‘I would not say that Yiddish is dying, nor would I say that it is alive’ was how Nobel Prize winner the late Isaac Bashevis Singer responded to the question of how it felt to be writing in a ‘dead’ language.
We’ll come back to what Singer’s reply may have to do with Scots later, but Ishbel McFarlane’s exploration of the guid Scots tongue – ‘O is for Hoolet’ is very much alive and deals with live issues.
We set off at a brisk pace through a crash course in linguistics, invited to view language as a code to be interpreted by the audience (in both the particular and general sense) with a discursive diversion from there to Professor David Crystal’s work on ‘dialect’ in the context of that recently deceased language, Serbo-Croat, rendered defunct by the emergence of separate states each employing their own variant of what was once the principal language of Yugoslavia.
Language can indicate socio-economic difference (or at least perpetuate our perception of these), as McFarlane’s reading of Robert Burns’ letter to James Johnson, the principal begetters of the ‘Scots Musical Museum’, a major collection of ‘traditional’ Scots songs. In the letter Burns suggests he can adapt tradition to contemporary taste (which he went on to do).
McFarlane weaves her own family history into this, playing a recording of her mother singing ‘Jock O Halezdene’ at a Kinross folk festival some thirty years ago. For this reviewer at least, it’s an emotive moment, catching as it does a transition in how tradition is perceived and transmitted. Beautifully sung, it would be presented and received differently now, as indeed it was then. Even ‘tradition’ isn’t static, and bands such as Silly Wizard and singers such as the late Jean Redpath were already changing perceptions of the past utterly.
McFarlane engagingly invites her audience to both pose their own questions about Scots and to participate by asking ones generated by an autocue. Great for keeping our attention, it allowed her to introduce more arcane areas of investigation, including that of the Cross-Party Group in the Scottish Parliament on Scots Language and the work of the late Pierre Bourdieu, whose concept of ‘habitus’ suggests how attitudes may be reinforced and generate their own kinds of internal colonialism and cultural inferiorism.
Isaac Bashevis Singer’s audience for his Yiddish novels and stories shrank as speakers of the language died. The translation of the Bible instigated by James VI and I to unite his realms and the ‘Scottish English’ in which the Marquis of Stair wrote his study of Scots meant Scots was neither the language of ecclesiology or jurisprudence. When a language is of no use to power and there is no inducement to transmit it to new generations, it dies.
David Crystal, frequently quoted by McFarlane, has written of ‘Language Death’ but also of the possibilities offered by the internet, while Gary West has pointed out that globalisation is, in potential at least, a two-way street where the strengths of Scots language and culture can be exported to a global audience.
Home is where we start from, however, and McFarlane takes us back there with memories of her own childhood and teenage confusion in being brought up by Scots speakers yet wanting to conform to the expectations of her peers who regarded her language as ‘slang’. McFarlane’s reading of Liz Lochhead’s ‘Kidspoem/Bairnsangs’ made the point beautifully.
‘Of course, the people who really ought to see this aren’t here’ – thus a Morningside matron attending a performance of ‘Educating Rita’, and the same might apply with more force here. McFarlane hints at the pressures on teachers already hard-pressed to introduce Scots into the curriculum (and there is always the danger that what is taught is not necessarily retained or even appreciated) but the contradictions (the word is chosen advisably) remain, in a world where homogenisation in the cause of a questionable ‘development’ continues apace.
Difficult to define, ‘O is for Hoolet’ is a remarkable piece of work that is well worth seeing and even more worth pondering.