Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Speak Up! It's Oor Tongue!

I have just read an interesting article about Falkirk author and playwright Alan Bissett (Death of a Ladies' Man, Boyracers, The Incredible Adam Spark) and it got me thinking again about the importance of keeping Scots dialect alive. In the article Bissett talks about his visits to secondary schools where he meets young people who are surprised to find that writing can be 'relevant and fresh, not all about standing up and reading poems about mountains'. Is this not crucial if we are to encourage our young people to become creative and interested in literature? My memory of working in Craigmillar was that the majority of children were 'turned off' by reading - but looking back there were very few book that they could relate to - few characters who led a similar life to them and none who spoke in a language they understood. I have a brilliant book called "Identities: An Anthology of West of Scotland Poetry, Prose and Drama" which I've had for many years and which I have used often as a teaching tool during my years as a Community Educator. There is a wealth of material in this book which might appeal to anyone interested in Scots dialect in writing. I came across a lovely piece, written by William McIlvanney which revolves around a young working class boy and his experience of school (and a rather hideous teacher):
"What's wrong with your face, Docherty?"
"Skint ma nose, sur"
Ah fell an' bumped ma heid in the sheuch, sur"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Ah fell an' bumped ma heid in the sheuch, sur"
The blow is instant. His ears seem to enlarge, is muffled in numbness. But it's only the dread of tears that hurts.
"That, Docherty, is impertinence. You will translate, please, into the mother-tongue"
"I bumped my head, sir"
"Where? Where did you bump it?"
"In the gutter, sir"
"Not an inappropriate setting for you, if I may say so"
Later the class are asked to "translate" Scots words into English - lum (chimney), wabbit (tired), speugh (sparrow):
"One side of the paper was filled. He didn't start on the other side because he now wanted to write things that he couldn't find any English for - (breeks - troosers). When his mother was busy, she had said she was "saund-papered tae a whuppet" If his father had to give him a row but wasn't really angry, he said "Ah'll skelp yer bum wi' a tealeaf tae yer nose bluids"
He despaired of English. Suddenly with the desperation of a man trying to amputate his own infected arm, he savagely scored out all the English equivalents"
The children I worked with during my years as a nursery nurse and then as a community educator spoke broad Scots dialect in their community but were expected to drop that at the front step of the school and pick up a completely different code. It struck me when reading "Docherty" how incredibly difficult that must have been for them and how in some respects they were bi-lingual. I'll finish with a short excerpt from From Scenes Like These by Gordon Williams :
"Why teach kids that Burns was the great national poet and then tell you his old Scots words were dead common? What sounds better? - 'gie your face a dicht wi a clootie' or 'give your face a wipe with a cloth?' One was Scottish and natural and the other was a lot of toffee-nosed English"
The point that both these writers try to make is that there is something dangerous, or desperately wrong, about a system which forces children to unlearn or to give up the language they naturally talk. There is something highly refreshing about authors like Alan Bissett who write in their 'mother-tongue' and in doing so reach an entire generation who might otherwise never choose to pick up a book. Perhaps as writers and educators we need to focus more on the diversity of language that reflects the actual lives and experiences of young people and to challenge our own assumptions about the 'correct' way of speaking.

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