IT was 40 years ago. Yet it still has the power to animate mates who would not otherwise be invigorated save by the application of a cattle prod. It was the day I said a special word in the pub. It was the night when all chatter stopped and my friends, born and bred in Glasgow, stared in horror as I finished a sentence.

I had said ken. Not Ken, as in addressing a mate. But ken, as in the Scots for know. This was not said in Glasgow, unless one was not from Glasgow. It labelled the speaker as a “teuchter” or worse.

The criticism of me was mild, the banter of contempt was largely contrived, but that episode has come back to me in the past few months when the vitriol directed at the Scots language through social media has been extraordinarily corrosive.

The reason I said “ken” was simple. I had been living and working in Stirlingshire where the word was in daily usage.

The criticism of me by my mates was that of big city types disdaining the country cousin.

But the contumely directed at columnists and others who write in the Scots language is simplistic, even crude. The reasons behind it, however, are worthy of exploration.

Why hold a language that people speak in contempt? Why attempt to ridicule how fellow countrymen and countrywomen express themselves on a daily basis?

Well, because Scots as a language doesn’t exist, exclaim the critics. It is a construct, an artificial language bolstering an ersatz Scottishness.

Except, of course, it isn’t.

Pavel Iosad, lecturer in linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, is clear as to whether Scots is a language. “Absolutely. English and Scots are two closely-linked languages. They both come from the same root but they were seen historically as separate languages,” he says.

Scots, too, does not just exist in the daily lives of many in the country, it endures in both tradition and in written form. “Without Scots, we cease to be able to read our literature, our record and our history,” says Billy Kay, the writer and broadcaster whose BBC Scotland Radio series The Scots Tongue has investigated the significance and, indeed, import of the language

“Some of the greatest poetry in Europe was written in Scots between 1450 and 1550,” he says. “That tradition was continued by such as Dunbar, Walter Scott, Stevenson and now through to people like James Robertson and Matthew Fitt. If we don’t cherish Scots, then future generations will be unable to read this literature. It would be like reading a foreign language.”

He adds: “Coming from that tradition, any thoughts of losing it are an anathema. You must value your culture, the tradition that you come from. It is your mither. Your faither. Your grandfaither.

It is the folk you come fae. If you are despising them, despising the way they spoke, what kind of person are you?”

Kay believes that the attitude to Scots is a product of a culture of colonialism. “The Catalans called it the slave mentality and for us it is the Scottish cringe. It is three centuries of looking over your shoulder for approval to another country. It has had a terrible effect on aspects of the Scottish psyche.”

Iosad says written Scots can also cause a “confusion”. “Some people are not used to seeing Scots in print and they do not quite know what to do with it,” he says.

But he adds: “I believe the attitude to Scots is coloured by what people associate it with and that is to do with class. What do people have in mind when they think of people who speak Scots? They will not expect someone from Morningside to speak it.”

Iosad points out that there is a perceived way of speaking English and that some expressions of Scots are attributed only to the poor or even the “ned”. Kay agrees that some critics look at Scots as the language of the “thick and useless” or insist it is a form of speech “made up” to emphasise a distinct Scottishness.

He points out that people who would never think of discriminating against anyone on colour of skin or religion do not find it difficult to “denigrate people because of the sounds that come out of their mouth”.

“Again, it is part of that cultural colonialism where people are quick to look down on their own culture,” Kay adds.

This is never so obvious in the reaction to any Scots expression in a classroom, certainly in this writer’s era. There was a strong emphasis on “speaking properly”. This was decades before the “ken” episode in a Glasgow pub, but both reflect the belief that there is a “proper” way to speak and Scots expression was seen as crude and lower-class. Kay’s love of the language was imbued in his upbringing in Galston, East Ayrshire: “My mither was a monoglot Scots speaker, my dad could switch, so that is my culture.” He honours this.

“If people denigrate Scots and you don’t react, you are letting people say that the people you come from are thick and useless and have nae culture,” he says.

In books and on radio, Kay seeks to inform, even educate, on the importance of the Scots tongue.

But does he see it surviving?

“Like every living thing, it needs to be cherished and nourished so therefore more has to be done, especially in education,” he says.

Kay has devoted much of his life, intellect and emotion not only to preserving the language, but to explaining its significance. He writes in a blog that accompanies the radio series. “Personally, I am delighted that my second language is English,” he says. “As a lingua franca in the world today, it is a perfect medium of communication. But I know the power and pathos of Scots and want future generations to be bi-lingual in Scots and English, or Gaelic and English in the Highlands, so that, like me, they find it easier to learn other languages and communicate confidently with the world.”

The sentiment of the Galston boy finds a resonance with the linguistics professor. “I would say it is important that Scots survives,” says Iosad. “Basically, as a linguist

I would say that anything that people speak deserves to survive. It is bad for society to lose diversity and it is bad for the individual to lose a language because it is visceral.”

He says language can be used as a welcome sign that people are different. “In Russia, we have the idea that everybody should be the same. But we must accept that if there are different ways of thinking, then there are different ways of speaking.”

This matter of expression goes far beyond the use of words or phrases. It speaks to the very notion of being human, even free.“People should be able to speak their language without negative consequences,” he says.

The content of the written columns should surely be open to criticism, but the tendency to lampoon an article for using a native language is surely to be resisted.

As my Glasgow mates would never say to the misguided and misinformed, you should ken better.

Billy Kay’s The Scots Tongue: BBC Radio Scotland, August 16 – Sept 27 at 1.30pm. Repeated on Sundays at 07.04. Available on the iPlayer for 30 days