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The Aitken papers

A. J. Aitken, ed. Caroline Macafee, ‘Collected Writings on the Scots Language’ (2015)

A. J. Aitken (1921-1998) was a leading authority on the Scots language and one of the chief editors of A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. This collection of papers includes most of his important articles, often with his own revisions and sometimes with additional material originally cut out for reasons of length. Editorial notes bring the topics up to date, and there is a biographical introduction and list of his published works. Some papers have not been published before: ‘Sources of the vocabulary of Older Scots’, ‘Address and toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns’, and the autobiographical ‘The Playboy of the West Germanic World’. 

Aitken describes his education and the early years of his career in ‘Playboy of the West Germanic World’, and also mentions some of the context of his own work in his tribute to Angus McIntosh (‘Angus McIntosh and Scottish Studies’). ‘Fly on the wall’ (about Sir James Murray) and ‘Quiet Scot who was a master of words’ (about Sir William Craigie) are short biographical pieces; ‘James Murray: master of Scots’ is a detailed analysis of Murray’s contribution to the study of the language. 

For the greater part of his career, Aitken combined lexicography with teaching the history of Scots at the University of Edinburgh and his work more or less forms the foundations of the subject in lexis (‘Sources of the Vocabulary of Older Scots’), phonology (‘How to pronounce Older Scots’ and ‘The Scottish Vowel-Length Rule’), orthography (‘Variation and variety in written Middle Scots’), stylistics (‘The language of Older Scots poetry’ and ‘Oral narrative style in Middle Scots’), and the origins of Scottish Standard English (‘The pioneers of anglicised speech in Scotland’ and ‘Scots and English in Scotland’).

His ‘Scottish accents and dialects’ gives an overview of the modern language. His papers on the status of the language are of their time (‘New Scots: the problems’), but concepts that he introduced continue to inform thinking about the state of the language: dialect-switching v. style-drifting, covert scotticisms (‘Scots and English in Scotland’) and Ideal Scots (‘The good old Scots tongue: does Scots have an identity?’). His concern was less for the status of the modern language as an abstraction and more for the speakers (‘Bad Scots: some superstitions about Scots speech’, ‘Address and toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns’, ‘Letters to the Scotsman on the subject of accent’, ‘Letters to the Scotsman on the subject of Scots’), especially children at school who might suffer linguistic prejudice (‘The Scots language and the teacher of English in Scotland’). 

Aitken’s writings on the editorial policies and practices of DOST include ‘Sense-analysis for a historical dictionary’, ‘Textual problems and the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue’ and ‘DOST: how we make it and what’s in it’. For the Concise Scots Dictionary he contributed ‘A history of Scots’, and he provided the pronunciations, as he describes in ‘The pronunciation entries for the CSD’. The coverage of Scots words in modern English dictionaries is the subject of ‘The extinction of Scotland in popular dictionaries of English’. ‘Gaelic, Scots and Gullane’ is a little note on social class variation in word form (Scots v. Scotch, etc.).