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A look at the relationship of the Scots and English Language


The following is extracted from an article submitted by Karen Angelosanto to the Institute of Linguists Magazine February – March 2002 Edition.

At the recent IOL conference in Edinburgh, the question ‘Is Scots a language?’ was raised. It is a question that vexes many. Those  who hold strong opinions on either side have many different reasons for asking it.. Since the decision as to whether something is accorded the status of a language is always made on geopolitical  rather than linguistic grounds, whether Scots deserves to be called a language is actually not a question with which linguists need concern themselves overmuch. What must be made clear, however, is that Scots is not an impoverished or substandard dialect of English.


Written Scots Document by Burns on his First Born

That Scots is related to English is not in any doubt, but to classify it as a weak, undesirable dialect is just plain wrong. Briefly, Scots and English share a common ancestor in a language descended from the language spoken by the Angles. Sometime around the 9th century, this language that we now call Old English (OE) came to dominate most of what is now England. OE later split into Northern OE and Southern OE. Later still, Northern OE underwent a second split; one version looking south for its influences and becoming what is


now the English of the north of England, the other drawing upon different influences and developing into Scots. By around the 14th century, Scots was a fully fledged national language in all of Scotland  except the Gaelic speaking areas. It grew and changed like any other language for the next 300 years, becoming the language of the royal court and the law and enjoying a particularly high point in the literature of the 16th to 18th centuries. Scotland has a long and distinguished literary heritage that stretches back to John Barbour’s poem Brus   and comes right up to date with poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid and Tom Leonard, the inspired drama of Liz Lochhead and the prose of exciting new writers such as Matthew Fitt.

The table below shows the development of Scots alongside that of English.




to 1100

Old English

to 1100

Old English

to 1375

Older (pre-literary) Scots

to 1250

Early Middle English

to 1450

Older (Early) Scots

to 1475

Late Middle English

to 1550

(Early) Middle Scots

to 1650

Early Modern English

to 1700

(Late) Middle Scots

from 1650

Modern English

from 1700

Modern Scots




A serious study of any language must take into account the history of the people who speak it. There is no language that exists independently of social and political context. The fluctuating status of Scotland  over the past 700 years has had an enormous influence on the language and upon people’s attitude to it.

The rather convenient term (OE) for the common ancestor has caused a great deal of the confusion that exists around Scots: confusion that has led to the refusal by many authorities (linguists included) to accord Scots the status of anything more than a dialect. Yet Scots has many dialects of its own, mutually intelligible to some degree but with sufficient phonological and lexical variation to show that each is as systematically different from the others as they all are from English.
Scots has distinct general phonological and morphological features, common to many, but not necessarily all, of the dialects, and a syntax and vocabulary that differ significantly from English.
These differences are the points of most interest to students of Scots. They want to know just how Scots and English differ and, fortunately, such illustration is easy because the systematic nature of the variations immediately proves false the informed but frequently uttered opinion that Scots is simply a lazy variety of English. If it were simply a matter of slovenliness, the differences would be more random than they clearly are, thus a  lot more difficult to identify. Scots has many structural correspondences with English, just a few examples of which follow:
In their phonology, Scots speakers make a clear distinction between the initial sound in <which> and <whether> and that in <witch > and <weather>. We have retained from OE the /x/ phoneme in <loch>. Under the Scottish Vowel Length Rule (SVLR), vowel sounds vary in length according to their phonological environment; thus we can hear a difference between the vowels in <grief> (short) and <grieve> (long), <seem> (short) and <see> (long) as well as those vowels that occur before /r/, and those at a morpheme boundary - the pronunciation of <brood> differs from that of <brewed>.
Vowels are unrounded in words like <stone> (<stane>) and <go> (<gae>) and are not diphthongised in <hoose> and <roond> because Scots vowels took a different direction from the English ones during the Great Vowel Shift.
Syntactically, the Scots modal verbs show several different nuances. Scots speakers are rather puzzled by the alleged impoliteness of not using the verb <may>, preferring <can> or <could> + <please> when making a request. While <shall> and <should> have particular force in legal language, the English rule about using them with first person pronouns is irrelevant to Scots. When forming negation, <never> can be used to express just one instance of not doing something. Negation on a continuous basis is easily expressed by <never ever>.
It is in the vocabulary that the difference between Scots and English remains at its strongest. Every variety of Scots has its own words (from many sources) that are not only absent from English but might not even be found in any other variety of Scots. There are too many exclusively Scots words to select particular ones for exemplification.

Readers should refer to The Concise Scots Dictionary edited by M. Robinson (Chambers. 1996).
The main stumbling-block for Scots today is that most people (and this is true of native Scots as well as other nationalities) cannot and /or do not distinguish between the variety of English that has become the Scottish Standard (SSE) and is a dialect of English and Scots, which is the descendant of OE. This problem was much in evidence among the audience of the IoL conference. Every time an article is printed in the press from some commentator claiming that Scots simply cannot be a language, or that it might once have been one but 'you never hear it nowadays', it becomes painfully apparent that this lack of distinction (which many dictionaries and encyclopedias also fail to make) persists. In the central belt, of course, Scots and SSE are drawing closer together, adding to the difficulty.
In addition, any group of Scottish school children, when asked about their experiences of learning Scots, will respond in the way they would if asked about learning any foreign language. In addition to the long sighs and pained expressions, words like 'boring', 'irrelevant' and 'rough' still crop up regularly. This is the inevitable legacy of over a century of being told to 'speak properly' because English was good and Scots was not.
Today, Scots is, for the most part, an oral language. Modern Scots retains many dialects, particularly in areas away from the major cities. The Scots of central Scotland is very different from that of either the north or the south: the language of the east displays characteristics absent from that of the west and vice versa.
For many of us who live in 21s* century Scotland, Scots is our second language. While we might understand the local speech, written Scots is as foreign to us as German or Dutch and it hardly exists outside the literature classroom. Although Scotland is a separate country within the UK, now with its own parliament, its official language is English. This important fact has made the natives ambivalent to Scots - after all, why labour to learn something you can never use in your writing or your job and which marks you down socially in your speech?
In schools, there are several immediate difficulties in getting students interested in Scots, not least the fact that it is still only an option in the curriculum and easily avoided in the exams. Add to that the near impossibility of making parents see any worth in its study when it has no official status, when even our national newspapers are written in (English) Standard English. The Scotsman has a weekly column in Gaelic but no Scots equivalent. For many of us, therefore, Scots is something we come back to post-school, when we can choose it rather than having it forced upon us as a serious academic option on the one hand, while being told it is substandard on the other.
There are fewer difficulties in persuading nationals of other countries to attend a Scots course. Germans and Americans are particularly keen, for obvious reasons. Scots is a Germanic language so native German speakers take to it with ease. Americans are eager to learn the language of their ancestors. Other nationalities study it as keenly as they do all languages, showing an enthusiasm that all UK modern languages teachers must wish their students to display.
Gaelic, Scotland's other native language, has been officially granted 'endangered' status and government funding has been made available to rescue and preserve it. Perhaps the day will come when Scots is accorded a similar profile and restored to full cousinship instead of being treated as the embarrassing relation that nobody likes to mention.
Karen Angelosanto is a structural linguist who specialises in Scots, spoken
and written English and contemporary English grammar.


© 2002 David Percival


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