The languages of Scotland

Mar 28, 2010 by

When I ask my students what languages are spoken in Scotland, I usually get one of two answers: English or Scottish (or both). But in fact, it is not just two but three languages that are spoken in Scotland, and while one of them has “English” in its name, all three have some form of “Scottish” in the name. So the three languages of Scotland are: (Standard) Scottish English, Scots and Scottish Gaelic. In addition, there are many local dialects and accents, distinguished by whether the differences concern only pronunciation (accents) or other grammatical features as well (dialects).

So let’s start with Scottish English. As is the case everywhere in the English-speaking world, each region has its own dialect of English: American English, Canadian English, Australian English, South African English, Indian English (that’s English spoken in India and not by Native Americans), Singaporean English and so on. One thing to understand about these designations is that they too are not uniform entities but rather conglomerates of local dialects and accents, as well as an accepted “standard” used in education, the media, and in legal and administrative functions. For example, American English comprises a number of local dialects and accents, such as Southern American English, Midwestern American English, Bostonian English etc., as well as the Standard American English. Another thing to note here concerns the term “British English”: although it sounds as referring to the English language spoken everywhere in the British Isles, it should be more narrowly construed as referring to English in England and Wales since Ireland and Scotland have not only local dialects and accents but distinct standard dialects as well.

Standard Scottish English resulted from an interaction of the English spoken south of the Scotland-England border and Scots (more on which in tomorrow’s posting) starting in the late 17th century. Note also that the relevant form of English was northern dialects/accents, so Scottish English still shares many dialectal features with these dialects of Northern England. Lexical borrowings, hypercorrections and spelling pronunciations were all part of process by which Scottish English differentiated itself from other varieties of British English.

One clear distinction between Scottish English and “English” English (or SSBE = Standard Southern British English, or RP = Received Pronunciation, or BBC English) is in pronunciation. First of all, Scottish English is a rhotic dialect, meaning that /r/ is pronounced after a consonant or word-finally. Like most of American English speakers (except in parts of New England and elsewhere on the Atlantic coast) and unlike SSBE speakers, Scottish English speakers [park] their [car], not [pa:k] their [ca:]. Another characteristic feature of Scottish English pronunciation is the so-called cot-caught-merger: these two words are pronounced exactly the same (with a mid-low rounded vowel, a somewhat longer version of which is heard in the Standard American pronunciation of corn or north). A third characteristic feature of Scottish English pronunciation is the so-called pool-pull-merger: again, these words are pronounced exactly the same (with the vowel further front and shorter than in RP of pool). Finally, Scottish English pronunciation distinguishes the two versions of the w-sound, such as in the words which and witch (the former having a voiceless rather than voiced initial sound).

But Scottish English is not merely a local accent; that is, it differs from other forms of (British) English in grammatical ways as well. For example, it features such syntactic constructions as My house is needing painted or My house needs painted for ‘My house needs painting’ or ‘My house needs to be painted’. There are also lexical “scottishisms” like using outwith for ‘outside’ (see this picture).

In addition to Standard Scottish English, we can also find many local accents of English spoken in various parts of Scotland. One such local accent can be heard in the town of Buckie in Moray, about 50 miles east of Inverness. Here, ‘fish’ is pronounced like fash- in fashion, and ‘daughter’ is pronounced like dauthar, with the final –er pronounced almost as –ar in car, and the middle consonant – as -th in mouth. Many words pronounced the Buckie way would easily confuse an English speaker from elsewhere: for instance, ‘all’ sounds like ah, and ‘blood’ – like bleed.

Another interesting local accent is heard on the isle of Lewis in the Hebrides. As in Buckie, on Lewis word-final -er is pronounced more open than elsewhere, but the middle consonant in ‘daughter’ is not turned into a fricative th-sound (so ‘daughter’ is pronounced like dautar). Another characteristic feature of the local accent on Lewis is a non-diphthong pronunciation of mid-high vowels, similar to the pronunciation of these vowels in late 1600’s. As a result, words like ‘name’ and ‘bone’ are pronounced [ne:m] and [bo:n] rather than [nejm] and [bown].


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