2. Language, Class and Social Power in A Scots Quair
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22 CHAPTER TWO Language, Class and Social Power in A Scots Quair Hanne Tange Language is undoubtedly one of the principal reasons for the lasting appeal of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair (1932–34). In Sunset Song (1932), the author himself describes how his language usage might be compared to that of a Dutchman ‘mould[ing] his German in some fashion to the rhythms and cadence of the kindred speech that his peasants speak’.1 By so doing, Gibbon draws our attention to language, motivating then-contemporary and later readers to celebrate his achievement of a distinctively Scottish voice.2 Gibbon’s idiosyncratic style has prompted some literary historians to categorise the author as a cultural nationalist, thus placing him in the group of other modern Scottish Renaissance writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Neil M. Gunn.3 Yet his essays in Scottish Scene (1934), such as this from ‘Glasgow’, leave little doubt as to what side Gibbon would position himself on if requested to choose between political internationalism and cultural nationalism: I think there’s the chance that Scotland, especially in its Glasgow, in its bitter straitening of the economic struggle, may win to a freedom preparatory to, and in alignment with, that cosmopolitan freedom, long before England: so a cosmopolitan opportunist, I am some kind of Nationalist. But I’d rather, any day, be an expatriate writing novels in Persian about the Cape of Good Hope than a member of a homogeneous literary cultus [i.e., the Scottish Renaissance Movement].4 Gibbon’s declared willingness to adopt Persian, while perhaps tonguein -cheek, provides an interesting insight into his attitude to language. As a Modernist writer he employs a range of linguistic experimentation, which is evidenced by the way that he reworks English in Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights (1932) and Spartacus (1933).5 At the same time he expresses 23 an awareness of the fact that some languages have a wider scope than others, and that the artist can use this to his or her advantage. So in the note to Sunset Song Gibbon concludes: ‘The courtesy that the hypothetical Dutchman might receive from German a Scot may invoke from the great English tongue.’6 Hence the author acknowledges the status of Scots as a variety or dialect within the scope of the ‘English tongue’, and yet asserts his right, as a native of Scotland, to use native idioms and phrases to achieve effects unavailable in English. In an attempt to foreground the social meaning of language in Gibbon’s writings, this chapter presents a Bourdieusian reading of A Scots Quair. In works such as Distinction (2007) and The Field of Cultural Production (1993) the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has described the social dynamics of a class society, highlighting among other things the differential power of cultural consumption, aesthetic taste and educational choice. In Language and Symbolic Power (1991) Bourdieu underlines the connection between language, class and social status, suggesting that individual actors’ ability to rise in society will depend on their command of specific linguistic repertoires. Arguably, a similar linguistic argument is put forward in Gibbon’s A Scots Quair where key characters confront a choice between a Scots vernacular linked to the rural world and a Standard English that offers the prospect of social mobility through education. Following an initial comparison of the two writers’ personal backgrounds, the chapter will underline the social meaning of language in A Scots Quair by examining the four linguistic positions of community, institutions, nation and Cosmopolis. More than anything, it is the shared experience of provincialism that draws the attention of Gibbon and Bourdieu to the differential power of language. They were born in the periphery of a centralised British and French state and acquired as their first language a regional dialect that deviated from the linguistic norm recognised by the educational system.7 In order to move upwards in the social hierarchy it was urgent for both to unlearn the speech that stamped them as provincials and thus socially inferior, and replace this with an educated, middle-class voice. The principal institution involved in this process of linguistic standardisation was the school. To a large extent Bourdieu’s theory on language seems to reflect his personal encounter with the French educational system, where he learnt to refine his written and spoken language until he had mastered the sophisticated discourse expected from a member of the intellectual elite. Similarly, Gibbon’s years at Stonehaven Academy would language, class and...


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