he. H is the lowest sound that has a representative letter, but there are two sounds below it, completing the vocal scale - the grunt and the cough. The cough is too low to combine with a vowel in articulate speech, but the grunt combines with the vowels like the other consonants. It ought to have a representative letter, and to be understood in writing; we now give it one, and write it q, surmounted by a dash. It is pretty generally distributed over Scotland, in the interjections qa, aq, and is frequently subjoined as a diminutive to the negative no, making noq, or nuq, which is nearly equivalent to I am not inclined, I would rather not. But the great use of the letter grunt peculiar to the extremely guttural district is as a substitute for the letters p, b, t, d, k, which, being produced farther down the throat, are less easy of enunciation by the guttural voice. Example :-How are ye geqiní on now ?  No muqle beqer siní lasí Saqurday. Come inqo this puqlic house aní taqí a qram.   Noq, I am stoqet drinqin altogeqer now, man.  Whenever I hinq abouq iq qa just taq a smoqe qan a drinq oí waqer.


Source "The Language of the Land of Burns" - Notes on the Way Through Ayrshire the land of Burns, Wallace, Henry the Minstral, and Covenant Martyres  - by George McMichael.






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