How to read Scots: A brief introductory guide (written in English)
Ay, ay. Welcome to this introduction to reading the Scots language. It’s intended mainly for Scots and Scottish English speakers who are after some guidance on reading Modern Scots. Other English speakers are welcome to follow along, too.
If you don’t have time to read the whole guide, here’s the tl;dr:
- The spellings on this blog 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’ (doun, dour, 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’. In words such as heid, deif and breid, ei is pronounced ‘ee’ or ‘ai’.
- i in stressed positions in many Latinate words (partícular, líteratur, fígur) 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 (lauch, richt, boorach) 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, 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’ and ‘Scots Wha Hae’, for example), 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
Scots is both a spoken and written language, and has been for centuries. Today, people in Scotland are 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.
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, when it was used to keep the records of Parliament and the burghs, 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 pan-dialectal spellings makes learning and reading the language much easier.
If you’re not used to reading pan-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.
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’
If you speak North-East Scots (often called ‘Doric’) ui is usually pronounced ‘ee’.14 In central dialects it varies from word to word (between ‘i’ and ‘ai’ typically: in my dialect guid is ‘gid’ and shuir is ‘shair’). In more conservative dialects ui tends to be sounded ‘ö/ü’.
The ou phoneme — in words such as dour, doun, nou and couthie — is pronounced ‘oo’.
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’|
|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’|
|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’|
|maun||must||‘maun’, ‘mon’, ‘man’ or ‘mun’|
|muckle||to a great degree or extent, much (adverb); large, big, great (adjective)||‘muckle’, ‘meekle’|
|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’.
I’ve written a few (somewhat 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 and 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 mirried.”
(English translation: Alasdair and Ashley were afraid that they wouldn’t arrive at church in time to be married.)
The’r 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 and 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 anent the forementiont policy.
“The First Meenister wrait til ‘er cabinet secritar anent 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.)
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 — and pan-dialectal — spellings simply allows us to read and communicate with ease.
Further reading and references
- Scots Threip by John M. Tait:
- Sandy Fleming’s ScotsteXt! site: A Crash Course in Scots Vocabulary
- Andy Eagle, The Online Scots Dictionary:
- Scots Spellin Comatee 1996-1998 Report recommends: Mensfu Scots Spellin
- Aye Can (website published in the run-up to the 2021 census)
- I’ve learned much from discussions with Scots speakers, writers and activists in the Scots Language Forum on Facebook.
- With the exception of in dialog.
- 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.
- Some write it with an ee (parteecular, leeteratur, feegur), others ei, ie or just i.
- Corbett, J., McClure, J. D., Stuart-Smith, J., (eds). ‘A Brief History of Scots’ in The Edinburgh Companion to Scots, Edinburgh, 2003, 15.
- 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.
- E.g. the unique vowel length in SSE.
- 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.
- 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.”
- Examples cited by McClure, J. D., ‘The Language of Modern Scots Poetry’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Scots, 218
- 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[.]” Reference was made in the mid-16th century to schoolbooks for the teaching of Scots, among them Ane schort Introductioun elementar degestit into sevin breve taiblis for the commodious expeditioun of thame that ar desirous to reid and write the Scottis toung and Ane instructioun for bairnis to be lernit in Scottis and Latin. Reference: Horsbroch, Dauvit. ‘Timelines of the Scots Language: Later Middle Scots 1550-1700 Part 1’, 2019.
- Further, here are samples and analysis of letters written in Scots by Queen Mary.
- 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.” For the record, 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.
- Note that the ‘ö’ and ‘ü’ sounds in the list are the same as in the German.
- Certainly this is the case with the standard orthography used by this blog and some others. You might also see beuk and leuk spelled as buik an luik, which are fairly common spellings, but these words are not pronounced ‘beek’ and ‘leek’ in the North-East.