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.
  • Letter-to-sound correspondences for vowels are a bit different between Scots and English:
    • ou is — on this blog and in much other traditionally spelt Scots writing — virtually always pronounced ‘oo’. So about, out, stour, hous, nou and doun are pronounced ‘aboot’, ‘oot’, ‘stoor’, ‘hoose’, ‘noo’ and ‘doon’.
    • ei and ie are, in most dailects, pronounced ‘ee’. The former can also be pronounced ‘ai’.
    • The accented letters í and ý (partícular, sýstem) are traditionally pronounced ‘ee’, but it depends on your dialect.
    • 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 Dutch2 — 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 (but in the tenth and eleventh centuries was dominant throughout much of Scotland3).

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. Virtually all the linguists I’ve read and interacted with consider it a language.4 5 And Scots and English are far from being the only two languages that have a similarly high degree of ‘mutual intelligibility’. Other examples include Scottish Gaelic and Irish, Norwegian and Danish, Czech and Slovak, and Finnish and Estonian.6

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 Scots7 — 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.

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, from the 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,8 through the vernacular newspaper writings of the 19th century, to W. L. Lorimer’s masterful 1983 translation of the New Testament from the original Greek, 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.9

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’ or ‘gweed’.

On this blog, guid is always spelt guid, and is always pronounced in your own dialect as you read. It means — broadly — that as a speaker of East Central South Scots, I can read a given post 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:10

  • 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, hous, nou and couthie — is pronounced ‘oo’.11

When you see the letters ‘i’ and ‘y’ with accents above them (‘í’ and ‘ý’) — in words such as partícular, decísion, phýsical and sýstem — these are traditionally pronounced, and often written, ‘ee’ (so ‘parteecular’, ‘deceesion’, ‘pheesical’ and ‘seestem’). However, not everyone pronounces it that way — and in my view such spellings can hinder readability12 — so we’ve gone with ‘í’ and ‘ý’, leaving it to the reader to pronounce it in their own dialect.

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’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 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 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, 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 wuz 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 tak in haun the airtin o the policy 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 haun wae the 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 Mínister wrate til her cabinet secretar anenst the forementiont policy.

“The First Meenister wrait til ‘er cabinet secritar anenst thi forementiont policae.”
(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 hauns whin it comes tae wurkin on thi ferm, but thit 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 fínish his darg, but, i maugre o that, he ettelt tae keep the heid.

“It wuz 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, i mauger u 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.)

***

The ‘phonetic’ renderings above actually contain perfectly valid spellings (e.g. most folk these days write the personal pronoun as A or ah; indeed, most dictionaries give these spellings). 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

While a consistent written form of Scots greatly helps learning, reading and writing, 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 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 0.7.3, last updatit 7 Julie 2018

Further reading and references

  1. With the exception of in dialog
  2. Corbett, J., McClure, J. D., Stuart-Smith, J., (eds). ‘A Brief History of Scots’ in The Edinburgh Companion to Scots, Edinburgh, 2003, 15
  3. 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. Relevant quote: “There is also chronicle and place-name evidence that by the tenth and eleventh centuries the Gaelic language was socially dominant throughout much of Scotland, including the English-speaking south-east.”
  4. 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
  5. A. J. Aitken, in his A History of Scots, sums it up for me: “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.”
  6. Examples cited by McClure, J. D., ‘The Language of Modern Scots Poetry’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Scots, 218
  7. 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
  8. Further, here are samples an analysis of letters written in Scots by Queen Mary
  9. 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 use the Corbett quote as it eloquently describes the experience of many people of reading formal or literary Scots
  10. Note that the ‘ö’ and ‘ü’ sounds in the list are the same as in the German
  11. If you’re used to reading English, you at first probably want to read ou with an ‘ow’ sound (‘howse’, ‘down’ etc.), but ou is actually the long-established way to spell ‘oo’ sounds in Scots. For example, take the well-known Scots word dour; we probably all know how that one is pronounced, and it would be difficult to imagine it spelt ‘door’! You’ll no doubt see ‘oo’ in much modern Scots writing, but here we hold with the traditional spelling. Moreover, it’s used consistently by Burns throughout his Scots poetry so I hope people will be at least somewhat familiar with the practice of realising ou as ‘oo’
  12. I think ‘ee’ is apt to appear a bit ‘funny-looking’ to readers new to Scots. The ‘ei’ phoneme looks a bit better — ‘parteicular’, ‘deceision’, ‘pheisical’ and ‘seistem’ — and could be used as an option along with the accented characters (à la the German ‘ö’ and ‘oe’). On this blog we’ll stick with the diacritics/accents. And if ‘í’ and ‘ý’ were good enough for Robin Lorimer in editing his father’s New Testament in Scots, then they work for me!

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