Who speaks Scots? The 1996 survey revisited

As part of the 2011 Census, for the first time the people in Scotland were asked to say if they could understand, speak, read and / or write Scots (see the Aye Can site). The results will be available some time next year and will no doubt be the subject of much debate as people argue their validity, irrespective of the result. 

In the meantime the only data available is the 1996 Scots Language Survey. Although the survey is 16 years old it is until next year the only data we have avaiable on how much and where Scots is spoken.

In the summer of 1996 the General Register Office for Scotland, GRO(S), carried out a survey on the Scots Language to investigate the feasibility of including in 2001 census a question similar to the question in the 1991 Census asking the respondent’s proficiency in Gaelic. The survey was the result of a long campaign by Scots language proponents.

How was the survey carried out?

The research was done in two phases, firstly the reaction of a focus group of likely Scots speakers to a Census type question was tested (their responses were correlated to an assessment of their language ability) and secondly commercial polling organisations were asked to test three questions variations on three representative surveys of 1000 people. Thus in all some 3111 people were polled.

What did they conclude?

Not surprisingly the survey found “The language used in Scotland today retains a lot of traditional speech forms, though there is a continuum of speech type in the Scottish population ranging from clearly English to clearly Scots.” The main problem the researchers found was that after years of suppression, people were poor at defining their own abilities as Scots speakers. Thus in the survey report, GRO(S) concluded that the responses to a Census question would be “a self-assessment of a concept which is poorly defined by the public and would measure the prevalence of a speech tradition derived from Scots rather than a particular ability in the Scots language. Given this qualification the results would probably be of limited use to those seeking to meet educational needs.” The report recognised that “the inclusion of a census question would undoubtedly raise the profile of Scots“, but suggested that surveys using some (as yet undeveloped) linguistic test/index would be more useful and appropriate.

How many Scots speakers did they find?

Even given the caveats above the survey found about 30% of the population of Scotland will respond “Yes” to a question of the form “Can you speak Scots or a dialect of Scots?“. This would correspond to about 1.5 million affirming they speak Scots, a figure still widely quoted.

What were the regional variations?

Note there is no data from Orkney and Shetland. Given the strong influence of attitudinal factors (see below), the researchers felt that some of the regional differences may be do to local differences in acceptance of Scots. For example Doric now has a reasonably high status in Grampian and people may be more ready to confess to speaking it.

As an aside, the researchers noted that although the idea that Scots dialects are strongly differentiated was very prevalent, older people who had known people from all over Scotland during the War “denied the existence of dialect differences strong enough to hinder communication”. This notion of major dialectical difference in Scots remains a persistent and harmful myth today.

Age and class

The evidence suggests that Scots speaking is related to age and class. Younger age groups are less inclined to assess that they speak Scots and people in lower socio-economic groups were marginally more likely to say they spoke Scots. However the relationships were surprisingly weak related to region.






How did the census define a Scots speaker?

A person classified as speaking with a Scots accent would use the same words as an English-speaker but sound different; a person speaking with a dialect would chose words that are local variants of the ‘mainstream’ language; a person whose speech was classified as being a different language would use constructions of the language as well as vocabulary“.

The researchers “came to the view that ‘Pure Scots’ did exist at one end of a continuum to English and that many people’s speech could clearly be placed as predominantly stemming from one or the other of the two languages, and that there was much maintenance of traditional speech forms and vocabulary.

Attitudes to Scots

Many attitudinal views about Scots were expressed, and the researchers suspected this may interfere with respondents willingness to respond to the questions. “In Britain – where accent, dialect and class effect language – language ability is very difficult to assess, especially since in an assessment situation, language readily changes“. The report quotes J Menzies’ 1991 paper suggetsing “‘Code-switching’ or ‘dialect sliding’ will be exacerbated:

  • If a mode of speech or dialect is considered slang;
    Where the interrogator does not share a speech code (The researchers found that the presence of a Scots expert in the assessment team “drew out the Scots speaking ability”);
  • Where the language is undergoing a process of assimilation or corruption by a neighbouring (powerful) language – since its inception;
  • Where the differentiation between the two languages (in this case from Anglo-Saxon into English and Scots) was never ‘complete’;
  • Where the language is unrecognised by some of its speakers
  • Where, superficially, the language is not of any apparent use in daily transactions to an outsider and finally, and most powerfully;
  • Where English is viewed as a lingua franca for communication outside the local and family community.

While many thought Scots should be encouraged more in schools, English was commonly viewed as the prestige language of communication. “Good spoken English was related to improved employment opportunities”, indicating a continuing perceived or real prejudice against the language. There was much support for learning more about Scots history and literature, some support for Scots medium teaching, but also for teaching Gaelic as the “true and prestigious language of Scotland”.

How important was the survey?

It should be emphasised that the aim of the survey was not directly to identify Scots speakers, but to test potential Census questions. One problem is that each of the three main surveys used a slightly different question wording. This turned out to have a marked influence on the responses. Nevertheless as the largest survey of its type attempted until the 2011 census, the GRO(S) project yielded useful information, and the use of commercial polling organisations to carry out the surveys made it reasonably objective. The figure of 1.5 million Scots speakers has been widely used, even in official documents.

However, while emphatically recognising the existence of the Scots language as one end of a linguistic continuum the report warned that for survey purposes ‘Scots’ could at the time only be a broad concept because of firstly the linguistic diversity within the Scottish population and secondly the lack of general education and information on what ‘the Scots Language’ actually is. It is likely both these themes will raise their heads when the analysis of the 2011 census starts.


Aye Can (2011) Scots in the census site

Máté, I (1996) Scots Language Research Report, The General Register Office for Scotland, Ladywell House, Ladywell Row, Edinburgh EH12 7TF (Tel 0131 334 4295)

Menzies , J (1991) An investigation of attitudes to Scots and Glasgow dialect among secondary school pupils, Scottish Language, 110 (Winter), Association of Scottish Literature Studies (Ed McLure D)

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