Scots: Aften Speirit Quaistions ASQ/FAQ

[Another excerpt from the 1996 version of the Haunbuik. Lots still – sadly – relevant but have noted a couple of updates.]

(a) What is Scots?


Scots is a Germanic language derived from Anglo-Saxon, but influenced by Norse, French, Gaelic and particularly English. It was for 300 years the official state language of Scotland and is still widely spoken as an informal linguistic variety all over lowland Scotland. It has a range of local forms and dialects, and despite being used for literary purposes (especially poetry) for several centuries, written forms for everyday purposes are only now being standardised. Overseas readers should not confuse Scots with Gaelic, the other indigenous Scottish language which is of Celtic origin. Gaelic was once spoken over nearly all of mainland Scotland but is now largely confined to the Western Isles of Scotland.

(b) Why do you say Scots is a language, not a dialect? 

Although obviously closely related to English, Scots has a distinct linguistic history and in a reasonably pure form is at least as different from English as Norwegian (Bokmal) is from Danish or as Catalan is from Spanish. However, Norwegian and Catalan are ‘established’ languages (they are taught in schools, have TV stations, press etc) while Scots is not. Scots has therefore suffered considerable erosion over the years to the point that modern Scottish lowland speech is a sort of ‘creole’ of English and Scots. To make things more complicated there are several dialects of Scots itself. Currently Scots is only ever used for informal conversation (hence it has a restricted vocabulary), English for everything else. In daily usage, therefore, Scots speakers may find themselves switching regularly between predominantly Scots to predominantly English patterns of speech, often without thinking.

(c) Where is Scots spoken?

All over Scotland apart from the Highlands and Western Islands where Gaelic was the predominant language until the 19th Century. By this time Scots had lost its national status, so Gaelic was replaced by a Highland variety of English (an interesting dialect in itself). In contrast when Gaelic died out in Ayrshire two centuries earlier it was replaced by Scots, where it is strong to this day. There are also still a few thousand Scots speakers in Ulster.

(d) Who speaks it?   

Written well before the census data came out last year.

Scots seems to be one of the most poorly studied varieties of language in Europe, so the simple answer is that nobody knows. Most lowland Scots (over 4.5 million people) will use elements of Scots grammar, pronounce ‘English’ words as Scots ones (and often use them in particularly Scots ways) and have a vocabulary of distinct Scots words from a few hundred to several thousand, depending on where they come from. In general, Scots tends to be at its strongest in rural areas, although all four major Scottish cities have distinctive Scots/English dialects. One common distinction is made between the ‘Braid’ Scots of rural areas which are closer to older literary forms and ‘Laich’ Scots of the urban population. However even the latter generally contain many Scots grammar and vocabulary elements. There is an attempt to include a question on Scots in the next Census, but the problem is defining it.

(e) Is Scots not a bit ‘common’ (low class)

It is important to recognise that current Scots is a class-based language. Scots forms occur more frequently among working class speech, although in the North East there is a small Scots-speaking middle class. Edinburgh, for example, once the linguistic heart of Scots, now has a remarkably (and deliberately) anglicised middle class. The middle classes of Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen on the whole seem happier with Scots or ‘local’ usage, but it’s clear that much of the prejudice against Scots is still to some extent class-based. The problem is that without formal status and awareness (particularly among teachers), good Scots has often been mistaken for ‘bad’ English (eg the use of Scots past forms such as gaed, makkit, seed, ett), and mistakes in Scots have gone uncorrected.

(f) How many Scots words are there?   

The Scots National Dictionary Association (SNDA) has about 50,000 on its computers, although the majority are archaic. The modern Concise English-Scots Dictionary lists some 15,000 words and the Scots Thesaurus over 20,000. Nevertheless, although Scots has a finely-tuned vocabulary in many areas (the environment, rural life, food and drink, character, emotions, social behaviour, informal conversation etc) it is poorly developed in more formal registers (styles) such as journalistic, literary, historic and technical writing. At the moment such Scots writing as exists in these areas tends to borrow heavily from English vocabulary to express the more complex and subtle concepts required.

(g) What is echt Scots, plastic Scots and synthetic Scots?   

Not sure where this terminology came from!

Scots and English form a linguistic continuum (ie they can be mixed easily). Echt Scots is at the Scots end of the continuum where more distinctive Scots forms and vocabulary is used. In a spoken form this is known as Braid Scots. However, few people use this full style naturally (as they have had neither the education or liguistic upbringing). People uncomfortable or ignorant of the processes of linguistic change sometimes attack any use of Echt/Braid Scots (unless by 80-year-old Buchan farmers) as somehow artificial, referring to ‘plastic Scots’ or ‘cod Scots’, forgetting that we happily use a multitude of spoken and written English styles without comment and regularly use dictionaries and thesauri to extend our vocabulary. ‘Synthetic Scots’ is associated with the Lallans movement stared in the 1920s, an earlier attempt to extend the use of Scots for literary purposes. It received exactly the same type of criticism 70 years ago, showing that deep-seated prejudice is difficult to dislodge. As Lallans writer Sidney Goodsir Smith commented:  We’ve come intil a gey queer time    (gey = very)  Whan screivin Scots is near a crime  (screivin = writing)

(h) How many dialects of Scots are there?   

According to the SNDA there are three mainland varieties, Central, Northern, and Southern together with Island (Orkney and Shetland) and Ulster dialects. All share a common core vocabulary and grammar, but often differ widely in pronunciation. In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in these local forms (especially the Northern variety, Doric, which is perhaps the strongest). At the moment it is hard to say whether such a focus on the local dialects will revive interest in the national language or lead to further fragmentation.

(i) What is the current status of Scots?   

[Scots has since this was written at least been recognised by the UK Parliament, Scottish Government and NI Assembly]

None. No Scot has a right to speak Scots in any official or public context, no right to have his or her children taught in Scots, there virtually no TV or radio in Scots, no newspapers and only a few books and magazines. Most Scots speakers are functionally illiterate in their own language as Scots has been banned from all levels of education for over a century. The growing interest in Scots as a language therefore faces an uphill struggle against prejudice and ignorance. There is no guarantee that this will succeed, but if it does not Scots is likely to die out as a language early in the next century.

(j) What is its future?   

There are two possible futures for Scots: further degeneration until it becomes a real dialect of English (by losing most or all of its links with the historical language), or revival. Revival really means elevation of Scots into an official or semi-official language, so-called ‘normalisation’. Normalisation involves four stages: selection (of the dialect/s to be developed), codification (standardisation), elaboration (extending the vocabulary to handle new concepts and contexts) and acceptance (encouraging people to use it). There are many successful international examples of languages which have gone through this process in comparatively recent times: Catalan, Gallego, Swahili (in Tanzania), Maori, Hebrew. The task is not impossible and already for Scots much progress has been made on the first two stages. However further development (elaboration and acceptance) will require a political will, flexibility, co-operation and, eventually, funding. If Scots had a fraction of the monies used to support ballet, opera or other such Scottish cultural activities, one would have more confidence. Even Gaelic, Scotland’s other beleaguered indigenous tongue fares much better in this context.

(k) Why bother with Scots, when English is a more useful language

English is a world language of great beauty and power. But Scots is our language, providing a link with the past and enabling a distinctly Scottish way of describing the world. When that is gone, it is gone forever and we will have lost a major part of our identity. From an international perspective, Scots is the nearest living relative to English, it has many unique linguistic features, and has a literature of world-wide cultural importance. No one is saying that English should (or could) be removed from Scotland, rather that a better balance be found between the languages. With about half of the world bilingual, there is much evidence to suggest that a genuine bilingualism (as opposed to the confused, unrecognised, half-hidden sort at the moment) will enrich Scots people rather than impoverish them. Scots, and Scots children in particular, have laboured too long under the impression that the language of their family and friends is somehow ‘wrong’.

(l) Why do you spell Scots like that?

Scots is reasonably standardised, but at the moment there are still a number of spelling variations to chose from. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

(m) Why do you use Scots words I’ve never heard before? 

In order to use Scots in a wider context the vocabulary has to be extended. This can come form a number of sources. The most obvious one is English, but too much can result in ‘thin Scots’. A better option is to use a composite vocabulary of words from different living Scots dialects and possibly revived words (if recently lost). This can be augmented by ‘stretching’ the meaning of familiar Scots words (ie making specific meanings more generic). The last option is invention (using words like ‘flichtpairk’ for airport or ‘faurspeiker’ for telephone) but clearly this has to be treated with caution. However there is nothing particularly unusual in a linguistic sense about these processes. They occur all the time in all languages, as a quick glance through some other newsgroups will quickly show. ‘Newsgroup’ is as much an invention as ‘Wittenscurn’!

A better example nowadays would be ‘Website’ and ‘Wabsteid‘, a word I invented in 1996 but now I am proud to say forms part of the Scots lexicon.


A wee historie o Scots

Note: this article was originally written in 1996 as part of the original ‘Haunbuik’. There is an extensive glossary at the end. I use slightly different spellings to e.g. the Scots Learners’ Grammar.

“Languages are the pedigree of nations” (Samuel Johnson)

1. The makkin o Scotlan, the makkin o Scots

Part of Lowland SCotland

The kintra we nou ken as Scotlan his bin pairtit bi leid fur mair nor twa thousant yeir. In the Roman Eild, the Britons byded in the south o the kintra an thair leid wis a forebeir o modren Welsh. Bit in the unvinkisht north they spak Pictish, o whilk puckle is kent.

Whan the Romans quat, new invaders cam in, the Gaelic-speikin Scotti frae Erlan in about AD five hunner an the Angles frae Northumberlan tha spok a norlan kin o AngloSaxon. In 638 the hinner fangit the British dun o Din Eidyn (nou Embro) an Lothian becam the hert o Anglo-Saxon Scotlan. The first screivit evident o a Scots-lik leid is a puckle wirds o Norlan Anglo-Saxon poetrie on a stane corse in Ruthwell Kirk (Dumfries an Gallowa).

Jist afore echt hunner the Norsemen soupit throu Norlan Inglan an Scotlan. Speikin a sib tung ti Anglo-Saxon, their leid hud muckle mair effeck on the norlan nor the southlan dialeks, sae furdor sheddin the twa.

Atweinhauns the Gaelic wis winnin forrit frae the wast. In 843 the Kinricks o the Scots an the Picks wis jined thegither bi Kenneth MacAlpine. Wi the better o haein a screivit form (the first sic fowkleid in aw Europ), bi 1000 Gaelic hud absorbit Pictish ti be spoken ower the hail of Scotlan sauf the Orkney an Shetlan Isles (tha wis in Norse hauns), an Lothian, yet speikin the Norse an Anglo Saxon mixter.

This wis the tap o the watter fur Gaelic. The kee ongaun tha chynged the staunin o Anglo Saxon, nou cryed ‘Inglis’ (an jist ti conflummix ye, Gaelic wis cryed Irisch!) wis the incum o the Normans ti Inglan efter 1066. They brocht wi them the new seistem o feudalism. The Scottish keings Malcolm Canmore (1057-93) an his son David I (1124-53) biggit this seistem in lallan Scotan wi the stairtin o ‘burghs’ – the mercat touns whaur maist o the treffick wis in Inglish. Forby, monie Anglo-Normans cam ti Scotlan aither in flicht frae Keing Wulliam or invitit. (Amang the hinner wis the faimlies Bailliols, Bruces and Stewarts tha wis ti pley sic a muckle pairt in Scotlan’s historie.) Efter the daith o the lest Gaelic keing, Alexander III, in 1286, the political mid o Scotlan wud muve ti the Inglish-speikin lallans.

2. Scots as a naitional leid  

The naxt three-fower hunner yeirs wis ti see the flouerin o ‘Scots’ as a naitional leid. In 1314 Bannockburn o course makkit sicker the freedom o the kintra (fur a wee). In 1375 Barbour’s Scots epic ‘The Brus’ cam out, in 1398 the Scottish Parliament stairtit ti pit its laws in Scots (insteid o Laitin). Doun south o course the Inglish wis growin an aw throu the warks o Chaucer an ithers. Bit it hid chynged, nou bein, a whein say, mair an Anglo-Frainch ‘creole’. The by-leid o the hame counties becam the offeicial naitional leid thare efter about 1450.

The Scottish leid, wi its Lochlan colorin, wis nou different eneuch to be cryed a saiprit tung an the by-leid aroun the Forth suin becam the national leid o keing an cowmoner alik. The makar Gavin Douglas (wha kent ‘Inglish’ Inglish weil) wis aiblins the first kenspeckle screiver ti own the unalikness an gie the tung its new nam. The makars Henryson, Dunbar, Lyndsay an Douglas hisel aw played a pairt in makkin Scots a heid European leid wi a warld-cless leiterature an staunin. In a wey, this wis nou the tap o the watter fur Scots, yaised in ilka aspeck o Scottish lyfe, a rael an hail naitional leid. Frae nou on the Scots tung (an its speikers) wid hae ti thole ane dunt efter anithir.

3. A twa-leidit fowk  

The first dunt cam mair frae ill-luck nor ill-wull. In 1550 the Reformation yokit ti in Scotland. Thare wisna houanivvir a hail owersett o the Guid Buik inti Scots an the Ingis hud plentie Inglish vairsions ti haun, haein stertit thair ain Reformation a whein airlier. Sae suin God wis speikin in Inglish ti the Scots an Inglish stairtit ti be the leid o philosophie, thocht an theologie, wi Scots bein yaised in the houss, the wark an the howff.

[By-screive: In fack this is a gey cowmon happenin in maist kintras. Hauf the fowk o the warld the day is twa-leidit an awbodie his his o hur dialeck. Whaur thare twa (o mair) leids o dialecks wi differin yisses an aften differin staunins in the kintra, leinguists cry it ‘diglossia’. The heuch kin is fur releigion, lernin, wittens paipers, televeision, whilk the ‘laich’ kin is maistly fur bletherin wi freins an faimlie, seyin hou ye fin yersel etc. Nou afore ye think ainlie puir dilecks is laich, in pairts o Italie an Hungaria the warld-leid o Gairman is yet the ‘laich’ tung.]

4. Scots efter the Union o the Crouns

The nixt dunt ti Scots cam wi the Union o the Crouns in 1603 whan Keing James the Saxt gaed aff ti Lunnon, taein wi him his leiteraie freins, his makars an muckle o the tap o Scots societie. The Inglishin o Scotlan nou stairtit wi a wull. Nou in yon tymes the Croun gied a muckle haun ti cultur. Wi the court in Inglan, the makars yokit ti lernin Inglish, an the Scottish Government, yet at hame, bacam mair an mair Inglisht tae. Inglish wis nou the leid ti spik, no jist in the Kirk, bit fur onie lad or lassie o pairts wissin ti git on.

5. Scotlan losses its parliament 

Tha nixt an aiblins waurst dunt cam abou a hunner yeir ahint wi the Union o the Parliaments in 1707, efter whilk aw the offeicial screivins wud be in Inglish. The spekin leid, o course, steyed Scots, or hauf an hauf. The heckle wis tha Scots ‘on the mak’ suin foun tha the Inglish lauched at thair speik an in the first eident o the kenspeckle Scottish ‘creinge’ ower-cless Scots ettled ti lern Inglish. Fur sic fowk Braid Scots wis ‘auld warld’ an gleg Scottish screivers hud their een on the mair muckle Inglish speikin mairket. Sae the flouerin o Scottish Culture tha follaed the Union wis maistlie cairriet on in Inglish. Scots becam seed as ‘ill-mouthit’ Inglish an een kenspeckle fowk lik David Hume lernt lang leits o Scotticisms ti jouk. (An this is no just in the bygane, in raicent yeir mair nor ane warkin-cless Labour MP hae gied aff ti ‘elocution lessons’ ti lern ti speik ‘better’).

6. Burns

Bit mair cannie Scots wisna taen in bi the farran fur mim-mou’d Suddrone. In the 1720’s Allan Ramsay prentit ‘The Gentle Shepherd’ in Scots, follaed bi Fergusson an the big yin hisel – Rabbie Burns (1759-96). Houanivver the diglossia wis bi nou warkin weil an thair subjecks wis maistlie the couthie an the humoursum. Een Burns seimed nou an than riven atwein the twa leids, thou he aften yaised his twaleiditniss ti wunnerfou effeck in his wark. In ane respeck, thou, Burns did a fair bit o skaith wi the yiss o apostrophies in his orthographie. Burns o course stairtit the tradeition tha Scots wis best fur poetrie forby, an the yiss o Scots fur screid (ordinar text) wis amest tint, thou it wis aften yaised fur crack in buiks bi Scott an ithirs in the airlie ninteint centurie. Thay gie a rerr insicht o the braid yiss o Scots throu yon tymes.

7. The 1872 Act 

Bit mair nor hunner yeir hid passit syne the Union, anithir dunt fur the leid wis sharlie aucht! Alang it cam shair eneuch wi the 1872 Education Act whilk set out the Inglish language as the ainlie ane alloued ti be spak in Scottish skuils. Een gin yer no a socialeist, it’s herd no ti see this as a cless weir in the clessruim. The bi nou weill-Inglisht middle-cless representit bi the dominies ettlin ti scour an skelp out warkin cless or fowk cultur frae the heids o the puir skuilbairns.

8. MacDiarmid

In the 1920’s thir stairtit a muvement agin sic cultural an linguistic ‘cleansin’. The ‘Scottish Renaisance’ wis inspirit bi Hugh MacDiarmid, wha thocht Scots cud be biggit again inti a hail leid. MacDiarmid’s slogan (a Scots Gaelic wird bi the wey) ‘Dunbar – Nae Burns!’ countered diglossia bi sayin Scots cud be yaised fur onie subjeck, lik in the Gowden Eild o the makars afore 1603. Houanivver McDairmid’s sicht wisna hin-luikin ava bit wis ruitit in the praisent an wis modrenist an internaitionalist in its outluik. He devailopit the leiterarie dialeck cried ‘Synthetic Scots’ (o bi his criticks, o whilk thair wis monie, ‘Plastic Scots’) frae his ain speik an the dictionar. Souter, Garioch, Young, Goodsir Smith wis aw hied makars o the ‘Lallans’ skuill tha follaed. This tradeition gaes on ti the day wi monie modren makars an playrichtsyaisin Scots in thair wark. In the 70’s an 80’s plays frae fowk lik John McGrath an Liz Lochhead yaised Scots dialog. Houanivver, his centurie fyow screivers hae adoptit Scots fur screid wark, althou it’s nae uncowmon ti see Scots dialog. Ane aixeption wis Lewis Crassic Gibbon, tha yaised a Scots/Iglish mix in the trilogie ‘The Scots Quair’ ti gran effeck in tha he caucht the ‘rhythm’ o Scots.

9. Scots in modren leitrature

Ae criticism o Scots novels is hou crack and screid ar for ordinar  screivit in inalik leids, lavin a waikniss or pit-on at the hert o Scottish liteirature. Mair raicentlie a puckle o modren Scots screivers sic as James Kelman (tha wun the Booker Prize) an Irvine Welsh (‘Trainspotting’ bein ane o the best sellin paiperback buiks in Scotland this yeir) hae ettilt ti ainser thon bi yaisin maistlie (Laich) Scots text. Thir lingueistic freedom gies the buiks undoutit pouer, bit the subjecks ar yet fair restrictit ti the urban unnercless. Mibbie our slogan nou cud be ‘Dunbar – Nae Kelman’! (Ainlie jokin, Jim.). Sae in poetrie an a wee bittie in theater an buiks, ye cud say Scotland is in a wey awreddie twa-leidit (or three-leidit, countin Gaelic), bit in aw ither aspecks o Scottish cultur, Inglish is keing.

10. Scots on televeision 

Leivin aside the odd adaptit theater play the ainlie tyme ye heir Scots on TV is fur humor. Frae Parliamo Glasgow in the 60’s throu Billy Connolly in the 70’s an on ti Rab C Nesbitt the nou, the mither tung his bin yaised ti raise a lauch. Nae baud thing in itsel – thir a lang tradeition o humorsum yiss o Scots – bit athout exemplars o ithir yisses the hechle is it becums near imposseible ti think o yaisin Scots fur mair sairious ettles. Interestinlie eneuch, A mind a Catalan bodie sayin ti me that at first monie fowk cudna git yaised wi the yiss o Catalan on TV fur wittens an the lik – it didna soun ‘richt’. Ye cud jalouse the samen repone fur Scots!

In an interestin aixperiment in the airlie 80’s BBC Scotlan did an adaptation o ‘The Scots Quair’ bit wis hecklt fraeScots an Inglish alik. The former thoucht (richt) the Scots wis wattered doun fur the Inglish mairket, and the hinner cudna unnerstaun it oniegate. The aixperiment hasna bin repeitit an the actors near aw ‘sairious’ new series stellt in Scotlan (eg Taggart) hae ti speik ‘pan loaf’ in case the pair Inglish ar a bittie slaw on the uptak. Houanivver a wee brekthrou seimed ti cum wi the screinin o Billy Kay’s series ‘Scots: The Mither Tongue’ bi BBC Scotlan in 1986 tha pit the case fur mair yiss o Scots in aw pairts o Scottish lyfe. In maugre o a muckle repone frae aw ower the kintra at the tyme, thir bin nae real follae up in the nyne year syne (nae TV clesses fur exemplar).

11. Scots: on the rocks or on the blocks? 

Houanivver Scots his bydit unco thrawn an maistlie acos it alous fowk ti aixpress thaimsels an thair heft in a wey Inglish jist canna (monie Scots wirds is gey unowersettable). It is, o course, muckle shrunkelt syne Burns’ tyme an his hid by-ordinar ‘interference’ frae Inglish (aye the leid o pouer an buik-lair).

The leid spoken in lallan Scotlan the day is a continuum atwein dialecks o Scots, a whein o sindrie Scottish dialecks o Inglish an standart Scottish Inglish itsel. This mixter-maxter is happit wi an acsent tha reflecks the fack tha altho monie Scots an Inglish wirds shair consonants, the vouels in the twa tungs differ in a radical an gey unspaeable wey ie Inglish wirds is aften spoken as if they wis Scots anes. We hae monie o the swatches o a border patois wi speikers ‘wheichin’ takin a len an makkin up, shawin a jonick (gin ill-kent) twaleiditniss. The border is tymelik no lanlik, bit the iadea is muckle the samen (aixep tha Scots canna be ‘vailidatit’ – gien a staunin – sae maistlie losses out at the hinneren). Aw this is o course haillie oral as thair yet amest a hunner per cent illeiteracie in Scots (the 1872 ack wisna chynged till 1991 an than ainlie a puckle).

Sae whit’s the upcum o aw thir? Nae dout Scot his tint muckle syne it wis the offeicial tung o Scotlan, bit yet the spoken leid cud (mebbie ainlie jist) be cryed a leid. Eneuch bydes ti form the founs o a new Scots, gin we wiss it. Monie say we ainlie hauf a leid we’r ainlie hauf a fowk, an gin we tyne Scots, we’ll tyne oursels. The skaith his aw cum frae Scottish fowk (we canna wyte the Inglish for thir) an its haillie up ti us ti sort it. But, we’ll hae ti dae it suin. We hiv ainlie ti fin the wull an the smeddum.


* means particular meaning in this context

kintra-country, ken-know, pairt-divide, leid-language, eild-age, byde-live, puckle-little, Erlan-Ireland, fang-capture, dun-fort, screive-write, corse- cross, soup-sweep, sib-related, shed-divide, atweinhauns-meanwhile, win forrit-advance, kinrick-kingdom, haun-hand, tap o the watter-high water mark, cry-call/name, ongaun-process, bigg-build, lallan-lowland, forby- moreover, mid-centre, sicker-safe, wee-short while*, by-leid-dialect, Lochlan-Scandinavian, makar-poet, aiblins-perhaps, kenspeckle-well known, heid*-major, staunin-status, thole*-withstand, dunt-blow, yoke ti-start, howff-pub or other meeting place, heuch-high, laich-low, blether-talk, Inglishin-Anglicisation, lad o pairts-promising person, hechle-problem, lauch-laugh, gleg-crafty, een-eyes, leit-list, jouk-avoid, bygane-past, cannie-astute, Suddrone-perjorative term for English, couthie-homely, skaith-harm, screid-prose, tint-lost, crack-dialogue*, aucht-due*, weir-war, dominie-schoolteacher, scour-clean vigourously, skelp-smack, bairn-child, hin-backward*, pit-on-falseness, ettle-aim, wittens-news, jalouse-guess, repone-respnse, pan loaf-Anglicised form of speech, uptak-understanding, maugre-spite, thrawn-obstinate, heft-environment, owersett-translate, by-ordinar-extraordinary, lair-learning, happit-overlayed*, spae-predict, swatch-feature, wheich-move rapidly, tak a len*-borrow, jonick-genuine, tymelik-related to time, lanlik-geographical, at the hinneren-in the long run, upcome-outcome, foun-foundation, wyte-blame*, smeddum-determination,resourcefulness and common sense (guid wird, eh?)

Scots grammars and standards

broonieIt may come as a surprise but the grammar of spoken and literary Scots was first described systematically almost a century ago when two comprehensive grammars were published within just a few years.

James Wilson’s fascinating but largely forgotten 1915 field study Lowland Scotch was based on interviews with inhabitants of the Perthshire village of Dunning and uses a marvelous phonetic orthography to capture the sounds of the vernacular.  This was followed by William Grant and James Main Dixon’s 1921 classic Manual of Modern Scots that takes a completely different approach focusing on a meticulous analysis of the literary language over two centuries from the late seventeenth century. Between them these two works provide a remarkably consistent and cohesive snapshot of the spoken and written language before the First World War.  Unfortunately both these essentially ‘descriptive’ grammars were out of print for decades so failed to make the impact on Scots they should have.

Nowadays both are available online, so have a look at the Leebrarie section of this site for links.

From the late 90s a range of ‘prescriptive’ grammars for Scots appeared, aiming to set out rules of usage. David Purves’ booklet A Scots Grammar was published in 1997; about the same time as Andy Eagle’s online Wir Ain Leed, essentially a reworking of Grant and Dixon. Also in 1997 Philip Robinson produced the masterly Ulster-Scots – a grammar of the traditional and spoken language, again something of a homage to Grant and Dixon. These reference works were joined in 1999 by Susan Rennie’s Grammar Broonie, a workbook aimed at young learners and in 2002 by L Colin Wilson’s Luath Scots Language Learner, the first-ever Scots language course for the complete novice with extensive sections on grammar. Christine Robinson’s  2012 Modren Scots Grammar has a notably different focus and introduces grammar to children (and their teachers) through the medium of Scots.

Especially over the last 40 years there have also been numerous small-scale studies of language use in Scotland, usually published in (for the public) rather obscure academic journals. However much of this was drawn together by Alexander Bergs in Modern Scots, a detailed review of literature which essentially updates Grant and Dixon based on more recent sociolinguistic research. Bergs is perhaps the most definitive published descriptive grammar of Scots to date, though is hard to obtain.

As David Purves reminded us in 2002 “in any language revival, an essential stage is the fixing of standards amongst the welter of variation that is always found in the untended garden of natural speech“. So far no ‘official’ body has emerged in Scotland to ‘fix standards’ but the publications above provide the next best thing; a remarkably consistent description by language scholars of how the core grammar of Scots currently functions.

In the absence of a ‘circumscribed’ standard we have is what some have called a ‘circumstantial’ standard, but it is a standard nonetheless.

 [Adapted from the introduction to the Scots Learners’ Grammar]

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