Scotland, Borders, Secession and Language

Scotland’s vote against independence prompted me to consider how I, as an American, distinguish the UK’s component parts. When I envision Scotland (or Wales, or England), I think of a unique language. Not Scots or Gaelic, necessarily, 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. 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 largely correspond to linguistic dividers. 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):

Wikimedia/Asarlaí CC-BY-SA-3.0 (mod. from the Irish English Resource Center)

The lines dividing dialects there don’t correspond perfectly (especially in the apparently tri-accented County Monaghan), but the border dividing Ulster English from Hiberno-English otherwise cuts pretty closely to a real political boundary. Ireland is but one example of a geopolitical schism corresponding to a linguistic one.

In all these cases, does dialect strengthen a sense of division? Or does division strengthen dialect? 

Here in the States, the opposite is largely the case, with dialects rarely confining themselves to city or state lines. 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” and occasional agitation to separate Northern Maine from its Southern counterpart.

These movements often run along dialectal boundaries. 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. One could cite nearly endless examples.

Have these dialect differences increased the desire for separation? Certainly there are far more complex economic factors at play, often relating to rural/urban tensions. 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?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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19 Responses to Scotland, Borders, Secession and Language

  1. Ed says:

    My mum asked me today what distinguishes a Kurd from a Turk.

    I didn’t really know, but I was tempted to respond, “What distinguishes an English person from a Scot?”

    I think that accent/dialect is a key distinction. It has often been mentioned recently that Scots are on average more left-wing than English people, but there is plenty of variation within both countries on the political spectrum.

    I have wondered, back in the days when Gaelic was spoken across the Highlands, whether the Highlanders considered the English speakers in the Lowlands to be Scots or not.

    • Susan Michaud says:

      My grandmother was “Scotch/Irish”. I’ve been told that is impossible, that
      all Scottish are Irish and that there is no such thing as “Scotch/Irish”.
      Is this true?

      • @Susan,

        Martin is correct. “Scots-Irish” usually refers to North American descendants of immigrants from Ulster who came to the what is now the US in the 18th-Century. Although many of these settlers were indeed of Scottish descent, they also included people with origins elsewhere in the British Isles (particularly Northern England).

      • Ed says:

        When she says that all Scottish are Irish, what she probably means is that there was a mass movement of Celts from Ireland to Scotland, but that’s going back centuries and centuries. If you’re going back that far, you might as well go back further to when the Celts were all in Spain, and say that the Irish are all Spanish. Or you could go right to the beginning and say that we’re all African really.

        One legacy of this is that there are still Gaelic speakers down the west coast of Scotland, where many of the Celtic settlers would have landed. However, Irish and Scots Gaelic are not usually mutually comprehensible, and both languages are endangered.

    • Martin says:

      I don’t want to get too off-topic, but “Scotch/Irish” means that your grandmother (or her ancestors) came from somewhere in the non-pink area in the map above, i.e., she came from Ulster. Scottish people were planted in Ulster in the 17th century. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that it happened.

      • David says:

        Scots-Irish is a term used principally in America. It is a very specific set of Protestant ulster folk who emigrated to America. They are typically descended from Scottish planters from the Presbyterian lowlands .

        About 15 centuries ago, Irish Gaels – principally from what is now called ulster settled on the west coast on Scotland and their influence over the rest of Pictish Scotland was far reaching. But these are an entirely different group to what we now call Scots-Irish.

    • Rodger C says:

      Ed: Iirc, the Highlanders referred to both Lowlanders and English as goill, “foreigners.”

    • Danny Ryan says:

      Kurdish and Turkish aren’t dialects of the same language. They are two distinct languages. They are not even related. Kurdish is related to Persian/Farsi and thus distantly to English, while Turkish belongs to a completetly different language family. Kurdish is not a unified language either, but consists of a group of more or less mutually intelligible dialects. An extreme case is Zaza, which by some is considered to be a divergent Kurdish dialect by some or a different related language by others.

    • David says:

      The highlanders and lowlanders of Scotland are quite different ethnic groups and while politically part if the same sovereign state for 1500 years, considered each other different – if not foreign. To complicate things further, the Picts in the east, the Brythons in the south west (related to the welsh), the Gaels in the west and the Sassenachs (Saxons) in the south east represent different ethnic groups united by a “king of Scots”. Unlike the English who had a “King of England”, the nature of Scottish monarchy was quite different with an often uneasy polity of compromise. king David 1st, while thoroughly Gaelic (ie descended from Irish ancestors who settled the west in the time of St Columba, had lived in exile with the Norman king Henry 1st of England (his sisters husband). To regain power in Scotland he invited Norman families to settle across Scotland who would show him loyalty and unite the country by adding yet another ethnic group. These families now represent some of the most famous Scottish surnames like Stewart, Hamilton, Bruce, Wallace. Multi – ethnic and multi lingual for over 1000 years. Northumbrian English became the trading language of new Royal Burghs set up by David 1st and his successors and they eventually dominated the economy and control of them influenced politics, thus cementing Scots-English as the lingua-Franca of Scotland. However, it was the Authorised Version (KJV) of the Bible finally assured standard English as Scotland’s language. Being the first country in the world to insist on universal education, thereafter, the Scots dialect was spoken in the playground, but an entire nation learned to read an write in standard English.

      • David says:

        PS. My apologies. In 1314, King Robert the Bruce (himself a landowner in England) issues a law to force those who had landholdings in England to decide which side of the border they would pledge allegiance. This effectively closed the Border to trade and social movement for 400 years until the union of Parliaments in 1707. So even after the reformation and the widespread adoption of the standard English KJV bible, (written language) Scots accents and pronunciation remained effectively isolated from English for a sustained period. After the union and ever since, the Scottish education system has remained entirely independent from that of England.

        • David says:

          At the risk of being boring. People from the shetland and Orkney Islands do not consider themselves Scottish – but Scandinavian.

  2. Susan Michaud says:

    Unable to see your post.

  3. Patrick says:

    The England/Wales border came about as the line between the territory conquered by the Anglo-Saxons and the territory still controlled by the Britons who had previously ruled the entire Island. It represented a linguistic boundary for hundreds of years – I believe Wales only became predominantly English speaking in the 19th century – and indeed that it what created the concept of “Welsh” as separate from the English. Given that, it’s perhaps not surprising that Cardiff and Bristol have such different accents despite being geographically so close.

    The difference however becomes less noticeable as you head further north – Shropshire has clear similarities to Mid/North Wales and North Wales of course has a Scouse influence now. I believe Herefordshire and Shropshire were still largely populated by Britons and largely “Welsh” speaking for a while after the rest of England had been Anglicized which may explain it.

    Interestingly, looking at the border between Anglo Saxons and Celts was in more or less the same position as the present day Anglo-Welsh border in the south and far north – but in mid Wales it extends noticeable further east into Shropshire which may explain the aforementioned Welsh influence.

    That map brings me onto my other topic, which is Scotland. It’s always confused me how the Anglo-Scottish border came about, since it can’t be explained in the same way as Wales – as you can see on the map, parts of southern Scotland were once part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom on Northumbria, while Cumbria was still Celtic! There was a linguistic divide between the Celtic, Gaelic-speaking highlands and the English-speaking lowlands, so it confuses me how Scotland came to be one nation with it’s present borders.

    Whatever the reason, there is a clear accent difference today along the border between southern Scotland and Cumbria/Northumberland. I belive, however, that it may once have been far less strong – a few decades ago northern Cumbria & Northumberland had rhotic accents, but that has now disappeared, with the rhotic/non-rhotic dividing line now exactly matching the Angol-Scottish border. Maybe they felt pressure to conform to the rest of England and not sound Scottish?

    You mention American states borders not having the same linguistic divide, but I’ve always felt American state borders are far more arbitrary and artificial – they were never separate nations speaking separate languages!

    • Patrick says:

      Sorry for not ending the link!

    • DfNZ says:

      It’s likely the Celtic languages of Britain had an influence on English language accents in general. I doubt there is any part of England where Germanic ancestry more substantial than Britannic.

      Adults retain some of their former accent when learning a new language as can be heard by the accents of English as it is spoken in India and South Africa. They are respectively heavily influenced by Hindi and Dutch accents. Accents can shift across from one language to another.

      Despite the large distance between them there does seem to be a vague symmetry between these two archaic speakers

      • Ed says:

        In Bryan Sykes’s book The Blood of the Isles, he analyses the distribution of hair colour across Britain. Dark hair is associated with the Celts. Blond and ginger hair are associated with the Germanic tribes. I was shocked to learn that there is still significant correlation between hair colour and region. The north-eastern parts of Britain still have fewer people (proportionately) with dark hair than the south-western parts.

        One of the speakers who you’ve posted is from the East Riding of Yorkshire, which is one of the areas that has a lot of Viking heritage.

  4. Ian Parsley says:

    You raise a very interesting point about the clash between language and politics (I live in Northern Ireland – right on the Ulster-Scots/Mid-Ulster boundary!)

    It’s a bit “chicken and egg” really. A linguistic boundary usually reflects a geographic and/or cultural boundary which renders people either side of it distinct from each other (and aware of that). Sometimes, if a political boundary is placed to reinforce that, that linguistic boundary becomes even more marked – for example, there is clear evidence that Monaghan is now tending towards more southern accents and neighbouring Armagh towards more northern.

    This would have happened historically in the Scottish Borders too. In around 1300, the whole area from Perth to York was Northumbrian-English speaking. However, with the establishment of the Scottish State, Perth to the border found itself in a country whose standard language was based on that Northumbrian; whereas York, Newcastle and Carlisle were located in another country, whose standard language was based on Oxford and Cambridge (non-Northumbrian). The invention of the printing press strengthened this division.

    However, it doesn’t always work like this. It is easy to tell a Bavarian apart from a Prussian but not from an Austrian; yet Bavaria and Prussia are in the same country (Germany) and Austria is a separate one. A French speaker from Brussels or Paris or Geneva all sound pretty similar to me, yet I can tell one from Marseille apart easily.

    So yes, sometimes linguistic boundaries reinforce political ones and vice-versa; but not always.