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October 26, 2003


In a recent post Razib raised the puzzle that minority languages (such as Latvian) often survive despite political and economic domination by other ethnic groups.

Here I want to consider the opposite case, where one language is replaced by another without any political and economic domination to explain the change.

So... why do the Scots speak English?

The puzzle is that the majority of the population of Scotland (i.e. the inhabitants of the Lowlands) spoke English already by the end of the 15th century. This is long before the political union of England and Scotland (early C18), or the personal union of the Crowns under King James (early C17). And until the C18 there wasn’t even a great deal of trade between the two countries.

Scotland was never conquered by England, there was no mass migration of English-speaking people into Scotland, and even after the Union the English did not interfere with Scottish law, education, and religion.

So how did a mainly Gaelic-speaking population come to speak a form of English?

By ‘a form of English’, I mean the traditional language of the Scottish Lowlands, which evolved from the northern dialects of Old English (Anglo-Saxon). In the earliest accounts (C12- C13) the Scots described this Lowlands language as Inglis, to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic, but, significantly, by the end of the C15 it is known as Scottis, to distinguish it from English as spoken in England. Other terms for the language are Scots, Old Scots, Broad Scots, Lowland Scots, and Lallans.

From the C17 onwards educated Scottish speech and writing became Anglicised. Modern Scottish Standard English is essentially the same as the Standard English of England, except for accent. There is no great mystery about this process of Anglicisation. The other main languages of Western Europe (French, German, Italian, Spanish) have all become standardised on the basis of their most prestigious dialect (e.g. Tuscan in Italy), and dialects like Provencal and Plattdeutsch have declined. This process has accelerated since the C19, when public education and mass media favoured the use of a uniform national language.

What is more puzzling is the spread of Inglis way back in the middle ages. I have read (or browsed!) quite a few books on Scottish history, but most of them are curiously brief and vague in their treatment of this major event (see e.g. the large New Penguin History of Scotland).

The broad chronology of the process is reasonably clear. In the early middle ages (C6 to C11) there were five main language groups in Scotland. In the east (north of the Forth) the original language was Pictish, a notoriously little-understood language that was probably P-Celtic. In the south-west (e.g. Galloway) the language was originally British (P-Celtic, as in neighbouring Cumbria). In the south-east (Lothian), the language was a form of Old English, and the region was itself part of the Northumbrian kingdom (later earldom) of Bernicia until it was ceded to Scotland in the early C11. In the west (north of the Clyde) the language was Gaelic (Q-Celtic) closely related to Irish Gaelic, as the dominant ethnic group, the Scots, came from Ireland. From the C8 onwards the coastal fringes and islands were heavily settled by Vikings, and in some areas Norse became the main language (in Shetland down to the C17).

Apart from the intrusion of the Vikings, the main development in this period was the spread of Gaelic at the expense of Pictish and British. This followed the union of the Pictish and Scottish monarchies, with the Scots as the dominant partners. The timing of the process is unclear, but it is generally supposed that the Pictish and British languages were both extinct by the end of the C11, and that Gaelic was then spoken throughout the Lowlands, except for Lothian, where the Northumbrian form of Old English still prevailed.

But almost as soon as it reached its peak, Gaelic began to give way to Inglis. The process was already well-advanced by the end of the C13. By the end of the C14 the use of Gaelic was considered old-fashioned, and a distinction had emerged between the English-speaking Lowlands and the ‘backward’ Gaelic Highlands.

The problem is to explain this rapid transition. Most books on Scottish history pass over this major event in virtual silence. The only substantial discussion I have found is an essay by D. D. Murison: ‘Linguistic relationships in medieval Scotland’, in The Scottish Tradition (ed. G. W. S. Barrow, 1974). To summarise Murison’s account, following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the Scottish monarchy intermarried with the exiled Anglo-Saxon monarchy. The political centre of gravity of the Scottish state shifted away from the Gaelic areas towards the eastern Lowlands, where Old English was the dominant language. Edinburgh, in English-speaking Lothian, eventually replaced Perth as the capital city. Old English (evolving into Middle English) became the main working language of politics and administration. In the C12 and C13 (before the wars with England over the Scottish crown) the monarchy actively encouraged Anglo-Norman influences. Anglo-Norman barons were granted fiefdoms over much of the Lowlands. Chartered towns (burghs) were set up along the lines of English boroughs. Anglo-Norman influence was also strong in the church. Although some of the barons and prelates would have been French speakers, many of their followers were English, and a form of English became (ironically) the ‘lingua franca’ throughout the Lowlands. By the C15 the use of Gaelic was considered uncouth and old-fashioned, and Inglis (now significantly called Scottis) was recognised as the national language of Scotland.

While in broad outline this process seems well-established, many of the details remain obscure. Notably, it is unclear how much actual migration took place from England to Scotland. There was evidently no mass migration, in the sense of a volkswanderung, but cumulatively the numbers may have been substantial. G. W. S. Barrow’s book The Anglo-Norman Era in Scottish History (1980) shows that people from many parts of England settled in Scotland throughout the C12-13, and he concludes ‘I would argue strongly for the probability that Anglo-Norman settlement greatly reinforced the Middle English elements in Scots speech and culture, and had a decisive effect upon the texture of Scottish society as a whole’.

But I think these accounts may omit another significant factor. The areas of Scotland that switched from Gaelic to English were principally the areas that had previously spoken Pictish or British, and had only adopted Gaelic comparatively recently (within the period of ‘folk memory’) under the dominance of the (Irish) Scots. The adoption of Gaelic culture in these areas may have been relatively superficial and perhaps unpopular. The Lowlanders presumably remembered that they had, in effect, been conquered by the Highlanders. It may be significant that while in the C15 Inglis becomes Scottis, Gaelic becomes known as Irish or Erse. In rejecting Gaelic language, were the Lowlanders also rejecting the political and cultural domination of the Irish Scots?

Well, I don’t know, but I hope to provoke any lurking experts on Scottish language and history to respond.

As for the ‘Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled...’, it’s worth recalling that ‘Wallace’ is a Scottish English name for a Welshman (i.e. probably someone of Galloway or Cumbrian British origin). Could it get more confusing?

Posted by David B at 10:35 AM

another question: did charles martel speak german or latin?

Posted by: razib at October 26, 2003 12:05 PM

"following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the Scottish monarchy intermarried with the exiled Anglo-Saxon monarchy"

I remember reading a book on this subject that argued the opposite: that the kings of Scotland welcomed Norman (not Saxon) adventurers from England as immigrants because they brought with them technological and military skills which the Scots of the time didn't possess: crossbows and siege engines, superior stonemasonry and armour, mastery of heavy cavalry

Naturally, many native Scottish nobles disliked this policy, and eventually rebelled against their king. He, with the aid of his new Norman subjects, suppressed the dissidents and awarded their lands to the newcomers.

The result of this was a Celtic-Norman aristocracy that was the military equal of that of England, which enabled the Scots (unlike the Welsh and Irish) to resist English expansion over the succeeding centuries.

If by the time that this happened (about 100 years after the Conquest), the Normans were speaking English as their primary language, it would account to a great degree for the early establishment of English in Scotland.

Posted by: PovertyBeckons at October 26, 2003 02:08 PM

Charlemagne was bilingual (but illiterate) in frankish (germanic) and early french. Frankish was already losing centrality, though.

Incidentally, the name for the 1200 AD dialect which eventually became "French" is "francien". It is distinguished from frankish and from various other important dialects such as picard or norman French.

Posted by: Zizka at October 26, 2003 05:44 PM

yeah, i know about charlemagne-but i read a whole monograph on charles "the hammer" martel-and it never specified whether he was bilingual or only mastered german. (the hammer's family came from the more germanized areas).

Posted by: razib at October 26, 2003 05:52 PM

Out of curiosity, what monograph on Charles Martel did you read?

Posted by: anon at October 26, 2003 06:08 PM

the age of charles martel.

Posted by: razib at October 26, 2003 07:25 PM

Perhaps some Franks began to adopt Francien soon after conquering Gaul (see below). Like you, I've never come across a reference to what languages Charles Martel himself spoke. Might Gregory of Tours shed any light on the subject?

From http://www.alsintl.com/languages/french1.htm:

"The invasion of Gaul in the 400s AD by Germanic tribes (including the so-called Franks) fleeing nomadic attackers from central Asia resulted in a loss of military control by Rome and led to the establishment in of a new, Frankish ruling class whose mother tongue was, of course, not Latin. Their adaptation to the speaking of popular Latin by the indigenous population tended to impose, by authoritative example, a pronunciation that retained a marked Germanic flavor notably in the vowel sounds that can still be heard in the French of the present day (the modern French u and eu, for instance, remain very close to the modern German and sounds unknown to any other modern language descended from Latin)."

Posted by: anon at October 26, 2003 08:19 PM

the book notes that "germanic" fashions came into vogue during the rise of the early pepinids among notables southern gaul-traditionally the most "roman" area of frankish rule (the period of the late merovingians was characterized by battles for power between various powerful families, some with bases in latinate areas, some in german, like the pepinids, originally from german speaking areas).

Posted by: razib at October 26, 2003 09:15 PM

Gregory of Tours wrote before 600 AD. Clovis (d 511?) was already Christian. My guess is that C. Martel (d. 744) was bilingual like his grandson Charlemagne.

Posted by: Zizka at October 26, 2003 09:16 PM

my general question was this: we get the impression that charles the great was more of a "frenchmen" than a frank (that's my impression). the origin of the pepinids is among the franks on the east side of the Rhine-the non-latin influenced ones. so, was charles martel more a german noble or a french one, or in between? the book above notes that the early to mid pepinid period was characterized by a decline in the influence of western frankish notables-did that mean a decline in the influence of latin culture?

Posted by: razib at October 26, 2003 09:19 PM

Northern Italy's lombard dialects carry the and the sounds: i do not think they to be of Longobard influence (they are present in Lombardy and Piedmont)but they should derive from the Gauls who settled in Italy in the third and second century, or by already existing celtic populations (e.g. the Camunians who created prehistorical engravings were Celts).
All the northern Italian towns in the Po walley have a gallic pre-roman name, with few exceptions.
Mine for example is Brixia, a gallic divinity.
Bric meant mount, if you take away the wovels you see he similarity to berg.
And Bergamo comes from the mountain god Bergimus ..

So I think the French gauls could have had such sounds themselves far before the Franks came.

Posted by: brawn at October 27, 2003 12:27 AM

"my general question was this: we get the impression that charles the great was more of a "frenchmen" than a frank (that's my impression). the origin"

We're forgetting the enormous prestige of the Roman Empire, even as it collapsed

These illiterate German chieftans were desperate to be seen as the heirs of Rome, not as its destroyers. So we can expect that they would have deliberately favored latin/gallic cultural forms over those of their ancestors

Intermarriage with old noble Roman families was also an objective: very soon these "Franks" were calling themselves "Romans" and claiming descent from Alexander, Caesar and Augustus...

Posted by: PovertyBeckons at October 27, 2003 07:04 AM

FWIW, I recently read (don't have the source handy) that in none of the barbarian invasions of W Europe were the invaders ever more than 5% of the population, the sole and drastic exception being of course the Angle/Saxon/Jute invasion of England. I note that the use of French was declining rapidly among the upper classes in England 150 years after the Norman Conquest, and the French component of the population reached 20% by the end of William I's reign. Assuming similar cultural and linguistic processes, it would surprise me if the Hammer, living over 200 years after a conquest in which there were far fewer conquerors, spoke German at all.

Posted by: Jay Manifold at October 27, 2003 09:03 AM

Frankish was still a living language in Charlemagne's time. However, it left no written records. My guess would be that it was spoken by low-ranking professional military in partially-segregated units, ignorant country squires, etc. They were "elite" only in not being peasants. My guess, again, is that political leaders knew some Frankish in order to deal with the military.

I'm working on the idea that the frankish-military / romance-commoner / latin-priesthood three way split continued throughout European history, and that when the (still-military) aristocracy became educated in the early modern age it represented, among other things, the rise of the military/secular principle above the old priestly principle. Most of the early modern writers (Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes) had a lot to say about military strategy and discipline (and many were veterans), and political absolutism seens to have been preceded by Maurice of Nassau's military rationalization (later on, Gustavus Adolphus).

The secular, military aristocracy in medieval Christianity was really borderline Christian. The idea was that they would continue to sin but be forgiven because they gave support to the churchmen who were the only real Christians.

The word gentil/gentle/gentile means either "noble" or "heathen" (but NOT "gentle" in our sense). Don Quixote: "morir como gentil, y no christiano": "to die as a heathen, and not a Christian" -- i.e. to die unconfessed.

In Shapin's "Social History of Truth" early science is shown to have grounded itself on aristocratic codes of truth-telling which are ultimately military in origin -- "my word is my bond", etc.

Posted by: Zizka at October 27, 2003 10:20 AM

I'm reminded of Frederick the Great's statement that he spoke "French to my ambassadors, English to my accountant, Italian to my mistress, Latin to my God and German to my horse"

Posted by: PovertyBeckons at October 27, 2003 10:38 AM

i.e. in 18th C. Germany, -

French was the language of government and diplomacy,

English of trade and commerce,

Italian of art, music and literature,

Latin of the church,

While German was the language of the peasantry and soldiery

Posted by: PovertyBeckons at October 27, 2003 10:46 AM

Going back to Scotland for a moment, another useful source on the English/Scots/Gaelic question is R.R. Davies' "The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343" . His answer to the question also involves English emigration to Scotland during that period, but he stresses the agricultural-technology side of the issue rather than the military. The English had mastered a more productive set of agricultural technologies by that time, and Scottish kings and nobles were happy to encourage its diffusion through emigration. It's also useful to see the issue in the context of the similar emigration of English agriculturalists into Wales and Ireland in the same period, which Davies covers.

This doesn't invalidate the military technology argument; I would imagine they are complementary. Medieval military technology required a lot of agricultural productivity to support it, after all.

Finally, it's hard to talk about the triumph of modern English over old Scots without mentioning the role of the Reformation and the Church of Scotland's decision to adopt a standard English Bible rather than commissioning a Scots translation. I suspect that was perhaps the deciding factor in the end.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 27, 2003 12:05 PM

Jeeze, when I logged on and saw there were about 20 comments I thought I had succeeded in REALLY winding up the Scots. But then I find most of the comments are about the frigging Franks!

But Jim, thanks for the reference to Davies - I will look it up some time.

Agreed, the Reformation helped consolidate the use of Old Scots, but according to what I have read, OLd Scots was already virtually universal in the Lowlands before the Reformation. Gaelic stayed dominant in the Highlands until at least the C18.

I suspect that Scottish historians feel a certain embarrassment about the subject. Scottish national identity has been constructed, ever since the 14th century, largely in terms of opposition to England, so it may be difficult to face the possibility that immigration from England was a major factor in building the 'nation'.

Posted by: David B at October 27, 2003 12:35 PM

"it may be difficult to face the possibility that immigration from England was a major factor in building the 'nation'."

I haven't read Davies, so I'm treading on thin ice here, but I think it unlikely that any Scottish government would have encouraged large-scale English immigration into Scotland - even of refugees or skilled farmers

The Normans seem a likelier vector for the introduction of English to Scotland, since they were few in number, skilled fighters, and hated by the northern English - a combination that would have made them welcome in Scotland

A Scottish/Norman alliance with English as "lingua franca" would have been very likely in these circumstances

Posted by: PovertyBeckons at October 27, 2003 01:49 PM

I'm not denying the role of the Normans, but I think PovertyBeckons may be reading back the Anglo-Scottish hostility of the 14th and 15th centuries into the C12 and C13 (which is the crucial period for the linguistic shift). Barrow's book shows that there was a lot of piecemeal migration from England to Scotland in these two centuries, and they weren't all Norman barons by any means.

Posted by: David B at October 28, 2003 03:23 AM

David B, thanks for the info - I've ordered the Davis book

Posted by: PovertyBeckons at October 28, 2003 10:12 AM