In James Boswell’s travelogue, Boswell In Holland 1763-64, the author writes: “The Scottish language is being lost every day, and in a short time will become quite unintelligible. To me, who have the true patriotic soul of an old Scotsman, that would seem a pity.” With those words, along with the encouragement of his good friend, Samuel Johnson, Boswell set out to collect a list of terms specific to the Scottish language – the first Scots dictionary. Thirty-nine pages and eight hundred Scots words and phrases were compiled before the author abandoned the work altogether.
Boswell is probably best known for the biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, an account of Johnson’s travels around Scotland throughout the 1770’s. Find out why you should thank Mr. Johnson for making dictionaries easier to use, here.
Over Two-hundred and forty years later, Dr. Susan Rennie, a lexicographer and leading expert in the Scots language, has discovered Boswell’s draft, in his own handwriting, buried deep within the stacks at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library; its pages draped in 18th century Scots jargon. Literary scholars, brace yourselves!
John Jamieson’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language Vol I: To Which Is Prefixed A Dissertation On the Origin Of the Scottish Language, published in the early 1800’s, followed later by revised editions, is a collection of words interpreted by Ancient and Modern Scottish writers. It is important to note Jamieson’s efforts because it is within a collection of his papers, purchased by the Bodleian Library in 1927, that Boswell’s manuscript surfaced. Boswell’s writings, bequeathed to his son, sold at auction in 1825. Whether or not Jamieson purchased the writings as part of his research is unknown.
The term Scots dates from the mid-14th century – a contraction from Scottis, the northern variant of the word Scottish. Sometimes referred to as Doric, or Teri dialect (depending on the specific Scottish region), Scots is a Germanic language primarily spoken in non-Scottish Gaelic areas of Scotland such as the Lowlands and parts of Ulster.
The Early Scots language began to take shape around the thirteenth century via the Old Norse language – a North Germanic language spoken by the Scandinavian-influenced Middle English speakers from the North and Midlands of England. The Scots language continued to evolve due in large part to the influence of the Romance and Gaelic languages. Throughout the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the Early Scots dialect became the “prestige language” throughout most of eastern Scotland. By the early 1700’s, the Scots language became an independent “sister language” to the Modern English language.
As William Zachs, a collector and scholar of Scottish Enlightenment and a Boswell specialist said, “Boswell wanted to do for the Scots language what Johnson has done for the English language.” Much to the delight of linguists and literary scholars, Dr. Rennie is currently transcribing Jamieson’s manuscript – mostly written in French.
yeah 1st to comment cool article
this is amazing! i never knew that! im going to go to work and tell everybody thier about this.
so old draft…i wonder how Dr. Susan Rennie found it.. it was not indicated in the article…
it is to old that no one knows about it
In the interests of accuracy: Boswell’s great LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON is, in fact, a life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell also published JOURNAL OF A TOUR TO THE HEBRIDES WITH SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D. And, indeed, Johnson himself published an account of their travels together as JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND.
What is the secret behind such great knowledge of those great fathers of old,for whom ,by God special mercy and grace, this present generation is enjoying some maximum comfort in research and education is my humble comment.
When Supreme Court judges decide issues based on the American Constitution completed in 1787, shouldn’t they refer to a dictionary of that early time period—to be able to define what meaning way back then—those early legislators really had in mind— and were attempting to convey to us now?
I got a little lost in the beginning of the article, why would a scottish person be writing about samuel Adams. Well, this is the first time my comment has been at the top of the list!
such a cool article
Oui! What dey said.
To Tylore: I am trying not to sound pedantic or sententious when I write this, but for the sake of clarity, Samuel Adams and Samuel Johnson are two different people. Best wishes.
This was so interesting. Thank you.
i agree that is awesome
one more good thing about the Scottish
Very nice article… none of it made sense to me.
Of course “gumption” is of Scottish origin–what other people display this attribute best?
Very cool article… it is curious, to me, that no parallel is drawn to the poetry and folklore collecting done in Scotland near about the same time, by Robert Burns. Not to diminish the subject, but to elevate! Hmmmm…
Still, a very tasty nugget of information, whetting my appetite for more about the dictionary and its discovery.
George and Gracie, Oui?
@ Thomas Lawrence on May 18, 2011 at 11:27 am
sententious = Good word!
I’m wondering how many hidden jewels of the literary or linguistic import are still to be found. I’d love to find one.
Ulster is part of Ireland, not Scotland.