A language or a dialect?

Present-day Scots: a language or a dialect?

In sixteenth-century Scotland Scots was the universal language of Scotland outside the Gaelic-speaking areas (the Gàidhealtachd). This situation has long disappeared. It may therefore reasonably be asked if there is any sense in which Scots is entitled to the designation of a language any more than any of the regional dialects of English in England?

In reply one may point out that Scots possesses several attributes not shared by any regional English dialect. In its linguistic characteristics it is more strongly differentiated from Standard English than any English dialect.


Many Scots pronunciations are strikingly different from their Standard English equivalents; we might note Scots stane, puir, baw, hoose beside Standard English stone, poor, ball, house, and how both Scots and Standard Scottish English (SSE) differentiate brood, tide from brewed, tied, pairs that are homophones in present-day Southern Standard English.


In grammar, Scots has a large number of ‘irregular’ plurals not found in Standard English, e.g. een, shune, kye, and thir (pl. of this) and thae (pl. of that), distinctive forms of the past tense of some verbs, e.g. gaed ‘went’, special forms of negation, e.g. dinna. Some dialects of Scots have a distinction in present-tense verb forms according to whether a personal pronoun is or is not immediately adjacent to the verb (e.g. they say he’s owre auld but them that says he’s owre auld or thir laddies says he’s owre auld).


Perhaps above all the Scots lexicon displays a far larger number of words, meanings of words, and expressions not current in Standard English than any of the English dialects can muster, derived from the language’s distinctive linguistic history. Some words derived from Old English have died out south of the border but have been retained in Scots, e.g. bannock, but and ben, eldritch, gloamin, haffet, haugh, heuch, wee and weird. Many characteristic Scots words derive from Norse, including such well-known items as bairn, brae, gate, graith, nieve, kirk, lass, big (‘build’), flit, hing, dreich and lowse. Other borrowings originally restricted to Scots rather than English include many from Gaelic, e.g. cairn, capercailzie, glen, ingle, loch, quaich, sonse, strath and tocher, along with more recent borrowings such as ceilidh, claymore, gillie, pibroch, spleuchan, sporran and whisky. From French came many words originally shared with English but which have survived only in Scots, such as leal, ashet, douce, hoolet, tassie, fash, spairge, vennel, and Hogmanay. There are also many Scots words of Dutch or Flemish origin, such as mutch, pinkie, golf and scone.

Influence and use of Latin

Borrowing from Latin was in Older Scots frequently carried out independently of English. Many words of Latin origin were borrowed into the two languages at widely different dates and often in strikingly different meanings. Examples include liquid, liquidate, local, locality and narrative; locality, for instance, has a traditional special meaning for use in the kirk, i.e. ‘The authoritative apportioning of liability for payment of “local stipend”’.

In Scots law the adjective liquid, means ‘of a debt: ascertained and constituted against the debtor, either by a written obligation or by the decree of a court’. Indeed, Scots law has a large and distinctive vocabulary of Latin origin, with forms such as executor-dative, homologate, hypothec, nimious and sederunt. Scots often prefers a different form of the same word from that preferred by English, e.g. dispone (beside dispose), promove (beside promote); and Scots often prefers ending-less (and thus more ‘etymological’) forms of Latin past participles, like (weel) educate, depute, and habit and repute. School Latin has yielded such characteristic Scotticisms as dominie, dux, fugie, pandie, vaig, vaik and vacance.

Relationship to northern English

It is of course true that Scots shares many forms with dialects of northern England. Words such as hame, stane, doon, lass, bairn, bonny, loon and glaur, which many Scots think of as purely Scots words, are indeed very much northern English words as well. However, the evidence of modern linguistic surveys is that Scots is less open to attrition in favour of standard usages than are the English dialects. One illustration of this difference is the fact that that a fair number of ‘dialect words’ – such as aye ‘always’, pooch ‘a pocket’, and nicht ‘night’ – have very recently died out in northern England but remain in vigorous use in many parts of Scottish society. As a result a large number of such words are now confined to north of the border, and many of them perhaps always were. Scots, moreover, continues to be creative. Recent distinctive coinages include fantoosh, henner, high-heid-yin, scheme, to miss yerself, to put yer gas at a peep, to be up to high doh, and many others.


But perhaps what most of all distinguishes Scots is its literature. Nowhere in the English-speaking world is there a ‘non-standard’ literature which remotely compares with literature in Scots for antiquity, for extent and variety, and for distinction. This embraces the poetry of the great medieval makars together with later works by Robert Burns, Walter Scott, James Hogg, Hugh MacDiarmid, Nan Shepherd, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Modern writers such as Iain Banks, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, James Robertson and Irvine Welsh can rightly be included in this list. Beyond this group of well-known authors, Scots-language drama and comedy performed on both stage and screen, together with regional comic strips and cartoons in Scottish newspapers, continue to reach a wide audience.

A living language

From at least the first half of the eighteenth century, Scots has always been thought to be ‘dying out’ as a spoken language. From time to time suggestions have been made for ‘restoring’ or ‘reviving’ it, from the solid base of literary Scots, where its permanence has been less often in doubt. Various schemes for the perpetuation of the language have been suggested over the years, with varying degrees of success or failure, and yet in the midst all of these initiatives, spoken Scots demonstrably persists, and even thrives.

More than just a dialect

The special characteristics of Scots touched on above – its linguistic distinctiveness, its occupation of its own ‘dialect-island’ bounded by the border, its individual history, its own dialect variation, its varied use in a remarkable literature, the ancient loyalty of many Scottish people to the notion of the Scots language, as well as the fact that since the sixteenth century the language has adopted the nation’s name – all of these are attributes of a language rather than a dialect. Manifestly Scots is to be seen as much more than simply another dialect of English.

DSL Online is intended not only as a comprehensive record of the copiousness and variety of the Scots language through time, but also – alongside other publications by Dictionaries of the Scots Language – as a contribution to asserting its social validity.