‘A Sort of Verbal Bannockburn’: Language and the Debate on Scottish Independence

ImageFor lovers of language, there will be plenty to watch out for in the run up to the Scottish vote on independence.

In February, Prime Minister David Cameron gave his first speech directly addressing the forthcoming referendum. It was certainly emotive. ‘Centuries of history hang in the balance’, he said, as he told Scottish voters to reject independence. According to Cameron, campaigners now had seven months to save Britain.

In the speech, as you might expect, there was a good deal of rhetoric. According to the classical principles of rhetoric, there are three possible ‘appeals’ that an orator can make to help win over their audience: logos (an appeal to logic and rational argument), pathos (an appeal to the audience’s emotions) and ethos (an appeal based on the orator’s identity).

There was certainly much pathos. In the speech, Cameron said he could not bear to see the country ‘torn apart’.

And there was more than a deft sprinkling of ethos. In his speech, Cameron spoke about his family’s Scottish roots in the West Highlands. ‘The name Cameron might mean “crooked nose”’, he said, ‘but the clan motto is “Let us unite”, and that is exactly what we in these islands have done.’ You see what he did there?

But, in the debate, we shouldn’t expect all such appeals to ethos to be so explicit.

Linguists will tell you that language and identity are almost inseparable. Whenever we open our mouths – whether we mean to or not – we tell our interlocutors something about who we are, where we were born, where we live, even where we were educated. In choosing the language, dialect, register and style we use (what you might generally call ‘code’), we necessarily convey something about our identity (Auer, 2005).

Cameron, speaking to the whole of the United Kingdom, spoke in British Standard English (BSE), the UK’s ‘norm’ dialect, with a southern accent. In doing so, he was signalling that he is educated, part of the mainstream, ruling majority, English but – most importantly – British too.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), spoke immediately after Cameron’s speech. He too spoke in a Standard English (albeit in a Scottish accent) which, in print, would usually be rendered indistinguishable from Cameron’s code. But, in accusing the Prime Minister of running scared (in not agreeing to a direct debate with him on the issue of independence) he chose one word particularly carefully. He told the BBC:

‘I just want the Prime Minister to come and debate with me and stop being such a big feartie.’

‘Feartie’ is a Scots word, not in currency south of the border. Meaning somebody who is afraid, it was a deft choice: instead of simply calling him a ‘coward’, Salmond could take a swipe at Cameron and underline his Scottish – not British – identity.

I think it’s safe to expect plenty more Scots language to enter the political debate in the run up to the referendum – and not just among the SNP. It’s not unlikely that we’ll also see unionists north of the border using the Scots language to mark their Scottish identity as something which is not incompatible with British unity.

And it won’t be just about using one language or the other. We should also look out for politicians and columnists ‘code-switching’ between the two languages.

Scots-English code-switching is not new. For example, it was something Robert Burns used for great poetic effect. But, code-switching can also be used as a powerful rhetorical device. For instance, I spotted a recent letter to The Observer from a reader in Edinburgh. The letter, arguing that ‘it’s not Scotland’s job to save England from it’s failings’, concluded:

‘Are we to understand, then, that the union’s shared values offer nothing to Scotland but more of the same, or that Scotland must remain in the union so that its different values will enable it to become the union’s (England’s) conscience, pace Hutton? Ye’re haeing a laff.’ (The Observer, 9 February 2014)

In linguistic terms the code-switch to Scots at the end is particularly ‘marked’ (Myers-Scotton and Bolonyai, 2001). It carries meaning, beyond ‘you must be joking’: that is, it carries a distinct and defiant Scottish voice.

There were some interesting comments left on the comments section below the BBC report of David Cameron’s speech. Most aptly, one reader wrote:

‘The last thing Alex Salmond wants is to debate issues […] Salmond wants to portray himself giving the English oppressors a bloody nose… a sort of verbal Bannockburn.’

Perhaps, then, that’s what we can expect over the next 6 months: a ‘verbal Bannockburn’, a battle of words between two duelling languages. Whatever happens in the vote, there’ll be plenty of interest for the linguists.

http://www.scotslanguage.com/ is a great resource for information on the Scots language.


Auer, P. (2005) A postscript: code-switching and social identity. Journal of Pragmatics, 37, 403-410.

Myers-Scotton, C. and Bolonyai, A. (2001) Calculating speakers: Codeswitching in a rational choice model. Language in Society, 30, 1-28.

“I’m going shop”: Preposition dropping in British youth dialects

Slide1There’s a new trend on the streets of London, and it’s not anything you can wear. It’s a fashion for dropping prepositions.

If you listen to a group of teenagers on the streets of, say, Hackney or Haringey you might catch someone utter a phrase like “I’m going shop” or “I’m coming pub” – something that to many people’s ears would sound totally ungrammatical.

In Standard British English, the verb “to go” is intransitive. That is, it takes an indirect object, via a preposition like “to”, in phrases like “I’m going to the shop” and “I’m walking to the office”. However, in this new form, “to go” looks like its transitive positioned as it is next to a direct object. Both the preposition and the determiner are dropped leaving just the verb and the bare noun – simply: “I’m going shop”.

If you want to know who’s dropping prepositions like this, social media is a good place to look. When I put the phrase “I’m going shop” into Google (on 3 February) it returned 7 genuine examples: 3 from Twitter, and 4 from other social media forums: uk.answers.yahoo.co.uk, footballforums.net and reptileforums.net (whatever that is).

The first hit was from a Twitter user in London.

“Ok I’m going shop!!!! Chocolate and pickled onion monster munch!!! #onthis #munchies” (tweeted June 2013)

The next two, were from Twitter users in London and Leicester (a city 2 hours up the road):

I’m going shop to buy junk then I’m gonna watch loads of films” (October 2012)
“[…] I’m going shop rite now for a wispa gold. […]” (November 2009)

Notice that in the first tweet, the “to” in the infinitive “to buy” is retained; only the proposition associated with the verb “to go” is dropped. Notice too how “I’m going shop” contrasts with the reduced construction involving the auxiliary verb “to go” (“I’m gonna watch”).

I found plenty of other examples using similar Google searches, including:

“Dad I’m going pub can I have some money… […]” (May 2013)
I’m going town now so I can get the Luas back to yours if that suits” (June 2013)
“[…] spice island? That right next to Katie’s, I’m going Katie’s aunties in Kent for a BBQ haha, surprised your not going venue!!(December 2012)
“Looks like I’m going Brighton.. Got 3 hours to get my shit together..” (May 2011)

Although the noun is usually rendered in its bare form (“shop” not “the shop”), I did find some examples of “I’m going the shop”, such as this from a Twitter user in Liverpool:

I’m going the shop. It’s a whole 20 seconds away. Wish me luck.” (August 2011)

And the pattern seems to work for other verbs of movement. For example, I found this result for “I’m coming pub”:

“[…] I’m not going out but I’m coming Pub!!xxxxx” (Jan 2013)

There are plenty more examples (put “I’m going shop” directly into the search bar in Twitter and you’ll get hundreds). Even so, based on the evidence here you might argue that these are examples of ‘text speak’, or that they’re just the result of hurried typing.

But these are forms that young people are genuinely using in speech, and that researchers are already beginning to record.

Sociolinguists from universities in London and Paris are currently carrying out a comparative study of ‘Multicultural London English (MLE)’ and ‘Multicultural Paris French (MPF)’ – language varieties, common among youth speakers in the two capitals, which are heavily influenced by the languages of local ethnic minority speakers (particularly Afro-Caribbeans in London and North Africans in Paris). As part of the study, the researchers are recording hundreds of hours of speech, by urban speakers of all ages, to try and analyse the novel linguistic features of MLE and MPF – features like the preposition dropping in “I’m going shop”, which don’t appear in more traditional dialects.

It’s not clear exactly what’s happening with “I’m going shop”, but preposition dropping is certainly not a new feature in English. For example, “to” is pretty commonly dropped in phrases like “she gave it (to) him”, and researchers have studied the same phenomenon in sentences like “the ozone layer prevents radiation (from) reaching the earth”. At least for some speakers, “because” has recently become a preposition itself as a result of preposition dropping in phrases like “because (of) grammar”.

If it’s anything like these cases “to” might remain optional for a long time, in phrases like “I’m going (to) the shop”, for speakers of MLE. Or, perhaps the verb “to go” will become rigidly transitive, going the way of the verb “to write” in American English (where it’s “writing someone” as opposed to the “writing to someone” of British English). In this case, you might expect to hear derived (question) forms like “which pub are you going?” (instead of “which pub are you going to?”) – though I couldn’t find any examples online.

Either way, the most obvious driving force for this latest linguistic innovation is economy: that is, the removal of redundancy for reduction in effort. In other words, if you don’t need to articulate the preposition to be understood, why bother at all?

MLE has been studied as a youth dialect. It’s too early to say how far it will spread, and to what extent it will take over from more traditional dialects like Cockney. The big question is how many novel forms like “I’m going shop” might be taken up by other age groups, and other speech communities in London and elsewhere. If such preposition dropping is copied by others, given enough time, it could one day become a feature of Standard Englishes in Britain and beyond – just one more step along the endless path of language change.

Now, there’s food for thought. I’m going shop.

One standard gauge?: The languages of the Tran-Siberian railway

IMG_3077 One of the highlights of our train journey from Moscow to Beijing happens at the border with China. In the darkness, our train – with all of its passengers inside it – is shunted into a vast shed. Inside, men in boiler suits scuttle about. One carriage at a time, the train is lifted onto stilts and the bogies replaced. In China, it turns out, the tracks are a few inches narrower than they are in Russia: different country, different standard.

If you looked at a map, you might think it was the same for the languages of the region. From Moscow to Vladivostok, it’s the language of Lenin and Tolstoy. From the Chinese border to Beijing it’s Mandarin, with its four tones and logographic script. In between, it’s Mongolian – another breed entirely.

IMG_3156Inside the train, it certainly feels that way. From Moscow, there’s only one language that matters. With our fellow passengers in our berth – all Russians – we manage a ‘nyet’ or a ‘da’, a ‘pazhalsta’ or a ‘spasibo’. We know enough of their language to explain we are turisti. Apart from a train engineer on his way home, no-one speaks English. Mostly, we get by on smiles.

For two and half days, it’s all pot noodles and warm vodka. Every few hours we make a trip, past the scowling provodnitsa, to draw water from the samovar for tea. Outside, its taiga – thick, impenetrable, un-ending forest. This is the landscape of Bulgakov’s young doctor, an imprisoned Dostoevsky, of labour camps and unspeakable cruelty. Occasionally, there’s a peasant village. In one, an elderly lady in a bright red headscarf is driving geese. The highlight is a trip down the corridor to the tualyet – and the only unlocked window in the carriage – to take a photo.

The Urals roll by, briefly breaking the monotony. So do the big cities: Yekatarinburg, Omsk, and Novosibirsk on the great Ob River. Each one is an oasis of concrete, surrounded by fields of colourful, picket-fenced dacha – part summer home, part allotment, and must-have for the Russian city-dweller.

IMG_3389It doesn’t feel like it, but Russian isn’t the only language spoken in Siberia. For here too – from the mountains and thick-grass steppe of the south to the barren permafrost of the north – are the peoples that arrived before the Russians: in the north, the Yakut, the Dolgan, and the Even; in the northeast, the Chukchi and the Korak.

On the third day we reach Novosibirsk, the third biggest city in Russia. On the platform, for the first time, we spot some Asian faces. North of here live the Khanty and Mansi people. Further north still live the Nenets, where the mighty Ob meets the cold Artic Sea.

Half a day later, our train passes due south of the Evenki National Okrug, homeland of the Evenki people. One of the largest indigenous populations of Siberia, the Evenkis speak a language related to Manchu, the administrative language of China’s Qing Dynasty for nearly 300 years. Another half a day on, we pass close to the home of the Tofa people – or at least the few hundred of them that remain. Fewer of them still speak their native language, a distant relative of Turkish.

IMG_3311In all, there are around forty indigenous languages in Siberia. Three of them are spoken by a few hundred thousand people. Most, though, are spoken by much fewer. Many of them are related to other languages of the region, as well as to those spoken much further a field. Some of them are ‘isolates’ – unrelated to any other language on the planet.

Linguistically, the languages of Siberia are thousands of miles from English. Unlike the languages of Western European, they verbs at the end of the sentence place. Most employ postpositions, as Japanese does, rather than the prepositions we are used to. And most of the languages of Siberia have complicated case systems, more so than Latin.

Finally, we arrive at Irkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’. At the station, we stumble off the train onto the platform, glad to be leaving it for a couple of days. The streets here – grey and imperious – look like they belong in any Russian city. Only a few older wooden houses belie the city’s former frontier status. First settled by the Cossacks, Irkutsk is now the modern centre for Russian arms manufacturing. Downriver is the shimmering Lake Baikal: as magnificent as twenty Lake Genevas.

IMG_3286But the highlight for us is the people. The region around Lake Baikal is home to the Buryats, cousins of the Mongolians. They have dark skin, darker hair, high cheekbones. Of the half a million inhabitants of this seemingly European city, a large proportion are Buryati. Fittingly, the woman that runs our hostel is half-Russian, half-Buryat. I suddenly understand Russia’s famous emblem: the two-headed Eagle. Simultaneously looking east and looking west, in Irkutsk, it makes perfect sense.

In the supermarket, we hear the staff chatting to each other in Buryat – a language, like the people, which is related to Mongolian. When we get to the till, they address us in Russian. ‘Jack’, our guide, tells us that the Buryat all speak the official language of the Federation – but he doesn’t know a single Russian that speaks Buryat.

IMG_3291Though one of the largest of Siberia’s ‘minority’ languages, Buryat is still rapidly losing ground to Russian. The pattern is similar all over the region. Waves of migration have brought Russians eastwards, looking for work, and modernisation has brought indigenous people to the town and cities. Across the region of their birth, there are fewer Buryats now than Russians.

Moscow hasn’t always shown support Siberia’s minority languages. The administrations of Stalin and Krushchev favoured complete assimilation of indigenous people, although more recent policies have been kinder. Even so, new generations are ignoring the language of their parents – of their ancestors – in favour of the language they learn at school. The younger generation don’t care for their language, the elders complain. Why do we need it, the younger generation wonder?

Many of the indigenous languages of Siberia are classified by linguists as ‘endangered’. Put simply, they are in danger of being lost within a generation. When the last native speakers die, the native languages will go the way of Cornish. They will be dead – along with the rich cultures and histories they are tied to. It’s a sobering thought.

IMG_3376Back on the train, we travel on towards the border with Mongolia. South of Lake Baikal, we arrive at Ulan Ude, capital of Russia’s Buryat Republic. On the platform, there are Buryats, Russians, Western tourists and Chinese train guards. They all mingle among the loading trucks and crates of vegetables. It’s in places like this that ‘trade pidgins’ once developed as a means of communication between Russian and Chinese traders.

Over the next twenty-four hours, we slip through Mongolia. Outside the window, Siberia has given way to dusty plains. In the distance we see gher tents, sand-coloured hills, and the occasional camel. While we sleep, we pass through the capital Ulaanbaatar – ‘the Red Hero’. But we have no time to stop here on this trip

Finally, we arrive at the border with China. When the passport controller arrives at our cabin door we address him with a ‘nin hao’. My partner is Canadian, but with Taiwanese parents. He tells her ‘huan ying hui guo’ – ‘welcome home’.

IMG_3463Outside we see rugged mountains, muddy earth, trees and long grass. It’s autumn and, in the fields, farmers are harvesting maize. We pass countless earth walls, now in ruin. In the distance, we catch a glimpse of the greatest wall of all.

In villages, we see Chinese characters painted large. Except for the Mongolians in the berth next to us, the language is now firmly Mandarin – or Putonghua, as it is called here, the ‘common speech’. Few languages have been regulated so tightly as Mandarin. With language, like so many things, Beijing is firmly insisting on one standard for the whole country. How else would China function, they ask?

Here too, then, minority groups try to balance the need to maintain the languages of their ancestors, and the need to access jobs and opportunities. Many are choosing a standard gauge. All along the Trans-Siberian railway, it’s a similar story.