In a word ...

Tue, Dec 31, 2013, 13:07

Yule and Yuletide. That old “heathen feast, later taken over by Christianity”, as it is put. Both words are Anglo-Saxon but originated in Norse. They refer to a two-month midwinter season, corresponding to our December and January.

In Norse lore it is recounted how King Haakon I of Norway, who became Christian, rescheduled Yule to coincide with Christmas. Through him, according to the Saga of Haakon the Good, it spread to England.

Variations of the word Yule are to be found in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Island, Finland, the Frisian islands, and Estonia. Additionally, and closer to home, Yule is the traditional name for Christmas in the Scots language.

Yes, there are many on this island and on the neighbouring one too who dispute that there is such a thing as a Scots language and that what we are dealing with is no more than a dialect.

In 2010 a nationwide survey for the Scottish Assembly found that 64 per cent of Scottish people did not regard Scots as a language in its own right.

A 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 2 per cent of Northern Ireland residents claimed to speak Ulster Scots, estimated at 30,000 people.

Where doubters are concerned it is sobering to realise that in 1899 Trinity College Prof Robert Atkinson described Irish as a “broken down patois . . . a melange, an imbroglio, an omnium gatherum”. It was, he said, “low and close to the soil”.

That same year Sir John Mahaffy, later provost at Trinity, said Irish had no educational value and nothing existed in its literature that wasn’t either “silly or indecent”.

Among the more prominent exponents of Scots literature were none other than Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, who brings us back to matters yule.

For Robbie Burns was the author of a song you will hear more times than you will probably want to in the next 24 hours.

Auld Lang Syne is, of course, in Scots.

In translation it can mean “in the old long ago” or “for old times sake” as in For Auld Lang Syne.

Here’s how the chorus goes in the original Scots:

For auld lang syne, my jo,

for auld lang syne,

we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.

And of course there’s that other Scots word for tomorrow, New Year’s Eve, Hogmanay, also of Norse origin. Happy New Year.

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