Today, we are fortunate to welcome another guest article from Ashley Douglas. Ashley is an Edinburgh-based researcher, writer, and translator working in Scots, Gaelic, Danish, and German. She specialises in Scots original research, writing, translation, style guide and glossary development as well as talks & consultancy. Her areas of special interest include Scottish history and archaeology, politics, linguistics, queer history and culture. Ashley wrote previously about the ‘Spirit of Scots’ language, and you can read the full article here.
Follow Ashley on Twitter or by visiting her website here.
Scotland’s linguistic landscape – Scottish Standard English and Scots
Do you know your language varieties from your languages? Your dipthongs from your monopthongs? The difference between code-switching and bilingualism?
Scotland’s linguistic landscape, made up predominantly of the language variety that is Scottish Standard English and the language that is Scots, is a good place to start to get your head around these concepts – which are crucial to understand if seeking localisation or translation services in a Scottish context.
Varieties of Global English
If Global English is defined as ‘the whole English language in all its varieties, everywhere, and all its users…’, then Scottish Standard English (or ‘SSE’) is the national variety of pluricentric Global English spoken and written in Scotland.
At its most basic, it can be described as English with a range of uniquely Scotland-specific features that distinguish it from other World Englishes, including: accent (phonology), words (vocabulary), grammar and syntax (the way that sentences are formed), and idiom (sayings, specific use of words, etc).
Another variety of Global English is the standard English of (south-east) England, which is also referred to as ‘RP (Received Pronunciation) English’ or ‘The Queen’s English’.
US English is another example of a variety of Global English; although accents differ across states, it is English spoken with significantly unifying US phonology and US-specific grammar, idiom and vocabulary (e.g. fall/autumn, vacation/holiday, line/queue, pants/trousers).
As a non-English example of similar language varieties, we might think of the German, Austrian, and Swiss national standard varieties of the German language.
Scottish Standard English
So, what are the features of Scottish Standard English, as a distinct national variety of Global English?
Let’s start with some of the key distinguishing phonological (accent) features, explained in contrast to the standard English of England; where ‘English’ is used from now on, it refers to that variety.
- SSE is rhotic, meaning that ‘r’ sounds in the middle and at the end of words are pronounced. In English, by contrast, which is not rhotic, these are pronounced as essentially one long vowel sound. Compare the disyllabic rhotic pronunciation of the words ‘girl’ or ‘world’ in a Scottish accent, for example, with its elongated vowel pronunciation in English. Interestingly, where English speakers pronounce Scots words that appear in Scottish Standard English, such as ‘kirk’ (church), they apply English pronunciation – so ‘kirk’ will sound like it has one long vowel in the middle, where an SSE speaker will pronounce it with a rhotic ‘r’.
- SSE also has highly distinct vowel sounds. For example, the vowel sounds in words such as ‘go’, ‘know’, and ‘slow’ are short, sharp, and monopthong; in English, these are elongated diphtong vowel sounds. Consider also the apocryphal tale of the English textbook used in primary schools that warned pupils to be careful not to confuse the preposition ‘for’ and the numeral ‘four’, as they were homonyms. This may well be the case in the standard English of England, but it greatly confused Scottish children, for whom, although written the same, the two words are highly distinct, with different vowel sounds, and ‘four’ also being disyllabic. (In Scots proper, the two words are even more different: ‘fur’ vs ‘fower’).
- The fricative ‘ch’ sound is also a defining feature of SSE pronunciation, as heard in words such as ‘loch’ and ‘broch’ and place names such as ‘Kinloch Rannoch’; English speakers pronounce these as ‘k’. (Note that, where the ‘ch’ sound in SSE is limited to high-frequency vocabulary and place names, it is far more widespread in the Scots language proper, appearing regularly in all sorts of part of speech, but essentially, wherever English orthography has ‘-gh’; e.g. licht, thocht, delichtit.).
- SSE (and Scots) speakers often aspirate wh-words, such that there is a difference in pronunciation between ‘which’ and ‘witch’, with aspiration on the former.
There is a rich array of vocabulary specific to the English spoken and written in Scotland, much of which (unsurprisingly) derives from the Scots and Gaelic languages unique to Scotland. These can generally be sorted into ‘covert’ and ‘overt’ Scotticisms.
In the case of the first group, SSE speakers are frequently unaware that they are using Scotland-specific vocabulary; the preposition ‘outwith’ is a key example of this ‘covert Scotticism’ phenomenon, as is vocabulary such as timeous, dram, ceilidh, swither, thole, burn (in the sense of ‘a stream’), sporran, messages (as in ‘groceries’) and using the verb ‘to mind’ to mean ‘to remember/recall’ or the verb ‘to greet’ to mean ‘to weep/cry’.
Overt Scotticisms, by contrast, are a more conscious choice by the SSE speaker. This group is likely to include words such as bonnie, stushie, fantoosh, bairn, bourach, haiver, scunnered, blether, sleekit, braw, flit, coorie, weel-kent, peelie-wallie, shooglie, or high heid yin.
Grammatical or syntactical features that characterise SSE, all influenced by Scots, include things like:
- negated verbal endings in ‘-ae’, such as on wouldnae, dinnae, willnae, shouldnae (wouldn’t, don’t, won’t, shouldn’t). (Note also SSE and Scots ‘gonnae’; a contraction of Scots ‘gaun tae’ (going to).
- a flexible approach to preterites (simple/single-verb past) and past participles, (complex/compound/two-verb past), which are used more or less interchangeably. This is called ‘reduced verb paradigm’. For example, ‘I seen that on social media’ and ‘I’ve ran’ are perfectly acceptable Scottish Standard English (cf. English ‘I saw that on social media’ and ‘I’ve run’).
- a notable aversion to ‘must’ and ‘ought’ as a modal verbs in SSE in favour of ‘have to/need to’ (this is also the case in Scots, where ‘must’ is replaced by ‘maun’ or, like SSE, ‘hae tae’ or ‘need tae/needin tae’).
- negative particle ‘no’ (cf. English ‘not’). For example ’He’s surely no arguing that…’ or ‘I’m no sure whether I’ll be there.’ This is a highly frequent feature of spoken SSE, although often rendered ‘not’ in written SSE, i.e. it is a covert Scotticism. (In Scots, by contrast, the negative particles ‘no’ (and ‘nae’) are established features of both the written and spoken language.).
- deletion of ‘f’ in reflexive pronouns: for example, yersel/hersel (yourself/herself).
- weak past tense forms of specific verbs: for example, telt/selt (told/sold).
- that-relativisation: for example, the people that were there (cf. English: the people who were there).
Scottish Standard English has many distinct idioms and sayings, many of which come from Scots. These span high and low register and include examples such as ‘it’s a sair fecht’, ‘yer jaiket’s on a shooglie peg’, ‘facts are chiels that winna ding’, ’gies peace’, ‘dinnae fash yersel’ and ‘’keep the heid’ (the latter of which, in fact, formed part of the Scottish Government’s public health messaging around Covid restrictions.).
Note that when a speaker of SSE, but not Scots, uses such sayings, they are using Scots in the same way as they might use a word or phrase from any other foreign language in their otherwise English speech; that is, in much the same way as an English speaker might use the French phrase ‘c’est la vie’ or the German word ‘Schadenfreude’ as loan word or saying.
Unlike Scottish Standard English, Scots is not a variety of Global English, but a Germanic language in its own right, with its own unique grammar, syntax, vocabulary and idiom. It is closely related to other West Germanic languages, such as English, German and Dutch, and to the North Germanic languages of Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. For a more detailed article on the features of the Scots language by the same author, click here.
Scots and English
When we see Scots and English side by side, it is not hard to tell the two apart – or, to quote the Scots version of this article, “it’s nae ower fykie tae tell the twa apairt” – as two distinct languages.
A braw example of side-by-side Scots and English is the National Library of Scotland’s Wee Windaes website. It showcases a range of Scots literature throughout history through dual-language features, where readers can access both Scots and English versions of each article.
Scottish Standard English – Stepping Stone or Spectrum?
The imagined sentences below illustrate how SSE can be seen as a stepping stone between English and Scots.
I thought I saw him at the loch (England Standard English)
[English vowel sounds; English simple past ‘saw’; English pronunciation ‘lock’]
I thought I seen him at the loch (Scottish Standard English)
[Scottish vowel sounds; reduced verb paradigm ‘seen’; Scottish pronunciation ‘loch’]
Ah thocht Ah seen him at the loch (Scots)
[Scots pronouns; Scots verb ‘thocht’; Scots vowel sounds; Scots reduced verb paradigm ‘seen’; Scots pronunciation ‘loch’]
Boiling the Linguistic Frog
Let us consider this stepping stone or spectrum notion more closely.
I know the girl who went to Linlithgow two years ago I know the girl that went to Linlithgow two years ago I know the girl that went tae Linlithgow two years ago I know the girl that went tae Linlithgow two year ago I ken the girl that went tae Linlithgow two year ago I ken the lassie that went tae Linlithgow two year ago Ah ken the lassie that went tae Linlithgow two year ago Ah ken the lassie that went tae Linlithgow twa year ago Ah ken the lassie that gaed tae Linlithgow twa year ago Ah ken the lassie that gaed tae Lithgae twa year ago Ah ken the lassie that gaed tae Lithgae twa year syne
I know the girl who went to Linlithgow two years ago
I know the girl that went to Linlithgow two years ago
I know the girl that went tae Linlithgow two years ago
I know the girl that went tae Linlithgow two year ago
I ken the girl that went tae Linlithgow two year ago
I ken the lassie that went tae Linlithgow two year ago
Ah ken the lassie that went tae Linlithgow two year ago
Ah ken the lassie that went tae Linlithgow twa year ago
Ah ken the lassie that gaed tae Linlithgow twa year ago
Ah ken the lassie that gaed tae Lithgae twa year ago
Ah ken the lassie that gaed tae Lithgae twa year syne
The first sentence – pronounced with Scottish vowel sounds (e.g. on ‘know’ and ‘ago’) and the r-sound on ‘girl’ – is unproblematically Scottish Standard English; as is the second one, featuring that-relativisation. The last few sentences are equally unproblematically and unequivocally Scots.
The sentences in between, meanwhile, illustrate how the close relatedness of Scots and English means that speakers of both can Scotticise or Anglicise a sentence quite gradually and subtly on a sliding scale – boiling the linguistic frog, so to speak.
Crucially, however, the existence of such a spectrum does not detract in any way from the independent Germanic language status of Scots at one extreme end, and the Scots-inflected English variety status of SSE at the other; in the same way that blue is blue, and yellow is yellow, but it is possible to have a whole spectrum of colour in between.
If it is sometimes tricky to pinpoint the exact moment that SSE becomes Scots, or Scots becomes SSE, the following points are clear:
- There is an extremely high degree of mutual intelligibility between Scottish Standard English and other varieties of Global English – including the standard English of England. This is unsurprising, as they are all variants of the same language – English.
- Scots and English, being closely related West Germanic languages, also share a degree of mutual intelligibility, much like the North Germanic languages of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. However, the mutual intelligibility between Scots and English (two languages) is naturally far less than the degree of mutual intelligibility that exists between SSE and English (two varieties of a single language).
- A person who can speak both Scots and Scottish Standard English (i.e. a variant of English) is bilingual in the two languages of Scots and English.
- The sociolinguistic notion of “code switching” is useful to consider the more subjective questions of when and why speakers of SSE and Scots switch between the two. However, it is less helpful as a descriptor of what the speaker is doing. This is because such switching is, fundamentally, a situation of bilingualism – of switching between two languages (and not between different registers or varieties of the same language.
For clients targeting a Scottish audience, it is important to consider whether they are seeking Scottish Standard English (i.e. localisation of Global English) or full translation into the Scots language proper (or, indeed, into Gaelic).
Given the richness and distinctiveness of SSE illustrated above, it is clearly crucial that any English text is localised for a Scottish context – both to maximise the richness and reach to be gained from Scotland’s unique linguistic landscape, and to avoid words that have particular negative or comedic connotations in Scotland.
Scottish social media is regularly greatly amused by examples of where this has not taken place, from John Lewis’ ‘Fud the Dragon’ (in Scotland: Vulva the Dragon) and ‘Mr Jobby’ the handyman (in Scotland: Mr Poo) – to the non-dairy company urging people to try out a brand of potato-based drink called ‘Dug Milk’ (in Scotland: dog milk).
So, if you want to avoid such a riddy (‘embarrassment’, for non-SSE readers), make sure to use your new knowledge of Scots and SSE to get your English localised to Scotland – and/or your material translated into the Scots language.
 McArthur, Tom. 1979. “The Status of English in and furth of Scotland”. In: Adam J. Aitken &
Tom McArthur (eds.). Languages of Scotland. Edinburgh: Chambers. 50–67