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How to read Scots: A brief introductory guide (written in English)

Welcome to this introduction to reading the Scots language. It’s intended mainly for Scots and Scottish English speakers who are relatively unfamiliar with reading Modern Scots and would like a wee bit guidance. Other English speakers can follow along, too.

Quick summary

If you don’t have time to read the whole guide, here are the main points:

  • The spellings on Mak Forrit are fairly traditional, consistent and dialect-neutral.1 Don’t be put off if spellings appear not to reflect exactly how you say things — just read it as you would normally pronounce it.
  • Scots and English have differences in terms of phonology:
    • ou is pronounced ‘oo’ (doundour, stour, couthie). Some words (such as aboot, oot, hoose) are spelt with oo just to avoid ambiguity.2
    • ei and ie are, in most dialects, pronounced ‘ee’. The former can also be pronounced ‘ai’ (in words like heid, deif, breid).
    • i in stressed positions in many Latinate words (particular, literatur, figur) is traditionally often pronounced ‘ee’, but it depends on your dialect.3
    • ui (guid, puir) and eu (leuk, beuk) are pronounced differently depending on your dialect. More on that here.
  • ch in the middle or end of a word (clachan, richt) is usually pronounced like the ‘ch’ in loch and dreich, except when preceded by a consonant (pootch, eldritch).

What is Scots?

Scots is a Germanic language — originating from a fusion of Anglo-Scandinavian, French, Latin, Gaelic and Dutch4 — spoken mainly in the Scottish Lowlands and Northern Isles.

It’s the sister language of English, and is different to Gaelic, the Celtic language which is today spoken mainly in the Highlands.5

It’s also different to English spoken with a Scottish accent, also called ‘Scottish Standard English’ (SSE). Scots and SSE do share many similarities, however, and the former has influenced the latter significantly.6

Many people will be familiar with the poetry and songs of Robert Burns (‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ et al), much of which is written in Scots.

Scots is, to a decent extent, intelligible to speakers of English, which can lead many to mistake it for a dialect of English, rather than a separate-but-closely-related language. Many linguists today consider it a language.7 8 And Scots and English are far from being the only two languages that have a high degree of ‘mutual intelligibility’. Others include Scottish Gaelic and Irish, Norwegian and Danish, Czech and Slovak, and Finnish and Estonian.9

Written Scots

Scots is both a spoken and written language, with the first work of literature (John Barbour’s The Brus) being published in the late-14th century. People in Scotland are today no longer taught to be literate in Scots10 — even if it’s their first language — and instead receive their education in Scottish English and, optionally, Gaelic.

Despite this, and despite being ignored as a medium for serious output in broadcast and print media, it’s still spoken widely — by 1.5 million people according to the 2011 official census. Scots in written form appears frequently on social media and website comments sections, and articles written in Scots are published in newspapers and on blogs.

Scots prose

Most people in Scotland have read and recited at least one Robert Burns poem, but might at first find it unusual — incendiary, even — to see prose written in Scots. But rest assured that we’re not “making it up”, and neither is it a nationalist plot.

Prose writing in Scots has a long history, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, where it was used to keep the records of Parliament and as a medium of diplomacy and trade between Scotland and its European neighbours,11 through the vernacular newspaper writings of the 19th century, to W. L. Lorimer’s masterful 1983 translation of the New Testament, and Lallans magazine today.

Scots writing, like that of any language, can fall on a spectrum ranging from the informal or colloquial — where it most closely mirrors the Scots you hear spoken every day — to the formal or literary.12

The Scots on this blog

We use fairly traditional spellings that can largely be read in any dialect. Having such multi-dialectal spellings makes learning and reading the language much easier.

If you’re not used to reading multi-dialectal Scots, it may not always obvious how to read a word from the way it’s written. For example, the word guid (meaning ‘good’ in English) can be pronounced in a number of ways depending on where you’re from: ‘gid’, ‘gyid’, ‘göd’ or ‘gweed’.

On this blog, guid is always spelt guid, and is always pronounced in your own dialect. It means that as a speaker of East Central South Scots, I can read a given post more or less in my own dialect, and someone from the North-East can read the same post in theirs.

Here’s another example: ower, meaning ‘too’ or ‘over’. This can be pronounced ‘uower’, ‘oar’, ‘oor’ or ‘err’. If it’s written ower every time, you can just read it in your own dialect and not be thrown by alternative spellings, or be forced to read it with a pronunciation unfamiliar or unnatural to you.

One more common example: ane, Scots for the cardinal number ‘one’. This can be pronounced ‘ane’, ‘een’, ‘yin’ or ‘wan’.

Spelling: more details

Look out in particular for the ‘ui’ and ‘eu’ word-parts (‘diaphonemes’ to give the technical term), because these are used in words where the pronunciation differs a fair bit between dialects. For example:13

  • muin (‘moon’ in English) is pronounced ‘min’, ‘meen’, ‘mane’, ‘mön’ or ‘mün’ depending on where you’re from
  • puir (‘poor’ in English) is pronounced ‘pair’, ‘peer’, ‘pör’ or ‘pür’
  • shuir (‘sure’ in English) is pronounced ‘shair’, ‘sheer’, ‘seer’, ‘shör’, ‘shür’
  • beuk (‘book’ in English) is pronounced ‘bök’, ‘bük’, ‘b(y)ook’ or ‘b(y)uk’
  • leuk (‘look’ in English) is pronounced ‘lök’, ‘lük’, ‘l(y)ook’ or ‘luk’

The ou phoneme — in words such as dour, doun, nou and couthie — is pronounced ‘oo’.

Fit like?

Our contributors from the North-East might prefer to write f instead of wh in words such as fit, faur and fa (for whit, whaur and wha; ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘who’ in English). Whether it’s written ‘wh’ or ‘f’, however, readers from the North-East are encouraged to read ‘wh’ as ‘f’ whenever they encounter it in Scots writing. (This, of course, might well be counter-intuitive at first.)

Meaning and pronunciation of some common words

Scots word English meaning Scots pronunciation
ablo below ‘ablow’ (emphasis on second syllable)
abuin above ‘abin’, ‘abeen’, ‘abain’, ‘abön’ or ‘abün’
acause because ‘acause’
an and ‘an’ or ‘aun’
ane cardinal number one ‘ane’, ‘een’, ‘yin’ or ‘wan’
eneuch enough ‘un(y)ooch’, ‘inyuch’, ‘inyooch’ or ‘unyoch’ (‘ch’ as in loch; emphasis on second syllable)
ettle aim, purpose, ambition, objective ‘ettle’, ‘attle’ or ‘ittle’
fae; frae from ‘fae’ or ‘faee’; ‘frae’
fowk people ‘fuowk’ or ‘foak’
gin; gif if ‘gin’, ‘geen’ or ‘gain’; ‘gif’
guid good ‘gid’, ‘gweed’, ‘gyid’, ‘göd’
hae have ‘hae’
haed had ‘haed’, ‘hed’, ‘hid’ or ‘hud’
haes has ‘haez’, ‘hiz’ or ‘huz’
haud to hold, continue, keep ‘haud’, ‘hod’, ‘hud’ or ‘had’
ilka each, every ‘ilka’, ‘ilkee’ or ‘ilkae’
ilkane or ilk ane each one, every one, everyone ‘ilkane’
juist just ‘jist’, ‘jeest’, ‘jöst’, ‘jüst’, ‘düst’, ‘joost’, ‘doost’ or ‘dist’
lat; pt. luit let ‘lat’; ‘lit’, ‘leet’, ‘löt’ or ‘lüt’
mair more ‘mair’
maun must ‘maun’, ‘mon’, ‘man’ or ‘mun’
muckle to a great degree or extent, much (adverb); large, big, great (adjective) ‘muckle’, ‘meekle’
nor than ‘nor’, ‘naur’
ower over, too ‘uower’, ‘oar’, ‘oor’ or ‘err’
shuir sure ‘shair’, ‘sheer’, ‘seer’, ‘shör’ or ‘shür’
syne then, ago, since ‘sine’, ‘seen’
thae those ‘thae’ (that, rather than thae, is used for both the singular and plural in the North-East)
than then ‘than’, ‘thaun’, ‘thin’ or ‘dan’
thir these ‘thir’ or ‘thur’ (this, rather than thir, is used for both the singular and plural in the North-East)
uise use (verb) ‘yaiz’, ‘ees’, ‘yöz’, ‘yüz’, ‘öz’
uiss use (noun) ‘yis’, ‘ees’, ‘yös’, ‘yoos’
wad would ‘wad’, ‘wid’ or ‘wud’
war were ‘war’, ‘wir’ or ‘wur’
whan when ‘whan’, ‘whaun’, ‘whin’, ‘fan’, ‘fin’ or ‘aan’
whiles sometimes, at times, occasionally (adverb); while, whilst (conjunction) ‘whilez’ or ‘filez’
whit what ‘whit’, ‘whut’, ‘what’, ‘whot’, ‘fit’, ‘fut’, ‘fat’ or ‘ut’
wi with ‘wi’, ‘wae’ or ‘w’
wir our ‘wir’, ‘wur’, ‘war’ or ‘weer’
wis was ‘waz’, ‘wez’, ‘wiz’ or ‘wuz’

To pick a few words from the above table by way of example, I would write uiss, uise, guid, ower, shuir and ane, and say ‘yiss’, ‘yaiz’, ‘gid’, ‘uower’, ‘shair’ and ‘yin’.

That’s basically it

We’r not overly strict here at Mak Forrit, so there is a bit of dialectal variation reflected in the writing. For example, writers from the North-East probably prefer to write fitiver, dinna and aamaist, whereas Central Belt writers may use whitiver, dinnae and awmaist. However you can still pronounce most words in your own dialect.

Overall, I hope to strike a pragmatic balance: I don’t want to annoy the writers by changing too many of their spellings; but at the same time I believe that as spelling moves more into the background, the writer’s style, personality and ideas come more to the fore, and the reader’s experience is better.

Examples

I’ve written a few (fairly contrived) sentences below in multidialectal Scots, along with a more ‘phonetic’ version in my own East Central South dialect. It aims to show the difference between the way I write and speak/read Scots. The register ranges from colloquial to the more formal.

Multi-dialectal: Alasdair an Ashley wis feart they wadna win at the kirk in time tae be mairit.

Phonetic: “Alasdair an Ashley wiz feert thay widnae win at thi kirk in time ti be mirrit.”
(English translation: Alasdair and Ashley were afraid that they wouldn’t arrive at church in time to be married.)

The’re a wheen craws sittin on ane o the waws o the auld, disjaskit biggin.

“Thair a wheen craws sittin on yin u the waus au the auld, disjaskit biggin.”
(There are a few crows sitting on one of the walls of the old, dilapidated building.)

The preses depute gree’d tae tak in haund the airtin o the policy an its pittin intil effect.

“The preesaiz depute greed tae tik in han the airtin o the polisae an its pittin intil effect.”
(The deputy chairperson agreed to co-ordinate and oversee the policy and its implementation.)

Awa wi ye! Efter aw I’v duin for ye this week, whit wey can ye no gie me a haund wi the gairdenin on Seturday efternuin?

“Awiy wae yi! Efter aw ah’v din fur yi this week, whit wiy kön yi no gie me a han wae thi girdinin on Seturday efternin?”
(For goodness sake! After all I’ve done for you this week, why can’t you help me in the garden on Saturday afternoon?)

The First Minister wrate til her cabinet secretar anenst the forementiont policy.

“The First Meenister wrait til ‘er cabinet secritar anenst thi forementiont polisae.”
(The First Minister wrote to her cabinet secretary in respect of the aforementioned policy)

My faither is aye threapin at me that I amna muckle uiss wi my haunds whan it comes tae wirkin on the ferm, but that I’m awfu guid on the pianae.

“Ma fither is iy threepin at me thut ah umnae muckle yiss wae ma hans whin it comes tae wurkin on thi ferm, but thut ah’m awfy gid on thi pianae.”
(My father always ribs me that I’m not much use with my hands when it comes to working on the farm, but that I’m very good on the piano.)

It wis a richt fash for Tammas tae get his wark duin whan he haed tae uise ane o his auld Windaes laptops. He didna ken hou lang it wad tak him tae feenish his darg, but, maugre that, he ettelt tae keep the heid.

“It wiz a richt fash fur Tammas ti git his wurk din whin he hud tae yaiz yin u ‘is auld Windaes laptops. He didnae ken hoo lang it wid tik ‘im ti feenish his darg, but, mauger that, he ettelt ti keep the heed.”
(It was a real nuisance for Tammas to get his work done when he had to use one of his old Windows laptaps. He didn’t know how long it would take him to finish his day’s work, but, despite that, he tried to keep a cool head.)

Conclusion

While a consistent written form of Scots greatly helps learning, reading and writing in the language, a standard spoken form of Scots would be a terrible idea. That Scots is a dialectically diverse language is a good thing, and there is no need for us to abandon our dialects.

Having fairly consistent spellings simply allows us to read and communicate with ease.

Last point: virtually none of the thinking behind this guide is my own. It’s almost all taken from the websites and documents below. Any mistakes or misinterpretations are entirely my fault, and I welcome corrections in the comments.

Version 0.8.2, last updatit 27 November 2018

Further reading and references

  1. With the exception of in dialog
  2. Traditionally, written ou in Scots is sounded ‘oo’, and features throughout the works of well-known writers like Rabbie Burns and R. L. Stevenson. We’ve reluctantly opted to go with oo in some words on the blog just for the sake of clarity. It also happens to reflect standard modern practice.
  3. Some write it with a ee (parteecular, leeteratur, feegur), others ei, ie or with a diacritic (í). We’ve left it as just i.
  4. Corbett, J., McClure, J. D., Stuart-Smith, J., (eds). ‘A Brief History of Scots’ in The Edinburgh Companion to Scots, Edinburgh, 2003, 15
  5. In the tenth and eleventh centuries Gaelic was dominant throughout much of Scotland. Reference: Aitken, A. J. (revised by Robinson, C., Smith, J., Speitel, P. C., Grant, A., Ferguson, A., Mackay, M.), ‘A History of Scots’, in Concise Scots Dictionary, 2nd ed., Edinburgh/Scottish Language Dictionaries, 2017, x.
  6. E.g. in terms of vocabulary and the unique vowel length in SSE.
  7. Since there is no agreed definition of what is a language and what is a dialect, you could argue about the status of Scots (and indeed other closely-related language varieties) till the proverbial kye comes hame
  8. A. J. Aitken, in his A History of Scots, sums it up perfectly: “The unique characteristics of Scots which we have just surveyed — its linguistic distinctiveness, its occupation of its own ‘dialect island’ bounded by the Border, its individual history, its own dialect variations, its varied use in a remarkable literature, the ancient loyalty of the Scottish people to the notion of the Scots language, as well as the fact that since the sixteenth century Scots has adopted the nation’s name — all of these are attributes of a language rather than a dialect.”
  9. Examples cited by McClure, J. D., ‘The Language of Modern Scots Poetry’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Scots, 218
  10. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Scots was taught in schools alongside Latin. Take this short quote from the minute books of the Burgh of Kirkcudbright in 1646: “Mr. Adame . . . takis . . . vpone him the charge of ane scoolemaister . . . for learning of Scottis and Latine;”. This article by James MacDonald (written in Scots) looks at the history of Scots in education
  11. Further, here are samples an analysis of letters written in Scots by Queen Mary
  12. Because of it’s almost total (and deliberate) absence from education and the media, reading more formal Scots can take a bit of getting used to. As John Corbett notes when discussing the translation of non-Scots texts into Scots: “The act of reading a text in Scots […] is an experience curiously familiar and strange for a Scot. […] The lack of a widely accepted standard variety allows Scots translators to represent both the familiar and the strange: instead of looking at the alien and finding it familiar, we look at ourselves and discover our exoticism.” I should perhaps note for the record that articles on this site, unless stated otherwise, are written directly in Scots and not translated from English, but I refer to the Corbett quote as it eloquently describes the experience of many people of reading formal or literary Scots
  13. Note that the ‘ö’ and ‘ü’ sounds in the list are the same as in the German

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