In James Boswell’s travelogue, Boswell In Holland 1763-64, the author writes: “The Scottish language is being lost every day, and in a short time will become quite unintelligible. To me, who have the true patriotic soul of an old Scotsman, that would seem a pity.” With those words, along with the encouragement of his good friend, Samuel Johnson, Boswell set out to collect a list of terms specific to the Scottish language – the first Scots dictionary. Thirty-nine pages and eight hundred Scots words and phrases were compiled before the author abandoned the work altogether.
Boswell is probably best known for the biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, an account of Johnson’s travels around Scotland throughout the 1770’s. Find out why you should thank Mr. Johnson for making dictionaries easier to use.
Over Two-hundred and forty years later, Dr. Susan Rennie, a lexicographer and leading expert in the Scots language, has discovered Boswell’s draft, in his own handwriting, buried deep within the stacks at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library; its pages draped in 18th century Scots jargon. Literary scholars, brace yourselves!
John Jamieson’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language Vol I: To Which Is Prefixed A Dissertation On the Origin Of the Scottish Language, published in the early 1800’s, followed later by revised editions, is a collection of words interpreted by Ancient and Modern Scottish writers. It is important to note Jamieson’s efforts because it is within a collection of his papers, purchased by the Bodleian Library in 1927, that Boswell’s manuscript surfaced. Boswell’s writings, bequeathed to his son, sold at auction in 1825. Whether or not Jamieson purchased the writings as part of his research is unknown.
The term Scots dates from the mid-14th century – a contraction from Scottis, the northern variant of the word Scottish. Sometimes referred to as Doric, or Teri dialect (depending on the specific Scottish region), Scots is a Germanic language primarily spoken in non-Scottish Gaelic areas of Scotland such as the Lowlands and parts of Ulster.
The Early Scots language began to take shape around the thirteenth century via the Old Norse language – a North Germanic language spoken by the Scandinavian-influenced Middle English speakers from the North and Midlands of England. The Scots language continued to evolve due in large part to the influence of the Romance and Gaelic languages. Throughout the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the Early Scots dialect became the “prestige language” throughout most of eastern Scotland. By the early 1700’s, the Scots language became an independent “sister language” to the Modern English language.
As William Zachs, a collector and scholar of Scottish Enlightenment and a Boswell specialist said, “Boswell wanted to do for the Scots language what Johnson has done for the English language.” Much to the delight of linguists and literary scholars, Dr. Rennie is currently transcribing Jamieson’s manuscript – mostly written in French.
What words are seemingly impossible to translate into English? Find a wacky list, here.