What is Doric?

Huntly was found to be the most Doric place in Scotland. A 1988 media poll reported that 96% of residents spoke or understood the dialect.

By Norman Harper

Doric is the dialect of the Scots language spoken in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Banffshire, Kincardine and the eastern parts of Moray. Plenty of ardent Doricists assert that it is a language in its own right, but that notion is misplaced.

The name “Doric” probably derives from Ancient Greece, where the Dorians lived mainly outside sophisticated Athens and spoke in a dialect and with an accent regarded as rustic and a mark of poor education. The name was probably applied to North-east Scotland’s equivalent as a linguistic joke and has stuck.

Scots (and, therefore, Doric) is not, as misguided souls see it, just slovenly, lazy or slang English. It stands as a tongue in its own right. It is related to English but has its own distinct roots, and these roots are shared with Doric. Some people believe that Scots is not a language at all because many English-speakers can understand it, albeit with difficulty. They argue that if it doesn’t have a distinct grammar, it can’t be a language. Presumably they wouldn’t argue that Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic are not distinct languages, although all their speakers understand each other.

Doric also shares linguistic roots with the Scandinavian languages. Hence, a Doric-speaker has bairns, goes to kirk, speirs questions and wipes stue (dust). The Norwegian equivalents are barn, kirke, spørre and støv. There are hundreds more.

The two most notable features of spoken Doric are its long vowels and the substitution of the letter F for the WH in Scots and English interrogatives. Thus, an English-speaker might ask: “What is the time?”; a Scots speaker might ask: “Whit’s the time?”, but a Doric-speaker will ask: “Fit’s the time?” The same applies to Why? (Fit wye?), Who? (Fa?), Where? (Far? or Faur?), and When? (Fin? or Fan?). To complete the set, How? is rendered in Doric as “Foo?”.

One aspect of written Doric is the near-absence of contractive apostrophes. A Doric busker, for instance, does not spend his days “singin’ for pennies”. He spends his days “singin for pennies”. Using an apostrophe to denote an absent G would be accurate in English, but not in Scots or Doric, where the final G did not exist in the first place. This is a common mistake among many who try to write Doric. Apostrophes in Doric are mainly possessives (Mina’s claes, the bairns’ haircuts).

For the same reason, it’s wrong to render the English “all” as ” a’ ” in Doric. For instance “A’ the best”, a common good wish in Scots and Doric, is spelled wrongly. There is no missing double L in the Doric equivalent of “all” to make an apostrophe necessary. The closest written translation of the English “all” would be “aa”.

The North-east of Scotland is the heartland of Doric.

And therein lies the problem with written Doric: it has no great heritage. It is largely a spoken dialect (and even that is diminishing). The result is that it lacks consistency and is wide open to all sorts of phonetic nonsense in print which nobody can dispute. This scattergun approach weakens its foundations. There is a sore need for an authoritative Doric dictionary, similar to the Concise Scots Dictionary.

Compiling such a volume would be more of a challenge than a first glance would suggest. Doric is spoken throughout North-east Scotland, but there are many spokes of Doric in that umbrella. There is Buchan Doric, Aberdeen Doric, Banffshire Coast Doric, Upper Banffshire Doric, Donside Doric, Deeside Doric, Garioch Doric and Kincardine Doric. When I was a boy in the 1960s, plenty of my elders and betters could tell to within five miles at which stretch of the River Don a Doric-speaker had been raised, just by listening to his/her cadence and vocabulary.

This lack of written heritage explains why a piece written entirely in Doric can be so slow and difficult to read. Plenty of Doric-speakers who see Doric as their first tongue and chatter away in it without second thought admit that they struggle to read Doric narrative. More than one has told me that the easiest solution is to imagine the writer reading the work and to “hear” the writer’s voice.

It is no accident that the writer who wants his work to represent Doric but to be read as widely as possible writes the narrative in English and only the dialogue in Doric. Purists are appalled by that, but the truth is that it heeds Doric’s origins with laser accuracy: a spoken tongue.

If we’re looking for something that is truly appalling, it is that there is so little official support for Scots language among politicians. A few token bits of theatre in the Scottish Parliament don’t nearly compensate for its being ignored in virtually every other way.

Alford-born Charles Murray (1864-1941) remains probably the finest exponent of Doric poetry. His work still inspires devotion.

I was never one of those Scots- or Doric-speakers who resented the money which they felt had been lavished on Gaelic, although it should be said that many of us are beginning to tire of the way the ultra-minority culture of Gaelic is being forced down everyone’s throats, largely as stated policy of the Scottish National Party, as if it is a major language in Scotland. It isn’t. Not remotely.

I once admired the cultural leaders of the mere 50,000 Gaelic speakers (less than 1% of the population and still declining) for working hard and achieving stunning results for their language, including a TV channel and an annual investment which works out at something like £400 a head. Would that our tongue had campaigners of that calibre and dedication. No similar financial calculations exist for the Scots language, but I would be surprised if it amounted to more than fourpence per speaker.

Why is that? You will meet plenty of cynics, and I find myself growing in sympathy for their point of view, who believe that those who are charged with promoting the Scots language in general, and Doric by extension, spend too much time sitting in academic committees coining fatuous neologisms, and not enough time battering at the lugs of politicians in the way that Gaels have done.

The most ridiculous neologism of late has been “wabsteid”; apparently the Scots word for website. Have you ever heard of anyone visiting a wabsteid? No, you haven’t. Will you ever hear of anyone visiting a wabsteid? No, you won’t. This sort of idle tripe is not a sign of a healthy language marching boldly into the 21st century, as some of these people appear to believe. It is a sign of too many academics satisfied that sitting in committees, massaging each other’s egos and inventing nonsense words is discharging their duty to the language effectively.

If the words they coin never reach the critical mass of general use, and instead moulder in folders, on clipboards and in discussion papers that are passed round and round the usual suspects, what can be the point of them and their work? Is it any wonder that nobody takes the language and its dialects seriously?

These people need to ask Gaels how to campaign far beyond a culture’s sphere and weight. Clearly, they are the people who know.