Today, we are fortunate to welcome a 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.
You can see the original article written in Scots here.
What Makes Scots, Scots…
Scots is the Germanic language spoken in Scotland. It is closely related to English – both developed from the same Anglo-Saxon ancestor language – as well as to other West Germanic languages, such as German and Dutch, and the North Germanic languages of Danish, Swedish and Norwegian.
Inextricably connected to Scotland’s history and encounters as a nation, the Scots language also has a good dose of influence from Old Norse, Gaelic, French, and Latin, among others.
Despite their clear kinship, Scots and English are – like Swedish and Danish – ultimately different languages, with their own unique vocabulary, syntax and spirit.
The following is a wee oversight of ten of the trickiest lexical and syntactical examples of what makes Scots, Scots.
Many people will be familiar with this word from that most well-travelled of Scots songs that is ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – a song that belongs as much to the world as it does to Scotland.
The main sense of ‘syne’ in modern Scots corresponds to the English ‘ago’, in temporal phrases. An example sentence might be something like:
She wis in Denmark twa year syne
Note here, too, the Scots grammatical feature of a singular noun (year) after a plural numeral. The Danish, for Nordic comparison, would be ‘to år siden’ – which is far closer to the Scots than the English (‘siden’ shares etymological roots with ‘syne’).
Scots: twa year syne
Danish: to år siden
English: two years ago
‘Syne’ can also be used to mean ‘since’ – in both the temporal/subsequential sense and the causative/consequential sense. Taking into account context and register, the former would most likely translate into English as ‘then’, ‘from’ ‘since’, ‘subsequently’ etc.; the latter, on the other hand, as ‘therefore’, ‘then’, ‘so’, ‘hence’, ‘accordingly’, ’consequently’ etc. The two example sentences below set out these different senses:
- We were in Aiberdeen, syne we gaed back tae Embra
[We were in Aberdeen, then we went back to Edinburgh]
2. There wis naewhaur tae bide ower in Aiberdeen, syne we gaed back tae Embra
[There was nowhere to stay over in Aberdeen, so we went back to Edinburgh]
In temporal terms, you might also see it as ‘aforesyne’ (before) and, historically, ‘sinsyne’ (‘since that time, from then onwards’) – although the latter is no longer as common in modern Scots usage.
Scots has many words to express the English word ‘one’. The four main ones are ‘ae’, ‘ane’, ‘yin’ and ‘wan’. There are also several dialectal variants: such as ‘een’, in the north-east Scots dialect of Doric.
On the one hand, this makes translating from Scots to English nice and straightforward. Regardless of the Scots, in English, it can simply be translated as ‘one’. Translating from English to Scots, on the other hand, is much trickier. Sticking with just the four main options, these can be understood in terms of a sliding scale of formality, from ‘ae’ down to ‘wan’.
ae: the most formal of all. There’s a strong literary and poetic air to it (think “Ae Fond Kiss” by Robert Burns) along with a wee bit of antiquated romanticism.
It is also widely used in modern Scots in a closely-related sense, where it means ‘the same’. (Readers might have noticed that I have used it in that sense two or three times in the Scots version of this article already.)
It is also extremely interesting to note that Gaelic – Scotland’s Celtic language – uses ‘aon’ in the ae twafauld wey / air an aon dòigh dà-fhillte / in the same twofold way – to mean both ‘one’ and ‘the same’. Another good example of this lexical affinity between Gaelic and Scots is at the ae time / aig an aon àm / at the same (i.e. not one) time.
ane: the most neutral modern Scots; good for both informal and more formal registers.(It’s the one I use throughout the Scots version of this article.)
The west-coast of Scotland word for ‘child’ is ‘wean’: at heart, a contraction of ‘wee ane’.
(Note that, outside of the west coast, the Scots word for ‘child’ is ‘bairn’ – another good example of the Norse influence in Scots, with recognisable cognates in modern Danish (barn), Swedish (barn) and Norwegian (barn).)
yin: this one is a bit more colloquial, but still neutral enough. A productive morpheme and often the most natural in compounds (e.g. high heid yins, wee yin, auld yin, sair yin, etc.).
wan: most colloquial of all, and with a strong central belt/Glasgow/urban bias. For example, when people in Glasgow aren’t quite ready for a gig to be over, you’ll hear chants of ‘wan mair tune’. Like ‘yin’, ‘wan’ is productive in compounds, and the two are often, but not always, interchangeable (e.g. ‘sair wan’ and ‘sair yin’ are equally valid and equally likely to be heard).
A highly flexible item of syntax meaning ‘in addition’, ‘moreover’, ‘besides’, ‘also’, ‘as well as’, etc. It can be used at the very start of a Scots sentence, at the very end, or just about anywhere in between, depending on context and the particular sense being put across. It’s a hard one to teach, and correct idiomatic usage demands a deep, almost intuitive understanding of the language.
Readers of the Scots version of this article will no doubt have noticed many an instance of it throughout, in different syntactical positions, e.g:
Forby, it has cognates in the modern Scandinavian leids […]
Tak tent here forby […]
‘Aye’ is gey productive in collocations and compoond wirds forby.
(For the sake of completeness, note that ‘forby’ can be also used to mean ‘except’ /‘with the exception of’.)
The most obvious translation of this Scots word is, of course, simply as ‘yes’.
However, the same three letters in Scots also mean ‘always’ or ‘still’. As ever in certified translation, context is key for telling you which one to use. Further, other contexts might demand a more idiomatic translation than either of those two options.
For example, the phrase ‘fur aye and on’ best translates into English as ‘forever and always’ (as opposed to the more literal: ‘for always and on’).
‘Aye’ is also highly productive in collocations and compound words. You might decry an ‘aye-been’ mentality or attitude, for example. There are also good Scots words like ‘aye-bidin’; literally, ‘always staying’, but generally best translated into English as ‘enduring’, ‘surviving’ or ‘remaining’.
‘Yours aye’ is also a good professional and sincere sign-off for letters or emails when writing in modern Scots.
An adjective whose meaning is most difficult to capture in full in just one English word. Any translation will always be context dependent – and, ultimately, unsatisfactory. At its most basic, to be ‘scunnert’ is to be ‘exhausted’ or ‘done’; mostly in the emotional sense, although you can be physically ‘scunnert’ as well. In its least intense sense, it covers being ‘disappointed by’ or ‘annoyed at’ something or someone.
Accordingly, in English, you might translate it variously as ‘disappointed/annoyed’ or, at the more extreme end of the spectrum, as ‘(emotionally) exhausted’, ‘depleted’, ‘fed up’, ‘done’, ‘finished’. However, none of these on their own carry anywhere near the depths or different dimensions of ‘scunnert’.
Note that you might well see it written as ‘scunnered’, with the Anglicised ‘-ed’ ending. However, adjectives and verb endings in ‘-t’ (or ‘-it’) are the more authentic Scots, both historically (reflecting how Scots has for the most part been written and spoken over the centuries) and grammatically (for grammatical coherence and consistency in modern Scots). Here, Scots is similar to other Germanic languages, such as Danish and German, which also have suffixes in ‘-t’. (e.g. German: erschöpft (exhausted)).
The verb ‘tae scunner’, along with the related nouns (‘scunner’ and ‘scunneration’) and adverb (‘scunnersome’) range even more widely semantically, and could easily take up a whole article on their own. Written usage can be traced back as far as the 1300s; it appears in the 14th-century epic The Brus, the earliest significant work of Scots literature that has come down to us.
A seen / A done / A’ve went
Scots has a very flexible approach to preterites (simple/single-verb past) and past participles (complex/compound/two-verb past), which are used more or less interchangeably.
It is absolutely fine to say in Scots, ‘A seen’, ‘A done’, or ‘A’ve went’ (c.f. English ‘I saw’ (v.s. ‘I have seen’); ‘I did’ (v.s. ‘I have done’) or ‘I went’ (v.s. ‘I have gone).
Therefore, changing ‘A seen’ to ‘I saw’ or ‘A done’ tae ‘I did’ isn’t correcting bad English to good English, but translating acceptable standard Scots into acceptable standard English.
This verb covers so much ground in Scots that it has no real satisfactory translation into English. Most of the time, it is best translated as ‘to tolerate’ or ‘to endure’. However, the semantic field of the Scots verb is far more intense, rich, and deep. It also encompasses a profound sense of dignified silence and patience in heavy sorrow, of moral and spiritual stoicism and fortitude.
In that sense, it conveys a far greater sense of heart-wrenching suffering, such that ‘to bear’ or ‘to suffer’ might sometimes be the better translation into English. You might thole (tolerate) someone who is annoying you, but, in Scots, you can also thole deep grief or heartbreak in a way that you wouldn’t just ‘tolerate’ but ‘endure’ or ‘suffer’ such things in English.
Like ‘scunnert’, it is attested to in written Scots from as early as the 1300s, and appears in The Brus. In addition, it has cognates in the modern Scandinavian languages: Danish ‘at tåle’; Norwegian ‘at tåle’; Swedish ‘att tåla’. The significant Norse element in Scots – and therefore the notable abiding affinity between Scots and its northern neighbour tongues – is a frequent feature distinguishing Scots from its sister language of English today.
Thaim that tholes, owercomes
An English translation of the old Scots saying above would perhaps be:
Those who endure, overcome/prevail
Here, we have not only the verb “tae thole” – a large part of whose meaning we unavoidably lose in the shift to “endure” – but a range of other features of distinct Scots grammar: from the singular verb endings in -s after a plural subject, to the object form of the pronoun ‘thaim’ in subject position (c.f. English ‘those’) and the use of ‘that’ as a relative pronoun, including for people (c.f. English ‘who’).
This is a particularly tricky one, in that you can translate it word-for-word into English without difficulty (‘I doubt’) – but, in so doing, lose the meaning entirely. It is definitely one of the hardest features of Scots to explain, as starting a sentence with ‘A doot’ can mean either ‘I highly doubt that’, ‘I am certain that’, or – somewhere in the middle – ‘I guess that’.
‘A doot thon’ll happen’ can therefore mean either, ’I am sure that will happen’ or, ’There’s no chance that will happen’. In the same way, ‘A doot they’ll be back’ could mean either, ’They’ll definitely be back’ or, ’They’re never coming back’.
A doot that (I suppose that) the only way to know how to translate it is a context informed educated guess.
high heid yins
In literal terms, the Scots reads ‘high-head-one’. On the surface, it means ‘a person in authority’, ‘a leader’, ‘an official’, ‘a boss’. In the plural, it broadens out to cover the notion of ‘the management’ or ‘the authorities’.
However, beneath its apparent neutrality, this Scots term is chock full of subtle irreverence – so subtle, you can just about get away with it, but everyone knows it’s there. It is far more than the sum of its innocent-sounding three parts: there’s a huge world of connoted difference between the “First Minister o Scotland” and the “high-heid-yin in chief”.
In the plural, it might sometimes be appropriate to translate ‘high-heid-yins’ into English as ‘the powers that be’, which has that same implied sense of begrudging acceptance of the power of the power-holders in question. However, that term – along with, for example, ‘the big wigs’ – isn’t quite as widely acceptable as ‘high heid yins’ in terms of propriety. The Scots term sits right on the cusp between formality and informality, and is frequently heard in formal settings, such as the Scottish Parliament and in the media.
It’s also interesting to note that ‘high heid yin(s)’ is a phrase that non-Scots speakers in Scotland will take into their vocabulary, but write and pronounce in ways that suggest they don’t necessarily fully understand the underlying three words (especially the more obviously Scots final two), but rather simply know the combination of sounds and what it means as a whole. I’ve seen non-Scots speakers, for example, make reference to a ‘high heejun’ or ‘high heejunz’.
This brings to mind the Anglicisation (or Scotticisation) of Gaelic words in Scotland. If you don’t know Gaelic, all you hear is a combination of sounds, which you then meld together into a single unit; however, if you do know the individual words, you can still hear the root words underneath. For example, the adjective ‘smashing’ is most likely to originate from the Gaelic ‘is math sin’ (‘is good that’). Scottish place names are another ‘smashing’ example of this phenomenon; e.g. Drumnadrochit, which means, in Gaelic “Druim na Drochaid – the ridge of the bridge’.
Of course, no discussion of uniquely Scottish terms would be complete without reference to the patriot’s preposition that is ‘outwith’ (or ‘ootwi’ – more on that shortly), meaning ‘outside of’ or ‘beyond’.
This is a so-called ‘covert Scotticism’, in that many of its users don’t even realise it’s a Scotland-specific word until spellcheck insults it with a squiggly red underline, transforming even the most unsuspecting into diehard defenders of Scottish syntax.
Observant readers may have noticed that I wrote ‘Scottish’ and ‘Scotland-specific’ in the above, avoiding reference to ‘Scots’. This was very conscious – because ‘outwith’ is firmly part of the sphere of Scottish Standard English (the variant of English spoken in Scotland) as opposed to being part of the modern Scots language proper, where it would be ‘ootwi’, constructed from the two Scots prepositions ‘oot’ and ‘wi’.