29th August 2018
It is now the 210th anniversary of the publication of Reverend Dr John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language in 1808. The importance of this work – the first complete dictionary of Scots – cannot be underestimated, as it laid the foundations for all subsequent research on the origins and development of the language. And John Jamiesons’ name certainly deserves to be cherished and remembered as much as Robert Burns.
John Jamieson was a Glaswegian, born in the city in 1759 and educated at both Glasgow Grammar School and Glasgow University. He later also attended Edinburgh University and was licensed as a preacher in 1781. He became a pastor first in Forfar and then from 1797 in Edinburgh. He was elected a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Society of Antiquaries and died in 1838. In 1820 Jamieson edited versions of John Barbour’s Bruce and Blind Harry’s Wallace but his great work was the Etymological Dictionary.
For Jamieson it was of great importance to throw light on the customs and identity of Scotland by referring to the language, its words and idioms, and also to demonstrate that Scots was a distinct tongue connected with several other languages. He wrote of Scots “...it will appear that it is not more nearly allied to the English, than the Belgic is to the German, the Danish is to the Swedish, or the Portuguese to the Spanish.”
In an age in which the ruling class in Scotland was fast losing its language to English, Jamieson was much concerned at the cultural impact. He wrote “Many of our nation, not only in the higher, but even in the middle ranks of life, now affect to despise all the terms or phrases peculiar to their country, as gross vulgarisms. This childish fastidiousness is unknown not only to intelligent foreigners, but to the learned in South Britain.” Jamieson called this condition ‘the national servility’ though today we might popularly speak of the Scottish Cringe. Quoting Robertson’s History of Scotland, Jamieson believed that had “...the two nations continued as distinct...”, meaning England and Scotland, then Scots would have simply continued as a high status language. The ruling class, Jamieson observed, had divorced itself from the rest of the Scottish people. He said, “Well assured that the peasantry are the depositories of the ancient language of every country, they [the ruling class] regard their phraseology nearly in the same light in which they would view that of a foreign people.”
For those wishing to better understand how and why we arrived at today’s linguistic landscape, reading Jamieson can be very illuminating. If you are ever in Edinburgh you might also like to visit Jamieson’s burial monument in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard.