Scottish English Overview

A sign welcoming visitors to the Scottish Highlands
Diane Macdonald/Getty Images

Scottish English is a broad term for the varieties of the English language spoken in Scotland.

Scottish English (SE) is customarily distinguished from Scots, which is regarded by some linguists as a dialect of English and by others as a language in its own right. (Altogether separate is Gaelic, the English name for the Celtic language of Scotland, now spoken by just over one percent of the population.)

Examples and Observations

  • Kingsley Bolton
    The history of Scottish English is inextricably linked to that of 'Scots,' whose history as an autonomous Germanic language dates from 1100. While its contemporary usage is restricted to a minority of the rural population, Scots is still seen as forming 'the substratum of general English in Scotland' ([lexicographer A.J.] Aitken, 1992: 899). Scots achieved its greatest prominence in the 15th and 16th centuries, but after the Act of Union in 1603, a decline in its prestige and use followed. Throughout the 19th century, English rapidly gained ground through the expansion of education. Scots gradually lost the status of an autonomous language, and its position as a regional standard was eventually supplanted by that of 'Scottish Standard English,' a compromise between London standard English and Scots' ([J. Derrick] McClure, 1994: 79).

Defining "Scottish English"

  • Jane Stuart-Smith
    Defining the term 'Scottish English' is difficult. There is considerable debate about the position and appropriate terminology for the varieties which are spoken in Scotland and which ultimately share a common historical derivation from Old English. Here I follow [A.J.] Aitken (e.g. 1979, 1984) and describe Scottish English as a bipolar linguistic continuum, with broad Scots at one end and Scottish Standard English at the other. Scots is generally, but not always, spoken by the working classes, while Scottish Standard English is typical of educated middle-class speakers. Following Aitken's model, speakers of Scottish English either switch discretely between points on the continuum (style/dialect switching), which is more common in rural varieties, or drift up and down the continuum (style/dialect drifting), which is more characteristic of the urban dialects of cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow. Throughout Scotland, Scots is increasingly becoming limited to certain domains, for example, amongst family and friends, while more formal occasions tend to invoke Scottish Standard English. Of course the boundaries between Scots and Scottish Standard English, and English English, spoken by a small percentage of the population, are not discrete, but fuzzy and overlapping.

More Than a Dialect, Less Than a Full-Fledged Language

  • A.J. Aitken
    With its own history, dialects, and literature, Scots is something more than a dialect yet something less than a full-fledged language. . . . Scots is the substratum of general English in Scotland; most Scots use mixed varieties, and 'full' traditional Scots is now spoken by only a few rural people . . .. Nonetheless, despite stigmatization in school, neglect by officialdom, and marginalization in the media, people of all backgrounds since the 16c insisted in regarding the guid Scots tongue as their national language, and it continues to play an important part in their awareness of their national identity.

Pronouns and Demonstratives in Spoken Scottish English

  • Jim Miller
    The structures described here are part of the everyday language of many speakers in Scotland but differ greatly from the structures of standard written English. . . . Their survival is worth recording, their role in the construction of Scottish identity and the identity of individuals is central even if sadly neglected by researchers, and they bear directly on education, employment, and social exclusion...
    Scots has a second person plural yous or yous yins, avoided by educated speakers. Us is informal but widespread instead of me, particularly with verbs such as give, show, and lend (e.g. Can you lend us a quid?). The possessive pronoun mines is analogous to yours, his, etc.; and hisself and theirselves are analogous to yourself, etc. In me and Jimmy are on Monday our two selves ('by ourselves'), two raises the question whether myself, etc. is one word or two.
    Scots has thae ('those') as in thae cakes was awfy dear ('awfully dear'). Thae is still alive but the most frequent form is now them: them cakes was awfy dear.

The Scottish Accent

  • Peter Roach
    There are many accents of British English, but one that is spoken by a large number of people and is radically different from BBC English is the Scottish accent. There is much variation from one part of Scotland to another; the accent of Edinburgh is the one most usually described. Like the American accent ... Scottish English pronunciation is essentially rhotic and an 'r' in the spelling is always pronounced ... The Scottish r sound is usually pronounced as a 'flap' or 'tap' similar to the r sound in Spanish.
    It is in the vowel system that we find the most important differences between BBC pronunciation and Scottish English. As with American English, long vowels and diphthongs that correspond to spellings with 'r' are composed of a vowel and the r consonant, as mentioned above. The distinction between long and short vowels does not exist, so that 'good,' 'food' have the same vowel, as do 'Sam,' 'psalm' and 'caught,' 'cot.' ...
    This brief account may cover the most basic differences, but it should be noted that these and other differences are so radical that people from England and from parts of lowland Scotland have serious difficulty in understanding each other.

Modern Scottish

  • Tom Shields
    Our language should be called Scottish... When Alex Salmond stands up at Holyrood and announces that, henceforth, Scottish is the official language, it will not be a case of Eck Saumon staunin' up tae mac siccar we pit fyrst the Scots leid. God bless those who wish to preserve the auld braid Scots tung, but that is not how we speak or write... Our language will be the modern Scottish, which at times will look and sound very like English but is different... We may have to set up a Scottish Language Commission to rule on important issues. This commission is gonnae huv to decide, for instance, if youse is the plural of you.
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Scottish English Overview." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Scottish English Overview. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Scottish English Overview." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).