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Elphinstone Kist   Background and Contexts

Fit dis it soun lik?     by: McClure, Derrick

Why are languages and dialects different from each other? This question is vast and complex for a short answer; but an essential fact, the understanding of which at once makes the whole issue much clearer, is that speech forms change. This can be illustrated by the clearest and best-known case in Europe: the story of how the Latin of Julius Caesar gave rise to no fewer than seven of modern Europe's national languages. The Latin word for 'leaf' was folia. Present-day Italian is foglia, with a change in spelling but very little difference in pronunciation (the g is not pronounced separately, but is there only to show that the e has a soft, gliding sound). French is feuille, with the Latin -lia syllable lost entirely and the o changed to a peculiar vowel sound, difficult for speakers of most other languages to imitate with accuracy. Spanish is hoja (the h silent and the j pronounced like our ch in Machar): hardly recognisable as being related to the Latin ancestor-word at all. Meanings as well as pronunciations can change: caput, the Latin word for 'head' , has altered greatly to give the Spanish cabenza, but Italian testa and French tete (a shortened form of the same word) come from a Latin word which meant, not 'head' but a big earthenware wine-jar.

Doric as we know it today is the result of centuries of gradual development during which the speech of the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Roman Britain gave rise to, not only standard literary English, but all the dialects ever spoken in Scotland and England, the distinctive accents of Gaelic, Irish and Welsh speakers who at first learned English as a foreign language, the Ulster dialects arising from the speech of Scottish and English colonists, the forms that developed when English was taken far away from the motherland to the Americas and the Antipodes, and ultimately also to the pidgins and creoles of such places as Africa, the West Indies and Polynesia. (Doric is not , that is, anybody's imperfect attempt at present-day English, but a language with fully as long an independent pedigree.)

Many of the pronunciation features of Doric are shared with all other dialects of Scots. Our toun, doun, mous, hous, out, corresponding to 'town' etc. in English, show a change which did not take place: the oo sound is original, and it was in Southern England around Shakespeare's time that it began to develop into the dipthong of present-day speech. Where Scots has an ay-sound corresponding to English o - bane, hame, raip, gae- both languages have diverged from the original: the words in Anglo-Saxon were ban, ham, etc; and the a-sound was fronted and raised to ay in the northern kingdom,rounded and backed to o in the southern. Our gress, gless, bress, Setterday, our tap, drap, aff, laft, pat, sang, our jine, spile, bile, our hairt, airm, fairm, pairt: in all these cases, the Scots words have shown their distinctive pronunciations for centuries. Consonants as well as vowels can be affected by changes: Scots has lost the l in aa, caa, gowd, gowf, fou, shouther, and the v in gie, hae, loe, deil, hairst; but it is English which has lost an original sound and Scots which has retained it in the famous ch of nicht, bricht, licht, focht, thocht.

In all these cases, Doric shares the pronunciation features common to all forms of Scots. Its own distinctive shibboleths, however, are readily identified. The first one that we know to have arisen is the development of initial f- in place of the wh- of other forms of Scots (and Scottish English), as in the catch-phrase Fa fuppit 'e fite fulpie? This had certainly emerged by the time of the Reformation: sixteenth-century manuscripts from the North-East show an occasional f-spelling instead of the quh- which was customary in Scots of that period. In the southern part of the area this usage is restricted to pronouns and adverbs: fa, fit or fat, fan, faar; north of Aberdeen it is heard in other words too: funn, faap, fusky, fussle. A futtle (a short-bladed knife for gutting fish) takes its name from the local pronunciation of whittle. One word which never has it is wheel: the reason for this is that the word was never used at the time when the pronunciation-change took place, wheeled carts not being in use in the North-East until the eighteenth century; so that when they were eventually introduced the tendency to replace wh- by f- had ceased to operate.

Initial wr-, in which the w has become silent in other forms of Scots and English (note that it is not there as a mere decoration: until the sixteenth century in England, and certainly until later in all parts of Scotland, words like wrong were pronounced precisely as they are spelt), in North-Eastern dialects has become vr-. This pronunciation is now becoming rare, but there are still elderly people who use it, especially in the phrase vrocht awaa. Hence vrang, vreet (write), vratch (miser), vraith (snowdrift), vricht (joiner). Similarly, initial kn-, as in words like knife, knock, knot, knowe, retains the k-sound in conservative North East speech.

Words like father, mother, brother, heather, other, gather, characteristically have a d- sound replacing the medial th: fader, midder, etc. By contrast, the word for daughter is not dochter as in most Scots dialects but dother: the -cht sequence is changed in this dialect to th, as in mith (might) and noth (nothing: cf. English nought).

Words with oo in English- a group of which the prounciation in Scots varies widely from dialect to dialect- characteristically have an ee sound in the Doric: meen, speen, seen, feel. When the consonant sound preceding this vowel is that of a g or k, a w- glide develops: gweed, squeel, cweel. Another distinctive set of words with ee in this dialect group where the ay- sound of most forms of Scots occurs before n: ane, nane, lane, stane, bane, are in the Doric een, neen, leen, steen, been.

A dipthong like the sound of i in time is heard in many words which elsewhere have ee- or ay-like sounds: chyne, chynge, wyte, gryte, ryne; fyte, seyven, quine. Another diphthong, something like ow in cow, occurs in words of which the English cognates have the sound of you (often spelt ew): fyowe, nyowe, skyow, byowty.

The North-East has always been a self-contained part of Scotland: communication with the rest of the country was difficult until the advent of modern roads, and indeed the ancient ports of Aberdeen, Fraserburgh and Peterhead had more contact with Continental towns than with other parts of Scotland. Under such circumstances, nothing could be more natural that the local speech form would develop in its own individual way, relatively free from influences from elsewhere: and that is exactly what happened. Nowadays, we are no longer so isolated, and Doric-speakers have become used to interacting not only with their fellow Scots from other parts of the kingdom, but with English, Americans and visitors from many other fremmit airts. Yet the Doric still proudly maintains its individual identity- and long may it flourish.

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