Scots language

Lowland Scots
Spoken in:
Northern Ireland
Republic of Ireland
Total speakers: 1.5 million (Scotland);
30,000 (Northern Ireland)
Language codes
ISO 639-3sco

Scots (or Lallans, meaning 'Lowlands'), often Lowland Scots to distinguish it from the Gaelic of the Highlands, is used in Scotland, as well as parts of Northern Ireland and border areas of the Republic of Ireland, where it is known in official circles as Ulster Scots or Ullans but by speakers simply as "Scotch" or "Scots". Up to the 15th century Scottis (modern form Scots) referred to Gaelic (a Celtic language and tongue of the ancient Scots, introduced from Ireland about AD 500). Scots speakers called Gaelic Erse (meaning Irish). The Gaelic of Scotland is now usually referred to as Scottish Gaelic or, sometimes, Scots Gaelic and is still spoken by some in the western Highlands and Islands. On the whole Scots descends from the Northumbrian (Inglis) form of Anglo-Saxon, albeit with influence from Norse via the Vikings, Dutch and Low Saxon through trade with, and immigration from, the low countries, and Romance via ecclesiastical and legal Latin, Anglo-Norman and later Parisian French owing to the Auld Alliance. Anglian speakers were well established in south-east Scotland by the 7th century. During the 13th century Norman landowners and their retainers, speaking Northumbrian Middle English, were invited to settle by the king. Scots appeared for the first time in literary form in the mid fourteenth century and differed little from other northern English dialects. The Anglian language of Scotland developed on its own thereafter. By the late 15th century perceptions of the difference to the language spoken further south arose and Scots speaking Scots started to call their language Scots. Scots has loan words resulting from contact with Gaelic. These loan words are mainly for geographical and cultural features, such as clan and loch ('lake'). Like any living language, Scots has changed to some extent over the years, though it has arguably remained closer to its Anglo-Saxon roots than English. Many Scots words have become part of English: flit, 'to move home', greed, eerie, cuddle, clan, stob, 'a post'.



Missing image
Lufe God abufe al and yi nychtbour as yi self (Love God above all and your neighbour as yourself) an example of older Scots on John Knox House, Edinburgh

Whether the varieties of Scots are dialects of English or constitute a separate language in their own right is often disputed. Before the Union (1707), when Scotland and England joined to form the Kingdom of Great Britain, there is ample evidence that Scots was widely held to be a language other than English [1] (

The British government now accepts Scots as a regional language and has recognised it as such under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Evidence for its existence as a separate language lies in the extensive body of Scots literature and independent, if somewhat fluid, orthographic conventions; in the existence of several Scots dialects; in the substantial lexical, grammatical, and phonological differences from other Anglian varieties and in its former use as the official language of the original Scottish Parliament. Since Scotland retained distinct political, legal, and religious systems after the Union, many Scots terms passed into Scottish English. For instance, libel and slander, separate in English law, are bundled together as defamation in Scots law.

Since the Union, perceptional and language change (see below) have resulted in Scots being regarded as a group of English dialects or at best a group of dialects closely related to English. There is no institutionalised standard literary form. During the second half of the 20th century, enthusiasts developed regularised cross-dialect forms following on some historical orthographic conventions, but these have had little impact. When Scots is written, local loyalties usually prevail, and the written form is usually Standard English adapted to represent the local pronunciation.

No education takes place through the medium of Scots, though English lessons may cover it superficially. This is often not much more than reading some Scots literature and observing local dialect. Much of the material used is often little more than Standard English disguised as Scots. One example of the educational establishment's approach to Scots is "Write a poem in Scots. (It is important not to be worried about spelling in this – write as you hear the sounds in your head.)" [2] ( whereas guidelines for English require teaching pupils to be "writing fluently and legibly with accurate spelling and punctuation." [3] ( revealing the institutionalised disregard for the idea of treating Scots as a language on par with English. Scots can also be studied at university level. Nowhere in the education system is the objective to produce people able to read, write, and speak Scots as an autonomous alternative to English, thus confirming its de facto status as a series of local dialects of English.

The use of Scots in the media is scant and is usually reserved for niches where local dialect is deemed acceptable, e.g. comedy, Burns Night, or representations of traditions and times gone by. Serious use for news, encyclopaedias, documentaries, etc. rarely occurs in Scots, although the Scottish Parliament website offers some information in it.

It is often held that had Scotland remained independent Scots would have remained and been regarded as a separate language from English. This has happened in Spain and Portugal where two independent countries developed standardised languages. Portuguese originating from a common Galician-Portuguese language, which itself originated from a common Ibero-Romance language shared with Castilian Spanish. On the other hand a situation similar to that of Swiss German and High German might have occurred. Equally the present situation might have occurred where the social elites and the upwardly mobile adopted Standard English causing institutional language shift. A model of Language revival to which many enthusiasts aspire, is that of the Catalan language in areas spanning parts of Spain, France, Andorra and Italy, particularly as regards the situation of Catalan in Catalonia itself.

Language Change

After the union of Scotland and England the issue of language became topical and foremost was the question of whether Scottish people should speak English or Scots. Gaelic was never considered an option; at the time it was mostly relegated to the Highlands and Islands. Scots became considered to have a substratal relationship to English as opposed to an adstratal relationship.

On one hand well-off Scots took to learning English through such activities as those of the Irishman Thomas Sheridan (father of Richard Sheridan) who in 1761 gave a series of lectures on English elocution. Charging a guinea at a time (about £65 in today's money), they were attended by over 300 men and he was made a freeman of the City of Edinburgh.

On the other hand the education system also became increasingly geared to teaching English though this was initially impaired by the teachers' and students' lack of knowledge of English pronunciation through lack of contact with English speakers. Aspects of English grammar and lexis could be accessed through printed texts. By the 1840s the Scottish Education Department's language policy was that Scots had no value " is not the language of 'educated' people anywhere, and could not be described as a suitable medium of education or culture". Students of course reverted back to Scots outside the classroom but the reversion was not complete. What occurred and has been occurring ever since is a process of language attrition whereby successive generations have adopted more and more features from English, a process that has accelerated rapidly since wide-spread access to mass media in English and increased population mobility became available after the Second World War. It has recently taken on the nature of wholesale language shift . These processes are often erroneously referred to as language change, convergence or merger.

A rather more positive take on this is that rather than reject English culture the Scots mastered and conquered it, becoming bilingual and writing some of the greatest works of the time such as Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations in what was still a foreign language. However, most younger Scots today see a Scottish accent, that is, Scottish English, as a sufficient marker of their Scottishness and are generally not interested in retaining bilingualism in a language they consider old-fashioned, parochial, or simply uncool. Residual features of Scots (often regarded as slang) in the speech of the young urban working class are often derogatorily referred to as Ned speak.


Among the earliest Scots literature is Barbour's Brus (fourteenth century). Whyntoun's Kronykil and Blind Harry's Wallace (fifteenth century) From the thirteenth century much literature based around the Royal Court in Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews was produced by writers such as Henryson, Dunbar, Douglas and Lyndsay.

After the seventeenth century, anglicisation increased, though Scots was still spoken by the vast majority of the population. At the time, many of the oral ballads from the borders and the North East were written down. Writers of the period were Sempill, Lady Wardlaw and Lady Grizel Baillie.

In the eighteenth century, writers such as Ramsay, Fergusson, Burns and Scott continued to use Scots. Scott introduced vernacular dialogue to his novels.

Following their example, such well-known authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, William Alexander, George MacDonald and J.M. Barrie also wrote in Scots or used it in dialogue.

In the early twentieth century, a renaissance in the use of Scots occurred, its most vocal figure being Hugh MacDiarmid. Other contemporaries were Douglas Young, Sidney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch and Robert McLellan. However, the revival was largely limited to verse and other literature.

In 1983 W.L. Lorimer's magnificent translation of the New Testament from the original Greek was published.

Highly anglicised Scots is often used in contemporary fiction, for example, the Edinburgh dialect of Scots in Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (later made into a motion picture of the same name, though with language allegedly anglicised even more to make it suitable for an international audience).

But'n'Ben A-Go-Go by Matthew Fitt is a cyberpunk novel written entirely in what Wir Ain Leid ( (Our Own Language) calls "General Scots". Like all cyberpunk work, it contains imaginative neologisms.


There are at least five Scots dialects:

  • Northern Scots, spoken north of Dundee, often split into North Northern, Mid Northern—also known as North East Scots and affectionately referred to as "the Doric"—and South Northern.
  • Central Scots, spoken from Fife and Perthshire to the Lothians and Wigtownshire, often split into North East and South East Central, West Central and South West Central Scots.
  • South Scots, spoken in the border areas.
  • Insular Scots, spoken in the Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands
  • Ulster Scots, spoken by the descendants of Scottish settlers as well as those of Irish descent in Northern Ireland and County Donegal in the Irish Republic, and sometimes described by the neologism "Ullans", a conflation of "Ulster" and "Lallans". However, in a recent article, Caroline Macafee, editor of The Concise Ulster Dictionary, stated that Ulster Scots was "clearly a dialect of Central Scots".

As well as the main dialects, Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow have local variations on an anglicised form of Central Scots. In Aberdeen, Mid Northern Scots is spoken.


Many writers now strictly avoid apostrophes where they supposedly represent "missing" English letters. Such letters were never actually missing in Scots. For example, in the twelfth century, Barbour spelt the Scots cognate of 'taken' as tane. Since there has been no k in the word for over 700 years, representing its omission with an apostrophe seems pointless. The current spelling is usually taen. The following is more a guide for readers. How the spellings are applied in practice is beyond the scope of such a short description. Phonetics are in IPA.


Most consonants are usually pronounced much as in English but:

  • c: or , much as in English.
  • ch: , also gh. Medial 'cht' may be in Northern dialects. loch (Lake), nicht (night), dochter (daughter), dreich (dreary), etc.
  • ch: word initial or where it follows 'r' . airch (arch), mairch (march), etc.
  • gn: . In Northern dialects may occur.
  • kn: . In Northern dialects or may occur. knap (talk), knee, knowe (knoll), etc.
  • ng: is always .
  • nch: usually . brainch (branch), dunch (push), etc.
  • r: or is always pronounced.
  • s or se: or .
  • t: may be a glottal stop between vowels or word final. In Ulster dentalised pronunciations may also occur, also for 'd'.
  • th: or much as is English. Initial 'th' in thing, think and thank, etc. may be .
  • wh: usually , older . Northern dialects also have .
  • wr: more often but may be in Northern dialects. wrack (wreck), wrang (wrong), write, wrocht (worked), etc.
  • z: or , may occur in some words as a substitute for the older yogh (). eg. brulzie (broil), gaberlunzie (a beggar) and the name Menzies, etc.

Silent letters

  • The word final 'd' in nd and ld: but often pronounced in derived forms. Sometimes simply 'n' and 'l' or 'n'' and 'l''. auld (old), haund (hand), etc.
  • 't' in medial cht: ('ch' = ) and st and before final en. fochten (fought), thristle (thistle) also 't' in aften (often), etc.
  • 't' in word final ct and pt but often pronounced in derived forms. respect, accept, etc.


In Scots, vowel length is usually conditioned by the Scots vowel length rule. Words which differ only slightly in pronunciation from Scots English are generally spelled as in English. Other words may be spelled the same but differ in pronunciation, eg. aunt, swap, want and wash with , bull, full v. and pull with , bind, find and wind v., etc. with .

  • The unstressed vowel may be represented by any vowel letter.
  • a: usually but in south west and Ulster dialects often . Note final a in awa (away), twa (two) and wha (who) may also be or or depending on dialect.
  • au, aw and sometimes a, a' or aa: or in Southern, Central and Ulster dialects but in Northern dialects. The cluster 'auld' may also be in Ulster. aw (all), cauld (cold), braw (handsome), faw (fall), snaw (snow), etc.
  • ae, ai, a(consonant)e: . Often before . In Northern dialects the vowel in the cluster -'ane' is often . brae (slope), saip (soap), hale (whole), ane (one), ance (once), bane (bone), etc.
  • ea, ei, ie: or depending on dialect. may occur before . Root final this may be in Southern dialects. In the far north may occur. deid (dead), heid (head), meat (food), clear, speir (enquire), sea, etc.
  • ee, e(Consonant)e: . Root final this may be in Southern dialects. ee (eye), een (eyes), steek (shut), here, etc.
  • e: . bed, het (heated), yett (gate), etc.
  • eu: or depending on dialect. Sometimes erroneously 'oo', 'u(consonant)e', 'u' or 'ui'. beuk (book), ceuk (cook), eneuch (enough), leuk (look), teuk (took), etc.
  • ew: . In Northern dialects a root final 'ew' may be . few, new, etc.
  • i: , but often varies between and especially after 'w' and 'wh'. also occurs in Ulster before voiceless consonants. big, fit (foot), wid (wood), etc.
  • i(consonant)e, y(consonant)e, ey: or . 'ay' is usually but in ay (yes) and aye (always). In Dundee it is noticeably .
  • o: but often .
  • oa: .
  • ow, owe (root final), seldom ou: . Before 'k' vocalisation to may occur especially in western and Ulster dialects. bowk (retch), bowe (bow), howe (hollow), knowe (knoll), cowp (overturn), yowe (ewe), etc.
  • ou, oo, u(consonant)e: . Root final may occur in Southern dialects. cou (cow), broun (brown), hoose (house), moose (mouse) etc.
  • u: . but, cut, etc.
  • ui, also u(consonant)e, oo: in conservative dialects. In parts of Fife, Dundee and north Antrim . In Northern dialects usually but after and and also before in some areas eg. fuird (ford). Mid Down and Donegal dialects have . In central and north Down dialects when short and when long. buird (board), buit (boot), cuit (ankle), fluir (floor), guid (good), schuil (school), etc. In central dialects uise v. and uiss n. (use) are and .


  • Negative na: or depending on dialect. Also 'nae' or 'y' eg. canna (can't), dinna (don't) and maunna (mustn't).
  • fu (ful): or depending on dialect. Also 'fu'', 'fie', 'fy', 'fae' and 'fa'.
  • The word ending ae: or depending on dialect. Also 'a', 'ow' or 'y' eg. arrae (arrow), barrae (barrow) and windae (window), etc.

Some grammar features

Not all of these are exclusive to Scots and may also occur in other Anglic varieties.

The definite article

The is used before the names of seasons, days of the week, many nouns, diseases, trades, occupations, sciences and academic subjects. It is also often used in place of the indefinite article and instead of a possessive pronoun: the hairst (autumn), the Wadensday (wednesday), awa til the kirk (off to church), the nou (at the moment), the day (today), the haingles (influenza), the Laitin (Latin), The deuk ett the bit breid (The duck ate a piece of bread.), the wife (my wife) etc.


Nouns usually form their plural in –(e)s but some irregular plurals occur: ee/een (eye/eyes), cauf/caur (calf/calves), horse/horse (horse/horses), cou/kye (cow/cows), shae/shuin (shoe/shoes). Nouns of measure and quantity unchanged in the plural fower fit (four feet), twa mile (two miles), five pund (five pounds), three hunderwecht (three hundredweight). Regular plurals include laifs (loaves), leafs (leaves), shelfs (shelves) and wifes (wives), etc.


Diminutives in –ie, burnie small burn (brook), feardie/feartie (frightened person, coward), gamie (gamekeeper), kiltie (kilted soldier), postie (postman), wifie (woman), rhodie (rhododendron), and also in -ock, bittock (little bit), playock (toy, plaything), sourock (sorrel) and Northern –ag, bairnag (little) bairn (child), Cheordag (Geordie), -ockie, hooseockie (small house), wifeockie (little woman), both influenced by the Scottish Gaelic diminutive -ag (-óg in Irish Gaelic).

Modal verbs

The modal verbs mey (may), ocht tae (ought to), and sall (shall), are no longer used much in Scots but occurred historically and are still found in anglicised literary Scots. Can, shoud (should), and will are the preferred Scots forms. Scots employs double modal constructions He'll no can come the day (He won't be able to come today), A micht coud come the morn (I may be able to come tomorrow), A uised tae coud dae it, but no nou (I could do it once, but not now).

Present tense of verbs

The present tense of verbs ends in –s in all persons and numbers except when a single personal pronoun is next to the verb, Thay say he's ower wee, Thaim that says he's ower wee, Thir lassies says he's ower wee (They say he's too small), etc. Thay're comin an aw but Five o thaim's comin, The lassies? Thay've went but Ma brakes haes went. Thaim that comes first is serred first (Those who come first are served first). The trees growes green in the simmer (The trees grow green in summer).

Wis 'was' may replace war 'were', but not conversely: You war/wis thare.

Past tense of verbs

The regular past form of the verb is –(i)t or –(e)d, according to the preceding consonant or vowel hurtit, skelpit (smacked), Mendit, kent/kenned (knew/known), cleant/cleaned, scrieved (scribbled), telt/tauld (told), dee'd (died). Some verbs have distinctive forms greet/grat/grutten (weep/wept), fesh/fuish/fuishen (fetch/fetched), lauch/leuch/lauchen (laugh/laughed), gae/gaed/gane (go/went/gone), gie/gied/gien (give/gave/given), pit/pat/pitten (put/put/put/), git/gat/gotten (got/got/got).

Word order

Scots prefers the word order He turnt oot the licht to 'He turned the light out' and Gie me it to 'Give it to me'.

Certain verbs are often used progressively He wis thinkin he wad tell her, He wis wantin tae tell her.

Verbs of motion may dropped before an adverb or adverbial phrase of motion A'm awa tae ma bed, That's me awa hame, A'll intae the hoose an see him.

Ordinal numbers

Ordinal numbers ending in –t seicont, fowert, fift, saxt—(second, fourth, fifth, sixth) etc. first, Thrid/third—(first, third).


Adverbs are usually of the same form as the verb root or adjective especially after verbs. Haein a real guid day (Having a really good day). She's gey fauchelt (She's awfully tired).
Adverbs are also formed with –s, -lies, lins, gate(s)and wey(s) –wey, whiles (at times), mebbes (perhaps), brawlies (splendidly), geylies (pretty well), aiblins (perhaps), airselins (backwards), hauflins (partly), hidlins (secretly), maistlins (almost), awgates (always, everywhere), ilkagate (everywhere), onygate (anyhow), ilkawey (everywhere), onywey(s) (anyhow, anywhere), endweys (straight ahead), whit wey (how, why).

Subordinate clauses

Verbless subordinate clauses introduced by an and expressing surprise or indignation She haed tae walk the hale lenth o the road an her sieven month pregnant, He telt me tae rin an me wi ma sair leg (and me with my sore leg).


Negation occurs by using the adverb no, in the North East nae, as in A'm no comin (I'm not coming), or by using the suffix –na (pronunciation depending on dialect), as in A dinna ken (I don't know), Thay canna come (They can't come), We coudna hae telt him (We couldn't have told him), and A hivna seen her (I haven't seen her). The usage with no is preferred to that with –na with contractable auxiliary verbs like –ll for will, or in yes no questions with any auxiliary He'll no come and Did he no come?

Relative pronoun

The relative pronoun is that ('at is an alternative form borrowed from Norse but can also be arrived at by contraction) for all persons and numbers, but may be left out Thare's no mony fowk (that) leeves in that glen (There aren't many people who live in that glen). The anglicised forms wha, wham, whase 'who, whom, whose', and the older whilk 'which' are literary affectations; whilk is only used after a statement He said he'd tint it, whilk wis no whit we wantit tae hear. The possessive is formed by adding 's or by using an appropriate pronoun The wifie that's hoose gat burnt, the wumman that her dochter gat mairit; the men that thair boat wis tint.

A third adjective/adverb yon/yonder, thon/thonder indicating something at some distance D'ye see yon/thon hoose ower yonder/thonder? Also thae (those) and thir (these), the plurals of this and that.

In Northern Scots this and that are also used where "these" and "those" would be in Standard English.

See also


External links

af:Skots ca:Escocès de:Scots es:Idioma escocés eo:Skota lingvo fr:Scots it:Lingua inglese di Scozia li:Sjots nl:Scots pl:Język szkocki sco:Scots leid


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