“A Significant Part of an Insignificant Identity”: the Re-Articulation of North-East Scots between Tradition and Globalization

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Abstract


In Britain the conflict between the national standard and regional languages and varieties, or rather those perceived to be ‘only’ a dialect, is still going strong and Scots plays a peculiar role in it. It is recognised and afforded a certain level of protection and promotion under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML). While related to English, Scots has a number of regional varieties and it stands in competition with other varieties of English within Scotland. North-East Scots (NE Scots), also known as ‘the Doric’, in particular occupies a rather special place within the sphere of Scots. While research has often focused on the perceived status of urban versus rural Scots, this paper examines the attitudes towards NE Scots with regard to identity construction as displayed by its speakers in rural areas and small towns in the North-East. Another focal point is the use of the regional variety as a perceived act of resistance against the ostensible dominance of English. Within the mind of its speakers what kind of identity do they feel they have - a largely local/regional, a national Scottish, a British one or something entirely different? The analysis of interview data highlights that respondents’ statements and their actual linguistic behaviour reinforce the affirmation of their regional identity; the extent to which this occurs will also be investigated.


1. INTRODUCTION Very few people, if any, would question that language is an important aspect of their identity or at least enables them to construct theirs, alongside other salient markers, such as nationality, politics and culture, to name but a few. In recent years Scotland has created prominent headlines not only in the British press but also in other parts of Europe and further afield, with regard to the 2014 referendum and the potential of her becoming an independent state at the time. Scotland has a very developed idea about the importance of language(s) in relation to her identity construction. A historical nation, independent until early modern times, it can be regarded as a bilingual, if not trilingual space: Scots Gaelic is often perceived to be the heritage language of Scotland as an entity when it is nowadays actually confined to a rather small peripheral area along the West coast and a number of pockets in the urban centres; English, or more accurately, Scottish English, is employed throughout the nation and Scots, a Germanic language, closely related to English, holds a somewhat contentious position. The question whether Scots should be regarded as a language or a dialect is still debated, especially in the public sphere and the answer has always largely depended on the political opinion and linguistic knowledge of the discussants. It is this latter language and one of its regional varieties, North-East Scots (NE Scots), which will be the focal point of the following discussion. The data analysed was collected in semi-structured interviews with sixteen participants, male and female, between the ages of 20 and 75 in the small coastal town of Peterhead, some thirty miles north of Aberdeen[30]. 2. BRIEF HISTORICAL SKETCH In order to contextualise the peculiarities of the linguistic situation in Scotland it is necessary to highlight a few of the salient events in the nation’s history and some of those of regional significance for the North-East specifically. The idea of Scotland, the political construct or image, has been in existence for over a millennium. The rule of Kenneth MacAlpin in the mid-9th century amalgamated two major groups present in Scotland at the time, the Scots, originally from Ireland, and the Picts. In the Pictish heartland in the North-East we see the tribal kingdoms absorbed under a new Scottish rule with the incoming Celtic language assuming the most powerful position. Although comparatively little is known about the linguistic situation at the time, the indigenous language (or languages) appears to have been abandoned in favour of the more prestigious one (Allan 2001: 359; Smyth 1984: 46ff.). While Scotland was firmly established besides its more powerful neighbour, England, during the Middle Ages, we see a medieval society with Anglo-Norman traditions coming into practice in the North-East of Scotland and other parts of Scotland, gradually diminishing the Celtic-influenced sphere. The connection to continental Europe is also reinforced through trade links with the Baltic and the Low Countries and trade as well as dynastic relations to France, the latter connection commonly referred to as the ‘Auld Alliance’. In the North-East the boundary between the Germanic/Anglo-Norman and Celtic cultures becomes very significant as the dividing line between these populations (and languages) is cemented for the time coming. The event which effectively spells the end of Gaelic high culture in the area is the so-called Harrying of Buchan in 1307-1308, in which Robert the Bruce took revenge against the local Comyn family during the Wars of Independence, subsequently establishing a ruling family loyal to him. Consequently, the North-East is shaped more and more by the non-Celtic cultures present there (Mitchison 1990: 46). Early Modern times see the power balance in the British Isles shift. Step by step Scotland loses its independence, one of the first major shifts being the Union of Crowns in 1603. With the Union of Parliaments which spelled the end of the Scottish Parliament in 1707, the loss of political independence is essentially complete. This incorporation into not only a larger, but politically one of the most influential countries in the world at the time also meant a loss of status of the Scottish nation and cultural concepts, including the languages, associated with it. While Scotland might have lost political influence, its economic power was less affected, especially in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Ship building on the Clyde, the fishing industry along the coast and much later technology-driven industries, including the IT and service sector, have all contributed to a certain degree of prosperity. The fishing industry is particularly noteworthy in the North-East; Peterhead and Fraserburgh have been, and to some extent still are, the largest white fish ports in Europe. While the region might have been difficult to access via road, trade by sea has always been a mainstay and led to frequent contact with the Low Countries and Scandinavia since the Middle Ages. Another factor which led to a very outward-facing approach and a continued influx of incomers from other parts of the UK as well as abroad was the discovery of North Sea oil and gas in the late 1960s and early 1970s which has propelled Aberdeen and the region into the economic limelight[31]. Geographically the region can indeed be considered peripheral, its outlook however is decidedly continental and outward-facing[32]. 3. A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE SOCIOLINGUISTIC BACKGROUND FOR SCOTS AND NE SCOTS One of the crucial issues within this discussion centres on the question whether Scotland is considered to be a trilingual country. From a sociolinguistic perspective this discussion has often been a linch-pin regarding Scottish identity. The two main languages of the nation are perceived to be English and Gaelic. The third language, Scots, has often been regarded as a lesser partner: “Though Scots people have for centuries written of Scots, spoken and written, as ‘the Scots language’ as if it had an identity of its own, they never appear to do so in the same breath as Gaelic, to which it is harder to deny the identity and status of a language” (Aitken 1981: 72). Aitken goes on to discuss that the distinctly different perceptions of the variety by its speakers are often that of a non-standard variety of Standard English as opposed to that of a language (Aitken 1981: 76-77). Scots therefore has, depending on the context, different labels attached, such as dialect or “bad English”, and these often designate specific interest groups. One thing is certain: it is of Germanic origin, historically closely related to English but it has undergone a different development. Kloss, for example, classifies it as a Halbsprache [semi- or half language] in his earlier work and subsequently as an Ausbau dialect in accordance with the label Ausbau language (Kloss 1978: 57; 256-263)[33]. Scots and its various regional varieties are well documented (e.g. Jones 1997; Macafee 1983; McClure 2002; McClure et al. 2003; Millar 2007 to name a few) and it falls, roughly speaking, into the areas of Insular Scots, Northern Scots, Mid-Scots and Southern Scots (CSD, map 1, p. xxxi; Millar 2007: 1-5). The variety also has an extra-territorial variant in the form of Ulster Scots, found in Northern Ireland. In addition, there are large diasporic communities throughout the English-speaking world, e.g. Canada and New Zealand, but the Scots abroad do not necessarily speak Scots. These communities are largely of Gaelic origin with the emigration patterns relating back to the Highland Clearances and similarly socially disruptive events in Scottish history. The popular and largely stigmatising perceptions attached to Scots mentioned above, often augmented by various economic sectors, such as the tourism industry, have promoted the Gàidhealtachd as the epitome of Scotland and its Celtic heritage. The Scots-speaking areas, geographically larger and with a greater number of speakers of the respective language, are often perceived to be part of this culture as well, seemingly being denied their own distinct heritage or at least having a less visible one. In linguistic circles, Scots has always received and continues to receive positive attention; in the public sphere the picture is almost diametrically opposed but this is beginning to change. One of the most apparent manifestations of that linguistic imbalance has been the exclusion of Scots from the census until recently. It took more than a decade of research, campaigning and awareness raising (cf. Máté 1996; Murdoch 1995; ‘Aye Can’ campaign) until a question about language usage was included in the 2011 census[34]. The results show that there are roughly 1.5 million Scots speakers (30.1% of the population in Scotland) and about 1.9 million people who can read, write or speak Scots, a number significantly higher than the roughly 58,000 speakers of Gaelic (1.1% of the population in Scotland). The highest numbers of Scots speakers are found in the eastern half of the country, particularly in the regions of Aberdeenshire, Moray and Shetland (Scotland Census 2013; Scots Language Centre, n.d.). With regard to support and protection for minority languages, it should be noted that Britain ratified the European Charter for Minority Languages in 2001 but since then comparatively little actual support for Scots has been forthcoming (Millar 2006). Within the education system, Scots has a place on the curriculum; however, it is not uncommon that it has to make space for other topics or is still confined to events stereotypically associated with Scots, such as Burns Night and the recitation of poetry. Since the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence which was conceived as an idea in 2002 and implemented from 2011 Scots has a firm place in education; to what extent the initiative has been successful has yet to be seen. 4. WHAT IS NORTH-EAST SCOTS? LINGUISTIC VERSUS POPULAR CLASSIFICATIONS From the linguistic perspective, NE Scots is a regional variety of Scots, similar to Insular, Mid or Southern Scots (cf. CSD, p. xxxi, Map 1). Also commonly referred to as “the Doric” the use of this label is generally observed among the population in the region but also occurs in (earlier) publications of both the literary and the academic kind. The variety has been well researched in comparison to others, ranging from investigations about children’s use and competence (Hendry 1997, Middleton 2001) to teachers’ attitudes (Imamura 2004), attitudes towards and proficiency in NE Scots in Aberdeen (Iancuaniello 1992/1993, McGarrity 1998) and rural areas (Löw-Wiebach 2005) as well as research into language change of particular features (McRae 2006, Marshall 2003). The variety displays internal variation which is described and discussed in detail in Millar 2007. As is often the case when asking non-linguists about their perceptions of varieties, their estimations and categorisations can at times differ greatly from those of the research community. While there is still a comparatively fierce status debate surrounding Scots (cf. Schmitt 2009: 69-79 for a summary of the different standpoints), there can be little doubt that NE Scots is a regional variety of Scots. (A) 1 AD: well, I’ve put down that a lot a people think it, that a lot a people 2 think it’s a language which ah think it is, Doric is a language cause 3 you do get the buiks an everythin bit then ah don see it, ah jist see it as 4 the wey ye spik really 5 JS: [ ] dialect cause we were nivver taught it in school. ah think we 6 wasnae taught it in school 7 AD: ah think the older generation were mibbe taught it in school, ah 8 don’t know, bit ah think they mibbe were. 9 JS: yeah. 10 AD: mibbe it would’ve been a language back then 11 JS: bit now - no 12 AD: ye still get yer buiks an everythin in Doric 13 JS: oh, yeah, ye get a lot yer buiks 14 AD: an newspapers, there’s always a guy writes in everyday, is it no 15 that Robbie Shepherd in the P an J, no[35]? Respondent AD illustrates the divergent interpretations of linguistic terms as can be displayed by non-linguists: in her eyes a decline in usage renders a language into a dialect; therefore, a hierarchy exists which features a (perceived) language at the top, one step below a dialect as an eroded or corrupted variety and below that, perhaps, an accent. According to this classification by two of the youngest female respondents (age group 20-29) NE Scots used to occupy the upper stratum and over time has moved down the scale to it being a dialect. There is one proviso and that is the existence of books and other print material which - in the respondents’ eyes - seem to put the variety into a middle ground and thus provide it with more status. The general non-linguistic opinion here is that a variety needs to be written in order to be accepted as a language. Vernaculars and non-standard varieties have a tendency to be depicted as lacking in correctness, power and prestige due to their not having undergone a standardisation process and not having any, or only limited, printed sources. Additionally, the perception among non-linguists is that the existence of literature, in the widest possible definition, is essential to make a variety into a language. Kloss (1978: 40-55) emphasises similar points in his discussion about criteria for Ausbau languages. It is also noteworthy that NE Scots is referred to as a language initially although it is not clarified whether she regards it as separate from Scots in general. Where there is printed material available, it is easier for the layperson to accept the prestige of a variety (cf. Ong 1982: 5); at the same time, the presence of such resources can have a positive effect on education. Respondents AD and JS, both in their twenties, have experienced little vernacular teaching, if any at all, beyond the token efforts in the form of poetry recitation for Burns Night and similar symbolic events of national relevance (cf. section 3 above). Revised curricula and the availability of teaching materials developed in recent years, such as The Elphinstone Kist and books published by Itchy Coo, have brought Scots into the classroom in a fresh form[36]. The respondents’ belief that the educational status quo in their grandparents’ day would have been increased use of NE Scots, mainly by learning and reciting poetry, is indeed correct. Unlike nowadays, most teachers would have been local as well, hence the general assumption that older generations had more exposure to Scots through the medium of education than the younger speakers themselves received is correct on both levels. The official recognition of the variety within the school environment and the lack of exposure to it experienced by these respondents, in contrast to the generation of their grandparents, also confirm Millar’s (2006) observations. In the light of such developments it is clear that longitudinal research is needed to inform any kind of evaluation with regard to the use of Scots in education and potential benefits of this for the prestige of the language, particularly with the introduction of the Scots language element through the Curriculum of Excellence. 5. DIFFERENT COMMUNITIES WITHIN THE REGION 5.1. “The cod and the corn dinna mix” As pointed out above, language signifies attachment to the community or a similar in-group. The following respondent (male, age group 50-59) not only very accurately pinpoints the geographical area associated with NE Scots (cf. Millar 2007: 2-4) but also highlights a social division within the group of speakers: (B) 1 SR: as far as the fishin goes, right from Burghead, it’s up in Moray 2 Firth, just not tae far from Inverness, south tae .. Arbroath and then it’s 3 slightly different as ah go down tae the Firth o Forth, []-inster 4 [Anstruther], Pi’enween [Pittenweem], Sint Minans [St Monans]. 5 but we all unerstan each ither wi slightly different variations o different 6 wurds but we all unerstan each ither. 7 inland, the farmin community is ... pretty broad bit as ye go intae 8 cer’ain parts up Deeside, Ballater, Aboyne, Braemar, there’s mainly 9 because there’s more incomers tae the area they’re nae usin the Doric 10 the same wey as we are. whin ye’re goin places like Tarland, Fishie, 11 fishers fae Rothienorman, ay places, they really are broad[37]. Unlike the respondents in excerpt A, SR’s linguistic judgement is quite precise considering his non-linguistic background. The distinction between the coastal and the inland varieties also reinforces the traditional separation of the farming and fishing communities within these areas in the North-East. This separation is popularly expressed in the proverb ‘the corn and the cod dinna mix’; McClure (2002: 3) also refers to this as “a tradition of mutual antipathy”, where contact, through intermarriage for example, is very rare. With this in mind, it can clearly be seen that we have an overlap in the North-East where three distinct communities partially intersect: the geographically defined (the North-East with a variety of smaller regions within), the professionally defined (fishermen versus farmers) and a combination of the two (inland farming communities versus coastal fishing communities). Due to the shift away from traditional industries, such as agriculture and fishing, one would expect to see the professionally-orientated community, and with it its linguistic ties, weakening; however, based on the interview data collected, it has not taken place to extent that might be expected. Theoretically, speakers of NE Scots of such professional communities should be able to claim at least two identities, the geographical and the professionally-defined one. As Giles and Johnson (1987: 72) highlight, in ethnolinguistic identity theory traditionally the more groups a speaker feels affiliated to the weaker the ties to each social group will be. In the case of NE Scots and the associated ethnolinguistic identity the social identities relevant to the speakers have common denominators; it is possible to see yourself as a speaker of NE Scots in general as well as indicating your professional and localised identity, as highlighted in the excerpt above: the fishing community utilises the variety as a professionally-defined group marker in addition to their linguistic display of regional allegiance. 5.2. A North-East character? Farmer versus fisherman, toonser versus teuchter Unsurprisingly, it is not only the two traditional professional groups who are distinctly at odds with each other; the same goes for the split between the urban and the rural population, locally knowns as “toonsers” and “teuchters” respectively, who regard each other with some reservation. (C) 1 PBR: mibbe ... this strong ... work ethic, ah think it’s different from ither 2 parts o Scotland. it’s when you say, it’s a very religious area, ah think, 3 there’s a lot a different denominations. ah think it’s mainly due tae .. 4 because of a, rural areas’ reasons. ye work closer tae nature, it’s 5 workin wi gey kind a queer folk [laughs]. 6 Interviewer: so you think the land and the jobs have influenced 7 PBR: yeah, ah think so, especially the work. there’s a strong sense o 8 community as well though it has gradually watered doon as more 9 people income tae the area. not foreigners but fae ither parts o the UK. 10 Interviewer: and do they blend in well? 11 PBR: ... no, ah think they tend tae stick more tae themselves. ah think, 12 you can also say maybe we’re a bit clannish as well, we tend to stick to 13 our ain kind. ah mean, all my friends is fishing or fishin-rela’ed, so it’s 14 .. Peterhead as a community, the community ah grew up in is [ ] 15 everybody knew everybody and it wis, everybody hid somebody who 16 wis out goin to sea, in the fishin. and it is a good, a good area tae be 17 brought up in, ye were always well looked after. PBR, who is a member of the fishing community (male, age group 70+), describes an introverted and self-reliant population having emerged in the North-East, which, by his own admission, can appear closed to outsiders (C11-13). Work in the traditional industries, as well as the later established oil industry, has forged a strong work and also religious ethic. These are further aspects contributing to this social identity which is portrayed as having impermeable, closed in-group boundaries. Such group coherence, or “clannishness” (C12), impacts on the variety and aids in the formation of a specialised in-group language which is not only specific to a profession as respondent SR points out (B12-16) but also to the region. In this fashion, the speakers separate themselves from others by language in connection with character (“introvert”; Loester 2009: 197), profession (farming and fishing) and region, thus establishing comparatively impermeable group boundaries, thus providing them with a well-founded ethnolinguistic identity. Such a layering and nesting of the different identity aspects, including secure group boundaries, enables the community to remain introvert and isolated, and thus more homogenous. This homogeneity adds to the sense of security and of being “always well looked after”, as respondent PBR highlights in C17. Such a scenario indicates that the variety’s vitality is high, based on the group coherence and the relative isolation of the area, which is reflected in the geographical position and the comparative lack of transport infrastructure until recently. These factors have led to Aberdeenshire, Moray and Orkney recording the highest returns in relation to the number of Scots speakers: 48.8%, 45.3% and 40.7% respectively (average across Scotland: 30.1%; National Records of Scotland 2016). The perception of rural varieties, such as NE Scots, is that of being among the most “uncorrupted” and “pure” varieties of dialects; as such it is linked to the continuation of traditional industries, the rural character of the area and the relative geographical isolation. A self-perpetuating, idealised system of social and linguistic exclusivity emerges through these perceptions and behavioural patterns. As highlighted in section 2, the region has suffered from relative isolation due to its remoteness and there has been less contact with the more densely populated parts of Scotland than one might expect; these factors have also reinforced the bonds within the local communities and instilled the idea of self-reliance as highlighted in excerpt C. In addition to the professionally-determined split between different communities within the region, there are other dichotomies present. (D) 1 AD: everyone’s got their own little personality. 2 JS: ay, bit ah don think you change, mibbe the wey you think is 3 different, depends on fit area of the country ye come fae, ken. 4 Interviewer: how do you, what do you mean by “the way you think”? 5 JS: well, jist the wey that, ye ken, like we’re very much country, ken, 6 rural orientated, ah think here 7 AD: ay 8 JS: and the wey we see things is very different fae, ken, [ ] the wey 9 town people see things an that, ken. 10 Interviewer: right. 11 JS: different ideas aboot things an that. no, ah don think so, jist oor 12 accents probably. cause we’re quite broad an we do stand out. ken, if 13 you hear it on the TV and things like that 14 AD: it’s horrid! 15 JS: it’s awful. it’s awful. NE Scots has strong connections with rural areas and the associated way of life (cf. Iancuaniello 1992/1993), often incurring negative stereotyping, as both respondents AD and JS point out, especially if contrasted with urban life. Marshall (2003) in his study about Huntly, a small inland town in Aberdeenshire, observes similar phenomena with regard to the spread of the glottal stop which is a feature closely associated with urban varieties. He shows that adolescents in Huntly adopt the feature while the youngest and older age groups either only display it infrequently or not at all in their speech. By adopting an unusual trait the adolescent speakers try to dissociate themselves from the North-East community and its stereotypical image. Similar to the two respondents above it appears that NE Scots can both unite and create a divide, depending on the age and also potentially the professional group; an association with the traditional industries and the older age groups estimate NE Scots higher as community value than the younger generation and those working in non-traditional professions. Throughout the interview both respondents can be observed to switch between more standard and more distinctly rural variants, e.g. the switch between ‘you’ and ‘ye’ (D2-3) or the Standard Scottish pronunciation when discussing the media (D13-15). There is also the implication that this form of rural speech is unsuitable for the modern world. In 2006 the first series of the BBC programme Trawlermen, following the working lives of a number of fishing crews from the North-East, aired and attracted a lot attention when the dialogues, largely in NE Scots, were subtitled. A short but heated debate erupted about the appropriateness of such action, focussing on whether it was acceptable to portray the variety and its speakers as hard to understand. The decision to subtitle might have been made with the best intentions, including ensuring comprehensibility over background noise from ship engines and the natural environment; however, it raised calls from readers for subtitling other programmes, such as Eastenders, set in London’s East End, which make use of non-standard urban varieties (Patterson 2006; BBC News 2006). The interview results indicate that the rural variety overall carries more prestige than the urban variety of NE Scots associated with Aberdeen. The perceived rural variety is not equated with a lack of education or similar labels which are generally encountered in such situations and the variety does not carry a social stigma with regard to its geographical location among most respondents. Equally, the majority of respondents in other studies (cf. section 3) also attest the rural varieties of Scots a higher status, with labels such as “pure” and “genuine” or uncorrupted, while their urban counterparts are largely stigmatised as “coarse”, “rude” and “uneducated”. Objections to the local variety, especially when used in the media, are only raised by the young female respondents. Given the sociolinguistic premise that women attribute more overt status to the standard than men it is not entirely surprising that the women appear to be the harshest critics of the variety. As highlighted in section 2, the region historically has been isolated but is outward-facing; respondent IB (male, 30-39) states, that in his opinion, the locals regard NE Scots as a “significant part of an insignificant identity”. This statement takes account of the fact that the North-East might only be one region within Scotland or indeed Great Britain and thus insignificant; however, the variety spoken there constitutes an important identity marker for its speakers. 6. CONCLUSION As the interview excerpts show, the variety of Scots spoken in the North-East is held in high regard by the majority of speakers and is highlighted as a seminal identity marker for both the regional variety and by implication also their national, Scottish identity. The overlapping of regional and professional identity in the cases of those involved in the traditional industries only reinforces the ties to the regional variety but also aligns them with others, especially in the case of the fishing community, within Scotland. To some extent, this layering puts the speakers of NE Scots at odds with a general national Scottish identity; having a separate label, the Doric, for their variety also reinforces this idea of separateness. Within the region we can observe a split between the fishing and the farming community on the one hand and the rural population in general and the urban population on the other. Unsurprisingly, the rural variety of NE Scots stands in higher esteem, both among the rural and the urban population; an equally predictable result is that the younger speakers are less positively inclined towards the variety than the older speakers and those in the traditional industries. A lot has been achieved for the recognition of Scots in the public sphere since the devolution process and the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999; the results from the 2011 census itself and research conducted which paved the way for including it in the census (Macafee 2001, Máté 1996, Murdoch 1995) have provided a clearer picture of the number of Scots speakers and implicitly also more information about the attitudes held towards Scots. The education sector has also helped to improve the image of Scots with teaching materials in the language and a safe space for it on the curriculum; however, in everyday life these resources have not always been utilised for a number of reasons. Undoubtedly, this paints a slightly gloomy picture when it comes to the role of NE Scots, and by implication of Scots in general, for the future; however, as long as the speakers of the language and its regional varieties value it as “a significant part” of their identity, the future should not be as bleak as it might look at first glance. © Barbara Loester, 2017

Barbara Loester

University of Winchester

Author for correspondence.
Email: barbara.loester@winchester.ac.uk
Sparkford Road, Winchester, SO22 4NR, United Kingdom

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