Scots dialects: unity in diversity


by Paul Kavanagh

When we hear Scots being spoken, or see examples of written Scots, we are immediately struck by the variation.  In every district where the language is spoken, there is a local accent and some words which are peculiar to the area.  To pick an obvious example, just about everyone knows that in the East of Scotland Scots speakers use the word bairn for child, whereas West of Scotland speakers invariably use the word wean.  Edinburgh folk use the word ken, but Glaswegians don’t.  Yet the variety of Scots is more apparent than real.

But first, I want to explain the difference between accent and dialect.  Many people confuse the two.  Accent refers to pronunciation.  Many Scots speak only Standard English, so do Australians, English people and many others.

We each pronounce Standard English differently, we have different accents, but the dialect we are speaking is identical.  We’re all speaking Standard English, which is the most prestigious dialect of English, but still just one single dialect.  We are all producing the same set of English sounds and making the same set of phonetic distinctions, but are realising the sounds somewhat differently.

Because we are all producing the same set of phonetic distinctions, even though we do so differently according to our own accents, everyone who speaks Standard English understands other accents of Standard English perfectly well.  We are subconsciously able to ‘map’ the sounds we hear in another accent onto the sounds we produce in our own accent.  With unfamiliar accents it can sometimes take a little while to ‘tune in’, but we’re able to do so without having to learn to understand another accent like we’d have to learn another language.

Dialect is a much broader term than accent.  Whereas accent refers only to pronunciation, dialect refers to differences in other aspects of language such as vocabulary choice, grammatical rules, and rules of word ordering or syntax.  

Scots has variety in both its accents and its dialects.  There is quite considerable accent variation within Scots, and it’s very striking to the ear.  One noticeable variation is in intonation patterns – the sing-songy ways in which we all speak.  These give different Scots accents their very individual ‘feel’.  Scots displays a lot of variation in intonation patterns.  According to the phoneticist and expert in the Scots language the late Prof. David Abercrombie, “in Scotland [intonation patterns are] almost certainly more varied than in England.” 1.

Another accent feature which is very striking is the ‘creaky voice’ of Glaswegian.  Glaswegians vibrate their vocal cords (often wrongly spelled ‘chords’ even by people who ought to know better) slightly more slowly than most other Scots speakers.  This creates the characteristic ‘growl’ of a Glasgow accent.  But this too is an accent feature, not a dialect feature.  The glottal stop of Glasgow and other varieties is also an accent feature, not a dialect feature.  

It’s always possible for a speaker of any Scots dialect to ‘tune in’ to different Scots accents, in the exact same way that a speaker of Standard English can tune in to different accents of Standard English.   The differences between what we perceive as different dialects of Scots are overwhelmingly differences in accent, not in dialect.  

The East Central Scots of the Lothians differs from the West Central Scots of Lanarkshire almost entirely in accent.  There are a few differences in vocabulary too, perhaps most famously wean vs bairn for child.  There are also differences caused by the effects of English.  For example the only reason the word ken ‘to know’ is not found in modern Glasgow is due to the greater influence in this area of varieties of Irish English and Highland Scottish Standard English.  Ken was still found in the Glasgow area until the early 20th century.   Despite these differences in a few vocabulary items, there are no differences in grammar or syntax between East Central Scots and West Central Scots.  The phonological system is also identical, although each area has its own accent.  Although the differences in accent are very noticeable and striking, essentially Lothian Scots and Glasgow Scots are the same dialect.  They are sub-varieties of a single Scots dialect, Central Scots.  

Accents of Scots are highly varied, however as real dialectal diversity goes, Scots is actually rather modest.  Traditionally Scots is divided into a number of dialects (see map).  Within each dialect area there are peculiarities of pronunciation or local words or expressions found in a restricted area within the larger dialect area.  Local accents, and especially local intonation patterns, can vary quite a lot within a single dialect.  But it’s still a single dialect.  In the same way Australian English makes use of certain words not found, or not common, in other varieties of Standard English, but Australian Standard English is just a variety of Standard English, a single dialect of English.

The local varieties of Scots fall into five main dialects.  There are local peculiarities within each dialect area, Shetland Scots is slightly different from Orkney Scots, which is slightly different from Caithness Scots, but all three are fundamentally different local varieties of a single Scots dialect, Northern Scots. 2. Its main characteristic is the preservation of the vowel ö of Older Scots, this is especially the case in Shetland.  In other Scots dialects this vowel has developed in different ways.  Also a feature of Northern Scots is the merger of hw (written wh) and kw as kw.  White is pronounced kwite in some Northern Scots varieties.  The most significant feature of this dialect is the high number of loanwords from Norn, these words tend to be words which refer to aspects of local culture, geography and traditional economies.  Caithness Scots differs from the other dialects in having more words from Gaelic and slightly fewer from Norn.  However the basic word stock of all these varieties is the same as in the rest of Scots.  

Heading south, the next dialect is North-Eastern Scots, or Doric.  The name Doric came into use during the 19th century, the earliest attestation in this sense in the Oxford English Dictionary dates only to 1870.  Originally Doric was the name of one of the dialects of Ancient Greek, but Doric was replaced by the Attic Greek of Athens during the Hellenistic Period.  Doric lingered on in the mouths of rustic peasants who were looked down upon by the sophisticated and cosmopolitan Athenians. 3. Scottish antiquarians and other middle class gentlemen who took an interest in the rural lifeways which were beginning to disappear as the Industrial Revolution took hold named the local ‘rustic dialect’ of the North East Doric, as opposed to the refined ‘classical language’, Standard English.  

North Eastern Scots is a relatively well preserved variety of Scots.  This has increased its apparent distinctiveness from other Scots dialects which have been more influenced by English and have lost more traditional Scots vocabulary.  The main characteristic of North Eastern Scots is the shift of original hw to f as in Fa fuppit the fite fulpie for Central Scots Wha whuppit the white whulpie – ‘Who whipped the white puppy’.  Also in this dialect the old vowel ö has often shifted to ee where other dialects have ö, i or ai.  So for example in North Eastern Scots people say dee ‘do’ for Central Scots dae and Shetland , and fleer ‘floor’ from older Scots flör.   

North Eastern Scots merges into Central Scots via a number of transitional varieties spoken in Angus which in turn merge into Dundonian, a variety of Northern East-Central Scots which in turn merges into the Central Scots of Fife and Stirlingshire.  These dialects basically show Central Scots features but with an increasing incidence of North Eastern Scots features towards Angus.      

Central Scots is the most important dialect in terms of number of speakers and geographical extent.  It is conservative in its retention of hw, usually spelled wh.  Like North Eastern Scots it has lost the vowel ö, but has treated it differently.  In Central Scots ö ends up as i in words like guid ‘good’ wuid ‘wood’, but as ai/ae in words like pair, flair ‘poor’, floor, dae ‘do’.

Central Scots has a number of sub-varieties.  Literary Scots is essentially based upon a variety of East Central Scots, the formerly prestigious variety of the Scottish Court.  West Central Scots, East Central Scots, Dundee Scots, Fife Scots and the Scots of Galloway are all varieties of Central Scots.  These varieties don’t differ greatly from one another, they all share the same grammar, syntax and basic vocabulary, although local accents can sound very distinctive and there are a number of local differences in the choice of certain vocabulary items.  However these differences do not impede communication.  Speakers of any Central Scots variety very quickly tune into the peculiarities of local pronunciation.  Those words in the local Scots which we don’t know from our own Scots we mostly learn from the context, they don’t have to be taught explicitly.

Spoken in the Borders, Southern Scots is very similar to Central Scots.  Its main characteristic is the treatment of final -oo.  In all other Scots dialects Old English ú in words like hús ‘house’ ‘cow’ ended up as the vowel spelled ‘oo’ or ‘ou’ in Scots giving Northern, Central and North Eastern Scots hoose, coo.  In Southern Scots at the ends of words this sound becomes -ow like it does just about everywhere in Standard English.  Speakers from the Borders traditionally say hoose like other Scots speakers, but cow as in Standard English.

Ulster Scots is the only variety of Scots spoken outside Scotland.  It is characterised by very strong influence from Irish English acting upon what is essentially a variety of West Central Scots.  It is not a different language from Scots, despite the claims of some.  

However, despite this apparent diversity, the ways in which Scots dialects differ from one another are really quite restricted.  All Scots dialects share variants of what is fundamentally the same phonological system.  Other ways in which different dialects of a language can vary hardly occur at all in Scots.  Syntactic variation, essentially differences in word ordering rules, is scarcely apparent.  All Scots dialects make use of more or less the same set of word ordering rules.  Morphological variation, differences in grammatical word endings, hardly occurs at all.  With only trivial differences, all Scots dialects have the same grammar.

A language with real dialectal diversity is Slovenian.  Although spoken by only 2 million people in an area much smaller than Scotland, Slovene linguists identify anything between 32 and 50 major dialects of Slovene.  There are also innumerable transitional varieties.  Slovene linguists classify the dialects into a number of ‘dialect bases’, coloured differently on the map. 4. These ‘dialect bases’ are themselves split into numerous local dialects.  The dialects of Slovene differ amongst themselves far more than Scots dialects differ from one another.  There is considerably less variety within the whole of Scots than there is within a single Slovene ‘dialect base’.  

Unlike Scots dialects, which all have essentially variations on a common vowel system, Slovene dialects have radically different vowel systems.  Some dialects have 13 vowels, others have only three, standard Slovenian is usually considered to have eight.  Some dialects make a difference in vowel length, other dialects don’t.  Some dialects have ‘tone’ which means that the musical pitch in which a word is pronounced makes a difference to the meaning, other dialects lack this.  The dialects often have different grammars too.  Some dialects have entire verb conjugation systems not found in other dialects.  Some dialects have five or more noun cases, others have only two or three.  The differences in vocabulary between dialects far surpasses anything found in Scots.  

The great dialectal diversity of Slovene is due to the history of Slovenia and the nature of the territory where it is spoken, the mountainous eastern end of the Alps.  Slovene speakers are in close contact with a number of different languages, Italian and Romance languages in the south west, German to the north, Hungarian to the east, and the closely related Croatian to the south.  In the past Slovene speakers were ruled by speakers of these other languages.  All have influenced neighbouring Slovene dialects.   

Speakers of a Slovene dialect can understand other dialects which share the same ‘dialect base’, or a neighbouring dialect, but often they are completely lost when confronted with a dialect from a different ‘dialect base’ from further afield.  Mutual comprehension is only possible using Standard Slovene.  Nothing like this occurs within Scots.

The differences between various Scots dialects are so slight that no Scots speaker needs to learn a different dialect of Scots like a foreign language in order to understand it.  After a short period of exposure to a different dialect of Scots, your ear tunes in.  You’ll certainly be aware of words not used in your own dialect, but for the most part the vocabulary of any Scots dialect will be familiar to you.  

In fact the dialects of Scots are so similar to one another, that unlike the Slovenes we don’t actually require a standard language at all.  All we need is a pan-Scots spelling system that highlights the many commonalities between our different dialects.  Then all Scots dialects would be mutually intelligible in writing without any great difficulty.

But we are never taught to view Scots dialects as varieties of a single language.  Quite the reverse, we are taught to view them as highly localised phenomena which have no relationship to anything else.  This manifests itself in various ways, I remember when I was a young child at school, talking excitedly in Scots with a group of my schoolfriends about a school-trip we were about to go on.  A teacher overheard us and remarked dismissively and contemptuously, “That’s pure Bailliestonian.”  But there is no such thing as ‘Bailliestonian’, the local dialect is a variety of West Central Scots, one of the major dialects of the Scots language.

We were not speaking a variety of one of the major dialects of the Scots language, a form of speaking that united us with other parts of Scotland.  Instead our manner of speaking was seen as quite literally parochial, something that divided us from the rest of the country.

The effects of our individualisation and parochialisation of Scots dialects are seen in more substantive ways too.  I have in my possession a fine dialect dictionary of Orkney Scots. 5. The wordlist it contains was obviously compiled by someone knowledgeable and passionate about his local dialect.  However nowhere in the book does it mention that Orkney Scots is a sub-dialect of Northern Insular Scots.  In fact the phrase ‘Orkney Scots’ doesn’t occur anywhere, the text refers only to Orkney dialect.  The Scots language isn’t mentioned at all.  Although in the prologue the author states that he’s most concerned to list Orkney words that survive from the Norn language, most of the entries in the dictionary are common and widespread Scots words found in most Scots dialects, like eek ‘to add’, ony ‘any’, snib ‘door catch’ etc.  The Scots language is invisible in a dictionary of a Scots dialect.

We must cherish and value the diversity of Scots, but as a nation we’ve lost sight of Scots as a single language.  We see only localism and parochialism.  We don’t see our own Scots as something to connect us with the wider world, or even to other Scots, only as something to connect us to our own local district.  We’ve lost the bigger picture, and by so doing we risk losing all the precious local varieties of the single Scots language.



1. The accents of Standard English in Scotland. D. Abercrombie, 1979. In Languages of Scotland, AJ Aitken & T McArthur (eds.), Edinburgh, Chambers. pp. 68-84

2. However the Scottish National Dictionary classifies this dialect as a sub-variety of North Eastern Scots.  The map illustrating this article is largely based upon information from this dictionary.

3. It still survives, just.  The Tsakonian language of a small district in the Peleponese is directly descended from a Doric dialect of Greek.  It is the only surviving variety of Greek which does not descend from Attic Greek.  The highly endangered Greek dialects of Southern Italy, spoken by around 20,000 people in Calabria and Apulia, retain considerable influence from a Doric variety of ancient Greek.

4. Slovene dialect map based upon Fran Ramovš, Karta slovenskih narečij v priročni izdaji, Cankarjeva založba, Ljubljana, 1957.

5. Orkney Wordbook, a dictionary of the dialect of Orkney by Gregor Lamb, Byrgisey Press, Orkney 1987.