Book Review

Anne Smyth

A Scots Grammar: Scots Grammar & Usage, David Purves (revised edition, Edinburgh: The Saltire Society, 2002)

ISBN 0 95411 079 8. £9.99

A Scots Grammar

David Purves has produced a revised edition of his 1997 publication, which was the first Scots grammar to appear. In the introduction to this revised edition, he makes complimentary mention of Dr Philip Robinson’s Ulster-Scots grammar, while acknowledging that his own is of more limited scope. On the basis of this little publication, Mr Purves should take encouragement and follow it up with the ‘more comprehensive academic work’ that he feels will be required for the new millennium.

It is a great pity, however, that this revised edition was not proof-read much more closely than has apparently been the case. Such criticism, admittedly, can be levelled at the vast majority of contemporary publications, and it is hard to assess whether the underlying cause is a less rigorous approach to language generally or excessive haste in production. Of course, be an author ever so conscientious, the writer is still at the mercy of the printer who thinks he has a better insight into what was meant.

Besides the obvious textual mistakes, the reader encounters many instances where the switch from normal text to italic or vice versa has not been made at the correct point. However, perhaps the most obvious muddle that good proofing could have corrected takes place in the endnotes, which go ‘agley’ after endnote 17 on page 11.

Nevertheless, this little grammar is an enjoyable publication in itself, and there are additional insights for the reader who comes to it from an Ulster-Scots standpoint. Firstly, those sad individuals who, like the reviewer, are interested in shared and divergent vocabulary as between Scots and Ulster-Scots will find plenty of Scots examples to trigger a bit of talking to themselves to decide how an Ulster-Scots speaker would say the sentence. For example, on page 13 we find: Thon laddie cloured me ower the heid wi a gret mukkil big stane. Over to you!

Another aspect of the grammar that will be of particular interest to Ulster-Scots folk, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the similarity in developments on both sides of the Irish Sea. Ulster-Scots activists who have cringed at many of the supposed ‘translations’ into Ulster-Scots that have appeared from time to time will give fervent endorsement to David Purves’s words on page 7:

‘Some of the so-called Scots currently written and published may be syntactically and idiomatically English and attempts to compensate for its bogus character, by spelling English words in an unusual way. It is not possible to write well in Scots without experience of colloquial speech, or without a sound knowledge of Scots idiom and syntax… Good Scots certainly cannot be written by anybody who decides to invent his own orthography and grammar off the cuff, because it is too much effort to discover the standards inherent in speech and in the substantial corpus of literature which already exists. A passage in English cannot be transformed into Scots simply by substituting Scots words for English words without reference to structure and idiom.’

Also, discussion regarding spelling standardisation in ‘The Spelling of Scots’, starting at page 109, is very useful for Ulster-Scots, which is at a rudimentary stage of this process. It helps us to be aware of some of the dangers inherent in what is generally accepted as a desirable methodology: pronunciation spellings of Ulster-Scots words.

On page 114, David Purves writes:

‘Some evidently English words commonly appearing in the context of written Scots (such as, ability, idiot, blind, find, mind, time, wife, double, finger, hunger, younger, pear, tear, single and stir), have a different pronunciation from English, and in any reformed system of spelling Scots, it is important that the spelling of such words should reflect the difference. On the basis of a satisfactorily reformed system, these words could be spelt: abeilitie, eidiot, blinnd, finnd, mynd, lyme, wyfe, doubil, fingir, hungir, yungir, peir, teir, singil and steir.’

Arguably, re-spelling the words mind, time and wife as mynd, tyme and wyfe does not really give much of a clue as to how the latter pronunciations are differentiated from the Standard. It can probably be assumed by those of us used to hearing Scots speech that David Purves is trying to indicate a ‘narrower’ vowel sound in the Scots, but it could be said that familiarity with the sound would suggest the correct pronunciation anyway, even if the word is spelt as in Standard English.

Further, the following is found on page 115:

‘There seems no prospect of early publication of a Scots dictionary which will include all the words used in common with English in literary Scots. The word, for, is in this category, and at present, it properly belongs in English dictionaries. The vowel here is unstressed and virtually undifferentiated, and there is, therefore, no justification for representing it as fer, fir or fur; words in which a different vowel is specifically represented. The same applies to representing the as thi.’

Here is plenty of scope for argument. So far as Ulster-Scots is concerned, careful listening will disclose that what the speaker is saying is generally fur. Writing it as fur therefore reflects the vowel that is actually heard. There is little point in writing the as thi, when the latter represents exactly what the average speaker of Standard English is actually saying. However, tha, which appears in Ulster-Scots writing, old and new, also represents an actual pronunciation by Ulster-Scots speakers. It is hard to reconcile Mr Purves’s opposition to these spellings and his support for ‘wyfe’, for example.

Interestingly, the recommendations of the Scots Style Sheet (1947) and the Scots Language Society’s ‘Recommendations for Writers in Scots’ (1985) are set out in the Appendices. Many of the spellings suggested there are sufficiently different from what we are used to reading in Ulster-Scots literature as to cause a kind of ‘double-take’. However, the Scots approach seems to have been largely evolutionary rather than prescriptive, an example we would be well advised to follow in Ulster.

David Purves, of course, comes to his subject as a proficient writer of Scots himself. He is a former editor of Lallans, the journal of the Scots Language Society, and is also a past President of the Society. He is a friend and colleague of the late and greatly missed Professor Jack Aitken, and his love for the Scots language, just like Jack’s, shines through in what he writes. He is to be congratulated on an attractive and interesting grammar.



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A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


The Ulster-Scots Academy is currently working on the digitisation of Dr Philip Robinson's seminal Ulster-Scots Grammar and the English/Ulster-Scots part (with circa 10,000 entries) of a two-way historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots. These projects are planned to be completed and available on the site in 2016.



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This site is being developed by the Ulster-Scots Language Society (Charity No. XN89678) without external financial assistance. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

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