Named into being? Language questions and the politics of Scots in the 2011 census in Scotland

Sebba, Mark (2019) Named into being? Language questions and the politics of Scots in the 2011 census in Scotland. Language Policy, 18 (3). pp. 339-362. ISSN 1568-4555

[thumbnail of Named into being postprint]
PDF (Named into being postprint)
Named_into_being_postprint.pdf - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial.

Download (255kB)


Where censuses are concerned, politics and ideology are pervasive. The 2011 census in Scotland (a semi-autonomous part of the United Kingdom) was the first to ask a question about Scots, a close relative of English, which is historically the vernacular in many parts of Scotland. While at one time Scots had high status as the national language of Scotland, it is now widely regarded as a ‘dialect’ of English, and for many people it has associations of inferiority. At the same time, it has political relevance because of its potential to be an important cultural marker for an autonomous Scotland. The policy position of the current Scottish government, which advocates independence, is to protect and celebrate Scots. Adding a question about Scots to the census was an attempt to advance this by finding out who and where the users of Scots are. Research carried out before the census had shown that the public had differing ideas about what could be called Scots and whether it was, in fact, a different language from English: according to one previous survey, 64% did not think of it as a language at all. Given this background it is unsurprising that interpretations of the census results were controversial, reflecting to some degree existing language ideologies. According to some, the census provided no useful information, while according to others it demonstrated that there was a robust Scots-speaking population and a clear public understanding of what it meant to be a speaker of Scots. This paper discusses the history and political background to the problematic language questions in the Scottish census, and how the choice of questions, their wording and even their order on the questionnaire may have affected the results. Despite the flawed questions and many difficulties of interpretation, it seems that the 2011 census, whether or not it succeeded in enumerating accurately the speakers of Scots, may nevertheless have helped to raise public awareness of the language and to legitimise it. There are lessons to be learnt from the Scottish census, too, in other situations around the world where there are unclear boundaries between ‘language’ and ‘dialect,’ or where low-status and high-status varieties of ‘the same’ language coexist.

Item Type:
Journal Article
Journal or Publication Title:
Language Policy
Additional Information:
The final publication is available at Springer via
Uncontrolled Keywords:
?? censusdialect versus languagelanguage policyscotslinguistics and languagesociology and political science ??
ID Code:
Deposited By:
Deposited On:
21 Aug 2018 07:58
Last Modified:
04 Jan 2024 00:20