What is Scots and where are you likely to find it?

Scots is a language spoken mostly in Scotland. If you’ve spent more than a few weeks in Scotland, you’ve probably heard some Scots being spoken. Here are some Scots words that you’re likely to hear in everyday life:

  • Aye (meaning yes
  • Dae (meaning do)
  • Oot (meaning out)
  • Cannae (meaning can’t)
  • Fae (meaning from)
  • Gie (meaning give)

You might also come across written Scots. It’s used for literature, for some everyday communication online, and increasingly in some formal written communication too. For example, sections of the Scottish Government’s website have a Scots language translation, and the newspaper The National has some articles written in Scots, such as this one here.

The type of Scots you hear will vary a lot from place to place. The Scots used in Orkney is very different from the Scots used in Glasgow, which is very different from the Scots used in the North East, which is very different again from the Scots used in Dundee. Speakers often have a strong relationship with their own variety of Scots, so while some people feel closely connected to Scots as a whole, others feel more closely connected to the variety most familiar to them.

What is the relationship between Scots and English?

Scots is distinct from English, with different vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. However, the two languages are closely related, and both are used in Scotland. Because of this close relationship, speakers of English can often understand people who are speaking Scots. This might seem strange to some people, but you don’t always need to be able to speak a language to understand it. For example, speakers of Norwegian can often understand Danish and Swedish, despite the languages being officially separate. This means that even if you’re not sure exactly what Scots is, you might well have had a conversation with someone who was using it.

The type of English spoken in Scotland is often called Scottish English. Scottish English has mostly the same vocabulary and grammar as English spoken elsewhere, but with distinctly Scottish pronunciation. Many people in Scotland speak both Scots and English in their daily lives, often changing between them during a single conversation or sentence.

Scots and English have a complicated relationship in terms of social status. From around the 17th century onwards, English gradually became the language of many official settings in Scotland, including in education. Scots was still widely used, but it came to be used mostly in informal situations, for example within the home or among friends. Children were often discouraged from using Scots in the classroom, sometimes very aggressively. It was also common for Scots to be thought of as an “incorrect” way of speaking, even by the people who spoke it. Although you will still find people who feel this way, these ideas are now beginning to change thanks to language activism from Scots speakers and changing attitudes towards linguistic diversity more generally.

Spending time or living in Scotland, you may notice that some people keep their Scots and their English quite separate. For example, they may be likely to use English at work and Scots with their family at home. But some speakers mix their Scots and English a lot, meaning that in reality, much of what you hear spoken in Scotland is a blend of both.

What does a mix of Scots and English sound like?

Excerpt from “More Than One Voice” by Accentricity

In this audio clip, the speaker is using a mixture of Scots and Scottish English. Below, you can see the words which belong to Scots and not to English in bold

People fae Coatbridge they call us hauf and halfs, like as in, eh, “the breed is in the breadbasket”. You know, like, we’re slang sometimes when it suits us, and then other times we’ll, you know, we’ll say – use the proper word. Rather than the – you know, the Scots.

The words that are not bold belong to English, but also to Scots. Scots and Scottish English have a lot of shared vocabulary, so the rest of the clip (the words not in bold) could be said to be Scots speech or Scottish English speech.

Why do people mix Scots and English?

The idea of listening to or speaking a mixture of Scots and English may sound a bit daunting. If this worries you, it can help to remember that this is not something unique to Scotland. In fact, mixing languages is something you may have come across before. 

For example, you may have grown up in a household where more than one language is spoken. Alternatively, the language you speak at home may be different from the majority language where you live. If so, you may use different languages at different times, or sometimes mix them together. You might start a sentence in one language and finish in another, for example, or throw a few words from one language into a conversation in another language. 

Even if this is not familiar to you, you may come from a country where there is more than one language commonly spoken, or where certain types of language are promoted over others in certain settings, e.g. school. You may have experienced being told to use “proper” language. As mentioned above, this has been a common experience for many people in Scotland, who have been pushed towards using English rather than Scots, or to change their accents to sound less Scottish.

Although we are used to talking about languages as distinct and separate things, in reality they don’t always stay neatly separated in people’s lives. Not only this, but the borders between languages are often unstable. Not being able to point to exactly where English ends and Scots begins isn’t necessarily a problem, and it definitely doesn’t mean that Scots isn’t a “proper language”, or that it’s just incorrect English.

So what is Scots?

Scots is different things to different people. It’s a living language which is as complex as its speakers are. It is often mixed with other languages in conversation – with English, but also with Urdu, Polish, Arabic, Romani, Gaelic and more.

You will sometimes encounter big gaps between those who are passionate about the status of Scots as a language and those who see it as a dialect and nothing more. Because of how personal language use is, you may sometimes hear Scots discussed by politicians or other people talking about Scottish identity and politics.

You may still come across prejudice against Scots from some people. However, it is important to remember that for many people in Scotland, Scots is a vitally important part of their lives, cultures and identities, and something we are beginning to see more of in public life, politics, media and classrooms.


More Resources

Accentricity:

Dictionary of the Scots Language / Dictionars o the Scots Leid: About Scots

Scots Syntax Atlas

Scots Online

Scots Language Centre / Centre for the Scots Leid

Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech (SCOTS)

Whit’s Scots Language? YouTube video by BBC The Social


Dr Sadie Ryan is a sociolinguist and the creator of award-winning podcast Accentricity, in which she tries to narrow the gap between academic knowledge about language and people’s everyday linguistic experiences. Find her on Twitter @sadie_d_ryan or @accentricitypod.