Monday, June 25, 2012

The death of a language

It was the playwright George Bernard Shaw who described Britain and America as 'two countries divided by a common language.'  No longer, it seems.

A recent study showed that Scottish children are now saying 'garbage' not 'rubbish', 'cookies' not 'biscuits' and 'trashcan' not 'bin'.  'Fairy cakes' are now 'cupcakes' – I suppose that's understandable!

We live in a global community and we benefit from it, but the sad part is what we lose at the same time. Whole languages disappear, for a start.

My own grandparents, from the island of Islay on Scotland's west coast, had Gaelic as their first language but when they moved to Glasgow didn't teach it to their children, believing it would 'hold them back' and used it only as a secret language between thesmeselves when it was something they didn't want the children to hear.  My mother had a smattering of Gaelic phrases; I have none. The story was repeated all over Scotland and it was the death of a language in three generations. I could learn it now, when great efforts are being made to revive it, but it would feel artificial.

My own sadness is about the disappearance of dialect.  Like every writer I have a love affair with words, the more vivid the better.  The different areas of Scotland all had their own special vocabulary, and I glory in words like 'peelie-wally' for sick-looking, 'collieshangie' for a rowdy argument, 'sotter' for a complete mess, and especially  'hochmagandy' for – well, what in the Enlgish venacular would be described as 'a bit of how's-your-father.' (Don't ask me – I don't know either.)

When I was young, Scots dialect words were in constant use. I still use them myself, but mostly now for considered effect.  My children probably – but only probably – know what they mean but don't use them at all.  Another kind of language dies.

I'm sure Canada and the United States have the same tradition of local vocabularies.  Are they disappearing too?  If you have any good examples, please share them – I collect colourful words and the more people use them the longer they will live.

Once everyone speaks the same English, it will certainly be easier to understand what people are saying.  But don't you think it will be a bit dull?


aaron said...


I agree,but as a writer you have the power to preserve those wonderful, specific dialect words! By choosing to retain "fairy cakes"-to use your wonderfully funny example-instead of cupcakes, you decide to preserve that terminology. In a language with so many different dialects and different possible meanings and interpretations, writers have the ability to decide to salvage some words, although always at the expense of others. I'm not Scottish but I would love to read a book that used those dialect words and phrases...I just may need a glossary at the end of the book! As a Canadian, I'm sure there are some sayings that are being lost (I've recently heard the phrase "big doings"), but as a big city dweller, its primarily the "same English" that you describe...unfortunately. All the more reason to save the colorful vernacular language instead of the same-sounding English! You may just cause a resurgence of interest in the way that Mad Men has caused a resurgence in 1960s culture!

Aline Templeton said...

Thank you, Aaron- what a lovely thought. Yes, in my books I do use Scottish words and phrases, and try to make the meaning clear in the context. The sad thing is that now I tend to put them in the mouth of the older characters since the young don't use many of them nowadays. You'd probably find some Scots words being used in Canada too, with so many emigrant Scots - includng my cousin!

Rick Blechta said...

Unfortunately, globalization has come to mean homogenization, and that's not a good thing in the long run. The reason UK English is becoming more Americanized is because the American culture is so ubiquitous. That is what the US wants. It's all about peddling your wares. In this case, the richness of the English language is the loser.

Aline Templeton said...

I actually think it's partly because American English is such a vigorous and still developing language with vivid phraseology. I am depressed by the thought that what we do in Britain is import fresh language instead of making it ourselves - it's the problem with our economy too.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Americans still have a great deal of regional usage. I once heard an English professor say there was a man in this country who could tell within a 50 mile radius where one was born simply by the words one uses.

This issue comes up sometimes during the editing of my Kansas based mystery series.

Aline Templeton said...

I grew up in a village with quite a strong local dialect then and found when I moved 80 miles north to Aberdeen that I couldn't understand a word the locals said to each other!


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