6th Language and Politics Symposium on the Gaeltacht and Scotstacht, Queen’s University Belfast

Conference paper: Scots in the Linguistic Marketplace: Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital applied to educational policy for Scots language

Friday, 1 September 2006, Queens University Belfast

Recent research (Millar 2006) indicates that the promotion of Scots language is not only seen as a low priority for Scotland by UK policymakers, but that Scots is ‘buried alive’. This sets Scotland apart from other European countries (e.g. Spain, Sweden), where regional minority languages seem to have enjoyed something of resurgence in recent years, and policy has changed to reflect this, seemingly as part of a process of linguistic glocalisation (Trudgill 2001). In the Scottish education sector, it seems the lack of clear top-down policy direction has not, however, prevented individual schools and teachers from taking a strong, proactive stance in promoting Scots, but equally it has meant that there is no national public consensus on whether and how Scots should be promoted, nor a general understanding of Scots as a living, widely-used language.
In his report on Language and Literacy Policy in Scotland, Lo Bianco (2001) points to the need for ‘a kind of prestige allocation process’ for Scots, which should be enacted primarily through educational initiatives. Scots is primarily characterized as a cultural and ‘heritage’ resource. In the same report, Lo Bianco identifies the ‘major disadvantage in competing for jobs’ faced by ‘adults with low levels of English literacy’, thus framing English (or, at least, literacy in English) as an economic resource. Lo Bianco does not posit a coincidence between Scots speakers and those with ‘low levels of English literacy’, and indeed the absence of sufficient demographic information on Scots speakers makes the existence of any such link difficult to prove or refute. However, as has been reported in numerous studies on Scots (e.g. Aitken 1979; McClure 1997; Corbett et al. 2003) there seems to be a widespread view amongst the general public that this coincidence exists, particularly for speakers of urban Scots. This has perpetuated what is undoubtedly a false dichotomy – between, on the one hand, the need to acquire the linguistic proficiencies (particularly in English) necessary to succeed in a globalised economy and, on the other hand, the use of indigenous linguistic codes, particularly in areas with high numbers of rural and working-class children. In some classrooms, therefore,  Scots is encouraged only as part of generic Scottish ‘culture and identity’ in forms which are culturally legitimated by being, for example, contained in a Robert Burns poem.
In this paper I apply Bourdieu’s (1993) theory of symbolic capital to the Scots language situation, and in particular to educational policy surrounding Scots in the classroom. Bourdieu uses the terms ‘market’ and ‘capital’ metaphorically, and applies them to linguistic interactions chiefly to demonstrate how language is used to enact power. The ‘laws of price formation’ on this market are closely linked to language attitudes and also to the context in which a given utterance takes place – someone who uses a linguistic code that is highly regarded in a given context will possesses large amounts of symbolic capital. Despite the metaphorical nature of Bourdieu’s framework, it is likely (though again this is rather difficult to investigate) that ‘values’ on the metaphorical linguistic market might translate into real economic gain or loss for individual users of a given linguistic code. In an educational context, for example, this might be because expressions with a low ‘value’ in assessed work lead to worse grades, which can affect future educational opportunities and career prospects. This paper attempts to lay the necessary theoretical groundwork for an empirical investigation of the relationship between ‘symbolic value’ and ‘economic value’ in the Scottish educational context.

BOURDIEU, P. (1993) Language and symbolic power, Cambridge, MA, Polity Press.
CORBETT, J., MCCLURE, D. & STUART-SMITH, J. (2003) A Brief History of Scots. IN CORBETT, J., MCCLURE, D. & STUART-SMITH, J. (Eds.) The Edinburgh Companion to Scots. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
LO BIANCO, J. (2001) Language and literacy policy in Scotland, Stirling, Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.
MCCLURE, J. D. (1997) Why Scots matters, Edinburgh, The Saltire Society.
MILLAR, R. M. (2006) ‘Burying Alive’: Unfocussed Governmental Language Policy and Scots. Language Policy, 5, 63-86.
TRUDGILL, P. (2004) ‘Glocalisation and the Ausbau sociolinguistics of modern Europe’ in Duszak, A and Okulska, U (eds) Speaking from the Margin: Global English from a European Perspective. Frankfurt, Peter Lang.



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