linguistics, literature

Dialects in Literature: A Look at Robert Burns

It’s a song commonly played to ring in the New Year, bidding farewell to the old. Across the English-speaking world, it’s used for graduations, for funerals, for any major transitional period in one’s life. As a result, pretty much everyone is familiar with the tune. But growing up, I never knew anyone who was actually able to tell me what the hell it meant.

I’m talking about “Auld Lang Syne,” the poem-turned-song penned by Robert Burns at the end of the 18th century (though it was quite possibly adapted from an older oral tradition, and not an invention of Burns himself). Like much of Burns’s work, the poem was written in the Scots language. The title actually transliterates to something like “Old Long Since,” and the original lyrics–often translated to standard English–are nigh incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t familiarized themselves with the language.

Scots has an interesting history. There’s some disagreement on whether or not it qualifies as a separate language or simply a dialect of English. It split off from English sometime around the twelfth century (at which time English had only recently begun to adopt heavy Norman influence), so it’s been a distinct language variety for at least nine hundred years. Like English, it includes a lot of loan words, including a fair few Scottish Gaelic words, but it’s not a Celtic language. It’s Germanic, and has retained much of the Germanic character of the Northumbrian Old English from which it’s descended.

Robert Burns wrote in Scots partially as a political statement. The Scots language variety has long been persecuted as less educated than standardized English. Anyone familiar with the history of Scotland knows that England historically stifled various facets of Scottish culture, and the Scots language–despite its close relation to English–was no exception. As standardized language further developed through the 19th and early 20th centuries, Burns’s work came to represent a reflection on cultural identity through linguistics, and how the grammatical education imposed on us often serves to oppress rather than educate.

Sound familiar at all? The debate continues today, and even Scots is still often called into question (many schools in Scotland don’t teach the language variety at all, though there has been a recent push to see it re-instated in lowland curriculums). But perhaps more at the forefront of the modern era is the same push-back from other dialects and language varieties against imposed grammatical standards in creative expression through language. Here in America, AAVE and Chicano English are at the forefront of these movements. Influential authors and writers are creating poetry, fiction, and narrative nonfiction that embodies cultural identity through linguistics.

I am a firm believer that there are benefits to standardized language where it serves an actual purpose–that is, in formal documentation, news, and some forms of written communication. Any situation where something needs to be understood by the widest possible audience. But should we impose those same standards on works of creative expression? Despite the majority of academics within the literary realm answering with a resounding “no,” it still hits a nerve for many linguistic purists.

Standardized language evolved, in part, to establish clear and consistent communication. Left to their own whims, languages evolve and branch off and can end up being mutually unintelligible, even when they share a common ancestor. So undoubtedly, having a standard form of English is beneficial for everyone. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room in literature for works that defy that standard. In fact, by its very nature, literature should invite it.

At the end of the day, we don’t have to understand or like works written in a dialect or language variety other than our own. In fact, maybe we’re not meant to. Not everything is written for the general “us.” Sometimes, it’s written for an “us” that is culturally and linguistically specific, and if we don’t understand it, perhaps we’re not invited in. Or, perhaps sometimes, it’s meant as an invitation–a window into another life, another experience, another truth. And why should we fear that?

To quote Rabbie himself (perhaps slightly out of context, but relevant all the same):

Here’s freedom to him that wad read,
Here’s freedom to him that wad write!
There’s nane ever fear’d that the Truth should be heard,
But they whom the Truth wad indite.

4 thoughts on “Dialects in Literature: A Look at Robert Burns”

  1. “having a standard form of English is beneficial for everyone. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room in literature for works that defy that standard. In fact, by its very nature, literature should invite it.”

    Absolutely, huzzah! (Hm, now I’m curious on the origin of the word “huzzah”…) I love linguistics, in part, for the variety you cite and intermingling of origin stories.

    I’m wondering why you’re contemplating Auld Lang Syne and the language of the Scots right now. Did something specific spur this train of thought?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne at events like new year celebrations always leaves me embarrassed and cringing (perhaps that’s because I’m not given to public displays of emotion, I don’t do hugs either). On the more serious question of language I have a similar opinion to yourself. I am very suspicious of the use of language as a weapon, from the Russian suppression of Polish and the U.S and Canadian suppression of indigenous languages by children removed from their families, to the French suppression of local dialects and the Israeli use of a modern Hebrew amongst immigrants to forge a nationality.

    Having said all that, as a monolingual lazy English speaker I am all in favour of global English dominance which leaves me torn between a historical and cultural nostalgia for diversity of language and the convenience of a dominant language. I am always amused when I hear rampant Scottish nationalists decrying the English without acknowledging that a large number of them (up to the central belt of Scotland) are effectively from the same Celtic/Anglo-Saxon stock, but that’s another argument altogether.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I was way too confused as a child to ever think of Auld Lang Syne as a public display of emotion, but now that you mention it, it’s definitely an emotional song. Weirdly, I haven’t found myself in a situation where anyone was singing it in years. I’ve heard instrumental versions played, though.

      Haha, the nuances of Scottish nationalism would probably take up a whole blog series and then some. I’m probably not qualified to tackle that, but maybe I’ll try, at some point.


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