Discover the Scots Language: Scotland’s official language that the English never wiped out

Dae ye ken Scots? It isnae slang! Scots is an official West Germanic language spoken in modern Scotland. Far from a mere dialect, it is recognised as a language by the Scottish and UK governments and by the Council of Europe.

Often poorly understood as an ‘English dialect’, the Scots language proudly boasts a culture dating back to the early Middle Ages.

More accurately, Scots differs to but is comparable with English, much like Portuguese with Spanish or Danish with Norwegian.

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Like most languages, Scots hosts many dialects including Glaswegian, Doric, Fife, Shetland, and more.

Scots is an official language that has existed in Scotland for roughly 1,400 years.

It also hosts exquisite art like many of Scotland’s finest traditional songs along with famous writers like Robert Burns, Liz Lochhead and Walter Scott who produced written works in the language.

How many people speak Scots in Scotland?

Scotland’s 2011 Census made history by being the first ever that was targeted to record the number of Scots speakers.

The results revealed that one and a half million residents spoke Scots, while almost 2 million stated they could speak and/or write, read, and understand it.

This same question was posed in Scotland’s 2022 census, of which we will not know the results until 2023.

Examples of Scots: Do you know these “braw” Scottish words?

If you’ve ever lived in Scotland then chances are you’ll have encountered Scots along the way.

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From “patter” (i.e., banter or ‘the chat’) to the ever-useful “wheesht” a.k.a. “shut up” in standard English, there is a Scots word for everyone. Here’s a few examples:

- Have you caught covid? If so, you might hear a Scots speaker say you’re looking “peelie-wally” (i.e., sickly, or pale in the face.)

- What did you think of Ukraine at Eurovision? You could say their performance was absolutely “braw” (i.e., excellent.)

- When using Scots around a formal English speaker, you may find they think you’re “havering.” A “haver” is when you babble foolishly, it also features in the song 500 Miles by The Proclaimers: “And when I haver, hey I know I’m gonna be I’m gonna be the man who’s havering to you.”

- Lastly, for a wee bit of fun/craic: “bahookie” i.e., your buttocks. In the colder months, you may find you slip on ice and land painfully on your “bahookie”. We’ve all been there.

The History of Scots: What separates it from English

Modern English and Scots both evolved from ‘Old English’ in the 1100s, before developing separately for centuries.

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This was due to the conquest of England by the Norman French in the mid-11th century. This historical turning point forever changed the English of England.

Norman French altered spellings, pronunciations, and tenses. However, they never crossed the Scottish border and formally invaded the country, so the Scots language never incorporated that influence.

By roughly 1500, Scots was the ‘lingua franca’ of the country. Although other languages remained, records were kept in Scots, the king spoke Scots, and so it was considered the most important language.

By 1707 when Scotland joined the United Kingdom, Scots was widely considered its own language, not a dialect.

The future of the Scots language in Scotland

While we can be certain of Scots’ past, its future is not entirely certain.

Other Scottish languages like Gaelic have endured despite centuries of institutional censorship and backlash, largely due to the campaigning and persistence of activists and scholars who wish to respect its culture and legacy.

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However, the Scots language being thought of as “vulgar” or somehow inferior to English are stigmas that pose a concern to its survival.

This year, one of Scotland’s largest professional bodies, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS), advised members to refrain from using Scots as it was considered non-inclusive to those from other parts of the UK and beyond.

This ‘inclusive language guide’ encourages the avoidance of “some words used frequently in Scotland [that] might confuse someone raised elsewhere in the UK.”

This has been thought reminiscent of Gaelic’s censorship via the 1872 Education Act, which prohibited its use in schools, leading to its institutional erosion.

Scots on Twitter quickly took to criticising the guide, noting that it threatens to undermine the Scots language which is a “vital communication skill.”

Scots Learning Resources: Gie it a go yersel

In the words of Scots language activists: “Dinnae haud yer wheesht” (Don’t hold your tongue)

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Local or not, Scots is for anyone who wants to use it – its arms are open wide to all communities.

If you are interested to learn more Scots you can discover more on the Scots Language website.