Lexicon Valley

The Free Enclopaedia That Awbody Can Eedit: Scots Wikipedia Is No Joke

The Scots Wikipedia doesn’t actually have a tartan logo.

At first glance, the Scots Wikipedia page reads like a transcription of a person with a Scottish accent: “Walcome tae Wikipaedia, the free enclopaedia that awbody can eedit,” it says. The main page’s Newsins section includes info about the FIFA Warld Cup and a Featurt picture of a Ruddy Kingfisher from Kaeng Krachan Naitional Pairk in Thailand. If you type “scots wikipedia” into a Google search, the first autocomplete suggestion is “scots wikipedia joke,” and a top hit is a Wikipedia talk page with a proposal for getting rid of Scots Wikipedia containing the following comment: “Joke project. Funny for a few minutes, but inappropriate use of resources.”

But Scots is totally real, “not a joke,” as pointed out by one of the Wikipedia editors, who overwhelmingly rejected the proposal. Their final verdict stated that the “proposer should educate him/herself in linguistic diversity,” and included a link to the Wikipedia page for Scots.

Depending on who you ask, Scots is a language, a dialect of English, or slang. It’s a part of the Germanic language family, which also includes modern German, Dutch, and English. Both modern English and Scots descended from Old English in the 1100s, and developed separately for hundreds of years. When Scotland and England joined to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, Scots was widely regarded as its own language, distinct from English. It is still one of Scotland’s three official languages (the other two are English and Scottish Gaelic), but because it is mostly mutually intelligible with English, it’s sometimes regarded as a dialect of English or slang.

There is no consensus among language experts about what constitutes a language versus a dialect. Spoken language is constantly changing, and different communities of language speakers coin new words, phrases, and expressions that get used within their groups. Inevitably, several versions of a language emerge, with distinct features—the accents of American English and British English, to name one. Whether these different versions are considered distinct languages is largely political. Sociolinguist Max Weinreich is credited with popularizing a quote illustrating the blurry line between the two: “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

For instance, politics heavily influenced the classification of languages spoken in China. In an effort to unify the country, Chinese officials declared Mandarin the country’s official mother tongue, and discouraged other “dialects.” These dialects are often not mutually intelligible with Mandarin—for example, Shanghainese, spoken in Shanghai, has different sounds and tones than Mandarin—and, as a result, the number of dialect speakers is steadily shrinking.

Scotland has a long and embattled relationship with the UK—which you can read about in the Scots Wikipedia entry for Scotland’s history—and Scots will vote on September 18 of this year on the question of whether their country will become independent from the UK. Centuries of strife have led some Brits to regard the Scots language and its speakers as inferior or derivative of the dominant English culture. But Scots has a pretty good claim to being its own language; it has its own regional dialects, and is as related to modern English as Dutch is to Norwegian. “It’s as absurd to call Scots a dialect of English as it is to call English a dialect of Scots,” wrote late Scottish poet Norman MacCaig.

Scots Wikipedia has been around since 2005, and it’s a great way to encourage Scots speakers to take an active role in preserving their language. It’s a fun game to see which words Scots and English share, and which words Scots shares with other Germanic languages. For example, the word for churches in Scots is “kirks,” the same word used in Dutch. Given that the Scots Wiki has only 24,000 articles (compared with English Wikipedia, which has more than 4.5 million), the sampling of coverage is somewhat surprising. It includes an inexplicably long entry on Ricky Martin’s 2000 album Sound Loaded, a brief mention of Ronald Reagan’s Tear Down This Wall speech (Tear doun this waw!), and even briefer entries for ainimal and warld.

Whether it’s regarded as a language or dialect, it’s clear that Scots has an active population of speakers. If you count yourself among them, then Scots Wiki wants your input. Mind your manners, though, and dinna (don’t) bite the newcomers. Whan the editin gets hot, remember to assume the best aboot fowk onietime ye can, dinna label or insult fowk, and be ready tae apologise.