What is Scots?

Scots is the collective name for a number of dialects spoken throughout Scotland. These include Doric, spoken in the North East, Insular Scots, spoken in the Orkney and Shetland islands, and Southern Scots, spoken in the Borders, as well as many others.

Scots is sometimes referred to as a dialect and sometimes as a language. Which is it?

The OED describes a dialect as ‘a form or variety of a language which is peculiar to a specific region’. A language is often the term given to a group of dialects which are mutually intelligible, however, some languages (such as Chinese) are made up of dialects which are not mutually intelligible and some groups of languages (such as Swedish, Norwegian and Danish) are mutually intelligible. In linguistic terms, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to differentiating between a language and a dialect, thus often the decision is based on political and/or social, rather than linguistic, concerns.

The information about some examples sometimes refers to “varieties of Scots”: what does this mean?

People sometimes think that ‘dialect’ suggests a type of language use that is ‘substandard’ in some way. In order to avoid that kind of connotation, linguists sometimes use ‘variety’ as a more neutral term.

Where does Scots come from?

Scots is said to have developed from the Germanic language of Old English, and specifically Northumbrian English. Over the centuries Scots moved away from this original source, developing its own words, sounds and structures.

Is Scots related to Gaelic?

While Gaelic is a Celtic language, Scots is a Germanic language, so the two actually come from very different sources. Nowadays, Gaelic speakers are mostly found in the Western Isles but speakers of Scots can be found all over Scotland.

Does everyone in Scotland speak Scots?

Scots might be regarded as a continuum, with Broad Scots at one end, and Standard Scottish English at the other. Standard Scottish English speakers might have Scots sounds in their speech, but generally the words and sentence structures are similar to those used in Standard English. At the Broad Scots end of the continuum, speakers use Scots words, sounds and sentence structures. Most people in Scotland will be placed somewhere along this continuum, depending on things such as where they come from, where they work and how old they are.

Aren’t many of the sentences found in the Atlas just wrong? Shouldn’t people learn to speak “proper English”?

We tend to think that standard English is the ‘correct’ form of the language, and that any other dialect or closely related language is ‘wrong’. And certainly there are times when it might be more appropriate to use a more standard version of a language, for example, when talking to someone in court. However, linguistic research shows that ‘nonstandard’ dialects have complex ‘rules’ of use, just like standard varieties. For instance, in standard English you can say those books but not those book. In Glasgow, you can say they books, but not they book.  So what this means is that instead of dialects having no rules, they simply have different rules.

Your page on here it’s says that it is characteristic of Glasgow. I’m from Glasgow but would never say that. Does this mean that the Atlas is wrong, or I’m wrong?

Even within specific regions, there are differences in how people speak. What we show here is what the speakers in a particular region reported when we asked them about particular forms. In future, we’d like to include many more speakers in our Atlas to see in more fine-grained detail who says what and where. Watch this space!