The Widmann Blog: linguistics


April 2014
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Language icons

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...

1.5m Scots speakers

Today saw the release of more results from Scotland's 2011 census, in particular about languages. The decline of Gaelic seems to have stopped -- the number of speakers dropped very slightly, but it rose amongst young people, so that's excellent news. For the first time ever, the census asked also about Scots, the Germanic language spoken in Scotland. More than...


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.

Multilingual Scotland

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...

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...
A Man’s A Man For Aw That
When Rabbie Burns wrote his poetry, the radio hadn't been invented yet, so it's unlikely most folk had ever heard English spoken by an Englishman. Presumably everybody used Scots pronunciations for English words, blissfully unaware that they were pronunced differently...
Northern English, or Southern Scots?
One of the most striking features that distinguish Scots from English is the treatment of Old English /oː/ (guid /gɪd, gød, gwid/ "good", muin /mɪn, møn, min/ "moon", guiss /gɪs, gøs, gis/ "goose") and /uː/ (hous /hus/ [hys] "house", mou...

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