Friday, 4 February 2011

Mammie Weer All Crazee Noo

Applications have been invited from potential chairs and members of a Ministerial Advisory Group on the Ulster-Scots Academy.

The package available — £400 a day for the chair and £100 for each board member — is an extremely generous one and means that the Department has budgeted at least £800 per full day worked by the group (secretariat not included). Doubtless the Department's largesse would suit many a semi-retired Ulster-Scots activist.

In the past, academic linguists too have been tempted to sit on similar "implementation" or "steering" groups. Their reasons will have been personal and complex, but among them may well have been a desire to moderate the excesses of the more overtly political actors.

The academy concept is, of course, a curate's egg. Alongside the incredibly damaging notion that the tiny and only moderately differentiated Ulster dialect is not, and could survive without, Scots, there are exciting plans for surveys, libraries, recovery and dissemination — areas in which the Ulster-Scots Agency, some would argue, might have shown greater interest. Engaging with the ministerial plans, such academics may reckon, could ensure both that those initiatives are realised and that the dialect is standardised on the basis of its traditional poetry. After all, surely the aim of any newly codified orthography would be to equip the modern descendants and inheritors of Ulster-Scots culture with the tools to access their authentic history and literature. And it goes without saying that, were that to happen, it would be obvious to everyone — not only to cryptologists — that Ulster Scots is Scots, perhaps even a sub-dialect of the main Central Scots variety.

Past academic interventions have seemingly succeeded in banishing a-umlaut from modern attempts at transcribing Ulster Scots. True, they replaced it with i-umlaut, but that could hardly be expected to find broad appeal among ordinary users, so that the ultimate result will be that a simple "i" rather than a simple "a" is used.

What remains, unfortunately, is eye dialect. Up until the late nineteenth century, Scots everywhere was written with what was once memorably characterised as a "spray of apostrophes". In the main that was because the Presbyterians who wrote Scots had high levels of ability in English owing to their reading of the Bible, and Scots was thus associated with literacy. After the advent of mass education in spoken book English, however, Scots — left outside the classroom — became associated with the opposite, and attempts at fixing the language, mainly in kailyard dialogue and newspaper columns, were marked by deliberate, unjustified respellings such as wuz for wis and sez for says. Indeed, with some exponents of Glaswegian sociolectal writing, the device has led to poetry (it would be unsustainable in descriptive prose) that is almost reminiscent of the song titles of 70s rockers Slade.

It would be a shame if such eye dialect were to remain while the other eccentricities of the revived Ulster Scots fell by the wayside.

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