Why you need to learn Scots to understand Scottish English

Vernacular, a photo by shirokazan on Flickr.
When I moved to Scotland and had to learn to understand the natives, I was of course aware of the existence of Scots, but I assumed (wrongly!) that people at any one time would normally speak either Scots or English (or rather, Scottish Standard English [SSE], which is standard English with a Scottish pronunciation and a few loanwords from Scots, such as wee, dreich, outwith and glaikit).

However, I was rather disappointed that I almost never met any speakers of Scots, and at the same time SSE speakers often seemed to mumble — for instance, foot sometimes sounded more like /fɪt/ than /fut/ [fyt] (the expected mapping of RP /fʊt/). Other examples included you sounding like /ji/ rather than /ju/, use (the verb) sounding like /jez/ rather than /juz/, dog sounding like /dʌg/ rather than /dɔg/, and thirty sounding like /θɛrte/ rather than /θɪrte/. Strangely, whenever I asked people to repeat one of these words, they invariably produced the vowel I had expected in the first instance (e.g., /fut/, never /fɪt/).

The alternative to my theory that all Scots were mumbling was to assume that the SSE phonemes had extremely varied and overlapping realisations — in other words, I speculated for a while that /u/ perhaps could be realised as [u, y, ɪ, i, e]! However, that’s obviously not true — while foot can be [fɪt], [fut] and [fyt], it can’t be *[fit] or *[fet], and so on.

Things didn’t click into place until I started learning Scots as a foreign language. When I learnt that the Scots words for foot, you and use were fit, ye and uise (pronounced as if it had been written yaize), it suddenly became clear that many SSE speakers were just using many more Scots words than I had realised, rather than mumbling English words as I had been assuming.

Once I had sussed this, several of my Scottish friends that I had till then perceived as mumbling SSE turned out to be speaking very clearly but using a lot of Scots words. In other words, not only had I been wrong about the mumbling, but I had also completely underestimated the usage of Scots — it’s just the case that it’s normally used mixed up with English rather than as a separate language.

Foreigners moving to Scotland should definitely learn some Scots. It’s not just the language of Burns and many other great poets, but it’s also currently mixed up with English in everyday conversations throughout Lowland Scotland, and it’s hard really to understand what people say without being bilingual in Scots and English like them.

In defens o <quh>

Ane o the mucklest differences atween auld an modren Scots is that the auld Scots grapheme <quh> /ʍ/ wis replacit bi <wh> acause o influence fae Inglis.

Houaniver, A think we soud consider gaun back tae <quh>. It’s a gey simple differ that lairners can pick up in nae time ava, an it merks a text as bein in Scots acause nae ither leid is uisin this grapheme.

Juist compare the follaein extrack fae Burns’s The Kintra Lass — the text on the caur is in his ain orthographie, and the ane on the richt is a modren version uisin <quh>:

In simmer, when the hay was mawn
And corn wav’d green in ilka feild,
While claver blooms white o’er the lea
And roses blaw in ilka bield!
Blythe Bessie in the milking shiel,
Says – I’ll be wed, come o’t what will:
Out spake a dame in wrinkled eild-
O’ gude advisement comes nae ill.
In simmer, quhan the hey wis mawn
An corn wafft green in ilka field,
Quhile claver bluims quhite ower the lea
An roses blaw in ilka bield!
Blythe Bessie in the milkin shiel,
Says — A’ll be wad, come o’t quhit will:
Out spak a dame in wrinkelt eild —
O guid advisement comes nae ill.

The oreeginal version leuks like distortit Inglis, but the new version is clearlie in anither leid. This isna juist acause o the uiss o <quh>, but it helps!

Delicious + Twibble

Last year I described how I used Delicious and Twitterfeed to post bookmarks to Twitter automatically.

Since then, I got more and more fed up with Twitterfeed. In theory, it ought to check my links twice an hour, but often it would leave three to four hours between updates, which meant that my links sometimes got posted at 3am when nobody was around to see them.

I was starting to think about writing a Twitterfeed replacement myself, when I discovered Twibble, and it’s much better.

It has many more options — for instance you can specify posting times so that it doesn’t tweet anything during the night, and it can check for new links much more frequently.

There are a couple of minor flaws — for instance, the posting times have to be specified in PST — but it’s nothing you can’t live with.

The main problem is that Twibble isn’t totally stable yet: It has stopped posting twice since I started using it, but the support team is normally really responsive and helpful (during California daytime).

I would definitely recommend Delicious + Twibble as the best solution for tweeting your bookmarks at the moment.

Lingua dorica in bocca glasgoviana

The most prestigious variety of Italian has been described as lingua toscana in bocca romana, or the Tuscan language in a Roman mouth.

I wonder whether a similar formula would become appropriate for unified Scots (if somebody tries to create a prestige variety after independence), given that Doric (Aberdeenshire Scots) in general has preserved more words and grammatical structures than the Central Belt dialects that have been heavily influenced by English, but where Doric pronunciation has some features that are quite divergent from other dialects, e.g. /f/ for <wh> instead of /ʍ/, or pronouncing <ui> as /(w)i/ (for instance, guid “good” is /gɪd/ in the Central Belt but /gwid/ in Doric).

To be concrete, I wonder whether the best model for Scots would be lingua dorica in bocca glasgoviana, or Doric pronounced by Glaswegians.

Of course there are words that are restricted to Doric and wouldn’t be appropriate in a unified language, just as Glaswegian isn’t perhaps the most euphonious variety of Scots, but I think it would make sense, especially given that there are many more speakers of Scots in the Central Belt than anywhere else, but most of these are mixing it up with English.

Or would la lingua di Burns in bocca dorica provide a better model?

WordPress/Flickr Helper

arsp_046 by Anthony Ryan, on Flickr.
Flickr recently removed their WordPress sharing support, so all you get now is some generic HTML code that’s not ideal for WordPress. (Mind you, neither was Flickr’s old sharing code, which didn’t work well out of the box — I described how to fix it in this old blog post.)

I’ve now written a wee webpage that uses some JavaScript to correct Flickr’s HTML.

Just go to Flickr, find the sharing code, select “Small 240 x X“, then “HTML”, and paste the result into the text box on the left and click the button. The WordPress-style code will then appear on the right, and you can copy it and paste it into your blog post.

It’s not quite as convenient as Flickr’s old system, but it gets the job done.

Whit and all that

When Iain Banks died, Phyllis and I realised that we had never actually got round to reading anything by him. We decided to order a few of his books to rectify this issue.

Since then I’ve read Consider Phlebas, The Wasp Factory, Complicity and Whit (in that order).

I didn’t like Consider Phlebas at all, I must admit. I love some science fiction novels, but not all, and this was definitely in the latter category (together with for instance the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy and Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos books).

I then turned to Banks’s non-SF books. The Wasp Factory wasn’t at all what I had expected, but it was rather enjoyable in its own way, and it definitely made me want to read more of his books. Complicity was good, too, although surprisingly different.

However, in my opinion Whit is far superior. It’s a book about a small religious sect in Scotland, seen through the eyes of the founder’s granddaughter. The religion was invented by Iain Banks and he manages to make it very believable, which is no mean feat.

Perhaps it’s just my upbringing as the son of two theologians, but my main complaint about this wonderful book is that at 450 pages it is far too short. I thoroughly recommend it.

Formerly known as the Widmann Blog