Adam J. Aitken – Patron Saint of April, 2019

A is for April and also for Adam J. Aitken – coincidentally, this month’s Patron Saint!
A.J. Aitken (1921-1998) is known for his scholarship on the Scots Language and his work as Editor on the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST). He is perhaps not as widely known in linguistics as the previous Patron Saints we’ve presented, but as a Scots scholar, and an alumni of the HLCs alma mater the University of Edinburgh, he is one of particular importance to us.

Aitken graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1947 with an MA in English Language, and shortly after took up work as assistant to the editor of DOST. He took over the editor position in 1956, meaning that his contribution can be noticed from the letter J (or, volume III). During his time as editor, he developed a new reading programme which diversified and nearly doubled the source material for DOST. He was also early to explore computer methods for the dictionary work, and set up the Older Scots Textual Archive (also called the DOST corpus); a digital archive of the DOST source material, which makes one of few digitised text data sources for research on Older Scots.

During his time at DOST, Aitken also worked as Lecturer and Reader for the department of English Language at the University of Edinburgh. There, he essentially created ‘Scots Language’ as a university subject – something this particular HLC writer is still reaping the harvest from, as a PhD student researching the Scots Language. Apart from producing teaching materials on Scots, which to this day constitute some of the more comprehensive descriptions of Scots grammar, vocabulary and sound system, Aitken also formulated the Scottish Vowel Length Rule (also called Aitken’s Law), which describes a pattern of meaningful vowel length alternation in Scots and Scottish English, and he created a numbering system for the Scottish Vowels so that they more easily could be described and studied.

In the spirit of the Year of Indigenous Languages, it feels especially appropriate to raise awareness of someone who has contributed so much to the recognition and awareness of Scots. Braw!

At the Dictionary of the Scots Language website,, you can find more info about DOST (and search it, of course), as well as an online text book about the origin and history of Scots which incorporates material written by Aitken – look under the “About Scots” tab.

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