What is Scots?

Scots, along with its closest relative English, is a member of the West Germanic family of languages, a group that also includes Afrikaans, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and German.
It is a distinctive language, divergent from English since at least the fourteenth century. It shares with English a common ancestor: Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, the language that first emerged amongst Germanic incomers in south-east England during the fifth century CE, and which subsequently spread throughout much of the rest of the island of Britain.

The North Germanic languages – Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish – are more distantly related, although Scots has taken on many features of vocabulary and grammar from Old Norse, the ancestor-variety of this Scandinavian group. Scots has also ‘borrowed’ forms from non-Germanic languages, notably French, Gaelic, and Latin.

Where is Scots spoken?

Historically, Scots has been primarily associated with Lowland Scotland. However, the Scots language is also found in parts of the Highlands, particularly within the burghs. In these Highland towns, Scots co-existed with the Gaelic language, rather than predominating as it did further south, and an insular form of Scots is also found in the Northern Isles. A variety of Scots is also spoken in large enclaves in Northern Ireland, as a result of settlements there in the seventeenth century and later, especially from the west and south-west of Scotland.

Variation in Scots

Due in no small part to its geographical spread, Scots varies in its spoken form, ranging from the ‘broad’ usage of some fishing and farming communities, through various intermediate mixtures of Scots and English, to a variety of Standard English spoken in a Scots accent (i.e. Standard Scottish English, or SSE). Even the last of these usages retains obvious affiliations with more fully Scots speech-styles – in its speakers’ frequent recourse to a repertory of Scotticisms like dinna fash yersel, to swither and to miss yourself, and in peculiarly Scots pronunciations of certain words such as length (as [lɛnθ] (pronounced len + th) rather than [lɛŋθ] (pronounced leng + th)), of Wednesday (with three clear syllables), of fifth and sixth (as fift and sixt).

The speech of an individual will however vary according to region (some regions being strikingly more ‘Scots’ than others), social class, age, sex, circumstance (for example, the well-known contrast between classroom and playground speech), and the national and local loyalties of the speaker, and some distinctive features seem to be disappearing; e.g. loch (with [x]) is now increasingly pronounced as lock (with [k]) amongst younger speakers.

Written Scots

In the written mode, Scots spelling remains variable. Attempts to make it more consistent, notably the Scots Style Sheet produced by the Makars’ Club in 1947 or the Recommendations for Writers in Scots published by the Scots Language Society in 1985, have had at best only limited success, competing with other systems that have been developed to represent more closely localized varieties of spoken Scots.