Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 5. Latin and French Elements in Middle Scots

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

§ 5. Latin and French Elements in Middle Scots

In the prose, the second and third English influences are more easily noted, and they are found towards the end of the period, when a general decadence has set in. Indeed, they are the chief causes of the undoing of Middle Scots, of breaking down the very differences which Chaucer, Latinity and (in a minor degree) French intercourse had accomplished. It is to be observed that the language of nearly all religious literature from the middle of the sixteenth century is either purely southern or strongly anglicised: it is worthy of special note that, until the publication of the Bassandyne Bible in 1576–9, all copies of the Scriptures were imported direct form England, and that the Bassandyne, as authorised by the reformed kirk, is a close transcript of the Genevan version. This must have had a powerful influence on the language, spoken and written. Even in Lyndsay, whose dialect is unmistakable, translated passages from the Vulgate are taken direct from the English text. The literary influence was strengthened by protestant controversialists, notably by Knox, perhaps the most “English” of all Scottish prose-writers. This “knapping” of “sudroun” was one of the charges preferred against them by catholic pamphleteers—among others by John Hamilton, author of Ane Catholik and Facile Traictize (1581), who even saw treason in the printing of Scottish books at London “in contempt of our native language.” The third English influence, latest in activity, emphasised these tendencies. It is easy to trace in state documents and in the correspondence of the court the intrusion of southern forms. Sal and shall, till and to, quhilk and which, participles in -and and -ing, -it kand -ed, jostle each other continually. The going of the court to England, and the consequent affectation of English ways, undid the artificial Middle Scots which had been fashioned at, and for, that court. Poetry was transferred, almost en bloc, as if by act of the British Solomon, to the care of the southern muse: all the singers, Alexander, Aytoun, Drummond and the rest became “Elizabethan” in language and sentiment, differing in nothing, except an occasional Scotticism, from their southern hosts. When Scottish literature revives in the mid-seventeenth century, and in the next is again vigorous, its language is the spoken dialect, the agrest termis of the Lothians and west country.

That the Romance contribution to Middle Scots is large is obvious; that it is found in writings which are not mere tours de force of “aureate” ingenuity is also obvious. But the sorting out of the borrowings according to their origin has not been so clear to amateurs of Scots etymology. There has been no lack of speculation, which, in its generally accepted form, must be seriously traversed.

The non-Teutonic elements (excluding Celtic) are Latin and French. An exaggerated estimate of the political and social intercourse with France, and a corresponding neglect or depreciation of the position of Latin in Scottish culture, have given vogue to a theory of French influence on the language which cannot be accepted without serious modification. The main responsibility for the popular opinion that Scots is indebted, inordinately, to French must rest with the late Francisque Michel’s Critical Inquiry into the Scottish Language, with the view of illustrating the Rise and Progress of Civilisation in Scotland (1882). It may be true that, “to thoroughly understand Scottish civilisation, we must seek for most of its more important germs in French sources”; but certain important qualifications are necessary.

The French element in Middle Scots represents three stages of borrowing: first, the material incorporated in the early period during the process of Anglo-French settlement in the Lothians; next, the material, also Anglo-French in origin drawn from Chaucer and the “Chaucerian” texts; and, finally, the material adopted from central French during the close diplomatic intercourse of the Scottish and French courts, and as a result of the resort of Scottish students to the university of Paris, and, later, of the national interest in Calvinistic protestantism. The last of these groups commends itself readily to the popular imagination: its plausibility is enforced by recalling the stories of the Scot abroad, of careers like Buchanan’s, of the Quentin Durwards, and by pointing to the copies of French institutions in the College of Justice and the older universities. Yet, when all these are allowed for, the borrowings from this third source are the smallest in extent, and by no means important. From the second source, which is, in a sense, English (for the borrowings were already naturalised English words), the influx is much greater; but from the first, certainly the greatest.

So far as the vocabulary is concerned, nearly all the Romance elements in Middle Scots which cannot be traced to the first or second, the Anglo-French or Chaucerian source, are of Latin origin. Even many of the borrowings which are French in form and derived through French were taken direct from the rhètoriqueurs because they yielded a ready-made supply of aureate terms and helped the purposes of writers who, like Gavin Douglas, had set themselves to cut and carve Latin for the betterment of the vernacular. It was of the nature of an accident that the media were French books. The forms appealed to the Latin-speaking, Latin-thinking Scot. Moreover, not a few of the words which are certainly French, such as the hackneyed ashet and gigot, belong to the period of Modern Scots; others, as attour, boule, which appear to yield evidence of French origin, are “English” dialectal forms. When Francisque Michel refers the child-word bae to the bleat in Pathelin we begin to understand what a Frenchified thing Middle Scots must have been! Nor is it easy, even with the authority of another investigator, to allow a French origin to certain well-known eccentricities of grammar and syntax in Middle Scots—badges of that period and of no other—the indefinite article and numeral ane, in all positions; the adjectival plural, e.g. saidis, quhilkis; and the frequent placing of the adjective after the noun, e.g. factis merciall, concepcioun virginale, inimy mortall. The assumption that such a usage as ane man is an imitation of the French un homme is, in the first place, entirely unsupported by historical evidence; secondly, it shows a grammatical interference in a place where intrusion is least likely, or hardly possible. In the case of the other alleged Gallicisms, criticism may be more constructive, for they may be explained (when they are not the outcome of verse necessity) as relics or reminiscences of Latin syntactical habit. The tradition of theological and legal Latin must be reckoned with; and the fact that the adjectival plural is admitted to be first found “in legal verbiage” is an important link in the evidence.

So far, we have assumed that the Romance influence which is not Anglo-French or Chaucerian comes through Latin rather than French. We may strengthen this position by pointing to the ascertained importance of Latin in the moulding of Middle Scots. There is, in the first place, the direct testimony of contemporary writers to the vitality of Latin, which stands in remarkable contrast with their silence on the subject of French borrowing. The circumstances of the writer and the nature of his work must, of course, be considered. It is to be expected that, in a translation from Latin, or in treatises on theology, political science, or law, the infusion will be stronger than in an original work of an imaginative or descriptive cast. This consideration may affect our conclusion as to the average strength of the infusion, but it does not minimise the importance of the fact that Middle Scots was liable to influence from this quarter. The testimony of such different writers as John of Ireland, Gavin Douglas and the author of The Complaynt of Scotlande is instructive. John excuses his Scots style because he was “thretty [char]eris nurist in fraunce, and in the noble study of Paris in latin touung, and knew nocht the gret eloquens of chauceir na colouris pat men usis in pis Inglis metir.” Nor was he (we may be certain) the only Scot who, when it was a question of writing “in the commoun langage of pis cuntre,” sought help from Latin, “the tounge that [he] knew better.” Gavin Douglas allows the general necessity of “bastard latyne, french, or inglis” to a progressive Scots, but he discusses the advantages of only the first, and shows that in his task of translating Vergil he must draw freely from Latin, if his work is not to be “mank and mutilait” as Caxton’s was. The author of The Complaynt says plainly that “it is necessair at sum tyme til myxt oure langage vitht part of termis dreuyn fra lateen, be reson that oure scottis tong is nocht sa copeus as is the lateen tong.”

These confessions are amply supported by the texts. There we find not only words of unmistakable Latin lineage such as translatory, praetermittit, caliginus, but others used in their Latin sense, such as prefferris (excels), pretendis (aims at), and the like. Further, there is ample evidence of the process, at which Douglas clearly hints, that Latin was drawn upon without hesitation and without any attempt to disguise the borrowing. The word mank in the quotation already given is an illustration. It may be Old French (through Anglo-French), but its natural parent is manc-us. Examples of direct association with Latin are plentiful: here, two must suffice. “Withoutin more or delay” is plain sine mora aut dilatione: no imaginary French “more” intervenes. Even at the close of the period a man may be described in kirk minutes as “apt and idoneus to enter the ministry.” In accidence even, as in the uninflected past participle, e.g. did fatigat, being deliberat, salbe repute—a form which still lingers in Scottish legal style—the derivation from Latin is direct.

On the whole, therefore, the Romance material in Middle Scots, in so far as it is not Anglo-French, directly or mediately, is largely Latin. Central French is certainly represented in such words as preaux and charpentier, but they are in many cases [char] or the liking of certain authors. To counterbalance this, it may be pointed out that in The Complaynt of Scotlande, that strange mosaic of verbatim translation from French with encyclopaedic digressions in Scots which are assumed to be original, the author is a more deliberate Latinist in the latter than he is when rendering the passages from the rhétoriqueurs. Here, again, it is the “rhetorical” quality which attracts him to the French authors. He pays little heed to the French timbre of their work, and hastens, when he must be original, to find the closest imitation in diction of this sort.

  • Nou for conclusione of this prolog, i export the, gude redar, to correct me familiarly, ande be cherite, Ande til interpreit my intention fauorablye, for doutles the motione of the compilatione of this tracteit procedis mair of the compassione that i hef of the public necessite nor it dois of presumptione or vane gloir. thy cheretabil correctione maye be ane prouocatione to gar me studye mair attentiulye in the nyxt verkis that i intend to set furtht, the quhilk i beleif in gode sal be verray necessair tyl al them that desiris to lyue verteouslye indurand the schort tyme of this oure fragil peregrinatione, & sa fayr veil.
  • And this writer dares to call these words “agrest termis,” and to add that he “thocht it nocht necessair til hef fardit ande lardit this tracteit vitht exquisite termis, quhilkis ar nocht daly vsit” and that he has employed “domestic Scottis langage, maist intelligibil for the vulgare pepil.”