Scots Language and Comic Performance
The use of the Scots language in comedic performance appears to be a contentious issue. There is a belief that Scots is employed in a disparaging or deprecatory manner by comics only to elicit humour or to provide a ‘cheap’ joke. Although it is true that Scots is used as a comic device, I would contend that many popular Scots comics employ the Scots language in a conscious and carefully evaluated way and that it is not their intention to disparage or deprecate Scots. The conclusions drawn, after extensive research, at the end of my doctoral thesis, Language and Cultural Identities in the Scots Comic Tradition, support this contention. Scots is also used as a signifier of identity to help manufacture a shared cultural identity between performer and audience. Those performers who skilfully and successfully practise their craft use Scots consciously and strategically in a positive and constructive way.
The use of Scots as a comic device provides Scots comics with a tool which may be used during their performance in various ways. The practice in Scottish society of code-switching, or register-shifting, according to situation is used to enhance comedic performance. Code-switching can accentuate the inappropriate, and often unexpected, use of Scots in a given situation where the humour is highlighted and exaggerated by this change. The apparently inappropriate use of Scots subverts the formality of the performance situation by using the supposed language of informality. The dominant hegemony may also be challenged by the subversive use of Scots. The juxtaposition of Received Pronunciation and demotic dialect emphasises and challenges the perception of the social superiority of Received Pronunciation and Standard English.
The Scots language may be ’played’ with in various ways. The phonology and lexicon of Scots may be played with to exaggerate the sound of specific Scots words, creating a comic effect. The sounds of some place-names provide a humorous effect. This may be because the names are ’foreign-sounding’, although not necessarily so, but because their derivation is unclear and the belief that they belong to the ’other’ and are outwith the community of the audience may be generated. These names may also be guttural sounding, or polysyllabic, which also provides amusement and depends on the sound of the words for much of the humour. So, the sounds of the Scots lexis are manipulated and exaggerated by Scots comics to enhance the comedic effect. These few examples illustrate the way that comedians may use the Scots language as a comedic device in their performance. They are aware of the benefits to be derived by using Scots as an instrument to enhance the comedy of their performance. Its use is premeditated and strategic and performers use it positively, confident that their audience will appreciate and understand the manner of its use.
Scots is also used by comic performers to help manufacture a collective cultural identity with their audience. The Scots language provides an oral and aural signifier of identity which can help manufacture a collective cultural identity between performers and their audiences, if used authentically, even if only for the duration of the performance and within the auditorium.
Using Scots can create a linguistic group or community identity, with the shared language being used within a common framework of meaning. Those excluded from this linguistic community are placed ’outside’ the collective identity, which could create an ’us and them’ situation. Of those excluded, some may be members of the dominant hegemony, and the Scots can be used to subvert their power and dominance. If they are unable to comprehend the language used, these excludees may be unaware of the subversion taking place. This further empowers the comic and his performance within this linguistic community, strengthening their collective identity against those placed outside it.
To succeed in constructing a collective identity, the authenticity of the language used is vital and care appears to be necessary ensuring the syntax of the language is correct for the area in which the performance is taking place. If used accurately, performers indicate their knowledge and understanding of the language of the community in which they are performing, fostering the manufacture of a collective identity. Equally, care appears necessary with the vocabulary used in order to ensure that it is recognised and understood by the audience. Authenticity seems to be a key factor in identity and meticulous use of the local language appears to foster the creation of an inclusive language community.
These few examples illustrate some of the ways in which, and the reasons why, the Scots language may be used in comic performance. This necessarily brief summary of several of the conclusions drawn in my thesis may give cause for discussion and disputation. All the conclusions drawn in my thesis are amply supported by examples from comic performance, but are too numerous to provide here. It is probably fair to say that not all Scottish comedians do use Scots in the ways exemplified here, but the performances of those who are most consistently successful are worth analysing using the criteria provided here, when it will be realised that the Scots language is not used merely to provide cheap, throw-away humour.