THESE days, people are becoming increasingly familiar with Zoom technology, virtual meetings, postage stamp collections of faces of colleagues and friends on whatever screen we might have available. For anyone who uses a transcription service or automatically generated subtitles, the risks of the technology weigh against the advantages. Bad enough trying to correct transcripts from spoken English – but try amending Scots or Gaelic.

All of which brings home the sense that we really do not speak in words – we speak in sounds. And those sounds have two basic functions, among many others: they can tell others where you’re from, and they can protect you from people who aren’t familiar with them. You can make friends and you can keep secrets.

The Canadian literary critic and scholar Hugh Kenner, writing about language, speech, words and writing, has some fascinating observations on the subject. “In the origins of every language,” he tells us, “we may discern a horribly mangled way of speaking some previous one. French began as the saloon Latin of an empire’s frontier.

“In a transalpine Texas where grammarians did not venture, vulgar folk (Lat. vulgus, the no-accounts) lost the habit of calling what might get sliced from your shoulders your caput, testa being more playful and playfulness in isolated places being habit-forming. Testa meant ‘pot’ and was slang for ‘head’, like our ‘noggin’, which also means ‘pot’. It got mispronounced teste, and the French still say tête.”

So much for keepin’ the heid.

“The French also say cheval, and we say ‘chivalry’, because legionaries who had gone native in Gaul were less apt to be familiar with a prancing equus than with the kind of nag you’d call by the local slang word, caballus. So la tete d’un cheval, a horse’s head, was formerly a nag’s noggin, and if roustabouts who talked like that thought they were talking Latin there were seemingly no [pedants] to disabuse them.”

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Nowadays scholars can track things back a fair distance, but there are no recordings of ancient speech, only what we can deduce from writing and reports of speech. Does it matter? Correctness, anyone?

I still have a habit of correcting misplaced apostrophes (“it’s” = “it is” and “its” is possessive) and I truly detest the horrible habit many people have of misrepresenting poor old Tam o’ Shanter. That’s how Burns wrote it – NOT Tam O’Shanter or any other variation.

But maybe I’m just a pedant. Hugh Kenner again: “Whether it was Cicero’s Latin was never an issue. Cicero was dead, and all memory of his usages sealed away in a few manuscripts. What mattered was shared understanding among the living, and all the time the Gauls were (as we can now say) preparing the tongue of Racine and Cocteau, their habits of speech were doing what speech always does, binding together a community of speakers who by the tenth century AD were no longer in any ascertainable way Roman.”

So as he tracks and traces the way from ancient classical Latin towards reasonably recognisable modern French, Spanish and Italian, we get this: “A Gaul understood anyone he was likely to talk to as long as he stayed north of the Alps.

“Meanwhile, south of the Pyrenees, Latin was degenerating into Spanish and around Rome itself into Dante’s vulgate Italian. These diverged because there was little traffic across mountain barriers.”

Gaelic – in its forms – is something else. But all language is moved by geography, nature, regions you can’t cross or territories that divide us. Plague isolated certain groups and communities. The language of Westminster government is not the same as that of the one in Edinburgh.

Kenner’s conclusion: “Such are the conditions of radical linguistic change: isolation and an absence of written controls. They are Dark-Age conditions, and nobody wants them back …”

And yet they come back to haunt us and have their way with us, whether we like it or not, sometimes. The quotations above are from Kenner’s essay, “Up from Edenism”, in Mazes: Essays (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989), pp.74-79. There’s a conclusive paragraph from another essay in the same book, “DARE to Make it Known”, pp.93-100, which is worth savouring: “A fallacy all dictionaries tend to foster, for all their usefulness and fascination, is that speech is made of conjoined words. It is even sustainable that in living speech there is no such thing as a word.

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“Far from being elements we use to speak with, words are units of attention we dissect speech into […] for analytic convenience. Humans had been speaking for millennia before that was feasible; the ‘Word’, a string of letters flanked with spaces, seems a by-product of the great Phoenician discovery that speech could be mapped onto phonetic symbols. That is why it is only with written materials that lexicography is really comfortable.”

So just to bring this all back home, let me draw your attention to Hugh MacDiarmid’s magnificent disclaimer, from his autobiography, Lucky Poet (1943), where he declares it is impossible to transmit the quality of his consciousness in the English language.

Although Lucky Poet is predominantly written in English, MacDiarmid tells us that he cannot convey his inner meanings “in a language in which, for example, ‘Egypt’ spells ee, gee, wy, pee, tee, whereas in the speech of my boyhood (and in which all my best poetry is written) the spelling of ‘Egypt’ is (I know of no English equivalent for the sound and therefore use the pronunciation of the French word ‘oeil’, which gives it exactly) oeil, joeil, woeil, poeil, toeil.”

Some trace of this remains perhaps in the generally used word “jye” or “jai” for the letter “j” which in English is usually pronounced “jay”. Some things, thankfully, remain devoutly unassimilable.

But they are all around us. And when folk seem to get hot under the collar thinking about the provenance of the Gaelic language in all its variations, or that of the Scots language, in all its formulations, we need to cool them down and remind ourselves of just exactly what a rich linguistic portfolio we have in Scotland, in our literature, in the range of our speech forms, and all the sounds of music that Zoom meeting transcripts will never be able fully to capture. And if you really don’t appreciate the value of the languages we call Gaelic and Scots, well, get help. And catch up.

There was a dachshund once so long

He hadn’t any notion

How long it took to notify

His tail of an emotion.

And so it happened, while his eyes

Were full of woe and sadness

His little tail went wagging on

Because of previous gladness.