Scottish English

Not to be confused with Scots language.

Scottish English refers to the varieties of English spoken in Scotland. The main, formal variety is called Scottish Standard English or Standard Scottish English (SSE).[1][2][3][4] Scottish Standard English may be defined as "the characteristic speech of the professional class [in Scotland] and the accepted norm in schools".[5] IETF language tag for "Scottish Standard English" is en-Scotland.[6]

In addition to distinct pronunciation, grammar and expressions, Scottish English has distinctive vocabulary, particularly pertaining to Scottish institutions such as the Church of Scotland, local government and the education and legal systems.

Scottish Standard English is at one end of a bipolar linguistic continuum, with focused broad Scots at the other.[7] Scottish English may be influenced to varying degrees by Scots.[8][9] Many Scots speakers separate Scots and Scottish English as different registers depending on social circumstances.[10] Some speakers code switch clearly from one to the other while others style shift in a less predictable and more fluctuating manner.[10] Generally there is a shift to Scottish English in formal situations or with individuals of a higher social status.[11]


Scottish English results from language contact between Scots and the Standard English of England after the 17th century. The resulting shifts to English usage by Scots-speakers resulted in many phonological compromises and lexical transfers, often mistaken for mergers by linguists unfamiliar with the history of Scottish English.[12] Furthermore, the process was also influenced by interdialectal forms, hypercorrections and spelling pronunciations.[13] (See the section on phonology below.)


A Book of Psalms printed in the reign of James VI and I

Convention traces the influence of the English of England upon Scots to the 16th-century Reformation and to the introduction of printing.[14] Printing arrived in London in 1476, but the first printing press was not introduced to Scotland for another 30 years.[15] Texts such as the Geneva Bible, printed in English, were widely distributed in Scotland in order to spread Protestant doctrine.

King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603. Since England was the larger and richer of the two Kingdoms, James moved his court to London in England. The poets of the court therefore moved south and "began adapting the language and style of their verse to the tastes of the English market".[16] To this event McClure attributes "[t]he sudden and total eclipse of Scots as a literary language".[16] The continuing absence of a Scots translation of the Bible meant that the translation of King James into English was used in worship in both countries.

The Acts of Union 1707 amalgamated the Scottish and English Parliaments. However the church, educational and legal structures remained separate. This leads to important professional distinctions in the definitions of some words and terms. There are therefore words with precise definitions in Scottish English which have either no place in English English or have a different definition.


Speech example
An example of a Scottish male with a middle-class Renfrewshire accent

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The speech of the middle classes in Scotland tends to conform to the grammatical norms of the written standard, particularly in situations that are regarded as formal. Highland English is slightly different from the variety spoken in the Lowlands in that it is more phonologically, grammatically, and lexically influenced by a Gaelic substratum. Similarly, the English spoken in the North-East of Scotland tends to follow the phonology and grammar of Doric.

Although pronunciation features vary among speakers (depending on region and social status), there are a number of phonological aspects characteristic of Scottish English:

Monophthongs of Scottish English (from Scobbie, Gordeeva & Matthews (2006:7))
Scottish English vowels[21] (many individual words do not correspond)
Pure vowels
Help key Scottish English Examples
/ɪ/ [ë̞~ɪ] bid, pit
/iː/ [i] bead, peat
/ɛ/ [ɛ~ɛ̝] bed, pet
/eɪ/ [e(ː)] bay, hey, fate
/æ/ [ä] bad, pat
/ɑː/ balm, father, pa
/ɒ/ [ɔ] bod, pot, cot
/ɔː/ bawd, paw, caught
/oʊ/ [o(ː)]
road, stone, toe
/ʊ/ [ʉ] good, foot, put
/uː/ booed, food
/ʌ/ [ʌ~ɐ] bud, putt
/aɪ/ [ɐi~ɜi~əi] buy, ride, write
/aʊ/ [ɐʉ~ɜʉ~əʉ]
how, pout
/ɔɪ/ [oi] boy, hoy
/juː/ [jʉ] hue, pew, new
R-coloured vowels (these do not exist in Scots)
/ɪr/ [ɪɹ] or [ɪɾ] mirror, fir, thirst
/ɪər/ [i(ː)ə̞ɹ] or [iəɾ] beer, mere
/ɛr/ [ɛ̝ɹ] or [ɛ̝ɾ] berry, merry (also in her)
/ɛər/ [e(ː)ə̞ɹ] or [eəɾ] bear, mare, Mary
/ær/ [ä(ː)ɹ] or [äɾ] barrow, marry
/ɑr/ bar, card
/ɒr/ [ɔ(ː)ɹ] or [ɔɾ] moral, forage
/ɔr/ born, for
/ɔər/ [oː(ə̞)ɹ] or [oɾ] boar, four, more
/ʊər/ [ʉɹ] or [ʉɾ] boor, moor
/ʌr/ [ʌɹ] or [ʌɾ] hurry, Murray (also in fur)
/ɜr/ (ɝ) 3-way distinction:
[ɪɹ], [ɛ̝ɹ], [ʌɹ]; or
[ɪɾ], [ɛ̝ɾ], [ʌɾ]
bird, herd, furry
Reduced vowels
/ɨ/ roses, business
/ə/ [ə] Rosa's, cuppa
/ər/ (ɚ) [əɹ] or [əɾ] runner, mercer


Main article: Scotticism

Scotticisms are idioms or expressions that are characteristic of Scots, especially when used in English.[22] They are more likely to occur in spoken than written language.[23]

Examples include:

Scotticisms are generally divided into two types:[25] covert Scotticisms, which generally go unnoticed as being particularly Scottish by those using them, and overt Scotticisms, usually used for stylistic effect, with those using them aware of their Scottish nature.


An example of "outwith" on a sign in Scotland

Scottish English has inherited a number of lexical items from Scots,[26] which are comparatively rare in other forms of standard English.

General items are wee, the Scots word for small (also common in New Zealand English, probably under Scottish influence); bairn for child (from Common Germanic,[27] cf modern Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Faroese barn, West Frisian bern and also used in Northern English dialects); bonnie for pretty, attractive, (or good looking, handsome, as in the case of Bonnie Prince Charlie); braw for fine; muckle for big; spail for splinter, snib for bolt, pinkie for little finger, janitor for school caretaker (these last two are also standard in American English), outwith, meaning 'outside of'; cowp for tip or spill, fankle for a tangled mess. Kirk for church has parallels in other Germanic languages (cf kirche which was also found in archaic names of some ancient churches in e.g. London). Examples of culturally specific items are Hogmanay; caber, haggis, bothy; scone; oatcake; tablet; rone (roof gutter); teuchter, ned, numpty (witless person; now more common in the rest of the UK) and landward (rural); It's your shot for "It's your turn"; and the once notorious but now redundant tawse.

The diminutive ending "-ie" is added to nouns to indicate smallness, as in laddie and lassie for a young boy and young girl. Other examples are peirie (child's wooden spinning top) and sweetie (piece of confectionery). The ending can be added to many words instinctively, e.g. bairn (see above) can become bairnie, a small shop can become a wee shoppie.

The use of "How?" meaning "Why?" is distinctive of Scottish, Northern English and Northern Irish English. "Why not?" is often rendered as "How no?".

There is a range of (often anglicised) legal and administrative vocabulary inherited from Scots[28] e.g. depute /ˈdɛpjut/ for deputy, proven /ˈproːvən/ for proved (standard in American English), interdict for '"injunction"[29][30] and sheriff-substitute for "acting sheriff'". In Scottish education a short leet is a list of selected job applicants, and a remit is a detailed job description. Provost is used for "mayor" and procurator fiscal for "public prosecutor".

Often, lexical differences between Scottish English and Southern Standard English are simply differences in the distribution of shared lexis, such as stay for "live" (as in: where do you stay?).


The progressive verb forms are used rather more frequently than in other varieties of standard English, for example with some stative verbs (I'm wanting a drink). The future progressive frequently implies an assumption (You'll be coming from Glasgow?).

In some areas perfect aspect of a verb is indicated using "be" as auxiliary with the preposition "after" and the present participle: for example "He is after going" instead of "He has gone" (this construction is borrowed from Scottish Gaelic).

The definite article tends to be used more frequently in phrases such as I've got the cold/the flu, he's at the school, I'm away to the kirk.

Speakers often use prepositions differently. The compound preposition off of is often used (Take that off of the table). Scots commonly say I was waiting on you (meaning "waiting for you"), which means something quite different in Standard English.

In colloquial speech shall and ought are scarce, must is marginal for obligation and may is rare. Many syntactical features of SSE are found in other forms of English, e.g. English language in England and North American English:

Note that in Scottish English, the first person declarative I amn't invited and interrogative Amn't I invited? are both possible. Contrast English language in England, which has Aren't I? but no contracted declarative form. (All varieties have I'm not invited.)

See also


  1. "SCOTS - Corpus Details". Scottish Corpus of Texts and Speech.
  2. "… Scottish Standard English, the standard form of the English language spoken in Scotland", Ordnance Survey
  3. "Teaching Secondary English in Scotland - Scottish Corpus of Texts and Speech". Retrieved 2010-04-30.
  4. Although there is some debate about the usefulness of the word standard here, most academics agree on the use of the abbreviation SSE in order to distinguish the variety from the geographically English Standard English, which is normally abbreviated to SE.
  5. McClure (1994), pp. 79-80
  7. Stuart-Smith J. Scottish English: Phonology in Varieties of English: The British Isles, Kortman & Upton (Eds), Mouton de Gruyter, New York 2008. p.47
  8. Stuart-Smith J. Scottish English: Phonology in Varieties of English: The British Isles, Kortman & Upton (Eds), Mouton de Gruyter, New York 2008. p.48
  9. Macafee C. Scots in Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 11, Elsevier, Oxford, 2005. p.33
  10. 1 2 Aitken A.J. Scottish Speech in Languages of Scotland, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Occasional Paper 4, Edinburgh:Chambers 1979. p.85
  11. Aitken A.J. Scottish Speech in Languages of Scotland, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Occasional Paper 4, Edinburgh:Chambers 1979. p.86
  12. Macafee, C. (2004). "Scots and Scottish English." in Hikey R.(ed.),. Legacies of Colonial English: Studies in Transported Dialects. Cambridge: CUP. p. 60-61
  13. Macafee, C. (2004). "Scots and Scottish English.". in In Hikey R.(ed.),. Legacies of Colonial English: Studies in Transported Dialects. Cambridge: CUP. p.61
  14. McClure (1994), pp. 33ff
  15. "Place in history - First Scottish Books - National Library of Scotland".
  16. 1 2 McClure (1994), p. 36
  17. Lodge, Ken (2009). A Critical Introduction to Phonetics. A & C Black. p. 180
  18. "Wir Ain Leid". section "Consonants". Retrieved 18 March 2012.
  19. 1 2 Wells, pp. 399 ff.
  20. Wells, p. 405.
  21. Heggarty, Paul et al, eds. (2013). "Accents of English from Around the World". University of Edinburgh.
  22. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2008-04-21. An idiom or mode of expression characteristic of Scots; esp. as used by a writer of English.
  23. Aitken A.J. Scottish Speech in Languages of Scotland, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Occasional Paper 4, Edinburgh:Chambers 1979. p.105
  24. stookie in the Dictionary of the Scots Language (see sense 2)
  25. Aitken, A.J. Scottish Accents and Dialects in Trudgil, P. Language in the British Isles. 1984. p.105-108
  26. Aitken A.J. Scottish Speech in Languages of Scotland, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Occasional Paper 4, Edinburgh:Chambers 1979. p.106-107
  27. "Home : Oxford English Dictionary".
  28. Murison, David (1977, ²1978) The Guid Scots Tongue, Edinburgh, William Blackwood, pp. 53-54
  29. "Dictionary of the Scots Language :: SND :: Interdict n., v". Retrieved 2015-12-25.
  30. "interdict - definition of interdict in English from the Oxford dictionary". Retrieved 2015-12-25.
  31. "Scottish Standard English".


  • Abercrombie, D. (1979). "The accents of Standard English in Scotland.". In In A. J. Aitken; T. McArthur. Languages of Scotland. Edinburgh: Chambers. pp. 65–84. 
  • Aitken, A. J. (1979) "Scottish speech: a historical view with special reference to the Standard English of Scotland" in A. J. Aitken and Tom McArthur eds. Languages of Scotland, Edinburgh: Chambers, 85-118. Updated in next.
  • Corbett, John, J. Derrick McClure, and Jane Stuart-Smith (eds.) (2003). Edinburgh Student Companion to Scots. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-7486-1596-2. 
  • Foulkes, Paul; & Docherty, Gerard. J. (Eds.) (1999). Urban Voices: Accent Studies in the British Isles. London: Arnold. ISBN 0-340-70608-2. 
  • Hughes, A., Trudgill, P. & Watt, D. (Eds.) (2005). English Accents and Dialects (4th Ed.). London: Arnold. ISBN 0-340-88718-4. 
  • Macafee, C. (2004). "Scots and Scottish English.". In Hikey R. Legacies of Colonial English: Studies in Transported Dialects. Cambridge: CUP. 
  • McClure, J. Derrick (1994) "English in Scotland", in Burchfield, Robert (1994). The Cambridge History of the English Language, volume v. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-26478-2. 
  • Scobbie, James M.; Gordeeva, Olga B.; Matthews, Benjamin (2006). "Acquisition of Scottish English Phonology: an overview". Edinburgh: QMU Speech Science Research Centre Working Papers. 
  • Scobbie, James M., Nigel Hewlett, and Alice Turk (1999). "Standard English in Edinburgh and Glasgow: The Scottish Vowel Length Rule revealed.". In Paul Foulkes; Gerard J. Docherty. Urban Voices: Accent Studies in the British Isles. London: Arnold. pp. 230–245. 
  • Scobbie, James M., Olga B. Gordeeva, and Benjamin Matthews (2007). "Scottish English Speech Acquisition.". In Sharynne McLeod. The International Guide to Speech Acquisition. Clifton Park, NY: Thomson Delmar Learning. pp. 221–240. 
  • Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22919-7. (vol. 1). ISBN 0-521-24224-X (vol. 2)., ISBN 0-521-24225-8 (vol. 3). 

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