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

This page is intended mainly for Scots and Scottish English speakers who are not overly familiar with reading Modern Scots and would like a wee bit guidance. Other English speakers can follow along, too…

What is Scots?

Scots is a Germanic language spoken mainly in the Scottish Lowlands, Northern Isles, Caithness, Arran and Campbeltown. It’s the sister language of English, and is different to the Celtic language Gaelic, which is today spoken mainly in the Highlands, but at one time was spoken much more widely.

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), a lot of which is written in Scots.

Written Scots

Scots is both a spoken and written language, and has been since the 14th century. People in Scotland are today no longer taught to be literate in Scots — even if it’s their first language — and instead receive their education in Scottish English and, optionally, Gaelic.

Despite this, and despite not being 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.

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’s not always obvious how to say 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’ and ‘gweed’.

On this blog, guid is always spelt guid, and is always pronounced in your own dialect. It means — broadly — that as a speaker of South Central Scots, I can read a given post in my own dialect, and someone from the North East (where they speak what is often called Doric) can read the same post in theirs.

Here’s another example: ower, meaning ‘too’ or ‘over’. This can be pronounced ‘our’, ‘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.

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:

  • muin (‘moon’ in English) is pronounced ‘min’, ‘mane’, ‘meen’, ‘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’, ‘shör’, ‘shür’, ‘sheer’ or ‘seer’
  • 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’

(Note that the ‘ö’ and ‘ü’ sounds above are the same as in the German.)

The ‘ou’ diaphoneme — in words such as dour, doun and couthie — is pronounced ‘oo’. A few words, like hoose and oot, are spelt with ‘oo’ explicitly to avoid ambiguity.

When you see a letter ‘i’ with a diacritic mark above it (‘í’) — in words such as partícular and decísion — this would traditionally be pronounced, and often written, ‘ee’ (so ‘parteecular’ and ‘deceesion’), but some people today might pronounce it as in the English.

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.

Meaning and pronunciation of some common words

Scots word English meaning Scots pronunciation
ablo below ‘ablow’ (emphasis on second syllable)
abuin above ‘abön’, ‘abün’, ‘abin’, ‘abain’ or ‘abeen’
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’
gin; gif if ‘gin’, ‘geen’ or ‘gain’; ‘gif’
guid good ‘gid’, ‘gyid’, ‘göd’ or ‘gweed’
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 ‘jöst’, ‘jüst’, ‘düst’, ‘joost’, ‘doost’, ‘jist’, ‘dist’ or ‘jeest’
lat let ‘lat’
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 ‘our’, ‘oar’, ‘oor’ or ‘err’
shuir sure ‘shair’, ‘shör’, ‘shür’, ‘sheer’ or ‘seer’
syne then, ago, since ‘sine’, ‘seen’
thae those ‘thae’
than then ‘than’, ‘thaun’ or ‘dan’
thir these ‘thir’ or ‘thur’
uise use (verb) ‘yöz’, ‘yüz’, ‘öz’, ‘yaiz’ or ‘ees’
uiss use (noun) ‘yös’, ‘yis’, ‘ees’ or ‘yoos’
whan when ‘whan’, ‘whaun’, ‘fan’, ‘fin’ or ‘aan’
whit what ‘whit’, ‘whut’, ‘what’, ‘whot’, ‘fit’, ‘fut’, ‘fat’ or ‘aut’
wir our

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’, ‘yaise’, ‘gid’, ‘our’, ‘shair’ and ‘yin’.

That’s basically it

We’re not overly strict here at MAK FORRIT, so you do get 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, but you can still pronounce the 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 and personality comes more to the fore, and the reader’s experience is better.

Examples

I’ve written a few (fairly contrived!) sentences below in multidialectal Scots (at least the way I write it), along with a more ‘phonetic’ version in my own South Central dialect. It aims to show the difference between the way I write and speak Scots (ignoring style and register).

Multi-dialectal: The wind wis blawin an aa the craws flew aff the ruif o the haa.

Phonetic: “Thi win wuz blawin an aw the craws flew uff the riff o the haw.”

Alasdair an Michael wis shuir that thay wadna get tae the kirk in time tae be mairit.

“Alasdair an Michael wuz shair thit thay widnae git ti thi kirk in time ti be mirrit.”

My faither aye says that I amna muckle uiss wi my haunds whan it comes tae daein wark aroond the ferm, but that I’m awfu guid on the pianae.

“Ma fither iy saiz thut ah umnae muckle yiss wi ma hauns whin it comes tae daein wurk aroon thi ferm, but that ah’m offy gid on thi pianae.”

It wis aye a fash for Tammas tae get his wark duin whan he haed tae uise ane o his auld laptops. He didna ken hou lang it wad tak him tae dae the twa jobs he haed on.

“It wus iy a fash fur Tammas ti git his wurk din whin he hud tae yaize yin ae ‘is auld laptops. He didnae ken hoo lang it wid take him ti dae thi twae jobs he hud on.”

Efter aa I’v duin for ye this week, whit wey can ye no get oot o your bed afore ane in the efternuin on Sunday tae gie me a haund wi the gairdenin?

“Efter aw ah’v din fur yi this week, whit wiy kön yi no git oot ae yer bed afore yin in the efternin on Sunday ti gie mi a haun wi thi gairdinin?”

***

The ‘phonetic’ renderings above actually contain perfectly valid spellings (e.g. most folk write the personal pronoun as A or ah; indeed, most dictionaries give these spellings); spellings are, after all, based on speech. The point is to demonstrate that, like in many other languages, the spelling of Scots doesn’t have to exactly reflect the way you say things all of the time.

Conclusion

The spelling of Scots can be controversial, and I hope no one is offended by this guide. I’m fairly new to reading Scots myself and this article is inspired by frustration reading prose with so many spelling variants. I find it impossible to immerse myself in the joy of reading when I’m constantly being tripped up by differing spellings.

Of course, a standard spoken form of Scots would be a terrible idea. But for writing, particularly general writing such as on this blog, having a more uniform — and dialect-neutral — spelling system makes everything easier.

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

Version 0.7.2.2, last updated 7 December 2017

References and further reading

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