Mind your language

The hijacking of the Scots language

5 September 2020

9:00 AM

5 September 2020

9:00 AM

A teenager in North Carolina has been revealed as the creator of a fifth or even a half of the 60,000 entries in the Scots Wikipedia. This online resource is like Wikipedia in English, except that it is in the Scottish tongue — not Gaelic, but the Lowland Scots dialect of English, a Germanic language.

Robert Burns was familiar with it, but unfortunately the energetic Wikipedia compiler was not. Even his American English seems shaky. He has been at it since the age of 12.

‘The Roman Catholic Kirk is the lairgest Christian denomination in aw the warld,’ begins one entry. ‘Ane oot o ilka sax humans belangs this kirk. It is lead bi the Pape an it haes ower ae billion follaers.’


Some now ask how this could have gone on for years without anybody much noticing. An obvious answer is that those familiar with Scots who wanted to know what the Catholic Church was would look it up in the English Wikipedia.

But plenty of people feel sore, because Scots, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, is ‘frequently also viewed as a distinct language’. It explains: ‘Scots developed from the early northern Middle English that supplanted a Brittonic language in the south of Scotland, and had by the Stuart era spread throughout the nation.’

It has been used as a spoken and a literary language. Gavin Douglas’s Eneados, a translation of the Aeneid, completed by 1513, begins: ‘The batalis and the man I wil discrive.’

But by the time Burns used it as a vehicle, it represented a rustic, ‘Doric’ dialect outside the Establishment. Only in 1947 was an idea taken up to call Scots ‘Lallans’, a term used by Burns. This was promoted by Douglas Young, for a time, from prison, the SNP leader. Oddly, Young ended up a professor of classics in North Carolina. If he hadn’t died 18 years before Wikipedia began, its Lallans version might be more convincing.

We shouldn’t laugh. The second most successful Wikipedia is in Cebuano, a language of the Philippines. More than 99 per cent of its entries were created by bots — automated translation programs. Cebuano readers might tell me if it is any good.

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