Scotland’s language myths: 1. Scots is a dialect of English


Following on from our ‘History of Scottish languages’ series by Paul Kavanagh, Newsnet Scotland is happy to present a new series on Scottish languages myths written by the same author.  As Paul remarked in the introduction to the language history series, there is a knowledge vacuum in Scotland regarding our linguistic heritage and our languages.  Into a knowledge vacuum rush myths, stereotypes and misinformation.

Yet Scotland’s languages are central to its culture.  Over a long period of time Scotland’s languages have been relegated in importance and that has had a profound influence over Scottish self-confidence and the way Scots see themselves as a people.  This process has been driven by the spread of myths and misinformation about Scotland’s languages, caused by the ignorance which is itself a product of a lack of education on the subject.  It is the intention of Newsnet Scotland to raise awareness of this matter through this series and beyond.  Each article on the series will be published on Sundays and will tackle one myth in particular.  Today we start the series with one of the most common and widespread myths, the myth that Scots is not actually a language at all.

To read our 10 part series on the ‘History of Scotland Languages’ click: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Myth 1. Scots isn’t a language, it’s just a dialect of English

by Paul Kavanagh

Scots is not a single dialect.  The Doric of the North East and the traditional speech of the Glaswegian working classes are rather different from one another, yet all Scots dialects share a fundamental unity of linguistic features which are absent from any other “English dialect”.1. Scots is a collection of dialects which are clearly most closely related to one another, and together they form a distinct group which is sharply differentiated from anything else that can be called English.

So whatever Scots is, it is not a dialect.  However this still leaves the question – does the group of dialects called Scots count as a group of English dialects?  This question does not have a simple yes or no answer.

There’s a linguistic rule of thumb for determining whether two speech varieties should be considered as dialects of a single language or as different languages.  If speech varieties are mutually intelligible then they are dialects of a common language, whereas speech varieties which are not mutually intelligible represent different languages.  By ‘mutually intelligible’ linguists mean that speakers of the speech varieties in question can communicate with one another freely and immediately upon their first encounter, without a speaker of one variety having to learn the other.

In Scotland this apparently simple test is not so simple in to put into practice.  All Scots speakers understand Standard English.  Scots speakers acquire a knowledge of Standard English at school or from the media and are deluged in English from a very young age.  All modern Scots understand English with native competence.  This means linguists cannot test Scots speakers to discover how much English they understand natively, because all Scots speakers have already learned English.

It is however possible to test the reverse, and here linguists discover that people who speak only Standard English find traditional Scots quite opaque.  The intelligibility test can only be applied to English speakers who are not Scottish and who have no prior experience of listening to Scots.  Standard English speaking Scottish people usually understand traditional Scots to some degree, but this is because of passive exposure to Scots and so again is due to language learning.  (Although the vocabulary of traditional Scots often presents considerable problems for modern Scottish English speakers.)  By this simple test, traditional Scots, which is nowadays confined to rural districts and largely to elderly speakers, is not mutually intelligible with Standard English and so Scots counts as a distinct language in its own right.

There’s another simple objective linguistic test.  Dialect variation is normal in all languages.  Dialects of a single language typically merge imperceptibly into neighbouring dialects.  Within the parts of Britain where nowadays people speak a language descended from Old English, it is possible to travel from Cornwall to Northumbria without crossing any sharp linguistic frontiers, the speech of one locality is only slightly different from that of its neighbours and the local dialects change very gradually across the country.  However upon reaching the Scottish-English border something unprecedented happens, the political border coincides with an abrupt linguistic frontier.  Nothing like this occurs anywhere else in the English speaking world.

No other English dialect or dialect group is so sharply and clearly distinguished from its neighbours. Even if Scots were to be considered a set of English dialects, it’s not just any old set of dialects, it’s quite unique.

The sum total of the linguistic changes which take place along the Scottish-English border is substantial, and the changes involve all aspects of a linguistic system – vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar and syntax (or word ordering rules).  The changes are so significant and so numerous that Scots dialects can be linguistically differentiated from English dialects more easily and accurately than Dutch dialects can be linguistically differentiated from German dialects.  The linguistic changes which occur at the Scottish-English border leave descriptive linguists in no doubt that here they are dealing with something other than normal dialect variation.  The Scottish-English political border is also a significant linguistic frontier.  It can only be called a language border.

By linguistic criteria there is no doubt that traditional Scots is a different language from English, however the distinction between dialect and language owes more to culture and politics than it does to linguistic factors, according to a famous saying “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”.  There are many examples of mutually intelligible speech varieties being regarded as different languages, and there are many examples of the opposite phenomenon – speech varieties which are not remotely mutually intelligible being considered as dialects of a single language.  In answering the question “language or dialect?”, politics and culture trump linguistics every time.  A couple of examples may help to illustrate the point.

Urdu and Hindi are universally regarded as different languages.  Urdu is written in an alphabet derived from Arabic via Persian, Hindi is written in the Devanagari script which is indigenous to northern India, so the two look very different on the page.  Hindi speakers have no hope of reading Urdu, or vice versa, but this is purely because the two use different alphabets.  Despite the different alphabets the spoken languages are perfectly mutually intelligible on the colloquial level, and speakers of Urdu and Hindi can communicate with one another without any difficulties and without any need to learn the other’s tongue.  In fact it’s even possible to conduct a fairly lengthy conversation without being certain whether the parties are speaking Hindi or Urdu.  Problems only arise in the formal language, because Hindi takes its formal and literary vocabulary from Sanskrit, whereas Urdu makes use of loanwords from Arabic or Persian.  Hindi and Urdu owe their status as different languages to the fact that each has an independent literary tradition – a cultural not a linguistic factor.  Each is the official language of a state, Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, Hindi the main official language of India, these political factors reinforce the perception that Hindi and Urdu are “different languages”.

In China the opposite happens.  The different dialects of Chinese are different languages from a linguistic point of view.  Cantonese and Mandarin are no more mutually intelligible than English and German yet because their speakers share the same written language and a common Chinese culture and identity, they are regarded as different dialects of a single Chinese language.

In some parts of southern China the Classical Chinese written language and Chinese culture were adopted by indigenous groups who then came to regard themselves as Chinese and who became accepted as Chinese by their Chinese neighbours.  Structurally the indigenous languages happen to resemble Chinese, being tonal languages with a so called isolating structure like Chinese. 2. Speakers of these languages, most of which have names unfamiliar to Westerners, borrowed thousands of Chinese loanwords so much of their vocabulary came to be familiar to Chinese speakers.  After a few generations the speakers of some of these languages ‘forgot’ that they were separate languages and came to believe them to be Chinese dialects.

This happened amongst sections of the Zhuang people of southern China.  The Zhuang live in a region where due to internal migrations there are speakers of various mutually unintelligible Chinese dialects living in close proximity to one another.  Since many of the local Chinese people speak dialects other Chinese people cannot understand, it’s not too difficult to comprehend why the Zhuang language – spoken by a group which had become Chinese in culture – should also have been regarded as a ‘type of Chinese’.  When the Chinese government embarked upon its mass literacy campaigns after the Communist revolution, they conducted the first linguistic surveys of the country.  Many Zhuang clans were shocked to discover that their language, which both they and their Chinese neighbours believed to be a regional dialect of Chinese, was actually a different language related to Thai and not genetically related to Chinese at all.

The examples of Urdu/Hindi and Zhuang show that cultural, social and political factors can be so strong that they lead people to classify different literary styles of a single language as “different languages” and to classify unrelated languages as “dialects of a single language”.

So what does this tell us about Scots?  During the 16th century when Scotland was an independent state there was no doubt about the status of Scots as a language.  As well as being linguistically differentiated from its English relative, Scots enjoyed the same political and cultural development as other emerging European state languages.  Scots was thi Kingis Scottis in exactly the same way as English was the King’s English or French was la Langue du Roi.  Scots was the language of the Scottish royal court, of government, administration and law.  A literature based upon the usage of the royal court in Edinburgh was well established and this literature did not look solely to English literary traditions for inspiration, it was a truly European literature.  The use of Latin was beginning to decline in this historical period, and across Europe vernacular languages were starting to be used in fields which had formerly been the sole preserve of Latin – like law and legal reports, self-consciously ‘artistic’ literature, and prose texts like histories, medical tracts and scientific writing.  Scots was used in all these areas as naturally as Dutch was being used for the same purposes in the Netherlands or English in England.  Like these other languages, 16th century Scots was beginning to establish its own standard spelling system (an orthography) whose rules and norms differed significantly from those of English.

Had Scotland remained an independent nation, there is little doubt that the Scots language would have continued on this path of development and would today be universally recognised as a standard European language on a par with English, French or Danish.  It would be seen as about as different from English as Portuguese is from Spanish.

But history intervened.  In other parts of Europe the Reformation was a massive boost to the standardisation of vernacular languages as one of the tenets of the reform movement was that everyone should be able to read scripture in their own language.  However in Scotland the Reformation was very closely followed by the Union of the Scottish and English crowns under a monarch with strongly absolutist and centralising tendencies.  A single English language bible was prescribed for all.  (The Welsh had already received their own Authorised Version of the bible under Queen Elizabeth I of England.)

Probably more than any other single factor, the political decision to adopt an English language bible fatally undermined the Scots literary language.  The exclusive use of English in church services in that religiously obsessed age created an association in the minds of Scots speakers between the English language and formal and dignified speech.  Since the bible was the only written text many people ever read, it also created a strong association in the minds of Scots speakers between the English language and writing.  Increasingly the use of Scots was relegated to the domestic and the familiar.

Until 1707 Scottish national institutions still made regular use of written Scots, however due to the immense prestige of the English language bible and the large number of English texts which came from the printing presses of England, English spelling habits, vocabulary and constructions began to permeate the language.  The Scots written language was falling into decay.  During this period distinctively Scots letter combinations fell into disuse, for example the spelling quh disappeared.  This sequence of letters represented a sound pronounced variously “wh”, “f” or “chw” in different parts of Scotland.  With its loss the only option open to Scots writers was to use English spelling, fracturing the written unity of Scots.  So for example the word written quhit ‘what’ in old literary Scots and pronounced whit in the West but fit in the North East could now only be written as whit or fit.  Written Scots was becoming dialectalised and divided.

After 1707 the Scots language suffered another body-blow, although the written language was increasingly anglicised, the Scots spoken language had remained relatively unaffected and Scots was still the everyday spoken language of all classes of Scottish society.  After 1707 the Scottish upper and middle classes abandoned spoken Scots and adopted spoken English with gusto. English, and not Scots, was the only appropriate language for an educated North Briton.

With the loss of the old Scots formal literary language came the loss of the spoken variant of that literary language.  By the late 18th century the usual written language corresponding to spoken Scots was Standard English, and increasingly the Standard English spoken language was regarded as the only proper form of speaking on formal or dignified occasions.  Written and spoken English were now the formal and literary styles which corresponded to colloquial Scots, and so gradually Scottish people began to perceive Scots as a type of English.

This did not occur in Catalonia.  Here the middle classes, especially the middle classes of Barcelona, remained faithful to their traditional spoken language even though the use of written Catalan was eclipsed in the 18th century by written Spanish.  Like Scots the written Catalan of this period was composed in a spelling system based upon the orthography of its linguistic rival and close relative.  Spanish words, expressions and constructions began to appear in Catalan texts.  Catalan could easily have sunk to the level of a mere ‘dialect of Spanish’.  However the crucial difference between Scotland and Catalonia was that Catalonia, despite its political subjugation to Madrid, remained the most developed and prosperous part of the country.  Spanish became associated with backward ideas and social conservativism as during the 19th century the Barcelona middle classes fostered the development of a restored Catalan literary language as a symbol of their social progression and political liberalism.  Catalan regained its status as a language.  In Scotland the opposite occurred, our middle and upper classes believed Scotland to be backward and looked to London for their model of social progress.

This situation has continued to the present day.  Modern Scottish people became like the Zhuang, we forgot our language’s past and came to consider it as a dialect of some other language.  Throughout the modern period the use of English has continued to expand in Scotland with English taking over more and more of the uses which were previously the sole preserve of Scots.  The advent of mass literacy and the mass media have greatly strengthened the position of English vis a vis Scots.  Spoken varieties of Scots have become deluged with English words, expressions and pronunciations to the point where modern urban varieties of Scots could legitimately be considered as English dialects from a linguistic perspective.  These highly anglicised varieties are the only type of Scots which many Scottish people encounter nowadays, reinforcing the perception that Scots is nothing more than an English dialect.

So is Scots a language or a dialect of English?  Other English dialects have never been anything else, they have never been used as literary languages with their own spelling traditions and range of spoken and written styles.  Scots is what French linguists term a langue manquée ‘a frustrated language’, it is a language which due to historical, political and cultural factors has come to function as a dialect of English.

No English dialect has the history or resources of Scots.  No English dialect is linguistically differentiated from other English dialects in the way Scots is differentiated from English.  It would be perfectly possible to revive a standardised literary variety of Scots which is distinct from English both in its linguistic “raw material” and in its standard norms.   It is also perfectly possible to revive a system of Scots spelling which provides all spoken dialects of Scots with a single orthography which highlights the commonalities between the dialects and promotes the perception of them as local expressions of a single Scots language.  Nothing new or artificial need be created, because Scots either already possesses all these properties or it once did.

What Scots once was, it could be again.  It’s up to the speakers of Scots to decide.  If you want Scots to be a language, start treating it as though it was.

1. For details of the linguistic features which define Scots, and an explanation of the different dialects of Scots see: and click on “History of Scots to 1700”. Some of the explanation is rather technical.

2. An isolating language is one in which grammatical relationships are signalled by word order and by independent words and particles.  The kind of structure a language has is no guide to its genetic affiliations.  English has strong isolating tendencies, but its close relative German has a more synthetic structure.  A synthetic language is, to simplify somewhat, one in which grammatical relationships are signalled by special suffixes or prefixes.