Lesley Riddoch: Giving tongue to the vexed question of our language

The census will ask a big question about Scots, the language lots of us don't really speak, especially when there are strangers about

I DON'T speak Scots. It's a sad discovery - and strangely a sneak preview of the pioneering Scots language question in this year's census has been the clincher.

Question 16 asks if you can understand, speak, read or write English, Scottish Gaelic and Scots, for the first time. Question 18 asks if you use a language other than English at home and Scots can be cited, if speakers realise the "bad English" of their youth is now regarded as a "proper" language by the authorities.

The wording of question 16 has been tested in small focus groups and is perfectly fair in itself. But like other "big" small questions - is there a God, for example - it opens up Pandora's Box. What is Scots? Is watching Gary Tank Commander enough to claim "I understand Scots"- or is explaining Tam O'Shanter line by line a better benchmark? Is "gonnae no dae that" guid Scots or bad English? Is Stanley Baxter's Parliamo Glasgow slang?

Is using aye, not yes, and scunnered, not disgusted, enough to register a Scots speaker - and does reading the above prove you read and I write Scots? Hardly. This uncertainty means the census organisation has linked to an external website "Aye Can" for the first time. Audio clips of Scots speakers from across Scotland are meant to clarify what constitutes Scots.

Actually, they dinnae. Indeed, they cannae - any more than a medical website can define "good health". And yet a "good health" question is included in the 2011 census without further explanation. If subjective views of "good health" are statistically valid - and apparently they are - then the self-diagnosed ability to speak Scots may be perfectly acceptable too. It's not clear if the census is measuring Scots Lite, Braid Scots or baith thegither - but perhaps only the gey pernickety are bothered? Mebbes aye - mebbes naw.

Few will recall what Cathy Jamieson was talking about when she uttered that memorable Scots phrase, but it caused instant hilarity in the Holyrood chamber and beyond. After which everyone reverted to the parliament's usual brand of expression-free and humourless English.

Don't we want to know why Scots isn't used more in civic society? The political career of Tommy Sheridan may be over - but the dilemma posed by the official report's correction of his "ungrammatical English" remains to haunt every prominent Glaswegian. Is their ain tongue Scots or slang? Surely the census - and the politicians who pushed for Scots to be included - should decide?

Ironically, the reason I feel I don't speak Scots despite regular use of words like heid bummer, quine, glaikit, skelped and thrawn is because I'm surrounded at home by the Real Deal.The Fife fairmers, former lino workers, fishermen, quarry workers and aipple growers who populate the toons of the Tay estuary do mair than slot pithy Scots words into English - they use Scots as their default Mither Tongue. They divide fowk (not people) intae lassies and laddies, tak their time with yin anither, coont the beasts and kye (not cattle) and are hugely entertained when speakers fae furth o the parish roll in and speik in their ain tongues.

By contrast, I speak Scots as I speak German - selectively. I generally don't use either until the need arises and the situation seems right. The "real" Scots speakers around me yaise Scots a' the time and wid dae that on their ain turf wi' onyone, ken. Are we really all in the same linguistic boat? Perhaps this will not be a problem in practice.

A 2009 survey conducted for the Scottish Government found 85 per cent of the thousand adults sampled think they speak Scots, with 43 per cent claiming to speak it fairly often. 86 per cent think Scots is important for local identity and Scottish culture. More than two thirds of Scots speakers use the language when socialising with friends (69 per cent) or when at home with family (63 per cent). But use of Scots declines when speakers are "out and about" (31 per cent) or at work (25 per cent).

The good news is that Scots is still a language of the hearth and the playground - better markers for the medium-term survival of Scots perhaps than the more formal classroom-based use of Gaelic which will become a "learned language" without full immersion in Gaelic medium schools. The bad news is that Scots (like Gaels) stop speaking Scots when possible non-speakers are present. But the survey suggests almost everyone speaks Scots - so why the self-censorship?

Non-Gaels generally cannot understand a single word of Gaelic. Not so with Scots. And yet Scots speakers rapidly switch to English outside the weel kent personal domain or - worse still - shut up completely. The fear of having an incomprehensible Scots dialect is often cited - and is usually daft. Most Scots speakers can understand one another - and savour the experience - and most of us apparently speak Scots. Don't we? If 85 per cent of Scots really do speak Scots then why do we haud it back? Most folk who use Braid Scots are working class (another hard-to-define group, I'll grant you).

Most non-Scots speakers are English - long viewed as the managing class. Them and us. The workers speak Scots, the bosses speak English - in the world of work at least. So the workplace is English, the hame is Scots. Perhaps that explains a bizarre finding from the 2009 survey. Despite 85 per cent claiming to speak Scots, 63 per cent "don't really think of Scots as a language". Perhaps that's because it's not.

Scots speakers use their language like a password or a code. Its native speakers don't intend Scots to be fully shared, codified, formally taught or embodied in public life.A few words on coasters and mugs for tourists and posh Scots are fine. But if Scots speakers lost the intimacy of their language they lose its only real benefit. Scots currently separates the wheat from the chaff. It links those who place a very high value on local connection, physical place, family history and cultural identity in their lives and excludes those who don't, Gaels notwithstanding.

Thus one "glaikit" doth not a Scots speaker make. Or am I wrang? This big small question is coming to a doorstep near you from today.