Scottish Linguistics

Flag of ScotlandIt’s not only the Scottish accent which sets us apart from other parts of the United Kingdom – for as any true Scot knows, Scotland actually has many accents; from the lilting burr of the Highlands to the famously difficult to understand twang of young Glaswegians! For such a small country, we do have a huge amount of regional variance in accent, but our spoken dialect is broader still – offering a shared experience of the English language which differs in sometimes small but always significant ways from British Standard English. Our dialect, Scottish English, is further enhanced by borrowed words from the two languages of Scotland. Gaelic is the ancient tongue of the Highlands, but the language of the Lowlands, simply known as Scots, is recognised here too. Although it is closely linked to Standard English, it is not always mutually intelligible (think along the lines of the links between Norwegian and Danish!), and though it used to be considered simply an extreme dialect of Standard English, it is more and more being recognised as a separate language nowadays.

Most Scottish native’s speech will exist on a continuum, with the Scottish Standard English of most schools and businesses at one end and the broad Scots of relaxed conversation at the other. Although an individual may err more to one end or the other, in practice most people will switch between various forms of dialect or even between languages depending on the situation they find themselves in. This is common across the world, but we of course feel that Scotland has some of the greatest and most interesting quirks when it comes to casual and idiomatic language!

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Newcomers or visitors to our shores might at first be confused by some Scottish utterances. Everyone has heard of the old standards “Och aye the noo” or even “It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht the nicht” but unsurprisingly these aren’t actually commonly heard and might only be pronounced by a Scot for the amusement of new visitors. Today we intend to show you some of the phrases and idioms you are likely to hear in Scotland, for your instruction and delight, and to ensure you can keep up with the locals wherever you end up!

One of the best known dialects of Scots is the Doric. This is commonly spoken in the Northeast of Scotland (in areas such as Aberdeen and Moray) and is often joked about even by other Scots because it sounds very much like the international stereotype of a Scottish person. Many of the phrases and words used in this region have entered the common lexicon of Scotland, though the pronunciation does vary of course. The term furry boots does not actually refer to warm winter footwear, but is a play on the Aberdonian pronunciation of the common Scots phrase “whaur aboots” meaning “where about (is it)”! Other common words or phrases include “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye” (“Whatever is meant to happen to you, will happen to you”), “Ah’m stappit fu’” (“I’m very full” – often heard after a good meal) and the very expressive exclamation; “Yir aywis at the coo’s tail!” (“You’re always running late!”).

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Other words and phrases the Doric is well-known for that are rarely heard elsewhere. These include the term “loon for “boy, “mineerfor hullabaloo, and “nickum for “mischievous” (especially a child). So, if you hear the phrase “That nickum loon caused a richt mineer, the wee scunner.” you will now know that an adventurous young boy has been making a nuisance of himself!

Often to Scottish people, it can be difficult to realise that not everyone can understand what we areScotland map saying at all times. The Doric examples above are fairly extreme–they might be used naturally in conversation with another Doric speaker but presumably not with someone obviously unfamiliar with the dialect, but for many Scots it isn’t so clear-cut. Residents of Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland’s capital and biggest cities respectively, are so used to being around tourists we can sometimes forget ourselves and find sentences like I got into an awfie rammy wi’ ‘at nippy sweetie fi doonstairs” (“I got into an awful argument with that bad tempered woman who lives in the flat below mine”) spilling out to completely the complete bemusement of non-natives. That example is Glaswegian, but Edinburgh residents have the same problem, with requests such as Gies a deek o’ yir paper? (“Can I have a quick look at your newspaper”) or That radge is totally reekin’”(“That strange person seems to be very drunk.”) often being misunderstood.

Glaswegian is particularly well known for its speakers talking very fast and slurring their words together, as well as using colourful double negatives or contradictions such as Come oan, get aff! (literally, “Come on, get off” but really meaning “Please stop, get off me”) or “Gonnae no dae that!” (“Please don’t do that!”), which can add to the confusion but also makes the speech pattern instantly recognisable, and it is regarded fondly as the dialect heard in television shows such as Rab C. Nesbitt and Chewin’ the Fat.

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A region of Scotland which differs greatly from the rest in terms on speech is the Orkney and Shetland Isles. These lie off the extreme Northern coast, and Shetland is in fact closer to Norway than to most Scottish centres of population! As a result, the Scottish English spoken here has many words and grammatical structures which are remnants of Norn, the Scandinavian language originally spoken in this region, and can be difficult for even other Scots to understand. This excerpt is from a poem by Christine de Luca, a well-known Scottish poet who often writes in Shetlandic;


Santy cam in trowe da lambie-hoose door        Santa came in through the lamb shed door

whaar Magnus wis neebin his lane.                     Where Magnus was nodding off to sleep alone

‘A’m needin dy help, fur een o my deer                               ‘I’m needing your help, for one of my deer

is snappered an med himsel lame.’                       Has stumbled and made himself lame.’


I hope this short primer on the Scots language and common dialects has been useful. Of course no single blog post could possibly cover the breadth and depth of Scottish language – with a strong history of poetry and literature as well as a reputation for our sense of humour, language is a rich and vital part of the Scottish culture. We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your favourite Scottish words or sayings, but for now, goodbye and we’ll see ye efter!



9 Responses to Scottish Linguistics

  • Paul Huckett says:

    We spent June and July touring around Scotland with our friends .Our friend Doug who we travelled with grew up in Glasgow but went to University in Dundee. His family say he speaks “Dunwegian Doric” .He now lives in Australia so he sounds like a drunk Paul Hogan speaking Scottish !

  • Barb McLean says:

    I’m a Maclean of Duart, with Family in Cornwall as well. and though living in the US states I return to my Hame as often as 2 -5 yrs, so difficult bein this sid o the big pond when my heart is in the highlands wherere I go and I hold tight to the Scots tongue, tis all I ave to prove my scottish-cornish-celtic roots, tha an a few tattoos I return in 2015 counting months now…. Blessed Samhain….

  • Susan MacIntyre says:

    I think we were low landers……..Susan MacIntyre

  • thesp8 says:

    As a good small town TN boy I caught a lot of grief during my time in the Army due to my accent and manner of speaking. While stationed in Germany we took trips to Scotland. Prior to departing my CPT mentioned being unable to understand the Scots and that I was almost as hard to understand. On returning to Germany I was able to tell the CPT that I had no problem understanding the Scots or them understanding me.

  • Jan says:

    Having been to Scotland 11 times, I have friends in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the Aberdeen area. I’ m always confused! No really, I am very accustomed to all the accents, and love every minute of it, but when a Scot doesn’t’ want you to understand him- you don’t have a chance!

    • Renate Wolf says:

      you’re absolutely right. After travelling to Scotland for about 30 years and having friends in different parts too there are still moments when I think I’m in another country. If they don’t want to be understood you won’t undertand it! But this variety I think occurs in other languages too. If you go to Germany for example Bavaria and the Hamburg area – you also will think there are different languages.. :-) The dialect of the northern people reminds me of English and lots of words are very similar.

  • John Buchan says:

    Doric is great for discussing prices in a foreign shop with your spouse. One Chinese shopkeeper once asked us if we were RUSSIAN!

    • bcfnc says:

      When in Dundee we stayed with a friend who had run a pub in Meigle, near Dundee in the 70’s and 80’s. He and his friends were all great musicians and the pub had been a centre of local talent .They all sang in Doric. They still meet in pubs on the Perth Rd , either Mennies or the Tay Bridge , and after a few pints and drams , the singing starts …totally amazing .

  • We were Highlanders .

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