Earliest English spoken by Scots

Coldstream Bridge links Berwickshire and Northumberland.
Coldstream Bridge links Berwickshire and Northumberland.

Berwickshire was the heartland of Anglo-Saxon settlement in Scotland and could hold the answers about the earliest form of English spoken in Scotland.

A research project at the University of Glasgow is looking into the earliest roots of the Scots language and has Berwickshire very much on its radar as it examines the linguistic features of Old Northumbrian and its influence.

A team of five is working on the three-year project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Professor Carole Hough, principal investigator for the team, said: “Like Middle English, Older Scots is a descendant of Old English, but it is uncertain how far the differences reflect the respective varieties of Old English from which they derive, and how far they result from interaction with other languages, particularly Old Norse.

“With no evidence of major Norse settlement in the Borders, there is greater continuity of language from Old English to Scots here than elsewhere, so this is the best opportunity we have to establish which features of Scots derive from Old Northumbrian rather than from Old Norse.”

The project will create a fully searchable website of Berwickshire place-names designed for both public and academic use.

“It will cover a comprehensive survey of six parishes – Coldstream, Eccles, Foulden, Hutton, Ladykirk and Mordington. Dr Simon Taylor, co-investigator for the project, said: “Berwickshire’s place-names derive from a range of Celtic and Germanic languages including Brittonic, Gaelic, Old English and Old Norse.

“Most later names are from Scots.

“As evidence of Scotland’s complex linguistic past, they are of immense value.

“We aim to understand more fully not only the characteristics of the Old Northumbrian dialect, but to discover how Older Scots came to differ from northern Middle English.

“The project thus addresses one of the most important gaps in current knowledge of English historical linguistics – the earliest form of English spoken in Scotland.”

The project will publish the first of a series of academic volumes on Berwickshire place-names as part of a wider survey of Scottish ones.