THE Scots language was created by the collective voices of countless Scots coming together to share words, phrases and jokes; to understand, react to (and often laugh at) the world around them. For a sizeable minority in our country, it is still how we speak to each other, how we express our feelings, our humour, even our Scottishness. Language bonds us emotionally to our communities, the places we live and our history.

The potential of Scots to both challenge and unite led to its suppression. From the 18th century on, ­Scotland’s increasingly Anglophone middle classes systematically erased the language from official life and particularly education. Countless school bairns were shamed or physically beaten for using the ­language of their families. Even if they avoided humiliation, young speakers were denied literacy in their own tongue so Scots could all the more easily be derided as “dialect”, “bad English” or “slang”. Eventually internalising the message, some speakers began to despise their speech so much that they banned Scots “slang” from their own homes.

Paradoxically, the history of Scots is also a tale of ­defiance and a deep linguistic loyalty that has ­endured for almost three centuries of harsh ­stigmatisation. In an unprecedented display of ­Scottish cultural ­autonomy, a million and a half people declared that they still spoke at least some Scots at the 2011 ­Census. Of course, the critics carped, most of us now speak our Scots in a fluid blend with Scottish ­English. But mixing is hardly a flaw, rather a pragmatic survival response to a hostile linguistic environment.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had the good fortune to grow up in the then strongly Scots-speaking areas of East Lothian, Fife and Perthshire. All the wee bairns around me spoke Scots as did most of the adults. I learned Scots informally alongside school English, usually mixing them, as was the habit in those parts. To me, Scots was more than just a way of speaking; it was a survival skill.

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Many of us ­mastered the ability to fine-tune the density of our Scots and Scottish English mix on the fly; more Scots or more English depending on the situation and who we ­wanted to impress, our teachers or our pals. I still love this unique shape-shifting, more-or-less ­continuum between Scots and Scottish English, but it explains why Scots, despite all its literature, ­dictionaries and grammars can be mistaken, ­especially by ­non-speakers, as the dialect it never was.

One of our Burntisland primary teachers back then called us “bilinguals”. She knew we used one language in the classroom and another in the ­playground. I liked that idea, who doesn’t want to be bilingual? Half a century later, cognitive ­researchers identified a “bilingual bonus” for children lucky to be brought up speaking two language varieties. ­Although most of Scottish education still disdainfully ignores the ­pedagogical gift of Scots, thankfully this unique ­language skill is still very much in evidence across the country.

Listen to informal blether in many rural and ­urban working-class parts of Lowland Scotland and you will hear that Scots words and expressions, in all their rich dialect variety, still play an important role in how people interact. Enough Scots vocabulary and phrases remain in everyday Scottish vernacular to give those venerable words their old power to ­connect and sometimes confront.

Poets and ­performers have appropriated these rebellious traits for their own ends, often with striking results, but the language does not belong to them. Scots is a living community tongue, with as much right to be treated as a full minority language as Gaelic, Irish or Welsh.

The National: Scottish kids still grow up speaking Scots - even if they don't realise itScottish kids still grow up speaking Scots - even if they don't realise it (Image: Getty Images)

If this all sounds unrealistic, remember more than 20 years ago, the UK Government signed a binding international agreement called the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) The right to use local minority language in private and public life was publicly ­declared “inalienable”, as was the need for “resolute action” to safeguard threatened tongues.

Great things were expected at the time. At last Scots, along with its dialect Ulster Scots, had been recognised officially as a minority language, alongside Gaelic, Irish and Welsh. Since that false dawn, though, Scots has been treated as second class, the language never receiving ­anything like the respect and favour of the others.

THE Charter symbolised the worldwide move towards accepting and celebrating linguistic diversity. In Scotland, public recognition for Gaelic has been transformed since then, and rightly so. The broad consensus among politicians and the public now is that Gaelic should be protected as a national language. So why is that generosity of spirit so rarely extended to Scotland’s other unique tongue?

It is not due to lack of public ­backing. Numerous attitude surveys, including the latest consultation report for the ­Scottish Government’s proposed ­Scottish ­Languages Bill, have shown a general keenness to revitalise Scots.

The various administrations since ­devolution have largely failed to even recognise this interest, let alone try to address the continuing prejudice against Scots and its speakers. Unionist parties tend to reject even modest Scots-positive policies, still presumably fearing what they see as a potent symbol of ­autonomous Scottish identity. The enthusiasm of the SNP, once natural champions of Scots, waned after the census results were ­published a decade ago, perhaps considering the ­economic and political costs.

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A common justification is the lack of community engagement, especially in contrast with the vociferous Gaelic lobby. However, marginalised language groups require help to build linguistic confidence and then get their voices heard. This was once true of Gaelic, too, but long-term public funding has enabled the establishment of a cadre of middle-class champions able to articulate their case.

Gaelic also benefits from ­reusing a ­template for minority language ­revitalisation derived from earlier Welsh and Irish initiatives. Politicians know (roughly) what to do with Gaelic, but Scots is far more challenging. There is just no off-the-peg formula to guide ­recovery forward.

Unfortunately, we have lost the ­opportunity since devolution to develop a rational and informed public discussion. We still lack a shared narrative about the nature of the language and what we should do with it. Cloudy, competing and contradictory notions about Scots block progress.

The Scottish Languages Bill, while hopefully a welcome attempt to remedy a longstanding injustice may still face ­resistance from an unprepared public, a potentially hostile media and a toxic ­social media fringe.

One point of contention is that ­vernacular continuum. Scots as it is ­spoken nowadays does not ­follow ­traditional notions of a “normal” ­language bound by purity and ­regularity. This has real consequences for its status and use in education and government.

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Perhaps dodging the issue, Scottish Government policies sometimes refer to Scots as a minority language, but far more frequently it has been framed as a hazily defined cultural asset probably to be preserved in its current shabby state rather than revitalised as a “normal” ­minority language.

One step towards normality might be to identify the Scots language components of the Scottish Lowland vernacular mix. In my book Unlocking Scots, I suggest we can unbundle three distinct varieties of Scottish speech.

The first is The Scots Language itself, ie several closely related spoken dialects underpinned by a prestigious literary tradition with its surprisingly ­consistent, pan-dialect writing conventions. You might still hear such Braid or dictionary Scots spoken at fairly full strength, and literary Scots often aspires to such purity.

The second variety is the one I am using now; Scottish Standard English (SSE). SSE is uniquely Scottish in itself, but it is written as Standard English, ­maybe enriched by few “acceptable” (ie: Braid Scots) Scotticisms.

When voiced, SSE is pronounced with an unmistakable “Scottish accent”, often with undertones of the speaker’s local Scots dialect.

It is the third variety, though, that is especially significant and requires more explanation.

This is Scottish (vernacular) language, the range of spoken mixtures forming a continuum between the two poles, broad dialectal Scots at one end, and SSE at the other. Surprisingly, no common name exists to describe this everyday dynamic mix.

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We’ve long lacked a useful name like “Spanglish” (the combination of Spanish and English), and the absence of “Scotlish” or some such label has caused endless confusion. Is this vernacular mix “Scots” or “English”?

It is neither, just as the highly variable hybrid Spanglish is considered distinct from its two parent languages. Why does this matter?

By distinguishing between ­Scottish (vernacular) language and Scots, the real “languageness” of Scots as a ­distinctive component in the spoken Scottish ­language mix can be ­acknowledged ­without denying the fluidity and ­diversity of the spoken blend. Thus “the Scots ­language” remains recognisable as a ­cohesive linguistic system that can be developed, even if right now as a spoken form it is only used intermittently in its entirety.

When the “Scots language question” discussion turns, as it certainly will, to the thorny issue of the standardisation of Scots, the significance of this framework becomes clear.

Responses to the Scottish ­Languages Bill consultation so far show that some kind of standard orthography for the Scots language is now ­considered ­essential to raise its status and enable its official use. However, hackles are ­understandably raised when people ­assume ­standardisation might apply to vernacular and dialectical Scottish speech. This is not the case.

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Unlike Standard English, the Scots ­version would not apply to both the ­spoken language. The formal variety could be spoken, in educational and ­official ­contexts for example, but not ­offered as any aspirational speech ­“ideal”. Put ­simply, Standard Scots would not and could not replace local dialects, but simply provide a useful additional ­mainly ­written form. Scottish ­(vernacular) ­language would thus be left alone in all its joyous diversity.

By thinking pragmatically and with a reasonable amount of (good)will and effort, the Scots language could be ­re-established, standardised and ­stabilised. However, revitalisation can never be only a “top-down” process. ­Despite the urgent need for decent ­centrally funded regeneration policies, Scots still belongs to its speakers. Just as the language was created by millions of Scottish voices, it needs millions more to make sure it continues to thrive.

So, what can we, as individuals, do about it with the limited time and talents we all have available?

The power to safeguard the Scots ­language lies within each of us. ­Cultivating linguistic loyalty, finding and engaging with fellow enthusiasts, embracing the richness of literary Scots alongside our beloved local dialects. All these will boost revitalisation, but by far the most important action we can take is simply using Scots as much as we can as part of our daily speech and writing.

By displaying and passing on our ­enthusiasm to bairns, we will also ­begin to reduce the demeaning ­discrimination against all Scots speakers. We can ­become personal stewards of our ­linguistic ­heritage, ensuring our unique Scots tongue will continue to flourish as a vibrant, living community language for generations to come.

Unlocking Scots is now available directly from Luath Press, Edinburgh ( and all good bookshops.