We were intrigued to read about a project to compile The Historical Thesaurus of Scots, “a new online resource which aims to categorise the vocabulary of Scots” used far and wide across Scotland, from times of old through to present-day, that can be commented on and contributed to by the people themselves. Apparently key areas so far are weather and sport, with 421 words for the word ‘snow’ alone – and we thought it was only eskimos who had lots of words for snow!
Of course this resource will be of great interest to linguists, etymologists, local historians and Scots people themselves, as well as others simply curious about language and dialects. But for us as researchers, we are particularly interested in the insights it yields about the people and their culture, and how landscape and weather significantly influences and shape priorities, concerns, lifestyles, attitudes and behaviour – of individuals, communities and even a whole nation. To stick with the 421 terms for ’snow’ for a moment, we do often hear the grim weather forecasts for Scotland on the evening news in winter, from the comfort of our sofas in the relatively mild South-east of England, but it’s clear that snow must be a really big deal up there, affecting everyday lives and livelihoods.
Inspired enough to speak to some Scots colleagues and friends ourselves, we were surprised that they weren’t aware of there being so many Scots terms for anything much at all. For example, Louisa who now lives in London told us : “I have never even heard most of the terms for snow! I have always called snow snow. In Glasgow they say snaw that’s all I remember.”
It could be that the people we spoke to are living in the bigger cities of Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow) or now living outside of Scotland, and are thereby less in touch with ‘local’ terms, and/or that they are all middle-aged or younger, but most of them struggled to recall being aware of additional Scots terms, even in the past when some lived more immersed/rurally, never mind actually recalling any specifically.
Alison who lives back in Scotland near Edinburgh does have one vivid memory : “My Uncle Angus used to say “it’s snawing hankies” [handkerchiefs] ie. big flakes of snow, but I think that was just Uncle Angus rather than even local dialect. The only other phrase I can think of is “blin drift” [blind drift] ie. snow swirling about so much that you can’t see anything, and it’s very cold”
Alison went on to explain that “Scottish dialect words seem to be very localised – what’s spoken in Edinburgh is very different from what’s spoken in Glasgow, and up here a coastal town might have different words from an inland town just 10 miles away.”
We would probably most correctly conclude then, that the breadth and depth of terms featured in the Scots Thesaurus are either very historical (and by that perhaps we should mean outdated or extinct), and/or for the most part ‘micro’ terms, used very locally, often out in rural communities, perhaps even exclusively within a family, and unlikely to be known to anyone outside of these circles; this gives this project real documentary value, but we don’t think the Scots Thesaurus needs consulting for advertising copy any day soon!
Aside from weather, it seems that ‘marbles’ could so far be viewed as the most common ‘sport’, which is surprising from a land better known for loving football, championing golf, and pioneering curling, and yet this revelation reflects the key pastime of many a generation!
So, what about other countries, what a massive and wonderful project it would be to extend the Thesaurus project to all four corners of the globe – or perhaps in some places it’s already being done?
Meanwhile, back in England, where Autumn has already short-changed our once-promising Indian Summer, and where we’re already being told to expect a fierce winter, (sorry Scotland, we take it all back!) we are imagining there must be a number of terms used by the English for ‘rain’… Anyone care to get the ball rolling?
All photographs (c) Alison Leith. More here.
All screenshots taken from http://scotsthesaurus.org