Before the bomb exploded, it ticked for six years. “At first glance, Wikipedia looks to Scots like the transcription of a person with a Scottish accent,” begins an article in the online magazine Slate from 2014. In fact, the project is “not a joke”, but contributes to preserving the West Germanic language. At the time, the author apparently had no idea that she could have prevented a scandal that threatens the existence of Scots Wikipedia today.
What was intended as a flippant introduction to the text is the truth: “I found out that almost every article was written by the same person,” said Ryan Dempsey, pseudonym “Ultach”, on the online forum Reddit at the end of August. “An American teenager who doesn’t speak Scots.” In the past seven years, a user named AmaryllisGardener (AG) created 27,787 entries – around half of all Wikipedia. Real Lowland Scots, one of the three official languages of Scotland alongside English and Scottish Gaelic, contain very few.
Following the reveal, AG admitted hailing from North Carolina and having no clue about Scots. “When I started, I was a twelve year old kid,” he said via email. The now 19-year-old copied articles from the English language Wikipedia for years and translated the entries using an online dictionary – word for word, regardless of grammar or subtleties. It made more than 160,000 edits and must have spent thousands of hours on it. AG explains his obsession with a diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. All these years he thought he was doing something good. Now he is desperate and horrified.
AG did Scots “more harm than anyone else in history,” Dempsey believes. It is cultural vandalism on an unprecedented scale. Wikipedia is one of the most visited websites in the world and appears at the top of almost all Google searches. Dempsey fears that tens of millions of people will now think Scots is just a “hideously mutilated version of English.”
Wikipedia volunteers forgive the wrong Scotsman
He is not alone in this. For two weeks the community of Scots Wikipedia has been discussing what to do next. Erase everything and start over? Undo every processing by AG? Check and correct all articles by hand? The page that collects the suggestions is as long as a novel.
AG could have confused not only people but also machines: Many language models that serve as the basis for spelling corrections, translation programs or language assistants use Wikipedia as training material. After all, the entries are usually made by native speakers and checked by many volunteers. Computer scientists warn that instead of Scots, some of these models may have learned English with a few foreign words and ancient spelling.
The US teenager says he was met with a lot of hatred online, but the Wikipedia community has forgiven him. He can keep his account and help to correct his mistakes. In addition, Scots Wikipedia could have been worse: a powerful administrator of the Croatian Wikipedia erased references to the Holocaust for years and pervaded the encyclopedia with right-wing propaganda. And maybe the bumbling translations by AG will help to keep Scots alive: not so many people have been interested in the language for hundreds of years.