Thousands of articles on the Scots language version of Wikipedia are gibberish, with little resemblance to the actual language, due to the efforts of a single US teenager.
Between 2013 and 2020, the user, who appears to have been acting in good faith, has made over 100,000 edits on the Scots Wikipedia, including creating tens of thousands of new pages and significantly expanding others.
However, the user, who is a native English speaker, did so by translating individual words – not always correctly – meaning that the pages have English grammar and sentence structure, but feature random words and phrases from Scots that in some cases are inappropriately applied.
As Scots Wikipedia only has around 60,000 pages, this means that the majority of Scots language pages on the site are likely to have been impacted, including many on current events, such as the US Presidential Election, as well as the United Kingdom page.
Scots is listed on the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger as vulnerable, with 1.5 million speakers, according to the 2011 census.
Scots Wikipedia inaccuracies raise concerns
The issue was brought to light on Reddit’s Scotland subreddit by user Ultach, who said they thought the editor had “possibly done more damage to the Scots language than anyone else in history”.
Others do not believe the damage is so severe but do consider the situation to be harmful, given that Scots researchers sometimes struggle to get funding for projects designed to protect it.
“Any minority language is always at the mercy of hobbyists who may not speak the language themselves but believe strongly in its use. These interventions are often well-meant, but are rarely helpful to native speakers and their desire for recognition for their language,” Professor Robert McColl Millar, chair in linguistics and Scottish language at the University of Aberdeen, told Verdict.
“They help detractors in their claims that the variety in question isn’t a ‘real’ language.”
However, despite the breadth of inaccuracies in the articles, Matthew Fitt, a Scots writer who has also translated a host of leading books into Scots, including JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, viewed the teenager’s efforts in a more positive light.
“For a young American to be editing Wikipedia in Scots shows clearly the language is more than just the parochial wee dialect many hold it to be,” he told Verdict.
Nevertheless, the inaccuracies are a cause for concern, particularly given the practice of using Wikipedia articles to form training data for programming.
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“It is a great pity that the person who appears to have produced the material had not asked for advice from native speakers, rather than using print and online resources, some of which are of dubious value,” said McColl Millar.
Efforts to rebuild
The issue has sparked considerable discussion among Wikipedia editors and the wider online community about how to respond and fix the problems.
MJL, an admin on the Scots Wikipedia, has told Verdict that they are currently holding an AMA on Reddit to discuss the problems and come up with possible solutions.
They are currently considering mass deletions of all articles by the editor, and are in the process of putting into place outreach projects designed to recruit more native Scots speakers to act as editors and admins on the site.
Verdict has contacted Wikipedia for comment but had not received a response at the time of publication.