Thursday, 26 July 2012

A Man of Letters

The Scotsman has an interesting article about Susan Rennie's new book on John Jamieson, compiler of the great Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, first published in 1808, updated many times by Jamieson and others, and eventually superseded only in 1976 by the completed Scottish National Dictionary. The biographer rightly terms Jamieson's work "the equal of Dr. Johnson's English dictionary". Indeed, a majority of Johnson's assistants were Scots, and both can be regarded as part of a great tradition of Scottish lexicography.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Etymological Dictionary, which famously provided inspiration for later writers of belles lettres such as Christopher Murray Grieve — better known as Hugh MacDiarmid — certain of whose poems can be directly connected with those pages of the magnum opus that happened to form his bedtime reading at the time.

Interestingly, Jamieson:

'warned of the "peculiar disadvantages" suffered by the tongue after the 1707 Act of Union, pointing out that as it was "no longer written in public deeds, or spoken in those assemblies which fix the standard of national language, its influence has gradually declined".'

This is of course of obvious relevance today, and one hopes that, through Susan Rennie's new biography, Jamieson's sentiments will percolate down to those who misguidedly begrudge the spending of a few bawbees on transactional Scots, not realising that it represents a foray into an entire domain from which the language has been deliberately excluded, with consequent damage to its usefulness and unity — perhaps even its future existence.

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