Sunday, September 11, 2011

Scots: It's A Language.

I confess it; I have Scotophilia.
I've traveled to a great many places in my lifetime (22 countries, 25 US states, 2 territories, 3 continents, and counting), and there have been a few of them where I fell in love immediately.  Scotland was one of those places.  (I can take or leave Paris, was underwhelmed by Vienna when I thought I'd love it, and I really have no desire whatsoever to return to Las Vegas, but Edinburgh won me over in about 5 minutes.  So did Munich, Helsinki, and Budapest -- but that's a different post.)
I even moved to Scotland and earned my MSc in literature from the University of Edinburgh.  That's how much I fell in love with the country.
So, it should be no surprise to anyone that Scotland creeps into my books.  Eric visits Scotland in both Half-Vampire and in Half-Vampire Family.  Pepper, in Becoming Brigid, takes a time-travel trip through ancient Orkney.  And even Nerissa, in (Dis)Appearance, has Scottish ancestors and background.  I almost can't help myself.
I cringe, however, when American authors who've done the touristy thing in Scotland try to write in Scots. Oh my.  See, the English have done such a good job of demoting Scotland for hundreds of years that plenty of people in the world, when they think about Scots at all, believe it's a "dialect" of English.  But I learned while doing research for my MSc that linguists call it a language.  For one thing, Scots and English have more differences between them than do Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish.  And for another thing, Scots itself has dialects within it.  You cannot have a dialect that has dialects.
During the times I've lived in Scotland, I've studied the language.  I bought grammar books, dictionaries, CDs, and exercise books.  I've learned to read and understand it well enough that I can read William Dunbar, Robert Burns, and Edwin Morgan (even his translation of Cyrano D'Beregerac into Glaswegian Scots) as easily as I can read Spanish.  But, like in my learning of Spanish, the speaking is the last thing to come.
Thus it is that I know enough Scots to know I don't know enough Scots to write in it without help.  (Read that sentence twice and it'll make sense.  I promise.)
There is a character named Sharon in the Half-Vampire novels who speaks Broad Scots.  Originally, I wanted to have her sound like Sandra, my dorm cleaning lady (and general pal -- she was a great woman) in Edinburgh.  But I'd simply read way too much of Morgan's poetry, and his Scots is nearly always Glaswegian.  Hence, I had Sharon sounding like a cross between someone from Glasgow and someone from Edinburgh.  People, that's like trying to mix a New York and an Atlanta accent into the same character.  It just doesn't work.
Enter David Cunningham, author of Cloud World and Cloud World At War.
In 2008, I took a summer creative writing course at the University of Edinburgh, and David was my tutor (aka "instructor" in American English).  It was he who realized that the problem with the beginning of Half-Vampire was that what I was calling chapter one was actually chapter two.  The book needed action at the beginning.  And, at David's suggestion, I wrote what is now the prologue of the book -- and I felt a whole lot better about the entire manuscript afterwards.
But David did more than that.  This good fellow actually volunteered to copy edit my Scots in the whole manuscript.  I e-mailed it to him, and he touched it up, making Sharon completely Glaswegian.  (Note: David's from Ayrshire, which is in the West, near Glasgow.)  I was pleased to find that I actually hadn't done too badly.  My Scots was mostly correct; I'd merely meshed two sides of the country.
Fortunately, I've been able to return the favor partially, helping David's American characters more sound more convincingly American in a couple of short stories.  But I'll soon be in his debt again, as he's volunteered to go over the Scots in Half-Vampire Family as well, and that tale is set almost entirely in Scotland.
At any rate, if you ever read the copyright page in Half-Vampire, you'll find a note that the Scots copy editing was done by David.  This is no joke.  Scots is a real language, and David made sure it was done correctly for me.
So this is my shout-out for David: he's published some YA steampunk.  It's awesome.  Go have a look at it.
And, if you're an American in love with Scotland, do remember that it's not just a postcard.  It's a real place with real people -- both good and bad -- and a real language.  If you need a more realistic view of the place, try reading a little Ian Rankin crime fiction.  But whatever you do, don't mistake the language for a mere accent.


  1. Writing in a different dialect could be challenging. I don't know much about Scotland but I'm sure it will be captivating reading from someone who is an expert.

  2. Language, not dialect. :D That's the whole point of the post.
    Thanks for stopping by again.