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‘Yi ken fit like’: An Ode to th’ ‘Mither Tongue’

Fit like i’day? Och am nae bad masel, jist chavin awa, yi ken fit like!

You probably didn’t understand that. Unless you are from the North East of Scotland. Suppressing all temptation, I will not speak to you in ‘gibberish’, as you might call it, anymore.

It is not gibberish, however; it is actually my mother tongue, Doric. A form of Scots, Doric, the dialect of the North East of Scotland, is one of the region’s primary cultural emblems, idiosyncratic in all its glory, and a huge part of my life which I have only now realised I am egregiously indebted to. With regards to that opening line, I’ll let you work out what it means…

Like Scots, Doric is not entirely different from Standard English, though I write this with hesitation, for many English tutorials that deal with Scots often contain prolonged silence, interrupted by monosyllabic utterances of confusion. But rest assured I will lay down the basics. For example, what is ‘fit’, know is ‘ken’, can’t is ‘cana’, because is ‘ciz’, girl is ‘quine’, and boy is ‘loon’. Easy!

Variations between Doric, other forms of Scots, and Modern English are largely attributed to differing vowel sounds. For example, ‘thank you’ would translate to ‘thunk yi’. Doric also diverges across Aberdeenshire and the North East  my Doric is from the Buchan coast (Peterhead), which is likely to differ slightly from Mearns Doric, famously weaved into Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel, Sunset Song.

As your newly appointed Doric teacher, to ask someone how they are is the warm and colloquial, ‘Fit like?’ which literally translates to ‘What like?’. If you wanted to go the extra mile and be broader, you could say ‘foos yer doos?’ which literally translates to ‘how’s your pigeons?’ to which the respondent would return, ‘aye [always] peckin’. Here, you’ll notice ‘aye’ means ‘always’ yet simultaneously it can also mean ‘yes’. Admittedly, Doric tends to be suffused with irregularities in both semantics and spelling. Regardless, my pigeons are very well, thank you for asking!

Doric, and Scots as a whole, is not concerned with the frills and rules associated with the Queen’s English; it functions through its speakers. Primarily, Doric exists to be spoken, though that does not diminish the existence of Doric literature.

Doric’s constant battle with the Queen’s English in the classroom is the root of my own, and many fellow speakers’, ingrained awkwardness of speaking one’s mother tongue. In primary school, like so many other regional languages and dialects, Doric was drained from us. One, of course, had to speak properly and ‘talk’ — the resentful phrase that Doric speakers use when a fellow speaker speaks Standard English. Growing up, family members would constantly exclaim: “Oh you’re ‘talking!’” and I never quite understood why it was such a problem. I could never expand my vocabulary through Doric nor write an essay that starts with ‘Fit I think is iss’ [What I think is this]. Doric was seen as a hindrance to progress. 

But as Rhona NicDhùghaill of The Guardian writes, “to say there is no worth in learning a language that isn't economically useful is like saying there's no point in being friends with somebody unless they're going to help you get a better job.” 

It is only now, after translating one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales into Doric for a class last semester, that I understood its importance to Aberdeenshire, and myself. Nestled in the corners of my mind, Doric was still alive  ‘aye peckin’. 

The uppermost attribute of Doric is community, and within that lies tradition. The ‘thrawn’ [stubborn] folk of Aberdeenshire are hesitant of change; mention the closure of the Peterhead ‘Woolies’ [Woolworths] in the late 2000s and hear endless sighs of ‘fit it wis like back in i’ day.’ Doric is a constant in a modernising world, an inherited linguistic relic. In examining Doric alongside Chaucerian Middle English, I realised that they are not dissimilar. Hence, I realised that if the English literary canon lauds Chaucer, then I myself should praise Doric. 

Admittedly, my accent has anglicised since coming to St Andrews, and I am prepared to lose its Doric-influenced twang in the future. Nonetheless, Doric has a familiar, untaxing quality that is tattooed onto my mouth. And no matter how heedlessly I may have tried to scrub it off, it's not going anywhere, or rather, ‘it’s nae gan onywye’.

Illustration by Ruby Pitman

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