Scots, Scottish, and Gaelic ... what's the difference? - Sarah Woodbury

Scots, Scottish, and Gaelic … what’s the difference?

What language were people speaking in 13th century Scotland?

Undoubtedly, that is a question that keeps most people up at night.

In a nutshell, in 1288, in Scotland, people spoke three local languages regularly.  At the time, they called them:  French, English, and Scottish.

What is confusing is that those are not the names used to refer to these languages NOW.  French, was Norman French. Robert the Bruce, a great King of Scotland, descended from the Gaelic Earls of Carrick, and on his father’s side from “ancestors in Brix, in Flanders. In 1124, King David I granted the massive estates of Annandale to his follower, Robert de Brus, in order to secure the border. The name, Robert, was very common in the family.

Brought up at Turnberry Castle, Bruce was a product of his lineage, speaking Gaelic, Scots and Norman French.”

This article makes a mistake, however, which I have highlighted–or rather, not a mistake because Bruce really did speak those languages, but it isn’t clear to the layman that Bruce would not have called them that.

The transition is as follows:

Old term         New term

French            Norman French

Scottish          Gaelic

English           Scots

Norman French:  “When Norse invaders arrived in the then-province of Neustria and settled the land that became known as Normandy, they gradually adopted the Gallo-Romance speech of the existing populations – much as Norman rulers in England later adopted the speech of the administered people. However, in both cases, the élites contributed elements of their own language to the newly enriched languages that developed in the territories.

In some cases, Norse words adopted in Norman have been borrowed into French – and more recently some of the English words used in French can be traced back to Norman origins. Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Norman language spoken by the new rulers of England left traces of specifically Norman words that can be distinguished from the equivalent lexical items in French.”

Scots:  What we know today as ‘Scots’ was not called that in 1288.  It was called ‘English’. Scots is a dialect of English spoken by the lowland people of Scotland. “Scots is a Germanic language closely related to English and spoken by about 1.5 million people in Scotland. Scots is descended from the language of the Angles who settled in northern Britain, in an area now known as Northumbria and southern Scotland, in the 5th century AD. The language was originally know as ‘Inglis’ and has been influenced by Gaelic, Norse, Latin, Dutch, Norman French, Standard French and English.

By the 14th century Scots was the main language of Scotland and was used in literature, education, government and in legal documents.”

Gaelic: Gaelic was called “Scottish” in 1288 Scotland (thus, the three languages as understood by the people at the time: French, English, and Scottish).

“The Scottish people originated with Gaelic-speaking incomers from North Eastern Ulster who settled in the North Western coastlands and islands of Caledonia in the later fifth century, and subsequently relocated their kingdom of Dal Riata from Ulster to Argyll, ‘the coastland of the Gael’. This subsequently grew by absorption of the Picts in the east, and conquest of the Britons and Angles in the south, into what came to be called Scotland by the 11th century. Viking settlements in the Northern Highlands and Northern Isles from the end of the 8th century established the Norn language which survived in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland until the eighteenth century.

Under the kingship of Malcolm III “Ceannmòr” (1054-96) Gaelic began to lose its preeminence at court and amongst the aristocracy to Norman French, and in the Lowland area to the Anglian speech of the burghs, which were established first in eastern Scotland by David I (1124 – 53). This speech was known firstly as Inglis, and later as Scots, and it rapidly became the predominant language of the Scottish Lowlands, meaning that by the later middle ages Gaelic had retreated to the Highlands and Hebrides, which maintained some degree of independence within the Scottish state.”

Gaelic is the traditional language of the Scotti or Gaels, and the historical language of the majority of Scotland. It is not clear how long Gaelic has been spoken in what is now Scotland; it has lately been proposed that it was spoken in Argyll before the Roman period, but no consensus has been reached on this question. However, the consolidation of the kingdom of Dál Riata around the 4th century, linking the ancient province of Ulster in the north of Ireland and western Scotland, accelerated the expansion of Gaelic, as did the success of the Gaelic-speaking church establishment. Placename evidence shows that Gaelic was spoken in the Rhinns of Galloway by the 5th or 6th century.

The Gaelic language eventually displaced Pictish north of the Forth, and until the late 15th century it was known in Inglis as Scottis. Gaelic began to decline in Scotland by the beginning of the 13th century, and with this went a decline in its status as a national language. By the beginning of the 15th century, the highland-lowland line was beginning to emerge.

By the early 16th century, the Gaelic language had acquired the name Erse, meaning Irish, and thereafter it was invariably the collection of Middle English dialects spoken within the Kingdom of the Scots that came to be referred to as Scottis (whence Scots).”