One country one language? It’s not that simple

September 26, 2014 by Alison Tunley

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It was quite close in the end, wasn’t it? However – as many predicted – Scotland voted in favour of staying in the United Kingdom, with 55.3 per cent voting ‘No’ to independence and 44.7 per cent choosing ‘Yes’. So, for the meantime at least, we’re still all one big, moderately happy family – although like many families, the UK certainly has an air of dysfunctionality about it. This is especially true when you consider that the members of this family often have trouble understanding what each other are saying, despite the fact they all speak the same language. Which gets us to the topic of this post: “One country, one language?!”

If you’ve ever tried to read Irvine Welsh’s book Trainspotting, you’ll know what I mean. It’s written in Scottish dialect and – for English people – involves a certain amount of translation, even though it is essentially presented in English.

However, Scottish English is by no means the same as English English – and here’s where the problem of miscommunication lies.

With this in mind – and in the spirit of the decision of the Scottish people to remain part of the United Kingdom, here’s a brief lesson in how to understand the dialect found north of the border.

One country, one language? Speak like a Scot

Much of the confusion when trying to understand Scottish is the different use of phonemes in the same word to express alternate meanings. Already feeling befuddled?

Take the English word ‘you’, for example. Someone from Glasgow might say ‘ya’ or ‘ye’ instead – both of which mean ‘you’, but in different contexts. ‘Ya’ would be used when calling someone a name – ie ‘ya fool’ – whereas ‘ye’ is the more common variation in sentences. Do ye understand what I mean?

‘You’ is only one difference however – even in our last sentence there are Scottish inaccuracies. ‘Do’ should instead be written as ‘dae’ (and pronounced like ‘day’), the ‘t’ should be removed from ‘what’ and ‘I’ sounds more like ‘a’. Dae ye understand wha’ a mean?

From one simple sentence, you can already see just how these two forms of English are starting to move away from one another – and perhaps appreciate how difficult it is to read Trainspotting!

Of course, it shouldn’t just be a case of guessing what sounds Scottish in your head when trying to replicate the accent or understand what your friend north of the border is saying to you.

One starting point that many dialect tutors use is the International Phoneme Alphabet (IPA), which centres around the scientific study of phonetics and how they are applied in different regions.

This, along with a key to how certain consonants and vowels should be substituted, can be essential in understanding the building blocks of any dialect, although experts’ opinions differ on how heavily this approach should be relied upon.

Another country that struggles with dialects: China

Scotland and England aren’t the only nations that experience this problem. In fact, it happens all over the world.

Take China, for example. On the one hand, the written language has been standardised, so that you if you perform a translation from English to Chinese, that translation will be intelligible to all speakers, even if their spoken dialects/languages are not.

Things are much different with spoken Chinese. Here while Mandarin is regarded as being the nation’s most important (and official) language, there are a series of dialects that are all closely related but often largely unintelligible from one another.

Hakka, Wu, Yue (Cantonese), Jinyu and Gan are just a few examples – each used by millions of people. Even Mandarin has different regional dialects, which again can make it difficult for one person from one area to understand another who comes from a different location. In other words, we can see the “one country, one language” idea severely fraying at the edges here.

Much of the variation stems from the fact Chinese is a tonal language, so each syllable’s meaning is dependent on the intonation of the speaker. Mandarin has four tones, while Cantonese has up to nine tones, so you can start to see how things can get complicated.

This is where Standard Chinese – ‘Putonghua’ – comes in. Those who don’t speak Mandarin can, in theory, use this bridging language – which translates as ‘common speech’ – to communicate.

While this solution is unlikely to ever be introduced to address the Scottish/English mix-ups, it’s an interesting example of how a nation copes with having such a diverse background.

So, what’s the answer for us? Although not a complete fix, perhaps patience and a little bit of background reading is the only way. Everyone loves a dysfunctional family anyway, right? Maybe we should also learn to celebrate this diversity more, rather than cling to outdated concepts like “one country, one language”.

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