Our Scottish Accent - now listen up!
Of course you'll understand a Scottish accent when you're here, because we're a friendly lot. So dinna fash yersel.
We often are asked ‘Will we understand a Scottish accent when we visit?’ To which we reply ‘Ach, dinna be feel, ye ill-trickit gype.’ Only kidding. No, really. Basically, of course you’ll be understood - at least in the kind of upmarket places you’ll be frequenting (won’t you?)
It is often said that Scotland has three languages: English, Scots and Gaelic. The English and the Scots really represent a kind of continuum: from ‘English English’ to English with a Scots accent then towards denser forms of Scots with their own kinds of sentence construction and phrasing, as well as vocabulary.
Many Scots – and definitely including me – consciously or otherwise, change the ‘density’ depending on who they are speaking to. (I am from North-East Scotland, usually taken to be the heartlands of Scots, taking a form often called Doric. See below.) What I mean here is that I could have a conversation with a like-minded Aberdonian (never mind a Brocher) - and even folk from other parts of Scotland would struggle to get it all. It’s a party trick of which I am very proud. Actually, it's a whole lot more than a party trick. It's just another way of reminding us that some of us feel different - our language/vocabulary/accent helps define us.
But stop me in the centre of Edinburgh, as a visitor, with your street-map in hand and, other than you being aware of the flat frontal vowels characteristic of Scots' speakers, you and I will communicate just fine. My Scottish accent will be detectable, for sure. Except that after 20 minutes or so, you will tear yourself away while thinking: ‘Gee, I got the whole history of Bonnie Prince Charlie and ten must see places in the city. I only wanted directions to the hotel. He must be some kind of Scottish nut.’
(Pictured here) The harbour at Fraserburgh. Not picturesque but plenty of folk here have a real Scottish accent - the distinct Scots of the North-East. By the way, someone from Fraserburgh is a Brocher.
Our flat, frontal vowels!
Did I mention flat frontal vowels characterising a Scottish accent? All I meant was that the rural dialect of England’s River Thames Valley, which by accident became ‘Standard English’ – sometimes called ‘BBC English’ – is often characterised by diphthongs. (Basically – horrid generalisation – Scots say ‘rite’ and down there they say ‘raa-eet’. I know, I know. I exaggerate. But there’s no point in inflicting phonetic symbols on you here.) Look out, horrid generalisation again: apart from the rolled ‘r’ and the characteristic ‘ch’ (as in loch) sound, most of the differences in accent alone between the south of England and the north of Scotland are in the vowels. Oh, except for the Scots tending not to voice the 'wh' sound at the start of words like when and whale...and for that matter, in some forms of Scots, certainly the one I grew up with, then 'wh' often becomes 'f' . That way where become far and white becomes fite, for example. And whitret becomes futtret. Fit's a futtret? I mean what's a whitret? A fite rat, I mean white rat or ferret or mustelid of the weasely stoat variety. Oh, stop, stop, please.
But just as we Scots probably don’t appreciate the regional or state differences in US English and its accents then, just as an aside, most folk don’t really hear the regional variations in Scottish accents. For example, Billy Connolly, actor and funny person, used his own west of Scotland voice to play Queen Victoria’s servant, John Brown, in the movie ‘Mrs Brown’. Yet the original Brown, (pictured here), born in the rural heartlands of North-East Scotland, would have sounded totally different – but only me and few thousand other North-East folk would have noticed.
Ditto that Pixar ghastly animated movie ‘Brave’ where the actors all just had a laugh using whatever approximately Scottish accent they could muster, invent or were brought up with. Nobody notices.
Here are a couple of examples of information notices in Scots. Oddly enough, both were spotted in pub windows. Note also that 'weans' (prob. wee ones / wee yins) for children is pretty much a central Scotland usage. Up in the north-east we would use bairns, a word for children with a long pedigree, back to Old English.
Where to hear 'real' Scots
So, and I can’t emphasise this enough, unless you end up, say, on the quayside of a north-east fishing port, or up country standing in a rural post office in Aberdeenshire – and, even there probably half of them in the queue will be from Yorkshire in England – you might never even encounter ‘proper’ or authentic dense Scots language. So, the bottom line is; don’t have any anxiety at all about not understanding the Scots. Besides, we’re polite and helpful.
If you want to find out a bit more on the languages of Scotland, then keep reading below. Alternatively there is a glossary or list of some Scottish words on this link.
I mentioned above the particular form of Scots from the North-East corner. In my time, I have all but come to blows over why I don’t call it Doric myself, but lots of people do. In the 18th century, after the Scottish aristocracy had sold out Scotland in the Union of 1707, the already low-status Scots language was seen as a hindrance to ‘getting on’. It was becoming necessary to ape English accents. (This is another unhappy generalisation.) Anyway, a whole lot of Edinburgh elocutionists in those days had plenty of customers. The old Scots language was labelled by these elocutionists ‘Doric’ – a classical reference to the Dorians, a tribe who lived outside the Athens city walls in ancient Greece, and who therefore did not speak classical or ‘proper’ Greek.
The Doric as a term of insult?
So it is a term of insult. And, I suppose, that needs a reference to the status of Scots today. It ceased to be the language of the royal court when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English Crown – the Union of the Crowns in 1603 – when the court decamped for London. It ceased to be the language of the kirk when the famous King James Bible was printed in English (not Scots). A historical process got under way that downgraded the Scots tongue over many generations. This was aided and abetted by the school teachers – and I am just old enough to remember, perhaps at the age of about six, corporal punishment being administered by a teacher on one of my classmates who had used Scottish words when he spoke to her. (He got belted, since you ask.)
Still, at least we could win prizes for reciting the poems of Robert Burns. He used a lot of Scots in his poems but that was OK because it was literature. (Odd, wouldn’t you agree? It was to do with context, I suppose. The historian and language enthusiast Billy Kay has memorably described Scots as ‘a language spoken by consenting adults in private’!)
Things are much better now, and the huge word-horde that some of us still have is seen as a precious heritage. But Scots still suffers from a lack of standardised orthography (posh word for ‘spelling’) and a tendency to be used for the purposes of comic, rather than literary, effect. And I am as guilty of that as anyone – and often get a cheap laugh when I sound like an extra for the old but brilliantly funny Scotland the What shows.
This is terrible: just a footnote for Scotland’s original language. It’ll get a separate page one day but the point is that, for the visitor, you may hear it from time to time in the west and on the islands. But nobody in Scotland speaks only Gaelic now. Just bear in mind that it has a huge heritage – a body of song, story and literature that is unknown to most (Lowland) Scots. If you dip into pages on this site such as the Highland Clearances, if you already didn’t know, you will learn a little about how the original people of Scotland are today scattered across the globe. Johanna’s background, unlike mine, has its roots in the west. Her maternal great-grandmother was a native Gaelic speaker from Skye and the family still drop in some Gaelic words in conversation (in fact I’m quite fond of a strupach myself, though I’d probably call it a ‘fly-cup’) – but these words are like, well, echoes, I suppose.
Finally, to repeat yet again, travel east or west, and you’ll know when you are speaking to a real Scot. Any difficulties, just ask him or her to say it again……