Dundee Dialect is ‘as good as second language’, say researchers

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To those from outside Dundee, the bakery order “twa pehs, a plehn bridie an’ an inyin in an’ a” (Two pies, a plain bridie and an onion one as well) might be mistaken for a foreign language.

Now, international research shows that the human brain treats the distinctive Dundonian brogue -- and regional dialects in Britain and abroad -- in exactly the same way as a second language.

The study took place at Abertay University in Dundee. Picture: TSPL/Ian Rutherford

The study took place at Abertay University in Dundee. Picture: TSPL/Ian Rutherford

The study at Abertay University in Dundee, and by researchers in Germany, suggests that while people from the city who converse in dialect may not be regarded generally as bilingual, cognitively there is little difference.

Researchers in Dundee studied how quickly the brain can react when asked to switch between standard English and the Dundonian dialect.

READ MORE: Quiz: Do you know these 25 Scottish words and phrases?

Participants were given a list of English and Dundonian words which then appeared on a colour-coded screen in randomised order.

Depending on the colour, they were asked to say that word in either English or Dundonian, such as “house” if the image was green or the Dundonian “hoose” if it was blue.

READ MORE: A guide to the dialects and words of Scotland’s regions

Other words in the survey included girl/lassie, armpit/oxter, heart/hert, sausages/sassages, ears/lugs, and children/bairns.

Researchers measured the length of time it took between the image appearing on screen to the participant saying each word, thereby calculating how long each person took to switch between dialects.

The study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, found a “switch cost” where it took participants longer to name pictures when they were asked to move from speaking one variety to another.

It was also discovered that this “switch cost” remained the same for people comfortable with both English and Dundonian, regardless of which direction the switch went.

However, for those with one language stronger than the other - in this case English participants with little or no previous experience of Dundonian - the time was greater when reverting back to speaking English.

The same results emerged when the experiment was carried out at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, with people who use standard German and the regional Öcher Platt dialect.

Project leader Dr Neil Kirk of Abertay’s Division of Psychology, said today: “One explanation for this is that both varieties are always active, but in order to speak one of them, you need to suppress or inhibit the other variety.

“More cognitive effort is required to suppress a stronger variety and this creates a delay in being able to activate it again.”

When compared with previous language research, the results of the study showed bidialectals displayed the same “switch cost” pattern as bilinguals who have two equally strong languages.

They suggest that different dialects are stored in the brain in similar ways as different languages.

Dundonian Dr Kirk, who conducted the research as part of his PhD, said: “In most other studies our bidialectal participants would simply be considered ‘monolingual’, as language background questionnaires typically do not enquire about dialect usage.

“Yet the results of our study show that some monolinguals and bilinguals are cognitively not that different.”

He added: “If you have two languages stored and you want to speak one you have to stop the other from interfering. We found the same is true for those who speak Dundonian dialect.

“Dialects can be subject to prejudices and regarded as low status, but when switching, the brain uses the same mechanisms that bilinguals use for what we would typically think of as separate languages.”