13.09.20, Smith, Older Scots

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Thomas D. Hill

The Medieval Review 13.09.20

Smith, Jeremy J.. Older Scots: A Linguistic Reader. Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 2012. Pp. 253. ISBN: 978-1-897976-34-0.

Reviewed by:
Thomas D. Hill
Cornell University

One of the difficulties for scholars and teachers who are interested in medieval Scots language and literature is that much discussion of earlier Scots or "lallans" to use a native term for it, is in the context of introductions and surveys of Middle English in which Middle Scots is defined as a "dialect" of the standard Southern form of the language. There is some logic to this approach from a pedagogical point of view; in America, at least, even graduate courses in Middle English (excluding Chaucer) are rarely more than one semester long and if students are going to be exposed to the rich and interesting corpus of early Scots literature, they are probably only going to read it in the original in such a course. But of course the poets and other authors who wrote these various texts thought they were writing Scots, their own language, and were aware of, but not necessarily deeply interested in Southern English and Middle English literature. In Dunbar's "Lament for the Makars" for example, Dunbar begins by mentioning Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate, a triad of Middle English poets which occurs elsewhere, but then the next twenty or so poets whom he mentions (many of whom whose work is now lost) are all Scots. There is a good case for considering medieval Scots literature on its own terms and this reader is an important tool and reference work for students and teachers who wish to study and teach this corpus either as part of a more conventional Middle English course or without reference to Southern English literature as a national literature in its own right.

Another problem that we face in teaching older Scots is one of terminology and chronology. Dunbar and Henryson for example are conventionally thought of as "Middle Scots" poets and certainly from the perspective of an American student reading these poets, reading them is much like reading Middle English in that one must consult a glossary and the editors' notes on occasion in order to be sure that one understands them accurately. But of course these poets are chronologically contemporaneous with English poets who are writing early modern English--William Dunbar and Thomas Wyatt were contemporaries for at least a few years. Smith obviates this problem by defining Older Scots as Scots written and spoken up until about 1700. Thus this study includes a good deal of "renaissance" or "early modern" Scots textual material. Obviously the boundaries of Middle English, Early Modern English, Middle Scots and so on are essentially arbitrary and this is as good a boundary as any. Certainly from the perspective of a 21st-century American student "renaissance" Scots texts need to be approached as Middle English ones are in that the language of these texts is not immediately transparent.

Older Scots: A Linguistic Reader begins with four chapters, "About Older Scots," "Transmission," "Grammar and Lexicon," and "Style in Older Scots Texts" and Smith then presents a selection of texts and concludes with a very useful appendix, "Older Scots: the First Hundred Words." There is also an extensive bibliography, a glossary and an index. The most immediate characteristic of this book--besides its focus on early Scots--is that Smith introduces students to early Scots as language from a sophisticated linguistic standpoint, while providing enough definitions and aids to the reader that a student majoring in "English" can use this book without any special preparation. And in my judgment his or her linguistically oriented fellow student could also find this book useful and authoritative.

The texts are presented in diplomatic editions, an editorial decision explained and justified in the introduction and are provided with some linguistic introduction, but relatively little literary or literary historical commentary. One book cannot do everything, but further literary commentary would facilitate the work of those students whose primary interest in learning "Older Scots" is to read the poetry and prose of some great poets and a variety of very interesting writers.

My overall impression of this book is very positive--it is lucid, intelligent, and authoritative. It would serve well as the "grammar" in a course in Middle Scots language and literature and indeed could serve as the primary text for a course focusing on the linguistic aspect of "Older Scots." In a more literarily focused course it would need to be supplemented by editions of the major texts, but it would still be very useful. The only negative comment which occurs to me is that given the relative neglect of Middle Scots / Older Scots in American and (I believe) Canadian universities, the book may not be used as widely as it should. That it exists, however, may begin to alleviate this problem and one of the richest and most interesting fields of English, American, and Scots literature may receive the academic attention which it deserves here.

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Thomas D. Hill

Cornell University