THE Scottish Government is starting consultation on a new Language Bill which aims to promote and foster Scotland's living traditional languages, Gaelic and Scots.

It's important to add the caveat “living” because one of the most pernicious myths about Gaelic is that it's a dead language. Gaelic certainly faces serious challenges, but it is very far from being a dead language – with some 60,000 speakers, it has as many speakers as Faroese or Greenlandic, both of which are the official languages of their respective countries, and has more speakers than Romansh, one of the four national languages of Switzerland.

READ MORE: The National is showcasing Scots and Gaelic ahead of Language Bill consultation

Gaelic also has more speakers than Sorbian, a minority Slavic language with protected status in parts of eastern Germany, and several times as many as North Frisian which has protected status in the islands of the North Sea in northern Germany, close to the border with Denmark, as well as more than all the Saame languages combined, which have official status in northern Norway and Finland.

Generally, those people who dismiss Gaelic as a “dead” language are those who would cheerfully hasten its demise. It's also important that we talk about living languages because another common trope of those opposed to measures to protect Gaelic is to ask why Pictish and Cumbric – the extinct Celtic languages of northern and southern Scotland respectively – are not also given the status of national languages of Scotland. 

However, not only did both these languages die out a long time ago – sometime before the year 1000 in the case of Pictish and by 1200 at the latest in the case of Cumbric – they only survive as isolated personal names in historical text and in a number of place names. We have no connected texts in either of them. Cumbric was a dialect of Old Welsh, but although it must have differed in some important respects from the contemporary Welsh of Wales, we have no information about the specifics. Both languages survive only as fragmentary scraps and nowhere near enough has survived to allow them to be reconstructed.

Asking why Pictish or Cumbric are not recognised as national languages in modern Scotland is rather like asking why there are no velociraptors in Edinburgh Zoo.

Perhaps the most common misconception about Gaelic is that it belongs solely to the Highlands and islands. In fact, at its widest extent, in the 11th and 12th centuries, native Gaelic-speaking communities could be found everywhere in mainland Scotland except the extreme south east in the modern Borders region. There were large and important Gaelic-speaking communities in the Lothians, in West Lothian and Midlothian, and even in East Lothian around the town of Gullane – itself a Gaelic name, derived from Gaelic Gualainn, meaning a ridge of land.

Gaelic was not only once widespread across Lowland Scotland – it survived in some areas of the Lowlands until surprisingly recently. Gaelic could still be found in parts of Stirlingshire into the early 20th century. The last known speaker of Gaelic in Ayrshire was a certain Margaret McMurray, who lived in Maybole in South Ayrshire and died in 1760. However, it is thought that Gaelic may have lingered on around the village of Barr in the Stinchar Valley until the early decades of the 19th century.

Scots still has a large number of speakers – approximately a million and a half, according to the most recent census for which results are available – and this gives Scots more speakers than Luxembourgish, Estonian or Maltese, and almost as many as Latvian, all of which are official languages of their respective countries.

The issues facing Scots are different from those facing Gaelic. Scots co-exists with Scotland's third national language, Scottish English, which is very closely related to Scots. Even now there are people, who really ought to know better, who insist that Scots is merely “slang”, a variety of substandard English and not a real language at all.

Scots is not a variety of modern English but rather an independent development of the Northumbrian dialect of Old English which evolved along its own lines during the centuries in which Scotland was an independent state. Modern Standard English evolved out of a different dialect of Old English spoken in the East Midlands of England. The Kingis Scots was once the court language of the Scottish state, every bit the equal of the King's English of England. As such, Scots developed a rich treasury of literature and was used in legal texts and other official documents – something which never happened to any “English dialect”.

For political reasons, Scotland adopted the English language bible of King James VI & I and formal literary Scots fell into decay. Modern attempts to restore literary Scots are often decried by people who assert that it is artificial, but the reality is that all formal literary languages are artificial – they exist only because writers consciously extended and developed colloquial speech forms, they did not magically spring into being because the literary language fairy waved her sparkly wand. However, when the exact same processes of linguistic development and enrichment are applied to Scots, they are howled down by those who are determined to ensure that Scots remains relegated to the status of “nonstandard English”.

But the most important consideration about Scotland's language is that they are part of the cultural heritage of everyone in Scotland, no matter where their parents were from, and irrespective of their views on the Scottish constitution, as such they are every bit as worthy of protection and care as our landscape or our historic buildings. Hopefully this new bill will go a long way to achieving that.

This piece is an extract from today’s REAL Scottish Politics newsletter, which is emailed out at 7pm every weekday with a round-up of the day's top stories and exclusive analysis from the Wee Ginger Dug.

To receive our full newsletter including this analysis straight to your email inbox, click HERE and click the "+" sign-up symbol for the REAL Scottish Politics