Popular Scottish words and sayings are often reduced as mere dialects of English in Scotland today. However, the Scots language actually boasts a culture dating back to the early Middle Ages.
Similarly to Scottish Gaelic and Irish or Spanish and Portuguese, Scots is comparable to but different from English. Some famous Scots examples include the works of Robert Burns, Liz Lochhead and Walter Scott who all feature the language in their writing.
So, what is Scots, why is its status as a language debated, and how far back does its history go?
What is Scots?
The Scots Language Centre defines Scots as “one of three native languages spoken in Scotland today, the other two being English and Scottish Gaelic.
“Scots is the collective name for Scottish dialects known also as Doric, Lallans and Scotch or by more local names such as Buchan, Dundonian, Glesca or Shetland.”
How many people speak Scots in Scotland?
The 2011 Census in Scotland made history by being the first of its kind to record the number of Scots speakers. It revealed that one and a half million people spoke Scots (30% of the population) and roughly 2 million could speak and/or write, read and comprehend it. The same question featured in our 2022 census but we are still awaiting those results.
Is Scots a language?
The Scottish Government recognises Scots as an indigenous language and calls it an “important part of Scotland's culture and heritage, appearing in songs, poetry and literature, as well as daily use in our communities.” Its status as a language (and not a dialect) is further cemented by its recognition from the Council of Europe and UNESCO who registered it as a vulnerable language.
What separates Scots from English?
Both Scots and English are connected to the language of the Angles who came to Scotland roughly 1400 years ago. They evolved from ‘Old English’ throughout the middle ages but Scots developed into its own distinct tongue.
This occurred as the Norman French conquered England in a historical turning point that saw their language adapt new spellings, pronunciations and tenses separate to Scots. As written in Gaelic-Scots Wordbook by James S. Adam, Scots “is coeval with English but it has grown up differently. Many of the English borrowings from French came at second hand through the Norman Conquest.
"The Scots borrowings from French came directly, as did the borrowings from Norse and the wealth of Dutch words from our years of trading with the Low Countries.
"In short, Scots is not a dialect of English but a separate and sister language with just as long and just as proud a pedigree.”
By around 1500, despite the presence of other languages like Gaelic, Scots was the ‘lingua franca’ of the nation, records were kept in it and the King spoke it so it was seen as very important.
Can you see the difference? Scots example
If you’re a Scot or have lived in Scotland then you’ll have definitely encountered examples of the Scots language during your time here. Taken from a sign at a Waterstone bookshop in Aberdeen, here’s one example of Scots and how unintelligible it can be for a monolingual English speaker:
Scots: “Wi Scotland's biggest skite o bairns' beuks an a wheen o scots screivers haudin furth aboot aathing fae coorse vratches tae aulfarrant days and cuikin tae picters.”
English: “With Scotland’s biggest selection of children’s books and a good number of Scottish writers discoursing on everything from wicked wretches to days of old – and (from) cooking to pictures.”
The future of Scots in Scotland
Many languages of the British Isles have suffered institutional censorship and backlash and have withstood the test of time due to persistent campaigning by language activists striving to keep the culture alive. Unfortunately, Scots has suffered from the so-called ‘Scottish cringe’, with the language being seen as “vulgar” or somehow inferior to English due to stigma.
Last year, one of Scotland’s largest professional bodies, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS), advised members to avoid using Scots as it was seen as ‘non-inclusive’ to those from other UK regions and beyond. Their ‘inclusive language guide’ encouraged refraining from using “words used frequently in Scotland [that] might confuse someone raised elsewhere in the UK.”
Some have connected this to other historical moves that eroded Scottish languages like the 1872 Education Act that prohibited the use of Gaelic in schools.
Scots Learning Resources - Gie it a go yersel
As Scots language activists have said, “dinnae haud yer wheesht” (don’t hold your tongue). Local or not, the Scots language is open to anyone who is interested in learning it. To discover more about it you can start online with the Scots Language Centre.