Category Archives: linguistics

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!

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?


Why not
Why not, a photo by Pete Reed on Flickr.
In English, the words “he is not” can be contracted to either “he isn’t” or “he’s not”, but not to *”he’sn’t”. (The same applies of course to “I am not”, “you are not”, “she is not”, and so on, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll concentrate on “he is not” here.)

Any speaker of English thus needs to choose one of the two possible contractions every time this construction comes up, if they want to contract it at all.

An Irish ex-colleague of mine once commented that he’d observed that Scottish people had a tendency to prefer the latter (“he’s not”), and having paid attention to the constructions since then I tend to agree with him. (It’s hard to be certain without a corpus of spoken Scottish English.)

I’ve also been mulling over why this might be the case, and I’ve come up with two possible reasons, both involving the Scots language:

(1) In Scots, the construction “isn’t he” isn’t possible. You can only say “is he no” (“is he not”), never *”isna he”. This might spill over into non-questions.

(2) In Scots, the two possible constructions are “he isna” and “he’s no”. The phonetic distance between Scots “he isna” and Scottish English “he isn’t” is somewhat greater than the distance between Scots “he’s no” and English “he’s not”, so in a situation where Scots is frowned upon, the latter construction might survive better.

I’m also wondering whether some speakers of Scottish English dislike all the negatives ending in “-n’t” because they sound rather mumbled compared to their Scots counterparts that end in “-na”, but I haven’t found any evidence for this hypothesis so far.

Language icons

Language symbols
Language symbols, a photo by viralbus on Flickr.
The existence of national flags makes it easy to create country icons (e.g., in a menu where you can select your country of residence).

However, at least in a web context it’s relatively rare to provide country menus. On the other hand, language menus are common, allowing the user the view the page in another language. Wikipedia is a good example of this.

Unfortunately, there is no accepted way to symbolise languages. Wikipedia writes the language names out in full, and other websites use two- or three-letter ISO codes.

When a graphical icon is needed, people often resort to national flags, but that really isn’t a very good solution at all: Some languages (such as English and Spanish) are used in many countries, and many countries have more than one official language (e.g., Scotland and Belgium).

I really wish somebody would come up with some language symbols/icons that everybody could agree on. For the purpose of this blog post, I played around with the idea of using three concentric circles in various colours (loosely based on the flags of the main countries where the language is spoken), with the ISO code in the middle, but I fear they look too similar.

Perhaps using shapes as well as colour would help, but the danger is that it would be hard to identify one of the icons out of context.

Even if the whole world could agree on a set of language icons, it would still be a challenge to teach ordinary people to recognise the one associated with their native language, but it should be possible. If websites such as Wikipedia adopted them, their use would spread quickly.

It would be really useful!

Multilingual Scotland

Languages in Scotland over the past two millennia.
Languages in Scotland over the past two millennia.
One of the things I like about Scotland is that it has never been a monocultural place — it has always been a melting pot.

Let’s look at the languages of Scotland as an example (I am a linguist after all!).

Today the main language of Scotland clearly is English (or rather Scottish Standard English) — everybody knows it, and it’s the main language of government, education, etc.

However, according to the latest census, 1.5m people (out of 5m) also speak Scots, a closely related language (the distance between Scots and English is a bit like Danish and Swedish). However, it hasn’t got much support in the education system and it’s often stigmatised. Both English and Scots are of course derived from the language of the Anglo-Saxons, who immigrated to Great Britain from what is now Denmark and Germany more than 1500 years ago.

The third of the extant languages is Gaelic, which has only got 50k speakers left. Many people seem to think that it’s Scotland’s original language, but this is only really true in the sense that it was the dominant language at the time of the unification of Scotland. Gaelic is also an immigrant language and has its roots in Ireland.

For centuries, another Scottish language was Norn, the descendant of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. It was spoken in large parts of Highlands and Islands for a while, but for the last few centuries of its existence it was confined to Orkney and Shetland. The last speaker died around 1850.

If we go further back, the language of large parts of southern Scotland was Cumbric (or Brittonic, Brythonic or Old Welsh), which was closely related to modern Welsh. Indeed, Welsh speakers still know legends set here in Scotland. It was described well on Wings over Scotland recently:

[Visiting Scotland by train] also takes us through the lands of “Yr Hen Ogledd” (the old north), the heartland of the old Brythonic language, the prototype of modern Welsh and the seven kingdoms which established themselves in the intervallum of several centuries after the Romans left these shores in 400 AD.

The old Brythonic names of these kingdoms such as Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde), Galwyddel, (Galloway), Aeron (Ayrshire) and Lleddeiniawn (Lothian), are instantly recognizable to a modern-day Welsh speaker, and being confronted with a cultural link which stretches back over well over 1,000 years cannot fail to touch one deeply.

Finally, the language of the northern two-thirds of Scotland used to be Pictish, which was probably related to Cumbric (although we don’t know for sure).

The historical records don’t allow us to go back any further, but Cumbric and probably Pictish were Celtic languages, and Celtic is a branch of the Indo-European language family, which means that these languages too must have been immigrant languages at some point (the Indo-European languages probably originated near the Black Sea). Alas, we don’t know which language(s) they replaced.

All we know is that Scotland has always been multilingual.

Dialects of Scots

Scots dialects
Dialects of Scots.
The fact that the 2011 Census provides figures for the number of Scots speakers in each council area makes it possible to estimate speaker numbers for each dialect (if we assume that people speak their local dialect, which of course won’t always be the case).

In some cases there’s a perfect overlap (e.g., between Orkney and Shetland and the Insular Scots dialect), but in many cases I’ve had to split a council area in half, so the numbers won’t be very precise.

Bearing those caveats in mind, the numbers I came up with are as follows: West Central 551,984; South East Central 277,836; Mid Northern 230,380; North East Central 221,027; South Northern 101,913; South West Central 75,501; Southern 34,873; North Northern 24,226; Insular 19,266.

It’s interesting that the Central dialects (roughly the ones spoken in the Central Belt) account for nearly three quarters of all Scots speakers.