What do I know about Code-Switching? Well, I’m from Dundee…

The other day my kids were acting out some scenario, both pretending to be old people. Inevitably, their old people characters speak Scots. Well, their best imitations of Scots, which, with them having 1 parent and grandparents from the north-east, the other parent and grandparent from the south-east but themselves growing up in the west of Scotland, results in a mangled mixture of Glaswegian-meets-Dundonian with a liberal sprinkling of Borders. I don’t so much correct them as suggest more consistent phraseology, because I’m happy for them to play around with language and it’s interesting to hear what they come up with. Even more interesting is that they feel they have to “put on” the accent/dialect when in character rather than seeing those words as ones they might actually employ themselves, even though they understand them in context.

I’m a sign language interpreter, so am lucky enough to work with languages in a professional capacity, but my long and still continuing journey to become a language professional started with a personal, recreational interest in languages. I learnt French at school and enjoyed it, although we weren’t particularly encouraged to take languages as advanced courses (I could write a whole blog series on my school experience…) I then spent a year in Sweden and learned basic Swedish. After university, where I trained in a Japanese martial art and therefore picked up a smattering of Japanese, I took some evening classes, first to refresh my French, then beginners Spanish. Finally I landed in British Sign Language and that one stuck and led me, after a decade of learning on and off, to start a 2nd career as an interpreter.

But all those are “proper” languages. When I was younger, Scots wasn’t really given serious credence. Growing up in Dundee, we always felt that our particular variant was just Dundonian, not really part of the whole Auld Lang Syne, old timey Robert Burns era way of speaking. Dundonian was fine to speak with your pals but we would get in trouble at school for not speaking properly – ironically sometimes discouraged from being “orrie”… * We were told that there was something wrong and shameful about the way we spoke. It wasn’t given a name, it was just not “proper”.

I’ve spent a lot of lockdown time listening to linguistics podcasts, primarily Lingthusiasm and The Allusionist. The latter has done 2 episodes featuring Scots – this one and this one. They are well worth a listen, both to get some background in how Scots and local dialects were suppressed, but also how people are refreshing the language with new terms as society changes.

Lingthusiams merch shirt. Would have preferred a rhotic joke but this one’s pretty good.

There seems to have been a bit of a resurgence in the recognition and preservation of Scots in recent years. My kids got The Gruffalo in Scots through their school and I wasn’t particularly convinced, it was a weirdly inconsistent mix of east and west coast words and some I’d never heard of. However the whole idea was to encourage kids to think about, learn about and use Scots so as far as that goes it was a good thing. (BTW The Highway Rat is much better than the Gruffalo) I don’t want my kids thinking that there is anything wrong, shameful or old-fashioned about the way their grandparents speak.

In fact when my youngest was learning to talk, she happened to pick up a word for ‘garment covering the legs’ whilst in Dundee, so her word was “breeks” for ages. They still refer to drains in the street as “cundies” because that’s a far better and more specific word. They can be heard to mutter “oot ma road” when someone is in their way. They know what a fleg and an oxter are and what it means if something is foostie.

Blast from the past. This book, whilst not uncontroversial, does somewhat capture the Dundonian tongue.

Last week I was interpreting a college class during which the lecturer relayed an anecdote about being handed a “muckle folder all coverered in stoor”. It was fantastic to hear. For too long that would have been considered language unbecoming of a lecturer, but she was speaking in a way that was natural to her and in that context – using a story from her experience to make a point relevant to the lesson – it was perfectly fitting.

There’s a concept in linguistics called “code-switching” – basically adjusting your language/dialect/way of speaking in different situations. I learned about this in an early sign language class. The teacher explained the concept and asked if we could think of any examples. All I had to say is, “well, I’m from Dundee…” and everyone in the room immediately understood. Dundonians aren’t quite bilingual, but we certainly do code-switch to a significant degree when speaking to any non-Dundonian. We are by no means the only ones, many groups do it for various reasons and it can be natural and easy or forced and exhausting. That experience gave me an understanding and appreciation of the variations in our language as well as the attitudes and perceptions that go along with these.

I’m making more of an effort to use dialect words and phrases with my kids. I don’t want them to be forgotten or lost with their grandparents. Passing on my Dundonian is part of passing on my heritage and culture, just as much as introducing them to the Beano, talking really fast and forcing them to follow the fates and fortunes (mostly fates) of a 2nd rate football team that play in tangerine and black. Any excuse to tell them to go “awa’n bile yer heid”.


*Translations:

Awa’n bile yer heid – Go away and boil your head – get out of here/don’t be silly

Breeks – Trousers

Fleg – Fright

Foostie – Gone off (food etc)

Muckle – Large

Orrie – Uncouth

Oot ma road – Get out of my way

Oxter – Armpit

Stoor – Dust

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