How different are Scots and Scottish English?

Scots is nearly as different from Scottish English as Scots is different from English English or British English. There is a small number of shared words but there are a lot of different words too.

Scottish English is English. It is just as close to English as Scouse in Liverpool, Jordie in Newcastle, Estuary in North Long and Essex, Brummy in Birmingham, West Country in Cornwall, Potteries, Mancunian, Yorkshire, Cockney, etc. Scottish English is just an accent of English.

Scottish English isn’t really one accent. People from Morningside in Edinburgh speak differently from people in Bearsden Glasgow – even though both are upper-middle-class areas speaking Scottish English. Likewise, people from the western isles sound very different from people from Caithness even though both are rural and traditionally Gaelic areas.

Scots is very similar to English but it isn’t English. Most linguists consider Scots to be a separate Language. There are a lot of different words though there are also many similar words and loan words from English too. There is also some grammatical difference.

Scots has, however, been dying slowly. Everyone in Scotland can speak and understand both Scots and English. There a diglossia (Diglossia – Wikipedia). However, social and cultural pressures have often caused Scots to be treated as wrong. Children using Scots words at school, other than during Burns poem recital, would be chastised for not speaking properly. Scots speakers would be considered low class and uneducated.

This has lead to a great loss of Scots words. In recent times, Scots has been more prominently used but not in a native way. This is creating a new creole language of Scottish English and Scots that is closer to Scottish English with just a smattering of Scots words.


Above: Oor Wullie – a popular comic strip written in colloquial Scots with a Dundee accent.

Since in this diglossia, Scots is the low-class language, and English is the higher class language, nobody learns to write Scots. Older examples of Scots, such a Burns poems, are learned at school, but the pronunciation and vocabulary of modern Scots is different from Burns.

When Scots speakers write, they write in English. When Scots speakers read aloud, they will subconsciously translate parts of the text into Scots. The result of this is that written Scots, such as that in Oor Wullie cartoon, appears to be about 50% to 80% normal English. A southern reader might think that the text is Scotish English rather than Scots. However, when a Scots person reads the text, they will adapt the pronunciation of the anglicised spellings.

The above video explains – if you can understand him – some of what I have been discussing about Scots/Scottish English diglossia. The speaker tries his best to speak Scots, however, his education, as he tells, drummed the Scots out of him and so he slips in and out of the language. Sometimes he speaks Scots and sometimes he speaks Scottish English.

When standing up in front of the audience, his education will be overpowering. He will subconsciously want to speak Scottish English. He has to keep consciously correcting himself to speak Scots. I’m am sure that when he is talking privately, he will speak more in Scots and useless English.

This second video, the poet Christine De Luca reads two of her poems in Shetlandic Scots – a dialect of Scots with some Norse mixed in. During the video, she sometimes uses Scots and sometimes uses Scottish English. She is quite adept at switching between the two. Most of the time she seems to be consciously choosing which of the two languages to use and there are only a few subconscious slips.

Throughout the video, she refers to her Shetlandic Scots as a dialect rather than a language but I think most non-Scottish viewers will find her Shetlandic verses to be as distinctly different from English as, say, German might be. You can read more of Christine’s poems on her website.

How About me?

I grew up in Paisley, Scotland. I come from an upper working class family in a neighbourhood that was effectively lower middle class. My mother parents were lower middle class and my father’s side was skilled working class.

When I went to school, I spoke Scottish English. I learned to read and write in English. Other people in other parts of the town spoke a slightly different accent and my parents and teachers referred to their language as common and not proper. If anyone heard us saying “ain’t” or “cannae” we would be reprimanded.

Thus I am a Scottish English speaker. I can speak Scots but not without slipping into English and not with the right accent. I can understand Scots just fine when I hear it. However, reading Scots never feels comfortable. The writer might have a slightly different accent from what I grew up with, and spellings are not standardised, so reading Scots for me is akin to reading Shakespeare for the first time. It takes a few minutes to get your mind around things.

I think this mix-up of Scots and Scottish English and English has caused me a significant problem in my life. I have a big problem with spelling. Computer spellcheckers hide it a lot but I can see all the red underlines as I type even if you can’t. One of the major spelling issues is that I am never quite sure which vowels to use. The vowels that I wrote never matched up with the vowels that I spoke. I suspect that my school exam papers looked more like an Oor Wullie strip than good educated English.

Today I have lost a large amount of my accent. I work abroad teaching spoken English. I am teaching pronunciation and so I am forced to use a Received Pronunciation accent. I didn’t consciously do this, but when you are continuously forced into a hyper-pronunciation of every word all day every day, it has an effect. On the upside, I think my shift to an RP accent has improved my spelling so a small degree.

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