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?