Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Census and Scots

The 2011 Continuous Household Survey (CTS) also provides data with regard to knowledge of Scots, which it puts at 15%. For various reasons, the Blether Region counsels taking these figures with a pinch of salt:
  • Since Scots in Northern Ireland is widely perceived as a tool being used against Irish, Catholic respondents will have been tempted to deny ability (indeed, my own wife did so on that basis); they may even believe that there is no such thing as Scots. Some will also have been alienated by the way that in Northern Ireland the speech variety is generally sold as part of a cultural package — sometimes an explicitly sectarian one. The proportion of Catholics in the speech community is almost certainly higher than that suggested (just over a quarter).
  • There may, in some cases, have been a similar temptation to exaggerate ability on the Protestant side, though, for reasons explained below, this will have been less.
  • The questions all referred to "Ulster-Scots", meaning that a probable cohort of 5,000 Scots-born speakers will not have been included.
  • Given that the questions were designed to capture every level of ability, almost any speaker of Mid-Ulster English (or, indeed, other varieties) could with some justification have answered in the affirmative. In that regard, it is surprising that the result was not 95%. Perhaps some respondents were out for a wee dander to get their heads shired when that question was asked. But one shouldn't girn.
That said, there are certain facts that can be gleaned:
  • In contradistinction to Irish, people in the least-deprived areas are more likely to have a knowledge of Scots. This will mainly be because they will have larger vocabularies generally, including some recondite words shared by Scots and older or dialectal English, and because the middle-class will be better linguists. To a lesser extent, it may also reflect remaining disparities in wealth based on religion.
  • Again unlike Irish, older people are more likely to have a knowledge of Scots. This reflects its status as a recessive dialect not being promoted through the education system and with only limited intergenerational transmission. This is amply illustrated by the disparity between the headline figures in the CTS and the census.
  • Only 10% of people are interested in learning more about Scots, as opposed to 18% for Irish (drawing on what, in sectarian terms, is a slightly smaller pool of potential recruits). This is because more Unionists have internalised utilitarian arguments against support for minoritised speech varieties. Time and again, we have seen that many have an ambivalent or negative relationship with Scots (which almost disappeared from public life during the twentieth century). The census also showed that many more Protestants self-designate simply as "British".
  • Although 15% of people claim some knowledge of Scots, only 1% of people claim to be able to write it. To some extent, this is a predictable result of obscurantism in the spelling of the revived variety, but mainly it reflects the fact that nearly all Scots-speakers in Ulster have little or no knowledge of traditional Modern Scots literature of whatever provenance. Indeed, that any substantial number of people can support the bizarre contention that the Ulster dialect is a separate language supports that interpretation. The fact that 14% of people claim to be able to understand spoken Scots but only 4% of people claim to be able to read it may also be relevant evidence in that regard.
  • Given the fact that 4% is also the figure for those who claim to be able to speak Scots, that may well be a more reliable figure than the headline 15%. It is also far closer to the figure of 2% produced by in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey. Indeed, when those who know only single words of Scots (very common in Mid-Ulster English) are removed, the figure is 3%, hardly differing from the NILTS total. The census (covering those aged over three as opposed to 16) also produced a lower figure for Scots, of 8%, again covering a wide range of ability. The census figure for speaking ability was 2%, almost exactly the same as that found by NILTS.
To sum up, the CTS and census reveal a mainly rural and elderly Scots speech community in Ulster that is not substantially larger than that suggested by NILTS 1999, with the democratic accommodation of Catholic and Scots-born speakers as vital as ever to its survival chances.

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