Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Scots language
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Scots language

Scots (or Lallans meaning lowlands) is a Germanic language used in lowland Scotland, and parts of Northern Ireland and border areas of the Republic of Ireland, where it is known as Ulster Scots or Ullans. On the whole, Scots descends from the Northumbrian form of Anglo-Saxon albeit with influence from Norse via the Vikings, Dutch and Low Saxon through trade with, and immigration from the low countries and Romance via ecclesiastical and legal Latin, Norman and later Parisian French due to the Auld Alliance. Scots also has loan words resulting from contact with Gaelic, a Celtic language, distinct from Scots, still spoken by some in the Highlands and Islands to the west. Loan words from Gaelic are mainly for geographical and cultural features like clan and loch (lake). Scots has changed to some extent over the years, as any living language does, though some would say that it has been more loyal to its Anglo-Saxon roots than English: compare kirk with church, ken with know and nicht with night. Many Scots words have become part of English: flit move home, greed, eerie, cuddle, clan, stob a post.

Total speakers: 1.5 Million +
Language codes
ISO 639-3: Sco

Table of contents
1 Status
2 Literature
3 Dialects
4 Pronunciation
5 Some grammar features
6 Related topics
7 External links


Whether the varieties of Scots are dialects of English or constitute a separate language in its own right is often disputed. There is little doubt that, had Scotland remained independent, Scots would be regarded as a separate language from English. This has happened in Norway with Norwegian. Norwegian once regarded as a dialect of Danish has been regarded as a language in its own right since Norwegian independence in the nineteenth century. All the same, the British government now accepts Scots as a regional language and has recognised it as such under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Evidence for its existence as a separate language lies in the extensive body of Scots literature; in the existence of several Scots dialects; in the substantial lexical, grammatical, and phonological differences to other varieties of English and in its former use as the official language of the original Scottish Parliament. Since Scotland retained distinct political, legal, and religious systems after the Union, many Scots terms passed into Scottish English. For instance, libel and slander, separate in English law, are bundled together as defamation in Scots law.

Since the Union when England joined Scotland to form the Kingdom of Great Britain, it is probably more correct to regard Scots as a group of dialects closely related to English. There is no standard literary form. During the second half of the 20th century, enthusiasts have developed regularised cross-dialect forms but these have had little impact. When written, local loyalties usually prevail and the written form is usually Standard English adopted to represent the local pronunciation. No education takes place through the medium of Scots, though English lessons may superficially cover it. This is often not much more than reading some Scots literature and observing local dialect. Much of the material used is often little more than Standard English disguised as Scots. Scots can also be studied at university level. Nowhere throughout the education system is the objective to produce people able to read, write, and speak Scots as an autonomous alternative to English thus confirming its de facto status as local dialects of English. The use of Scots in the media is scant and is usually reserved for niches where local dialect is deemed acceptable e.g. comedy, Burns Night, or representations of traditions and times gone by. Serious use for the likes of news, encyclopaedias, documentaries etc. does not occur in Scots.


Among the earliest Scots literature is Barbour's Brus (14thC.). Whyntoun's Kronykil and Blind Harry's Wallace (15thC.) From the 13thC much literature based around the Royal Court in Edinburgh and the University of St. Andrews was produced by writers such as Henrysoun, Dunbar, Douglas and Lynsay.

After the seventeenth century anglicisation increased though Scots was still spoken by the vast majority of the population. At the time many of the oral ballads from the Borders and the North East were written down. Writers of the period were Sempill, Lady Wardlaw and Lady Grizel Baillie.

In the 18thC. writers like Ramsay, Fergusson, Burns and Scott continued to use Scots. Scott introduced vernacular dialogue to his novels.

Following their example such well known authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, William Alexander, George MacDonald, and J. M. Barrie also wrote in Scots or used it in dialogue.

In the early 20thC. a renaissance in the use of Scots occurred, its most vocal figure being Hugh MacDiarmid. Other contemporaries were Douglas Young, Sidney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch and Robert McLellan.

In 1983 W.L. Lorimer's magnificent translation from the original Greek of the New Testament was published.

Highly anglicised Scots is often used in contemporary fiction, for example the Edinburgh dialect of Scots in Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (later made into a movie of the same name, though with language allegedly anglicised even more to make it suitable for an international audience).


There are at least five Scots dialects:

As well as the main dialects, Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow have local variations on an anglicised form of Central Scots. In Aberdeen, Mid Northern Scots is spoken.


Many writers now strictly avoid apostrophes where they supposedly represent "missing" English letters. These letters never were "missing" in Scots. For example in the twelfth century Barbour spelled the Scots equivalent of 'taken' tane. Since there has been no k in this word for over 700 years representing its omission with an apostrophe seems pointless. The current spelling is usually taen. The following is more a guide for readers. How the spellings are applied in practice is beyond the scope of such a short description. Phonetics in Sampa.


Most consonants are usually pronounced much as in English but:
<c> for /k/ or /s/ much as in English.
<ch> for /x/, also <gh>. Medial <cht> may be /D/ in Northern dialects. loch (Lake), nicht (night), dochter (daughter), dreich (dreary) etc.
<ch> word initial or where it follows <r> /tS/. \airch (arch), mairch (march) etc.
<kn> /n/. In Northern dialects /kn/ or /tn/ may occur. knap (talk), Knee, knowe (knoll) etc.
<ng> is always /N/.
<nch> usually /ntS/. brainch (branch), dunch (push) etc.
<s> and <se> for /s/ or /z/.
<r> /r/ is always pronounced.
<t> may be a glottal stop between vowels or word final.
<th> /D/ or /T/ much as is English. Initial <th> in thing, think and thank etc. may be /h/.
<wh> usually /hw/, older /xhw/. Northern dialects also have /f/.
<wr> /wr/ more often /r/ but may be /vr/ in Northern dialects. wrack (wreck), wrang (wrong),write, wrocht (worked) etc.
<z> may occur in some words as a substitute for the older <3> (yogh) /jI/ or /N/. e.g. brulzie (broil), gaberlunzie (a beggar) and the name Menzies etc.

Silent letters

The word final <d> in <nd> and <ld> but often pronounced in derived forms. Sometimes simply <n> and <l> or <n'> and <l'>. auld (old), haund (hand) etc.
<t> in medial <cht> (<ch> = /x/) and <st> and before final <en>. fochten (fought), thristle (thistle) also <t> in aften (often), etc.
<t> in word final <ct> and <pt> but often pronounced in derived forms. respect, accept etc.


In Scots, vowel length is usually conditioned by the Scots Vowel Length Rule. Words which differ only slightly in pronunciation from Scots English are generally spelled as in English. Other words may be spelled the same but differ in pronunciation e.g. aunt, swap, want and wash with /a/, bull, full v. and pull with /V/, bind, find and wind v. etc. with /I/.

The unstressed vowel /@/ may be represented by any vowel letter.
<a> usually /a/ but final in awa (away), twa (two) and wha (who) may also be /A, O/ or /e/ depending on dialect.
<au>, <aw> and sometimes <a>, <a'> or <aa> is /A/ or /O/ in Southern, Central and Ulster dialects but /a/ in Northern dialects. The cluster <auld> may also be /Vul/ in Ulster. aw (all), cauld (cold), braw (handsome), faw (fall), snaw (snow) etc.
<ae>, <ai>, <a(consonant)e> usually /e/. Often /E/ before /r/. In Northern dialects the vowel in the cluster <-ane> is often /i/. brae (slope), saip (soap), hale (whole), hure (whore), ane (one), ance (once), bane (bone) etc.
<ea> <ei> and <ie> usually /i/ or /e/ depending on dialect. /E/ may occur before /r/. Root final this may be /@i/ in Southern dialects. In the far north /@i/ may occur. deid (dead), heid (head), meat (food), clear, speir (enquire), sea etc.
<ee> and <e(Consonant)e> usually /i/. Root final this may be /@i/ in Southern dialects. ee (eye), een (eyes), steek (shut), here etc.
<e> usually /E/. bed, het (heated), yett (gate) etc.
<eu> for /(j)u/ or /(j)V/ depending on dialect. Sometimes erroneously <oo>, <u(consonant)e>, <u> or <ui>. beuk (book), ceuk (cook), eneuch (enough), leuk (look), teuk (took) etc.
<ew> usually /ju/. In Northern dialects a root final <ew> may be /jVu/. few, new etc.
<i> usually /I/ but often varies between /I/ and /V/ especially after <w> and <wh>. /{/ also occurs in Ulster before voiceless consonants. big, fit (foot), wid (wood) etc.
<i(consonant)e>, <y(consonant)e> and <ey> usually /@i/ or /aI/. <ay> is usually /e/ but /@i/ in ay (yes) and aye (always).
<o> usually /O/ but often /o/.
<oa> usually /o/.
<ow> and <owe>, seldom <ou> usually /Vu/. Before <k> vocalisation to /o/ may occur. bowe (bow), howe (hollow), knowe (knoll), yowe (ewe) etc.
<ou>, <oo> and <u(consonant)e> usually /u/ Root final /Vu/ may occur in Southern dialects. cou (cow), broun (brown), hoose (house), moose (mouse) etc.
<u> usually /V/. but, cut etc.
<ui>, also <u(consonant)e> and <oo> usually /2/ in conservative dialects. In Northern dialects usually /i/ but /wi/ after /g/ and /k/. In Central dialects /I/ when short and /e/ when long. buird (board), buit (boot), cuit (ankle), fluir (floor), guid (good), schuil (school) etc. In central dialects uise v. and uiss n. (use) are [je:z] and [jIs].


Negative <na> /A, I/ or /e/ depending on dialect. Also <nae> or <y> e.g. canna (can’t), dinna (don’t) and maunna (mustn’t).
<fu> (ful), /u, I, A/ or /e/ depending on dialect. Also <fu'>, <fie>, <fy>, <fae> and <fa>.
The word ending <ae> /A, I/ or /e/ depending on dialect. Also <a>, <ow> or <y> e.g. arrae (arrow), barrae (barrow) and windae (window) etc.

Some grammar features


Nouns usually form their plural in –(e)s but some irregular plurals occur: ee/een (eye/eyes), cauf/caur (calf/calves), horse/horse (horse/horses), cou/kye (cow/cows), shae/shuin (shoe/shoes). Nouns of measure and quantity unchanged in the plural fower fit (four feet), twa mile (two miles), five pund (five pounds), three hunderwecht (three hundredweight). Regular plurals include laifs (loaves), shelfs (shelves) and wifes (wives) etc.


Diminutives in –ie, burnie small burn (brook), feardie/feartie (frightened person, coward), gamie (gamekeeper), kiltie (kilted soldier), postie (postman), wifie (woman), rhodie (rhododendron), in -ock, bittock (little bit), playock (toy, plaything), sourock (sorrel) and Northern –ag, bairnag (little) bairn (child), Cheordag (Geordie), -ockie, hooseockie (small house), wifeockie (little woman).

Modal verbs

The modal verbs mey (may), ocht tae (ought to), and sall (shall), aren’t usually used in Scots but occur in anglicised literary Scots. Can, shoud (should). shoud and will are the preferred Scots forms. Scots employs double modal constructions He'll no can come the day (He won't be able to come today), A micht coud come the morn (I may be able to come tomorrow), A uised tae coud dae it, but no nou (I could do it once, but not now).

Present tense of verbs

The present tense of verbs ends in –s in all persons and numbers except when a single personal pronoun is next to the verb, Thay say he's ower wee, Thaim that says he's ower wee, Thir lassies says he's ower wee (They say he's too small), etc. Thay’re comin an aw but Five o thaim's comin, The lassies? Thay've went but Ma brakes haes went. Thaim that comes first is serred first (Those who come first are served first). The trees growes green in simmer (The trees grow green in summer).

Wis 'was' may replace war 'were', but not conversely: You war/wis thare.

Past tense of verbs

The regular past form of the verb is –it or –t(e)d, according to the preceding consonant or vowel hurtit, skelpit (smacked), Mendit, kent/kenned (knew/known), cleant/cleaned, scrieved (scribbled), telt/tauld (told), dee’d (died). Some verbs have distinctive forms greet/grat/grutten (weep/wept), fesh/fuish/fuishen (fetch/fetched), lauch/leuch/lauchen (laugh/laughed), gae/gaed/gane (go/went), gie/gied/gien (give/gave/given), pit/pat/pitten (put/put/put/), git/gat/gotten (got/got/got).

Word order

Scots prefers the word order He turnt oot the licht to He turned the light out and Gie me it to Give it me.

Certain verbs are often used progressively He wis thinkin he wad tell her, He wis wantin tae tell her.

Verbs of motion may dropped before an adverb or adverbial phrase of motion A’m awa tae ma bed, That’s me awa hame, A’ll intae the hoose an see him.

Ordinal numbers

Ordinal numbers ending in –t seicont, fowert, fift, saxt - (second, fourth, fifth, sixth) etc. first, Thrid/third - (first, third).


Adverbs are usually of the same form as the verb root or adjective especially after verbs. Haein a real guid day (Having a really good day). She's gey fauchelt (She's awfully tired).
Adverbs are also formed with –s, -lies, lins, gate(s)and wey(s) –wey, whiles (at times), mebbes (perhaps), brawlies (splendidly), geylies (pretty well), aiblins (perhaps), airselins (backwards), hauflins (partly), hidlins (secretly), maistlins (almost), awgates (always, everywhere), ilkagate (everywhere), onygate (anyhow), ilkawey (everywhere), onywey(s) (anyhow, anywhere), endweys (straight ahead), whit wey (how, why).

Subordinate clauses

Verbless subordinate clauses introduced by an and expressing surprise or indignation She haed tae walk the hale lenth o the road an her sieven month pregnant, He telt me tae rin an me wi ma sair leg (and me with my sore leg).


Negation occurs by using the adverb no, in the North East nae, as in A'm no comin (I'm not coming), or by using the suffix –na (pronunciation depending on dialect), as in A dinna ken (I don’t know), Thay canna come (They can’t come), We coudna hae telt him (We couldn't have told him), and A hivna seen her (I haven't seen her). The usage with no is preferred to that with –na. With contractable auxiliary verbs like –ll for will, or in yes no questions with any auxiliary He'll no come and Did he no come?

Relative pronoun

The relative pronoun is that for all persons and numbers, but may be left out Thare's no mony fowk (that) leeves in that glen (There aren't many people who live in that glen). The anglicised forms wha, wham, whase 'who, whom, whose', and the older whilk 'which' are literary affectations, whilk is only used after a statement He said he'd tint it, whilk wis no whit we wantit tae hear. The possessive is formed by adding ’s or by using an appropriate pronoun The wifie that’s hoose gat burnt, the wumman that her dochter gat mairit; the men that thair boat wis tint.

A third adjective/adverb yon/yonder, thon/thonder indicating something at Some distance D’ye see yon/thon hoose ower yonder/thonder? Also thae (those) and thir (these), the plurals of this and that. In Northern Scots this and that remain so in the plural.

Related topics

See also History of the Scots language

External links