Language is power. It’s not a new concept. Historically, it’s why illegal and occupying powers have tended to ban the speaking of native languages, whether, among the indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, or Asia, the
government of the day in London has good form on this practice. It’s so successful in fact that most Scots would now have to resort to Google to know what I mean when I use the word “duchthas”.
In the build-up to independence in the nation, we now know as the United States of America, there were discussions about what would be the language of
government and briefly, it was Classical Greek. For practical reasons, that notion didn’t last longer than six hours but the willingness to even contemplate the idea was itself considered a sign of separation from London.
One of the more lasting changes can still be seen in the different spelling between the Oxford-English used by broadsheet newspapers and book publishers in the British Isles today, and American-English. If you’ve ever wondered why the Americans spell ‘light’ as ‘lite’, it is not just because the Puritans who
founded New England, spelled the word in that way, nor is it because the English prefer to be influenced by their German monarchy – ‘licht’ being the
spelling of the word used by members of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Following the American Revolution, the unsuccessful lawyer, Noah Webster Jr,
found himself cast as not only political writer and editor but campaigning for English-language reform. There is simply no need for us to continue spelling words as we do except laziness posing as tradition. Thanks to the musical,
you’ll know the name Alexander Hamilton but it was this founding father who
persuaded Noah Webster to move to New York to edit the Federalist Party newspaper in 1793. Returning to Connecticut five years later, Webster served
in the Connecticut House of Representatives and founded the Connecticut Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1791. He wasn’t idle.
Webster published his first dictionary, ‘A Compendious Dictionary of the English
Language’ in 1806, and only the following year, started working on a more comprehensive edition, finally publishing it in 1828. He was very influential in
popularizing certain spellings in the United States. The dictionary we now know as the Merriam-Webster was first published in 1828 as ‘An American Dictionary of the English Language’ (the dictionary changed its name in 1982, some years after the sale of the G & C Merriam Co.).
Some time ago, I got into a long lunchtime conversation with a publisher in Covent Garden about the continuing use of the Scots language. If we didn’t end up shouting, it’s because I remembered he was paying but such is the price for being recognised as the guy who complained to Penguin that John Prebble’s classic history of the Highland Clearances had been classified as ‘land management’ on its re-issue in 2003.
Publishers enjoy boozy lunches, especially on summer days when street-level London stinks almost as badly as Paris but this chap was most insistent that
Scots wasn’t a language. Two things were learned. First, even most highly-educated Englishmen don’t appear to know where the words ‘English’ and
‘British’ come from. Second, for all their study of the Romans – and Greeks – at public school, they don’t know that the Romans named the tribes (and therefore the nations they conquered) after the language spoken by the people already living there.
English – Engels – is the same word in Dutch as ‘angels’ which perhaps only goes to show how good the House of Orange was at propaganda in the run-up to
their conquest of the new Jerusalem. And besides, the Ængles only arrived on the shores of Norfolk and Kent as the old conquerors were winding-up
their occupation (what is it with these immigrants, coming across that short expanse of water, eh?)
Britannia – Brythyn – is the language we now call ‘Welsh’ spoken by the people
living in what’s now England and Wales.
Scottish – Scotii – was the language used by a tribe from what was called ‘Hibernia’, the language of the Hibernians, native to what we call ‘Ireland’.
So far, so good, so what, fellow Caledonians?
The Oxford English and Merriam-Webster dictionaries contain the foremost editions of the English language. You might imagine that the rivalry could be
considered similar to that of Hamilton versus Verstappen in the lexicographical world, the older champion versus the younger whipper-snapper but in reality, both books appear in their current form at around the
same point in the nineteenth century.
Most Americans probably think little about the success of Noah Webster’s project but the Merriam-Webster dictionary stands for a lot more than simplifying spellings in the English language: it is a living symbol of a successful rebellion
against rule from London. You don’t have to go to a museum, watch a Mel Gibson movie or grapple with Duo Lingo but simply spell your words litely with a liteness of touch to bring color to the cheeks of the Rees-Mogg’s everywhere.
Whether you’re reading this on a laptop, tablet, mobile phone, even your TV screen, we’re all using computers and they all have spell-check software
that can switch between English (UK) and English (US) at the click of a mouse
or trackpad. Try it.
For years, I’ve been one of those picky sorts who tuts at folk using -ize instead of – ise but do you know what? I struggle to write Scots and even when I do, folks
will claim to either not be able to understand it or not be willing to make the effort. I’m not saying that Scots isn’t understandable or shouldn’t be used – I’m currently making my way through Blind Harry’s poem, The Wallace – but
remember how independence supporters are always being told to reach out to the ‘undecideds’? What if some of the most important ‘undecided’ folk are
beyond our shores? By using a form of the English language that is already in use by the rest of the world, we show Scotland’s willingness to get talking –
and more importantly, listening – to what others have to say.
By switching to the revolutionary language that Noah Webster introduced to the post-independent United States, we accomplish a number of things: first, it’s cold outside and at Christmas, no one wants to be stood manning a stall,
handing out leaflets. Second, it’s a subtle flag that marks your card: by choosing to write with a revolutionary spelling, you’re showing that you’re thinking about a revolution which, third, makes the poke in the eye for all those insisting on ‘correct’ English all the more jaggy.
To paraphrase Morrissey, the great embarrassment himself, leave Oxford-English
for the English. The rest of the world can today show its support for independence and the revolutionary idea that spelling of words should be simple by adopting Noah Webster’s spelling, after all, many of The Founding Fathers were themselves Scots. Wha’s like us?