TOMORROW is International Mother Language Day: mither-leid in Scots. Both mither and leid deserve their own columns, but the linking of parenthood with language is worth unpacking.

The Dictionaries of the Scots Language – in Scots, the Dictionar o the Scots Leid – offers many relevant citations ( The makar and herald David Lyndsay, in 1552, supplies the earliest reference to the linking, describing how “common” people have “no leid except thare toung maternall”. It’s therefore unsurprising that Billy Kay chose “Scots: The Mither Tongue” (1986 and 2006) as the title of his best-selling account of the language’s cultural significance. Gayle Smith’s recent poem “The Mither Leid" (2020) tells a similar story: “A' ken her fine the mither tongue ma ain folk's speak.”

Historical linguists have for many years used the parental – specifically maternal – metaphor when discussing linguistic evolution; it occurred first, it seems, in the writings of the Swiss polymath, Conrad Gessner, in his oddly-named Mithridates (1555). The term “cognate”, from Latin co + gnatus “born together”, is still often used to refer to related languages, and “tree” models for language-families such as Indo-European have dominated scholarly textbooks since the nineteenth century, appearing alongside other adoptions of the metaphor, e.g. the “phylogenetic tree” of evolutionary biology.

Such metaphors are unsurprising. But it’s worth recalling that our linguistic behaviour develops not only through interaction with our parents, but also from other usages we encounter as we move into the wider world: we borrow (or steal) as much as inherit. Scots, like all living languages, is a dynamic phenomenon, open to innovation. Maybe pyot (magpie) leid would be a more appropriate term?

Scots Word of the Week is written by Jeremy Smith, Professor of English Philology in the University of Glasgow