Linguistics and English Language

Language in context seminar

Speaker: Sarah Van Eyndhoven (University of Edinburgh)

Title: ‘An Eye for an Aye’: Linguistic and Political Backlash and Conformity in Eighteenth-Century Scots

Abstract: Under the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, Scotland and England became incontestably united, and the ongoing Anglicising processes affecting the Scots language (Devitt, 1989a; Meurman-Solin, 1997) appeared ready to run their course. Such trends were only strengthened by the ‘age of politeness’ which saw Scots condemned as ‘backwards’ and ‘vulgar’ (Jones, 1995; Aitken, 1979). Yet throughout the eighteenth century underlying political tensions within Scotland increased, fed by international affairs and growing agitation at home towards breaches in the treaty (Phillipson, 1970; Bono, 1989). The Scots language also experienced a resurgence within the creative literary field, known as the vernacular ‘revival’ or backlash (Dossena, 2005). The eighteenth century thus forms an interesting time period to examine, considering the conflicting interests at work in Scottish society.

There is a considerable amount of qualitative research on eighteenth-century Scots (Jones, 1995; Aitken, 1979; Robinson, 1973; Dossena, 2005) but quantitative studies charting its trajectory are scarce and tend to focus on individual variants or authors in their analyses. Our current knowledge is based largely off descriptive accounts, thus, a holistic understanding of early modern Scots and the potential interaction between language use and political change is still missing from current research.

Through building a unique, eighteenth-century corpus of both general and politically-inspired Scottish writing, and utilising modern statistical methods such as ctrees and random forests (Breiman, 2001), I explore how and why Scots forms were changing in the 18th century. In particular I am interested in the role that political affiliation – whether authors were known to be for or against the Union of 1707 – played in patterns observed. The overall frequencies of Scots lexical items were tracked across texts and time, to uncover whether this differed at different time periods, and whether this corresponded to historical changes. Following this, I applied the statistical toolkit to the corpus to identify the factors driving the choice to use Scots during the eighteenth century, with a particular focus on the politically-motivated individuals and what role, if any, their political stance played in their personal linguistic choices.


  • Aitken, A. J. (1979). Scottish Speech: a historical view with special reference to the Standard English of Scotland. In A. J. Aitken and T. McArthur (Eds.). Languages of Scotland (pp. 85-118). Edinburgh: W&R Chambers.
  • Bono, Paola. (1989). Scottish Studies: Radicals and Reformers in Late Eighteenth Century Scotland. In Horst W. Drescher (Ed.). Radicals and Reformers in Late Eighteenth Century Scotland: an annotated checklist of books, pamphlets, and documents printed in Scotland 1775-1800. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang.
  • Breiman, L. (2001). Random forests. Machine learning, 45(1), 5-32.
  • Devitt, A. (1989a). Standardising Written English: Diffusion in the Case of Scotland, 1520-1659. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Dossena, M. (2005). Scotticisms in Grammar and Vocabulary." Like Runes upon a Standin'Stane?". Edinburgh: John Donald.
  • Jones, Charles. (1995). A Language Suppressed: The Pronunciation of the Scots Language in the Eighteenth Century. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers.
  • Meurman-Solin, A. (1997a). Differentiation and Standardisation in Early Scots. In C. Jones (Ed.), The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language (pp. 335-377). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Phillipson, N.T. (1970). Scottish Public Opinion and the Union in the Age of the Association. In N.T. Phillipson and Rosalind Mitchison (Eds.). Scotland in the Age of Improvement (125-147). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  • Robinson, Mairi (1973). Modern Literary Scots: Fergusson and after. In. A. J. Aitken (Ed.). Lowland Scots: Papers Presented to an Edinburgh Conference [held on 12-13th May 1972] by The Association for Scottish Literary Studies Occasional Papers No. 2 (38-49). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


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Stephen McNulty

Sarah Van Eyndhoven

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We hope to see you very soon!

Mar 21 2019 -

Language in context seminar

2019-03-21: ‘An Eye for an Aye’: Linguistic and Political Backlash and Conformity in Eighteenth-Century Scots

Room G.03 (Doorway 6), Medical School (Old Medical School), Teviot Place, Edinburgh, EH8 9AG