Tucked away in the villages outside Falkirk, a language has been slowly developing for centuries.
A few hundred native speakers remain, buffeted by modernity, snobbery and a schools system that makes people speak “proper” English. It sounds a lot like Scots, but it’s not Scots: it’s called Focurc.
That’s the contention of Mark O’Donnell, 22, the language’s main cheerleader online – and the only person ever to have documented it.
It seems like an unlikely story – but it’s compelling nonetheless. Here’s how O’Donnell, 22, from Hallglen, explains it.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t sure if it was like Scots or not, because I hadn’t much exposure to true Scots,” he says.
“But when I found some Scots speakers, I found that they spoke completely different from me.”
However, according to O’Donnell, the hundreds of people who are said to speak Focurc don’t know they’re speaking it.
Just as many Scots struggles for recognition in the face of a perception that it’s just regional English, Focurc suffers from a lack of self-esteem.
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“Most people think of it as slang or dialect,” O’Donnell, a landscaper and handyman, says. “That comes from school, where you’re told to speak properly, to stop speaking badly.”
That’s a common story for regional dialects in Scotland – and for thick accents across the UK. The result is a decline in regional variation of accent and idioms, in English at least, but in unheralded Focurc, it’s an existential danger. “My brothers and sisters: there’s a decade age difference between us,” O’Donnell explains.
“When I went to school, I had the treatment where I was made to be embarrassed for speaking Focurc by the teachers.
“My mum didn’t want that to happen again, so she made sure when my brothers and sisters went to school, they couldn’t speak Focurc at all. They spoke English. That sort of attitude is very common.”
“It still has a negative stigma. If you speak it, you’d be seen as someone backwards or very working class.” But how did it come about?
It seems scarcely credible that a language could diverge over the course of a few centuries in such a place. O’Donnell has gained support online, especially on Reddit, but many of his backers seem romantically sympathetic to the idea of a dying minor language. It’s perhaps understandable that foreigners don’t realise that Focurc is situated in a relatively densely populated area of Scotland – minutes drive from Falkirk town (population 35,310), the hometown of such metropolitan luminaries as half of Cocteau Twins and the chief executive of ITV. But O’Donnell maintains that the villages – even the newbuilds that border the town – brought together rural people from the area, and maintain the tradition of the language.
“This little area within the Falkirk district, there was very little movement within it and very little movement without it,” he says.
“Anybody who’s not from here is viewed as almost an oddity. It’s cultural or social isolation, with very little interaction with people outside, so the language has been able to develop without being influenced by other speakers.” Focurc shares a lot of vocabulary with Scots, but O’Donnell says there are enough differences to make it a different language.
Word order is different (“chips, the dog eats” rather than “the dog eats chips”, in his extemporised example) and nouns and verbs behave differently.
It’s barely mutually intelligible with Scots, he says.
But there are suspicions: if you read O’Donnell explaining the intricacies of Focurc grammar on Reddit or uploading recordings of himself to YouTube, there’s no other source to cross-reference it with. Google Focurc and you find his posts, or comments from others about his claims.
And we should note that what O’Donnell says is not given much credence by academics who have devoted their careers to the study of Scots.
“Having considered, with all good will, the evidence presented for there being a separate West Germanic language, closely related to, but not the same as, Scots, spoken in the Falkirk area, there appears to be no reason for supporting such a hypothesis,” says Robert Millar, professor of linguistics and Scottish language at the University of Aberdeen.
Other experts questioned were equally sceptical – and even to a non-expert, Focurc looks strange. O’Donnell’s orthography (writing system) is his own invention, and claims to cover 63 different vowels which exist in the language.
To cover that many sounds, he uses marks and squiggles known as diacritics. A lot of diacritics.
That makes fairly familiar-sounding Scots words look quite foreign. “Alérym” (for “alarm”) wouldn’t have an accent or a Y if it was written how Scots is ordinarily written – it would be spelled “alairm”. An “érgjamįt” is, if you puzzle it out, an “argument.
“The orthography has a tendency to hide the close ties between Falkirk usage and other Scots dialects (or, often, English),” says Professor Millar.
“In terms of vocabulary, there is less to say.
The evidence presented demonstrates overwhelming concordance (sometimes masked by the spelling) with other Central Scots dialects. “As with all language varieties, of course, some highly localised features will inevitably be present.”
If O’Donnell does want more credibility for his project, his next move must be to draft in independent, trained linguists – he himself has an “interest” in the subject, but no formal training.
“I’d like to work with professionally trained linguists who could document it much better than me,” he says. Publicity helps. “Next is to gain a bit of interest locally,” he says.
“It’s a bit of a daunting task, but I’d like to get some recognition at least, just that the language is there. It’d have some benefits, so other people could do their own work on it.”
Professor Millar, who concludes that Focurc is just a branch of Scots, has some sympathy: “The Scots dialects of the central parts of the Central dialect area are less served by scholarly treatments than they should be,” he said – highlighting the need to study Falkirk before the generation who grew up before de-industrialisation in the 1980s are gone.
“It would be interesting to see the ingenuity and insight demonstrated in these investigations directed towards the study (in tandem, perhaps with other scholars) of Falkirk Scots as a whole,” Professor Millar added.
Language or project?
O’Donnell is familiar with criticism, but stands behind his claim that Focurc is his native language.
“The main criticism I’ve got on Reddit is that it’s not a real language at all,” he says. “People think this might be a conlanging (constructed language) project,” referencing something critics see as a smoking gun – his own, previously documented dalliance with inventing tongues online.
“It’s difficult to Google up and see what it is,” he says. “But my response to that usually is that I’m trying to work on documenting it. Endangered languages usually have very little documentation.”
The death of dialect
Focurc as a concept may or may not get traction in the “real world”, but a genuine issue underlies O’Donnell’s project: Britain is losing dialect diversity as we become more connected.
Some survives as slang, with Geordies “gannin’ yem” and Mancs “mithering”, but regional differences are definitely disappearing.
Even Scotland, where 85 per cent of people speak Scots to some degree according to a 2010 government survey, there is doubt as to whether it’s anything more than a regional variant. In the same survey, 64 per cent of respondents said they don’t really think of it as a language at all.
We might have monuments to language as spoken in many areas, such as Irvine Welsh’s Leith in Trainspotting or even Manchester in the likes of the Royle Family.
But it is rare that anyone shines a light on language as it is spoken locally, rurally, in communities where society has changed more slowly than the cities.
The dialect of the rich is always pushing against the dialect of the poor, in school, on television, in the workplace, until one day it is lost because nobody thought to keep it. Even if Focurc is just Falkirk Scots, it may be worthwhile simply to have someone writing it down.
A – Ą – B – C – D – E – Ę – É – Ę́ – F – G – H – I – Į – Í – Į́- J – L – M – N – O – Ǫ – Ó – Ǫ́ – Ô – P – Q – R – S – T – U – Ų – Ú – Ų́ – V – W – Y – Ȝ – Þ – Ð
This article originally featured on our sister site iNews.