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Colin Johnson’s blog

Languages and the Uncanny Valley

A long time ago, as a wet-behind-the-ears English person coming to Scotland for the first time, I was intrigued/surprised/amused to see a copy of The New Testament in Scots in a bookshop (the old James Thin on South Bridge, now a branch of Blackwells).

The New Testament in Scots:

I was vaguely aware that there was a Gaelic language, which not many people used, and had a basic knowledge that there was a Scots accent and vocabulary, albeit largely gleaned from watching Russ Abbot’s “see u Jimmy” character on TV:

Russ Abbot as Jimmy

…but the idea of treating this as a language was alien to me. I’ve developed by knowledge of this world over the years, and can appreciate the literary qualities of it, particularly through the thoughtful work by Hugh MacDiarmid. But, what explains my initial sense that this sort of thing is a bit ludicrous, a little trying-too-hard:

Excerpt from the Bible in Scots

…a little too close to the clearly humorous (though perhaps not evangelically purposeless) Ee by Gum, Lord!: The Gospels in Broad Yorkshire.

Ee By Gum, Lord! book cover

Why did I, 25 years ago, think that its description as “a translation” was odd. I wouldn’t have regarded a translation into French or Japanese or Guarani strange—so, why Scots? This touches, I suppose, on the language vs. dialect debate; when does a dialect become a separate language. This seems to be an ill-defined question; there is clearly a continuum, and whilst groups of language-users cluster at certain points thereon, this doesn’t happen cleanly enough to be a series of isolated clumps.

One idea that might help to explain this is the uncanny valley; here’s one of its inhabitants, a rather realistic looking humanoid robot:


This sort of thing—not far of being human, but not close enough to “pass”—is said to be uncanny, and this is backed up by a number of empirical studies. People are freaked out by this, much more than something really realistic or something more cartoony and obviously unrealistic. There is a point on the similarity scale, close to full realism, where suddenly people’s familiarity and comfort with the thing rockets downward:

Uncanny Valley graph

I think the same is true for languages. Sufficiently far away—French, say, or Sanskrit—and the language is dissimilar, clearly different. Close enough—Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, say—and the similarities are unremarkable. But the distance from RP English to Scots sits just at the right distance of unfamiliarity; like enough to be familiar, far enough away to seem different. Interestingly, the reaction is one of amusement rather than unsettledness; but, the idea of an emotional reaction being triggered by something close to but not really close to something is still there.

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