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Scots refers to the indigenous language of lowland Scotland and parts of the north of Ireland where it is also known as Ulster Scots. Since there are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, scholars and other interested parties often disagree about the linguistic, historical and social status of Scots. Although a number of paradigms for distinguishing between languages and dialects do exist these often render contradictory results Consequently Scots has, on the one hand, been traditionally regarded as one of the ancient dialects of English but with its own ancient and distinct dialects. Scots has often been treated as part of English as spoken in Scotland but differs significantly from the Standard Scottish English taught in schools. On the other hand, it has been regarded as a distinct Germanic language the way Swedish is distinct from Danish. Its subordination to Anglo-English has also been compared to the subordination of Frisian to Dutch in the Netherlands.Thus Scots can be interpreted as a collective term for the dialects of English spoken or originating in Scotland, or it can be interpreted as the autochthonous language of Lowland Scotland.[1] The British Government has accepted the second interpretation:

"The UK Government announced on 4 June 1998 its decision to sign the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This came into effect as of the 1 July 2001. The Scots language will be covered by Part II of the Charter. By applying Part II of the Charter to Scots the Government will be recognising the distinctive nature and cultural value of the language." [2]

Spelling and Pronuciation

An apostrophe has been used in the past where it supposedly represented a "missing" English letter. Such letters were never actually missing in Scots. Contemporary writers now generally avoid such apostrophes.


Most consonants are usually pronounced much as in English but:

  • c: /k/ or /s/, much as in English.
  • ch: /x/, also gh. Medial 'cht' may be /ð/ in Northern dialects. loch (fjord or lake), nicht (night), dochter (daughter), dreich (dreary), etc. Similar to the German "Nacht".
  • ch: word initial or where it follows 'r' /tʃ/. airch (arch), mairch (march), etc.
  • gn: /n/. In Northern dialects /gn/ may occur.
  • kn: /n/. In Northern dialects /kn/ or /tn/ may occur. knap (talk), knee, knowe (knoll), etc.
  • ng: is always /ŋ/.
  • nch: usually /nʃ/. brainch (branch), dunch (push), etc.
  • r: /r/ is pronounced in all positions, i.e. rhotically.
  • s or se: /s/ or /z/.
  • t: may be a glottal stop between vowels or word final. In Ulster dentalised pronunciations may also occur, also for 'd'.
  • th: /ð/ or /θ/ much as is English. Initial 'th' in thing, think and thank, etc. may be /h/.
  • wh: usually /ʍ/, older /xʍ/. Northern dialects also have /f/.
  • wr: /wr/ more often /r/ but may be /vr/ in Northern dialects. wrack (wreck), wrang (wrong), write, wrocht (worked), etc.
  • z: /jɪ/ or /ŋ/, may occur in some words as a substitute for the older <3> (yogh). For example: brulzie (broil), gaberlunzie (a beggar) and the names Menzies, Finzean, Culzean, MacKenzie etc.

Silent letters

  • The word final 'd' in nd and ld: but often pronounced in derived forms. Sometimes simply 'n' and 'l' or 'n'' and 'l''. auld (old), haund (hand), etc.
  • 't' in medial cht: ('ch' = /x/) and st and before final en. fochten (fought), thristle (thistle) also 't' in aften (often), etc.
  • 't' in word final ct and pt but often pronounced in derived forms. respect, accept, etc.


In Scots, vowel length is usually conditioned by the Scottish vowel length rule. Words which differ only slightly in pronunciation from Scottish English are generally spelled as in English. Other words may be spelt the same but differ in pronunciation, for example: aunt, swap, want and wash with /a/, bull, full v. and pull with /ʌ/, bind, find and wind v., etc. with /ɪ/.

  • The unstressed vowel /ə/ may be represented by any vowel letter.
  • a: usually /a/ but in south west and Ulster dialects often /ɑ/. Note final a in awa (away), twa (two) and wha (who) may also be /ɑ/ or /ɔ/ or /e/ depending on dialect.
  • au, aw and sometimes a, a' or aa: /ɑ:/ or /ɔ:/ in Southern, Central and Ulster dialects but /a:/ in Northern dialects. The cluster 'auld' may also be /ʌul/ in Ulster. aw (all), cauld (cold), braw (handsome), faw (fall), snaw (snow), etc.
  • ae, ai, a(consonant)e: /e/. Often /ɛ/ before /r/. In Northern dialects the vowel in the cluster -'ane' is often /i/. brae (slope), saip (soap), hale (whole), ane (one), ance (once), bane (bone), etc.
  • ea, ei, ie: /i:/ or /e:/ depending on dialect. /ɛ/ may occur before /r/. Root final this may be /əi/ in Southern dialects. In the far north /əi/ may occur. deid (dead), heid (head), meat (food), clear, speir (enquire), sea, etc.
  • ee, e(Consonant)e: /i:/. Root final this may be /əi/ in Southern dialects. ee (eye), een (eyes), steek (shut), here, etc.
  • e: /ɛ/. bed, het (heated), yett (gate), etc.
  • eu: /(j)u/ or /(j)ʌ/ depending on dialect. Sometimes erroneously 'oo', 'u(consonant)e', 'u' or 'ui'. beuk (book), ceuk (cook), eneuch (enough), leuk (look), teuk (took), etc.
  • ew: /ju/. In Northern dialects a root final 'ew' may be /jʌu/. few, new, etc.
  • i: /ɪ/, but often varies between /ɪ/ and /ʌ/ especially after 'w' and 'wh'. /æ/ also occurs in Ulster before voiceless consonants. big, fit (foot), wid (wood), etc.
  • i(consonant)e, y(consonant)e, ey: /əi/ or /aɪ/. 'ay' is usually /e/ but /əi/ in ay (yes) and aye (always). In Dundee it is noticeably /ɛ/.
  • o: /ɔ/ but often /o/.
  • oa: /o/.
  • ow, owe (root final), seldom ou: /ʌu/. Before 'k' vocalisation to /o/ may occur especially in western and Ulster dialects. bowk (retch), bowe (bow), howe (hollow), knowe (knoll), cowp (overturn), yowe (ewe), etc.
  • ou, oo, u(consonant)e: /u/. Root final /ʌu/ may occur in Southern dialects. cou (cow), broun (brown), hoose (house), moose (mouse) etc.
  • u: /ʌ/. but, cut, etc.
  • ui, also u(consonant)e, oo: /ø/ in conservative dialects. In parts of Fife, Dundee and north Antrim /e/. In Northern dialects usually /i/ but /wi/ after /g/ and /k/ and also /u/ before /r/ in some areas eg. fuird (ford). Mid Down and Donegal dialects have /i/. In central and north Down dialects /ɪ/ when short and /e/ when long. buird (board), buit (boot), cuit (ankle), fluir (floor), guid (good), schuil (school), etc. In central dialects uise v. and uiss n. (use) are [je:z] and [jɪs].


  • Negative na: /na/, /nɪ/ or /ne/ depending on dialect. Also 'nae' or 'y' eg. canna (can't), dinna (don't) and maunna (mustn't).
  • fu (ful): /fu/, /fɪ/, /fɑ/ or /fe/ depending on dialect. Also 'fu'', 'fie', 'fy', 'fae' and 'fa'.
  • The word ending ae: /ɑ/, /ɪ/ or /e/ depending on dialect. Also 'a', 'ow' or 'y', for example: arrae (arrow), barrae (barrow) and windae (window), etc.


The definite article

The is used before the names of seasons, days of the week, many nouns, diseases, trades, occupations, sciences and academic subjects. It is also often used in place of the indefinite article and instead of a possessive pronoun: the hairst (autumn), the Wadensday (Wednesday), awa til the kirk (off to church), the nou (at the moment), the day (today), the haingles (influenza), the Laitin (Latin), The deuk ett the bit breid (The duck ate a piece of bread), the wife (my wife) etc.


Nouns usually form their plural in -(e)s but some irregular plurals occur: ee/een (eye/eyes), cauf/caur (calf/calves), horse/horse (horse/horses), cou/kye (cow/cows), shae/shuin (shoe/shoes). Nouns of measure and quantity unchanged in the plural: fower fit (four feet), twa mile (two miles), five pund (five pounds), three hunderwecht (three hundredweight). Regular plurals include laifs (loaves), leafs (leaves), shelfs (shelves) and wifes (wives), etc.


Diminutives in -ie, burnie small burn (brook), feardie/feartie (frightened person, coward), gamie (gamekeeper), kiltie (kilted soldier), postie (postman), wifie (woman), rhodie (rhododendron), and also in -ock, bittock (little bit), playock (toy, plaything), sourock (sorrel) and Northern –ag, bairnag (little) bairn (child), Cheordag (Geordie), -ockie, hooseockie (small house), wifeockie (little woman), both influenced by the Scottish Gaelic diminutive -ag (-óg in Irish Gaelic).

Modal verbs

The modal verbs mey (may), ocht tae (ought to), and sall (Shall) are no longer used much in Scots but occurred historically and are still found in anglicised literary Scots. Can, shoud (should), and will are the preferred Scots forms. Scots employs double modal constructions He'll no can come the day (He won't be able to come today), A micht coud come the morn (I may be able to come tomorrow), A uised tae coud dae it, but no nou (I could do it once, but not now).

Present tense of verbs

The present tense of verbs adhere to the Northern subject rule whereby verbs end in -s in all persons and numbers except when a single personal pronoun is next to the verb, Thay say he's ower wee, Thaim that says he's ower wee, Thir lassies says he's ower wee (They say he's too small), etc. Thay're comin an aw but Five o thaim's comin, The lassies? Thay've went but Ma brakes haes went. Thaim that comes first is serred first (Those who come first are served first). The trees growes green in the simmer (The trees grow green in summer).

Wis 'was' may replace war 'were', but not conversely: You war/wis thare.

Past tense of verbs

The regular past form of the verb is -(i)t or -(e)d, according to the preceding consonant or vowel hurtit, skelpit (smacked), Mendit, kent/kenned (knew/known), cleant/cleaned, scrieved (scribbled), telt/tauld (told), dee'd (died). Some verbs have distinctive forms: greet/grat/grutten (weep/wept), fesh/fuish/fuishen (fetch/fetched), lauch/leuch/lauchen~leuchen (laugh/laughed), thrash/thruish/thrashen~thruishen (thresh/threshed), wash/wuish/washen~wuishen (wash/washed), gae/gaed/gane (go/went/gone), gie/gied/gien (give/gave/given), pit/pat/pitten (put/put/put/), git/gat/gotten (get/got/got(ten)), ride/rade/ridden (ride/rode/ridden), drive/drave/driven~dreen (drive/drove/driven), write/wrat(e)/written (write/wrote/written), bind/band/bund (bind/bound/bound), find/fand/fund (find/found/found), fecht/focht/fochten (fight/fought), bake/bakit~beuk/baken (bake/baked), tak(e)/teuk/taen (take/took/taken), chuise/chuist/chuisen (choose/chose/chosen).

Word order

Scots prefers the word order He turnt oot the licht to 'He turned the light out' and Gie me it to 'Give it to me'.

Certain verbs are often used progressively He wis thinkin he wad tell her, He wis wantin tae tell her.

Verbs of motion may be dropped before an adverb or adverbial phrase of motion A'm awa tae ma bed, That's me awa hame, A'll intae the hoose an see him.

Ordinal numbers

Ordinal numbers ending in -t seicont, fowert, fift, saxt— (second, fourth, fifth, sixth) etc. first, Thrid/third— (first, third).


Adverbs are usually of the same form as the verb root or adjective especially after verbs. Haein a real guid day (Having a really good day). She's awfu fauchelt (She's awfully tired).

Adverbs are also formed with -s, -lies, lins, gate(s)and wey(s) -wey, whiles (at times), mebbes (perhaps), brawlies (splendidly), geylies (pretty well), aiblins (perhaps), airselins (backwards), hauflins (partly), hidlins (secretly), maistlins (almost), awgates (always, everywhere), ilkagate (everywhere), onygate (anyhow), ilkawey (everywhere), onywey(s) (anyhow, anywhere), endweys (straight ahead), whit wey (how, why).

Subordinate clauses

Verbless subordinate clauses introduced by an and expressing surprise or indignation She haed tae walk the hale lenth o the road an her sieven month pregnant, He telt me tae rin an me wi ma sair leg (and me with my sore leg).


Negation occurs by using the adverb no, in the North East nae, as in A'm no comin (I'm not coming), A'll no learn ye (I will not teach you), or by using the suffix -na (pronunciation depending on dialect), as in A dinna ken (I don't know), Thay canna come (They can't come), We coudna hae telt him (We couldn't have told him), and A hivna seen her (I haven't seen her). The usage with no is preferred to that with -na with contractable auxiliary verbs like -ll for will, or in yes no questions with any auxiliary He'll no come and Did he no come?

Relative pronoun

The relative pronoun is that ('at is an alternative form borrowed from Norse but can also be arrived at by contraction) for all persons and numbers, but may be left out Thare's no mony fowk (that) leeves in that glen (There aren't many people who live in that glen). The anglicised forms wha, wham, whase 'who, whom, whose', and the older whilk 'which' are literary affectations; whilk is only used after a statement He said he'd tint it, whilk wis no whit we wantit tae hear. The possessive is formed by adding 's or by using an appropriate pronoun The wifie that's hoose gat burnt, the wumman that her dochter gat mairit; the men that thair boat wis tint.

A third adjective/adverb yon/yonder, thon/thonder indicating something at some distance D'ye see yon/thon hoose ower yonder/thonder? Also thae (those) and thir (these), the plurals of this and that.

In Northern Scots this and that are also used where "these" and "those" would be in Standard English.

Web Links


  1. A.J. Aitken in The Oxford Companion to the English Language p.894
  3. As liberally biased as the English version [1]