Scots: FAQ

How is it different from Gaelic? Is it a dialect of English? We asked a linguistics expert.

by E Jamieson

So, by “Scots” you mean Gaelic, right?

No! Gaelic is a Celtic language that was historically spoken in the Highlands and the Western Isles. Today, Gaelic is pretty much just spoken in the Western Isles and the very west coast of the Highlands – though it has been revived in other areas thanks to language protection and planning policy. On the other hand, Scots is what is spoken in the lowlands of Scotland, and the very north (Caithness, Orkney and Shetland).

 

Oh, right! Like Rabbie Burns, auld lang syne and all that?

Kind of. The way that people speak Scots today developed from the Scots of Burns’ era, in contact with other languages – mainly English. You’d be hard-pushed to find any Scot today who sounded anything like Burns’ poetry.

 

So is it its own language now? Or is it just, like, a dialect of English?

In the past, Scots was certainly a distinct language. Whether that is still the case today is a hotly debated topic. Personally, I like to think of it as a collection of dialects – there are many dialects that fall under the “Scots” umbrella, but they’re closely related to English. Some people will disagree with that opinion though!

 

Wait, multiple dialects? You don’t all sound like [FAMOUS SCOTTISH PERSON]?

No! There’s lots of variation, and what you think of as “Scots” will probably sound very different to the way that many other Scots speak. You are probably most familiar with west coast varieties – i.e. Glasgow: think Limmy, Frankie Boyle, or an interview with someone like Robert Carlyle. But things are different in Edinburgh, and Fife, different again in Aberdeenshire, and even more so in the northern isles.

 

Can youse aw understaun each ither?

There are a lot of similarities! For example, the Scottish Vowel Length Rule. The SVLR means that for a bunch of vowels in Scots varieties, there are rules about when they are “long” or “short”. Think about the words brood and brewed, or leave and leaf. In Scots, how long the vowel is held for varies in these words – so brood is quite short [u], while brewed is much longer [u:]. The same with leaf, which is short [i] and leave which is long [i:]. You can hear it best on these vowels, but it’s also possible in e.g. race and raise or oaf and cove. This is the case across Scots varieties.

The rules as to where vowels are long are complicated, but include e.g. before morpheme boundaries. This is the case with brood (one word) and brew+ed, a word with a past tense morpheme, ed on it – there is a boundary in brewed that triggers the longer pronunciation. Certain sound patterns also have an effect. The v and f sounds in leave and leaf, for example, are produced in the same place in your mouth, but v seems stronger than f. This strength is known as “voicing”, and it also leads to a longer vowel in Scots.

As well as shared sound rules, there’s also shared vocabulary, as I found out to my surprise when someone from Fife said widdershuns to me, a word meaning “anti-clockwise” that I always thought was exclusive to Shetland, and even aspects of grammar that are shared in Scots, but differ in English.

 

Alright, seems pretty similar to me. Fit’s this differences you was speakin aboot?

Though Scots is mainly spoken, let’s take a few written examples from Scottish Twitter, and from one of my favourite fields, negation.

 
"Canny [can’t] wait until tomorrow when I’m in the sun getting drunk with the best people."

That -ny (pronounced like “neigh”) in place of the –n’t you’d get in English is generally something you get in west and east central Scotland – so you can place that tweet in the central belt. Turns out its author is from the west coast, specifically Glasgow.

 

–ny can be used in most places you would use –n’t: except, oddly, west coast varieties don’t have dinny (‘don’t’). So you can pin this second tweet down to the east coast, because it includes dinny - indeed, its author is from Edinburgh:

"Dinny [don’t] understand how folk can hide tattoos from their ma and I canny [can’t] even hide a second bag of crisps."

 

What about up north? In Aberdeenshire and the northern isles, instead of –ny (like ‘neigh’), you get –na (pronounced like ‘nah’). So you can pin this third tweet to Aberdeenshire – indeed, its author is from Elgin:

"Ah dinna [don’t] care what anyone says, Bieber is the main man."

 

This is a very rough and ready guide to just one tiny feature – how Scots say that they don’t/can’t/won’t etc. – that can help you identify different Scots varieties; but there’s loads of variation in different grammatical and accent features that you might pick up on. For example, to distinguish things up north, where everyone says –na, you could listen out for fit for what and fa for who, and if you hear that, or you find that do is completely missing – I na think so, for example – you’re looking at Aberdeenshire. In Shetland, you’ll hear t and d where you would expect th (so dis and dat for this and that, and tink or ting for think and thing), du where you would expect you, and often phrases like I’m seen her before rather than I have seen her before.

 

Bairns, I am joost overwhelmed wi aa dis information!

If you want to hear some examples, try the Scots Language Centre, where you can hear different examples by selecting varieties under the “Scots Dialects” tab.

 
E Jamieson is a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on Scots. Read more about their work at ejamieson.com or tweet them @essikert.

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