I stumbled across the question What is the meaning of “Many a mickle maks a muckle”? which is a question about a Scots language proverb. The thought occurred to me that although the Scots language is closely related to and somewhat intelligible with English, it is a distinct entity and as such should questions on the Scots language be answered here?

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    I don't think Many a mickle makes a muckle is a good example of "Scottish language". I doubt that particular "alliterative malapropism" actually originated in Scotland anyway, but if it had, we'd need to ask ourselves why the Scots would have used mickle/muckle to mean a small/large amount when to the rest of the English-speaking world they're both just variants of the same word (cf Middle Dutch mēkel, Old Saxon mikil, and much). – FumbleFingers Jan 13 '17 at 17:39
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    Scots Gaelic totally off-topic (wait for its own site or linguistics). Scots English entirely on-topic. A mix entirely on-topic. – Mitch Jan 13 '17 at 19:00
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    @Mitch Scottish English and the Scots language aren't the same thing. – Jamie Hollern Jan 14 '17 at 19:05
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    @Jamie are what you are calling Scot, is that a variety of Gaelic or a variety of English? I addressed both. – Mitch Jan 14 '17 at 21:19
  • @Mitch In Scotland there are 3 languages spoken: Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic), Scottish English and Scots. Scots is related to English, but is not the same language. I linked to it above but here it is again: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scots_language – Jamie Hollern Jan 16 '17 at 9:03
  • @Jamie OK. Whatever language variety that Robert Burns or Irving Welsh (Trainspotting, the novel) write in, that's on topic. Same with Auld Lang Syne. Solely Gaelic questions are not. – Mitch Jan 16 '17 at 13:33
  • @JamieHollern and the example sentence anyway is plain English with a couple low frequency Scots or archaic vocabulary items. – Mitch Jan 16 '17 at 15:43
  • @Mitch I'm not talking about Gàidhlig whatsoever, as it's a completely unrelated language and it shouldn't be mentioned again in this discussion. The example sentence I provided is written entirely in Scots (the original question spelled the phrase wrongly). I have no issue it being decided that Scots is on topic here, but as a speaker of Scots living in an area where Scots is used widely in everyday conversation I don't feel that your obviously limited experience of the tongue allows you to hold strong opinions on what it is or isn't in relation to modern English. – Jamie Hollern Jan 17 '17 at 11:18
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    Jamie, you seem to be confrontational about this (especially to @FumbleFingers). Though I may not understand fully the nuances about the subject, what I've said is consistent with the (currently single) highly upvoted answer: despite vagaries in descriptions I've seen so far, whatever it is, it is on-topic. – Mitch Jan 17 '17 at 14:24
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    Again, I have no issue with it being on-topic. The question is simply an interesting one. In addition, I'm not confrontational in any manner but I will argue the point when I feel other users are being dismissive without justification. My specific issue with @FumbleFingers was that his comment was a cheap swipe at the Scottish people as a result of his own political beliefs. I'd argue his statement was incorrect, off-topic and generally rude. – Jamie Hollern Jan 18 '17 at 9:27
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    @FumbleFingers: that's a gey Sassenocentric interpretation, yours. Why should Scots care how the word is interpreted by non-Scots? "Muckle" is a perfectly good Scots word, attested from the 14th c. and used in many more contexts than that proverbial one. – MMacD Jan 25 '17 at 8:52
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    @MMacD: For the sense mickle = A large sum or amount (first recorded 1599), the full OED says Chiefly in proverb: many a little (also pickle) makes a mickle (now freq. in the garbled form many a mickle makes a muckle). The form many a mickle makes a muckle (earliest recorded in quot. 1793) arises from a misapprehension that, rather than being variants of the same word, mickle and muckle have opposite meanings, the former representing ‘a small amount’ and the latter ‘a large amount’. Did that "misapprehension" specifically originate with the Scots? – FumbleFingers Jan 25 '17 at 13:17
  • OED's only entry for muckle (ignoring the "garbled proverb" usage under mickle) is as an (obsolete, rare) short form of muckle-hammer, defined as a heavy maul for killing cod. But I must say I'm surprised that such a "trivial" word has one of the longest etymological backgrounds I've ever come across in the OED. – FumbleFingers Jan 25 '17 at 13:25
  • @FumbleFingers: oddly, the OED might not be the best source. Before the quite recent adoption of a canonical orthography, everyone spelled words as best they could, either following someone else's model or trying hard to represent their own pronunciation. So the variety of spellings generally increased with the number of syllables :-).... – MMacD Jan 26 '17 at 13:59
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    @MMacD: You keep saying the mickle version is a Scot's proverb, but I simply don't think that's true. Personally I'd say the original Many a little makes a mickle rhymed at least as well anyway, but it's worth noting that the "garbled" version was first recorded by George Washington in 1793 - not even a Brit, let alone a Scot. – FumbleFingers Jan 26 '17 at 14:47

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about the status of the Scots language with respect to English:

Because there are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, scholars and other interested parties often disagree about the linguistic, historical and social status of Scots and particularly its relationship to English.

Given that even among experts, there is no consensus, and some linguists consider Scots a dialect of English, my vote is to continue treating Scots as on topic.

If there evolves a more acute pain to be addressed, like being inundated with poor-quality or under-researched question on Scots, or a better place to address these questions is launched on SE, we can always reconsider.

As it stands, these questions aren't causing us any trouble, and there's no better home for them, so we might as well keep them.

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    Given my comment to the actual question (made while you were writing this), I feel honour-bound to upvote you! So far as I'm concerned, it's a good job Scottish isn't a separate language, because I use telephone banking, and these days a fairly high proportion of the call centre operators are Scottish. Sometimes it can take a while to adjust to the accent, but to a first approximation they do speak English. – FumbleFingers Jan 13 '17 at 17:41
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    @ab2 That sentence starts with "if"; that pain hasn't materialized yet. – Dan Bron Jan 14 '17 at 0:18
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    @FumbleFingers Most likely those call centre people are speaking English, not Scots. Actual Scots is moribund, having merged almost entirely with Scottish (Standard) English over the past century, and non-merged Scots is exceedingly rare nowadays. Even those who do still speak it also speak SSE and will code-switch quite automatically when speaking with non-Scots-speakers, so it’s very unlikely you’ve ever actually had a Scots-speaker on the line. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 14 '17 at 13:24
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    @Janus: As Wikipedia says, A 2010 Scottish Government study of "public attitudes towards the Scots language" found that 64% of respondents (around 1,000 individuals being a representative sample of Scotland's adult population) "don't really think of Scots as a language". I also note there simply wasn't enough linguistic self-awareness amongst the Scottish populace, with people still thinking of themselves as speaking badly pronounced, grammatically inferior English rather than Scots, for an accurate census to be taken. – FumbleFingers Jan 14 '17 at 15:06
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    @Fumble Well, yes, exactly. The Scots referred to in the question this one is about is pre-merger Scots, which was quite different from the thing spoken now that may be termed Scots. Whether or not Scots is a different language is a matter of definition, and it doesn't really matter; the point is that it has changed in recent years to the point that it has essentially merged with SSE in nearly all speakers. Your average call-centre Scot nowadays speaks SSE (which is pretty universally considered a dialect of English). It’s worth noting that the study cited by Wikipedia doesn’t actually → – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 14 '17 at 15:37
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    → try to define what is and isn’t Scots at all, and it’s completely unclear whether respondents were talking about Scots or SSE to begin with. In some places, Scots is used in rather a leading way in opposition to terms like “good English/speaking properly” (which would probably be interpreted as referring to non-Scottish English, or SSE with as few specifically Scottish features as possible); in others, it seems to be more properly referring to Scots as opposed to SSE. The same is true of the GRO trial cited. Simply asking people “Do you speak Scots?” is useless, since most people wouldn’t → – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 14 '17 at 15:44
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    → be able to tell Scots from SSE or various other Scottish dialects. Even whatever may be called actual ‘Scots’ nowadays is quite different from what was historically called Scots, and traditional Scots phrasing and grammar (like “he bedditna wi her or she buir a son” from the quote in the Wikipedia article) is all but gone—especially from call centres. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 14 '17 at 15:47
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    I'm genuinely surprised at the level of ignorance shown here. People who work in call centres in Scotland speak English, not Scots. Most Scottish people don't speak Scots as a first language now and instead speak Scottish English. As for the political and economic isolation point; I think you should perhaps go away and have a word with yourself, FumbleFingers. Poor form indeed. – Jamie Hollern Jan 14 '17 at 19:57
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    @FumbleFingers To be clear for everyone here, when I say EL&U should treat Scots as a dialect of English, I'm talking about, well, the Scots that's a dialect of English (even if controversially so). I'm not taking abou Scottish Standard English (which is just English with a different accent and set of idioms) nor Scots Gaelic. The SSE is uncontroversially on-topic, and the Gaelic one is uncontroversially off-topic (and only a handful of people speak it anyway, mostly in the Outer Hebrides). I think the kind of Scots they speak in Inverness (e.g.) should have a home on EL&U. – Dan Bron Jan 17 '17 at 18:16
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    @FumbleFingers Yes, I'm Scots and yes I consider Scots to be a separate language. However, I refrained from using that phrase and instead used "distinct entity" because whether it's a language or a dialect, English and Scots aren't mutually intelligible. Your social engineering point is off topic, but I'd like to point out that it's social engineering that caused people to believe Scots was some sort of vulgar slang variety of English in the first place. Anyway, I have no issue with it being decided on-topic. I expected that since it's clearly the best place for it. – Jamie Hollern Jan 18 '17 at 9:17
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    @DanBron Just FTR Inverness is not the best example of a place where a Leid more distinct than SSE might be spoken. It's a place where Standard English and SSE meet and i do know several people who grew up with some level of gaelic at home. Inverness is a fast growing place, concentrating people from around the Highlands and the rest of the country, waves of workers from the central belt to Invergordon, to the hydro schemes... Armed Services at Ft George etc have made it quite a wee melting pot. – Spagirl Jan 18 '17 at 18:55
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    @Spagirl Neat to know, thanks. I was reading up on Inverness the other evening. Seems it recently won some awards for being of if the nicest cities to live in all Europe. Now I want to visit. So, what's a good example of a (relatively well-known) place I could go to hear true Scots spoken in the streets? – Dan Bron Jan 18 '17 at 18:57
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    @DanBron Inverness is indeed very nice, better when we get the by-pass linked up. I think the problem with lugging in on Scots speaking Scots is that there are so many competing influences in speech, be it education, work, media or migration. I think you'd want to look for rural, unfashionable areas where university and commuter-belt have had least impact. – Spagirl Jan 18 '17 at 19:21
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    @DanBron If I may recommend some places then I'd say the region where I live, Dumfries and Galloway has many Scots speakers, especially in the west. Ayrshire still retains a broad dialect of Scots, which is the Scots that Robert Burns used. If you go to Glasgow, you'll hear lots of people speaking Glaswegian Scots, which is quite different to other dialects of Scots. I personally like Glaswegian because it's a very humorous dialect. A good example is the following phrase allegedly heard at a Celtic match in Glasgow: "Aw naw, no Annoni oan anaw noo!" (Oh no, not Annoni on as well now!" – Jamie Hollern Jan 18 '17 at 20:40
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    @Spagirl the Highlands are one of the worst places to go in order to find Scots speakers, because they actually hardly spoke Scots there to begin with: Until quite recently, the area had many people who spoke Scottish Gaelic (i.e. neither English nor Scots), and they were actually forced to learn English as a second language and use it due to e.g. Gaelic being forbidden in schools. The fact that English hadn't been spoken there for very long means that it's still fairly "standard" there. – errantlinguist Jan 24 '17 at 14:47

I don’t see any value in having a general policy either way on this. I would definitely be against a blanket policy against questions about Scots.

As Dan Bron says:

If there evolves a more acute pain to be addressed, like being inundated with poor-quality or under-researched question on Scots, or a better place to address these questions is launched on SE, we can always reconsider.

As it stands, these questions aren't causing us any trouble, and there's no better home for them, so we might as well keep them.

How many questions on Scots, or even just on Scottish English, do we get here? Very few—few enough I think that each can be evaluated on its own merits.

The specific example you cite, What is the meaning of "Many a mickle makes a muckle"?, is I think certainly on-topic. It is about a proverb that is clearly used in English-language contexts, not just by Scots speakers. Four of the six words in the proverb as the OP gives it are clearly English words (despite your alteration of “makes” to “maks” in the title of this question, that's not how the OP spelled the expression, and it’s just your opinion that “the original question spelled the phrase wrongly”). The other two words are attested in dialectal English and have entries in English dictionaries.

This site covers many language varieties aside from standard English; e.g. questions about Shakespearian English and even Old English are on-topic here.

  • Even if my "alteration" is incorrect (it isn't) it doesn't mean the question is invalid. Just so you're clear, all 6 words in the example I used are Scots words. – Jamie Hollern Jan 21 '17 at 20:54
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    @JamieHollern: In your example, they are all Scots words. But how can you tell in the OP's question? The fact that the proverb "Many a mickle maks a muckle” exists in Scots (which I'm not disputing) in no way proves that a proverb "Many a mickle makes a muckle” does not exist in English. – herisson Jan 21 '17 at 20:58
  • That's a fair point. Many words and phrases of different origin have been ingested into English. Perhaps the example was a bad one; perhaps not. – Jamie Hollern Jan 21 '17 at 21:00

Weighing in late here, but this appears to be Scots:

The Lord’s my herd, I’ll want for nocht,
He gars me tae lie doon
In girsie howes, an syne I’m brocht
Faar wimplin burnies croon.

An fan for ither joys I craik,
An wanner faur frae God,
He airts me, for His ain Name’s sake,
Intil his ain richt road.

Ay, an I gang throwe yon dark glen
Faar waesome shadows faa
He’ll keep near-haun me, and I ken
I’ll hae nae fear ava.

Tho mony faes aroon me staun
His kindness nivver fails;
He spreads my table, an his haun
Fills my cup till it skails.

Een sae, gweed guidin an gweed-gree
Gang wi me ilka day:
And in God’s Hoose faur up on hie
I fain wad bide for aye.

It's fairly obviously related to English: "I'll want for nocht" is "I'll need/lack nothing/nought"; and gang throwe yon dark glen is "go through that dark valley".

But is it English? No. [Of course, it may not actually be Scots either, in which case I'm predicating this answer on the wrong example! If that's so, I'll delete it.] Is it intelligible? Actually, probably not: I know this is Psalm 23, and can work that from the first line, but something like "Een sae, gweed guidin an gweed-gree" in isolation is unintelligible to the point of its being difficult to work out what language it might actually be.

Could a question based on this language be on-topic on ELU? Perhaps, but it's doubtful. Someone asking about the rest of verse 3 is not asking about English. It may be conceivable that a question might be asked about the relationship between gang and go, but would a question about the relationship between the German word gang or ging and the English verb be on topic? I think that's unlikely. And what about a word like skails (overflows)? I'm not sure that has any cognate in English: is scatter related? Again, unlikely. Such questions would need to be very carefully worded to be about English.

I would lean towards Scots being generally off-topic and only exceptionally on-topic. That exception is when the Scots word is very close to its English equivalent, or a Scots expression (like "Many a mickle...") is common in English. And if that's the case, then a dictionary is likely to go a long way to answer a query — so the question is probably still off-topic.

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    Many thanks for your answer. This is definitely Scots, although the unintelligible line uses uncommon spelling with "gweed" (usually "guid", English "good") which is often a problem in Scots. I doubt most people other than native Scots speakers would recognise that line as Scots at first glance; I had to have a wee think about it myself! – Jamie Hollern Jan 18 '17 at 19:13
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    Politics aside (if that is ever possible), don't you think what is being discussed is just as much a variety of English as African-American English, Australian English, or Cockney Rhyming slang? Are those latter on or off topic (I'm hoping all, including Scots, are on topic.) – Mitch Jan 18 '17 at 20:40
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    @Mitch I'm happy to go with Scots being a "type" of English, because that's what it is. I asked the question merely because I found it interesting and I think that the questions you'll get regarding Scots here can be treated as on topic because they'll be "mainstream" phrases. My main point is that just because it's a type of English doesn't mean it can't be considered its own language. I'm not a linguist but I place a lot of weight on the mutual intelligibility of so called dialects and I doubt the above passage is intelligible to non-Scots speakers (please correct me if I'm wrong, though). – Jamie Hollern Jan 18 '17 at 20:47
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    @Mitch I don't know enough about African American English to comment on that, but Australian English is better compared to Standard Scottish English than to Scots. Cockney rhyming slang is decoration added to Standard English by people in the capital of England, so again I don't know if it's a valid comparison. Another difference is the sheer breadth of Scots. It diverged from Middle English nearly 600 years ago so the differences can be vast, especially when spoken. When school kids in Scotland don't understand what Burns was talking about I think it indicates a huge difference between them. – Jamie Hollern Jan 18 '17 at 20:53
  • @Jamie I was going for imcomprehensibilitu as the common thread. Those 4 all tend to be incomprehensible in varying extents to std speakers but still obviously on topic to me – Mitch Jan 18 '17 at 21:09
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    @Mitch I think Scots is sufficiently different that it's diverged too far from English to be called English. AAVE, Australian and even Cockney -- and other forms of English -- are far more recognisable as English than Scots is. – Andrew Leach Jan 18 '17 at 23:57
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    @JamieHollern I did actually think that gweed was probably normally guid, but that was the spelling in wherever I copied it from. However, even that is telling; does Scots have a settled spelling? ELU would have had difficulty in Shakespeare's time, who couldn't even spell his own name consistently! If a language doesn't even have its own internal standards, let alone follow Standard English, it's not English. – Andrew Leach Jan 19 '17 at 0:01
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    @AndrewLeach: Telling of what? English isn't standardized by definition. We accept questions about Shakespearean English. Not all questions have to be about standards and "one right way"-isms. – herisson Jan 19 '17 at 7:27
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    @AndrewLeach: Because of English cultural (and other) imperialism, Scots doesn't have a fixed orthography. It's in much the same position as, e.g., Low Saxon was until very recently with respect to Standard German. Although Low Saxon had been the language of the dominant Hanseatic League, German cultural and other imperialisms guaranteed that Low Saxon was seen as "substandard German", a gabble spoken only by country people up along the North and Baltic seacoasts, its culture transmitted orally and its language punished in schools (another parallel with Scots). – MMacD Jan 25 '17 at 9:16

Technically it might be an ethnolect, but it is just a word that was coined to avoid too heated political discussions. While ultimately I believe the decision is for people using it to make.

A 2010 Scottish Government study of "public attitudes towards the Scots language" found that 64% of respondents (around 1,000 individuals being a representative sample of Scotland's adult population) "don't really think of Scots as a language", but it also found that "the most frequent speakers are least likely to agree that it is not a language (58%) and those never speaking Scots most likely to do so (72%)".

Now, aside of the fact that this kind of studies should be treated rather advisory, it unveils the most important aspect of the issue.

I, as a non-native English speaker, have been taught standard British English. That education allowed me to interact with people from variety of countries and consume media created in even bigger number of places. Plethora of American accents and dialects came quite naturally to me, as did South African and Australian. Back then, however, there's no hope I would be able to understand Scots, neither spoken nor written. And on that note: the aforementioned study shows that 72% of Scottish non-Scots speakers think of it as a language, and that is most likely because they cannot understand it!

Finally there is the aspect of cultural identity. From my own backyard the Kashubian and Silesian languages are also topics of heated discussion - members of those communities believe those are languages, and yet that status is not granted them, despite there being only very limited mutual intelligibility, and the reasons are strictly political, verging on unhealthy understanding of "national unity".

The only fair assumption is to treat Scots as a separate language, at least until there is a referendum that would Scottish people determine democratically their stance. I guess we might actually see it happen, should Scotland become independent and be given a chance to legally sort out variety of topics concerning its own identity.

So, to answer the question: Scots language questions should be either separated from English language community, or the name of the community should change to be inclusive of related-but-separate languages.

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    @zwol: I was about to make that same observation. Well said! I'm minded of Eddie Izzard's routine about imperialism and flags. – MMacD Jan 25 '17 at 9:19
  • @zwol: «Randolph Quirk adapted the definition to "A language is a dialect with an army and a flag" (adding a defense policy and a national airline)» Hah - love it! – Lightness Races with Monica Jan 26 '17 at 18:07

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