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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

The Languages of Queen Mary's Kingdom


Queen Mary was born into a royal court in which administration, cultural expression, debate, poetry and politics were usually conducted in either Scots or Latin. The Scots language is a branch of the Germanic family of languages and had, by the mid-16th century, developed into a language which scholars call Later Middle Scots. The Scots and English tongues both descended from Anglo-Saxon – which is why the language in Scotland before 1500 was often called Inglis, though sometimes it was also called Theutonica in Latin, meaning ‘German’. By the 1490’s people in Scotland were also calling the language Scottis, and the language of England Suddron, in recognition that the tongues had diverged.

Educated speakers of either could read printed works in the other. However, the hand written languages used different orthographies – Scots being written in Secretary Hand and English in Italianate – and these presented problems for readers of the other, as did the spoken languages. As well as English, Scots was closely related to Frisian and Dutch across the North Sea and these various communities borrowed and exchanged word stock with each other. For Scots speakers there were also many similarities with the related languages of Scandinavia and Germany.

Latin was also commonly used by scholars, for writing learned works (which could then be read internationally), for teaching in the universities, and for legal purposes. For a fee, trained men of law known as public notaries would record contracts, deeds, sasines and other business in their protocol books, in order to preserve copies, and usually did so in Latin. When they were called on to write in Scots they often carried Latin terms over into the vernacular (meaning non-Latin) or coupled Latin and equivalent Scots terms together in order to make the meaning clearer to the Scots-speaking reader or listener. Literacy, though spreading, was still uncommon and people were more likely to hear a document read out to them than to read it, depending on the public notaries to keep records and, where need be, advocates to interpret them in the court of law. However, by the mid-16th century it was increasingly expected that the local laird could at least sign his name rather than simply attach his seal to a document.

The further west and north a person travelled in Scotland the more likely he or she was to encounter Scottish Gaelic as well as Scots. Scottish Gaelic was closely related to Irish but the spoken tongue had long been developing into a distinct language. Indeed, the first Scottish Gaelic documents (as distinct from Irish) first began to appear in the 16th century. Though Scots was favoured at the royal court, Scottish Gaelic was used as the spoken language of administration within Gaelic regions, and for writing poetry and some history. Both Scots and Latin were also used within Gaelic regions as written languages, depending on the preference of the local nobility who usually knew both Gaelic and Scots.

In the far northern mainland of Scotland, and in the islands of Orkney and Shetland, Norwegian – called Norn in Scots – was still the everyday language for both speech and writing. However, Scots, which had much in common with Norwegian, had come increasingly into use too, particularly in Caithness and Orkney.

And, finally, there was a small but mobile group of people, often referred to as the Egyptians (from which the word Gypsie comes) who spoke a language later known as Cant which combined Romany with Gaelic and Scots, but which remained unintelligible to others. The nature of their existence meant that they remained a persecuted minority in this period.