As ithers hear us

16 Jan 2014
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This Burns Night, as you clear your throat before launching into a well-practiced rendition of Tam O'Shanter or 'Holy Willie's Prayer', be sure to mind your Ps and Qs, or should that be your Rs and CHs?

If you want to emulate the great bard himself, of course, and speak his words in the dialect (as well as the spirit) in which they were originally intended, you'll need to capture some of the nuances of the Ayrshire tongue.

Born in Alloway on 25th January 1759, Robert Burns was very much a product of the land where he grew up. The oldest of seven children, Burns came from a relatively poor, tenant-farmer (a farmer who resides on and farms land owned by a landlord) background. Although he received a good education and read avidly as a youngster, his formative years as a teenager and young man were spent working on farms. He had few, if any, airs and graces and though Burns made some notable concessions in his life taking on the employ of an Exciseman (a collector of excise taxes) being perhaps one of the biggest tempering his dialect to appeal to the landowning classes wasn't one of them. Far from it. Burns was staunchly proud of his brogue (old style accent).

Pride of Ayrshire

Indeed, it was as much the common tongue in which his poems were written, as their subject matter (life, women and drink) that was responsible for their wide and immediate popularity. The Ploughman Poet's use of dialect brought a stimulating and much-needed freshness and colour into English language poetry, which along with Burns observation and humour, have contributed to his enduring popularity.

Following his untimely death on 21st July 1796, at the age of just 37, more than 10,000 people came to watch his burial and pay their respects. But that's as nothing compared to the fame he has enjoyed since.

Every year, Scots at home and abroad use the occasion of his birth to celebrate the bard who gave us so much spontaneity, sincerity and wit. The basic format for the ritual has changed little in the 200 years since it was first started by close friends of Burns as a tribute to his memory. Plenty of websites will provide you with the detailed running order, but the chief ingredients include recitations of poems and songs, culminating with the company standing, linking hands and singing .

Back to our preparations then, and whether you plump for the rollicking humour and blazing wit of or the blistering satire of Holy Willie's Prayer, the challenge is to capture the Scottish vernacular, or better still - the South West Central Scots dialect from which the words originated.

Online Assistance

But where on earth do you start, especially if you're toasting Scotland's National Poet not in Ayrshire, or indeed Scotland, but on the other side of the world? As is so often the case, the Internet provides at least part of the answer. The happy marriage of a renaissance of interest in the Scots language and the medium of the internet provides would-be Burns Night performers with a virtual rowth (array) of online tools and resources to choose from.

One of the most encyclopaedic is undoubtedly the Dictionary of the Scots Language. Developed over three years at a cost of £320,000 by the University of Dundee, this online resource contains information about Scots words in use from the twelfth century to the present day. The distillation of 22 volumes of Scots dictionaries, it contains seminal extracts from the Declaration of Arbroath, alongside individual words and phrases. Or you could just dip your toe in the water by visiting Stooryduster, where you'll find an entertaining selection of illustrated Scottish words, complete with translations into English for all tumshieheids! (turnip-heads!)

For help with the all-important pronunciation, try the University of Stirling's Scots Tongue section or Scots Online, which, as well providing IPA phonetic symbols, features an interactive map with descriptions of the main dialect divisions of Scots.

Seeing them written down is one thing, but actually hearing the spoken word is another altogether. Scots Online also features a collection of audio files, covering everything from poetry to stories and childrens verse. Hearken tilt you're encouraged it's braw! (great!)

Clearly then there's plenty of help out there, if you just know where to look. Its symptomatic of a growing resurgence of interest in Scots (or Lallans, meaning Lowlands), which led to the formation of the Scots Language Society in 1972. A much more recent development has added further fuel to the fire. The creation of the Scottish Parliament, it seems, has rekindled a pride in the Scottish accent. A BBC poll revealed that nearly three quarters of respondents from Scotland were proud of their accent, compared to a UK average of 54%. This same pride in the language is being credited with another modern phenomenon - the emergence of a new form of Scottish rhyming slang, especially among the country's young. For the uninitiated, here's a taster: with 'corned beef' meaning as in 'deaf'.

National Pride

It seems that once again Scots are taking a national pride in their native tongue, just as Burns did over 200 years ago.

If you're keen to lend your voice why not seek out your local Burns club or association? Or better still, come to Scotland and make for the Burns National Heritage Park where you can visit the cottage where Burns was born, walk in the footsteps of Tam O'Shanter in Alloway's auld haunted kirk and across auld Brig O'Doon.

Interested in finding out more about Robert Burns?

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