Scotland voted against independence last week, an event which got me thinking about how I, as an American, distinguish the UK’s component parts. For me, when I envision Scotland (or Wales, or England), I think of its unique language. Not Scots or Gaelic, exactly, but “language” in a broader sense. It’s a set of dialects (and in some cases, languages proper) that, to this outsider, most form a mental conception of Englishness, Welshness or Scottishness. Of course there’s way more to it than that, but pretty much the first thing that comes to mind when I hear “Scottish” is a voice.
Although I’m a language nut, I doubt I’m alone in this. And language isn’t irrelevant to questions of separatism. The UK’s national borders often correspond to linguistic lines. Although Welsh English is diverse, for instance, it noticeably contrasts (in the South) with nearby West Country English. Northern Ireland has a different accent than the accents to the South (although obviously areas in the Republic, such as Donegal, feature a more Northern dialect):
The lines dividing dialects there don’t correspond perfectly (especially in the tri-accented County Monaghan), but the border dividing Ulster English from Hiberno-English otherwise cuts pretty closely to a real political boundary. I don’t bring up Ireland here to suggest that it’s exceptional in this regard. It’s merely one of many examples of geopolitical lines corresponding to linguistic ones.
In all these cases, does dialect strengthen a sense of division? Or does division strengthen dialect? I think 20th-Century advances in sociolinguistics lends credence to both possibilities.
Here in the States, though, the opposite is largely the case. Regional dialects rarely seem to confine themselves to any kind of boundaries. I thought about this recently while watching “How the States Got Their Shapes” on The History Channel. The episode in particular surveyed secessionist proposals among the states such as California’s Jefferson movement and occasional agitation to separate Northern Maine from its Southern counterpart.
These movements often run along dialect lines. Northern Maine, for instance, tends to have a different accent than the coast. The former strikes one as more rhotic than the latter when one compares, for instance, the accent of South Maine Senator Olympia Snow to that of North Maine Senator Susan Collins (and Snow’s accent isn’t even that strong):
And that’s just one such example. North Florida is by and large more “Southern,” dialect-wise, than South Florida. The South Midland accent of Southern Illinois definitely contrasts with the canonical Great Lakes English of the state’s north. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has an accent distinct from the rest of the state. And so on and so forth.
Have these dialect differences increased the desire for separation? Certainly there are far more complex economic factors at play, often relating to rural/urban divides. But language is an important way that people express membership, and the pride that comes with a particular accent or dialect can certainly increase one’s belonging to a group.
On the other hand, different dialects may simply be a manifestation of economic isolation. The fact that Southern Illinois has a bit of a twang where Chicago is typically “Northern” might be symptomatic of two areas with little economic interaction, rather than being a rallying point for statehood.
Would linguistic divisions within American states strengthen were a secession to take place? Would the same happen in Scotland, for that matter? We know that dialects (and languages, obviously) can begin and end abruptly at political borders: note the Detroit/Windsor divide. To what degree does creating or erasing borders strengthen or weaken these divisions?