August 7, 2016

It seems that the Twitter mocking of the weekly Scots column in The National has assumed the quality of a ritual. There is a lot to be said about this (I said a bit when the whole thing just launched). Today’s post is on a fairly narrow topic: how the debate about whether Scots ‘is a language’ has a nice parallel in the history of the East Slavic languages Ukrainian and Belarusian. Maybe, just maybe, recognizing that the Scottish debates aren’t unique could broaden them a bit.

Today, the position that Ukrainian and Belarusian are ‘distinct languages’ rather than some kind of ‘broken Russian’ is completely uncontroversial everywhere except some fairly fringe Russian nationalist circles0 That was not at all the situation in the 19th century, when it was common to argue that (to simplify) there was a single Russian ‘language’ (jazyk) divided into several ‘dialects’ (narečije), including northern and southern ‘Great Russian’ (Russian), ‘Little Russian’ (Ukrainian) and ‘White Russian’ (Belarusian). Some not dissimilar insinuations were also part of the official line in the later Soviet period.

Crucially, the written traditions underlying these languages’ modern standard forms are relatively recent, going back to the late 18th century (Ukrainian) or even the second half of the 19th (Belarusian). These modern standards often show clear influence from the socially dominant Russian norm, enforced particularly after the early Soviet policy of ‘indigenization’ was trashed in the 1930s in favour of more or less covert Russification. Indeed, both Belarusian and Ukrainian still have some irredentist proponents of earlier, less Russified, standards, which have sometimes survived in emigrant communities outside the Soviet Union.

These debates (already strongly echoed by the weekly rejection of written Scots as ‘just standard English with changed vowels’1) provide a further interesting twist. Any Scots standard has to walk the tightrope between traditional Scots, just about clinging on in parts of the country but not really part of most people’s everyday experience, and more or less standard varieties of Scottish English, which is what most people speak. The discontinuity between Older Scots and Scottish English creates a funny authenticity requirement, where attempts at writing modern Scots with all its English influence are dismissed as ‘contaminated’, by contrast with the ‘pure’ Scots of earlier writers. Funnily enough, in practice the list of these earlier writers tends to boil down to Robert Burns, who was absolutely not averse to Anglicizing a rhyme or three (whether simply to make the verse work or to make the poems more acceptable to a southern audience) — there are some examples here. I’m going to be charitable here and assume people who invoke his spirit just ignore this fact to make their point rather than just lazily name the one acceptably canonized Scots writer they know.

Ukrainian and Belarusian suffer from much the same discontinuity. Before the Mongol invasions, the standard written language of the Old Rus’ state was fairly uniform (discounting Church Slavonic influence and the amazing Novgorod birch bark documents), but in the later Middle Ages there was a clear divergence between the written language of Muscovy and the written language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (contrary to what one might expect from the name given today’s realities, this was a state with a mostly Slavic élite). This ‘Ruthenian’ language, while building on the older tradition, was clearly influenced by the dialects that would evolve into today’s Belarusian and Ukrainian varieties while also accepting Polish influence, especially after the Union with Poland. However, by the end of the 17th century this variety was driven out of use by Polish in Poland and Church Slavonic and later modern Russian in the Russian Empire, and the elaboration of the ‘new’ standards began mostly from scratch.

This provides, I think, a fairly clear parallel: modern Ukrainian, Belarusian and Scots all have (or aspire to) ‘new’ standards that do not go back in a direct line to the late medieval period.2 There are obvious similarities between the modern and the old standards (especially salient when they are also differences from the dominant language), because they build on more or less the same kinds of dialect. At the same time the newer standards also show clear influences from closely related, socially dominant languages (Russian or English) compared to an abstractly ‘pure’ form of the smaller language. But — and here I finally come to the point I want to make — that’s not normally seen — at least by reasonable people — as a fatal flaw for the legitimacy of Belarusian and Ukrainian as ‘real languages’. And therein lies, perhaps, some hope for Scots.

By way of final disclaimer, I claim no credit for being the first to come up with these parallels. Indeed the Russian scholar Alexander Pavlenko has also extended the similarities to the modern sociolinguistic situations of Scots vs. Ukrainian and Belarusian, so if you’re after more depth, see these papers by him:

  • Pavlenko, Alexander. 2002. Some common and distinctive extra-linguistic features in the histories of Scots and Ukrainian. Scottish Language 21, 13–26
  • Pavlenko, Alexander. 2007. One more East Slavic parallel for the language situation in the Lowlands. Scottish Language 26, 24–32.

  1. I’m not making this up, either [return]
  2. To be fair, there was a fairly drastic break in continuity in the development of the Russian standard in the 18th century too. English also underwent a period of active elaboration and standardization in the 17th and 18th century, although it’s not usually thought of in terms of a relatively clean break with the past, unlike the East Slavic situation. [return]

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I’m Pavel Iosad, and I'm a Lecturer in Theoretical Phonology in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. ¶ You can always go to the start page to learn more.

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