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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

IV. The Scottish Language

§ 3. Middle Scots

The statement that Middle Scots is uniform throughout its many texts must not be misunderstood. Full allowance must be made, in each case, for the circumstances of composition and production. Translations from Latin or French will show a larger percentage of Romance forms; a dream poem will attract more Chaucerian words and phrases and tricks of grammar; a recension of a southern text or the writing of a Scot in exile in England will “carry over” certain southern mannerisms; French printers in Paris, or Chepman and Myllar’s English craftsmen in Edinburgh, will bungle and alter; and poets like Gavin Douglas will deal in archaisms which even an educated contemporary might not readily understand. Yet these exceptions, and others which might be named, but prove the validity of the general rule.

Middle Scots stands in marked contrast with Early Scots in phonology and orthography, in accidence, in syntax and in vocabulary and word-forms. It is not desirable to attempt even an outline of each of these in this short chapter. The reader who wishes further acquaintance is referred to the bibliography. The remaining pages will be devoted to brief consideration of the main causes of change and of their relative importance in the transformation of the dialect, especially in the matter of vocabulary. The persistence of certain popular misconceptions, or overstatements, of the indebtedness of Scots justifies some discussion of the question in this places.

An artificial dialect such as is used by the greater Middle Scots poets is, in some respects, unaffected by the processes which mould a living speech. It draws from sources which are outside the natural means of supply; it adopts consciously and in accordance with a deliberately accepted theory of style. If it borrow the forms which come to all languages with the new things of the market-place, it does so advisedly, just as it recovers the older forms which have been lost to ordinary speech. Books are its inspiration, and the making of books is its end. In this way the literary consciousness of an age as it appears in writers like Henryson and Dunbar is an index to its linguistic habit. When poets show a new pride in the vernacular and are concerned with the problems of poetic diction and form, their admiration of the models of style takes a very practical turn. Scottish literature, in the full enjoyment of a new fervour, showed the effect of its enthusiasm in the fashion of its language. In it, as in the Italian and Burgundian, the chief effort was to transform the simpler word and phrase into “aureate” mannerism, to “illumine” the vernacular, to add “fresch anamalit termis celicall.” This Crétinism was the serious concern of the Scottish poets for at least a century, and even of prose-writers such as the author of The Complaynt of Scotlande, or Abacuck Bysset, so late as 1622. In the later stages of Middle Scots, and especially in the prose, other influences were at work, but the tradition established during the so-called “golden age” still lingered.

The chief modifying forces at work during the middle period are English, Latin and French. Others—say Celtic and Scandinavian—may be neglected, but the case for the former will be glanced at later.