EARLIER this week, this newspaper published its front page entirely in Scots and provoked an outbreak of serial harrumphing on social media. Many were outraged that a respectable publication had dared to produce a front page in an unrespectable language. It’s an embarrassment, they screeched, while simultaneously denying that they were embarrassed. Scotland’s home-grown languages, Scots and Gaelic, are routinely dismissed, disparaged and disdained by a large segment of the Scottish population, a segment which has been educated in ignorance and taught that a lack of knowledge and awareness is something to be proud of. Scotland’s languages are Ground Zero of the Cringe.

The most common complaint about Scots is that it’s not a language at all. People whose knowledge of the science of linguistics fills a dictionary from A to Aa all of a sudden turn into Noam Chomsky when the subject is Scots. It’s just a nationalist attempt to manufacture a language to have a grievance about, they sniff, dismissing centuries of Scots literature with an airy wave of contempt. Linguists, people whose profession is the study of language and how it functions, have no doubt that Scots is a language and that the collection of dialects which make up the language is clearly differentiated as a group from anything else that is often regarded as English by the linguistically naive. Linguists know what is English and what isn’t. Scots very clearly isn’t.

The truth is that people who say that Scots is just some kind of English are as ignorant of English as they are of Scots. Yet in Scotland, these same people wear their ignorance as a badge of pride and demand that the rest of us should be ignorant too. We live in a country where linguistic ignorance is something to aspire to, where attitudes to language formed in Victorian times are still current, where inward-looking English language parochialism passes for cosmopolitan.

Let’s clear up one myth right away. The legal status of Scots as a language was not decided by the SNP, it was decided by the UK Government at Westminster when it signed up to the European Charter for Minority and Regional Languages and included Scots as one of the languages of the UK which the Government made a legal pledge to protect. As a result of this treaty, which was signed by a Labour administration, the UK Government and its agencies have a legal obligation to protect and foster the Scots language.

Most people in Scotland have some degree of passive understanding of Scots and because they understand it but don’t regard themselves as being bilingual, they assume that Scots can’t be a language. Moreover, Scottish people naturally compare Scots with Scottish Standard English, a variety of English which is distinguished by the strong Scots influence it contains. These people have a faulty understanding of what bilingualism entails, but they assume that it’s not their understanding that’s at fault, it must be the fault of Scots.

Another common complaint is that Scots doesn’t have words for important concepts like referendum, physics or government – but neither did English until they were borrowed from Latin, Greek, and French, respectively. When new words are created by Scots writers – words like wabsteid for website – the same critics howl in derision that they’re artificial words. But all literary languages are artificial. Catalan, Czech and other languages have official academies which invent new words for modern concepts. These words are every bit as artificial as Scots neologisms. New vocabulary is not magicked into being by the vocabulary fairy, someone sat down and created it. But Scots isn’t to be allowed access to the same processes of enrichment enjoyed by any other language. The critics of Scots insist it’s not a fit tongue for the modern world and want to do all they can to ensure it stays that way.

What is killing the Scots language is snobbery and the peculiar belief that if your head is full of Scots then it prevents you from acquiring English. The reality is that the more languages you speak, the easier it becomes to acquire others. But, in Scotland, English language monolingualism is regarded as praiseworthy and command of Scots is a sign that you’re a ned. It seems that English is such a delicate flower that if you speak another language then you’ll magically forget how to speak and write English. Speaking Scots does not prevent you from speaking good English as well. In fact a good education in Scots would help Scots kids distinguish Scots from English, and that would improve their command of both languages. However, we also have to contend with the out-and-out snobbery that if you speak a stigmatised language like Scots then you must be lacking in education. The way to improve linguistic standards is not to pander to these prejudices, it’s to change them through education.

No-one should be shocked that a Scottish newspaper printed its front page in a tongue that was the official language of the Scottish state during the centuries Scotland was independent, a language which is still spoken by a million-and-a-half Scots and understood by many thousands more. What we should be shocked by is that there is not a single newspaper published in the language, that there is not a single TV or radio station devoted to broadcasting in it, that in our schools not a single subject is taught in the medium of it. That’s the real Scots embarrassment and it will continue as long as we allow our language and cultural policies to be determined by arrogant ignoramuses who believe that a dose of middle-class prejudice counts as erudition. If we want to get rid of the Cringe, we need to start treating our languages with the same respect other modern European countries grant to theirs.