What makes a language?

A little bit ago, I was looking for information on Greek when I came across a title, Teach Yourself Doric. Much to my surprise, however, it referred not to the Greek, but to a dialect of Scots. In the last couple months, I’ve revisited my Alsatian, reviewed a bit of German, dipped my toes into Dutch and, of course, learned a bit of Doric, which started the whole adventure into Germanic and into the question, What makes a language?

To visit forums and look at references, there seems to be some contention as to whether Scots is a language in its own right, or just a dialect of English. I would say that if it is a dialect of English, it is a dialect of Middle English, going back to the same base as modern English. At any rate, it’s not quite the same animal as modern English. I don’t think you can use different words for things as elementary as the verbs to do, to have and to go, the particle not and the numbers and claim that you’re speaking the same tongue. To be sure, with a common ancestor in Middle English, Scots and English have a lot in common. But there are differences, including in places where Scots is more conservative than modern English (like the word aabody, everybody, much closer to Old English than the modern English). And if it’s your life’s dream to understand Burns, ESL classes are not the place to go.

It should note that there is an English spoken in Scotland. It’s called Standard Scots English and it’s pretty much like British English with a different accent and local features. But there’s still a sizable population that not only considers itself Scots but communicates in a way that may be no easier to understand that Dutch or Frisian for a native English speaker. So for the moment, at least, it looks to me like they have their own language. You can find out more in Teach Yourself Doric, Doric for Swots and the Doric dictionary, as well as in Luath’s textbook for Sctos.

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About G Barto

I've been learning languages more than 20 years and teaching them for at least 15. Here I share the joys and frustrations of teaching yourself new languages.
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One Response to What makes a language?

  1. Actu Traduction blog says:

    I like it. 🙂

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