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Brief Introduction to Scots

Scots is a germanic language related to English, German and Dutch. It has commonalities with many of the germanic languages.


– Northumbrian English 11th century
– Pre literary Scots -to 1375
– Early Scots to 1450
– Middle Scots to 1700
– Modern Scots era begins 1700 onwards

Detailed History of the Language

– Northumbrian lands become part of Scotland in 11th Century
– Speakers of Northumbrian Old English settle in South East Scotland(Mainly the Lothians)
– Divergence from Northumbrian English due to influence from Norse speaking Scandanavians, Dutch speakers, German speakers, French, Latin and also Scots Gaelic (Gaidhlig)
– First Scots literature was 13th century epic poem ‘The Brus’ by John Barbour
– From 14th century, Scots was becoming Scots official language used by court and parliament. It was the language of law and considered a prestige language on par with Latin and French. Before this time Scots was known as ‘Inglis’ while the term ‘Scots’ referred to Scots Gaelic. From the 14th century Scots Gaelic was put down as ‘Erse’ or Irish while ‘Scots’ referred to the Germanic language. Scots received Royal patronage with the king and his court poets using Scots. This was the time of William Dunbar and a high point for Scots literature under King James IV
– In 1559, textbooks written in Scots were teaching it as a language
– 1580s-1590s: The Castalian Band, a group of Scots poets, arose during reign of King James IV(4th)
– From 1610-1690s, Plantation of Ulster in Ireland meant about 20,000 Scots settled in Ireland and thus arose Ulster Scots
– After the union of crowns (1606) there was remodelling of Scots to anglicize spellings etc
– After the Union (1707) Schools arose for Scots speakers to divest themselves of ‘Scotticisms’.This was taken up by some upper class elites while common people still spoke Scots. There was some resistance to the anglification with some writers holding fast to Scots
– By the time of Robert Burns it was conventional for Scots writing to use what was called ‘the Apologetic Apostrophe’ on words for example “tane” which means taken was spelt “ta’en”. This contributed to a perception of Scots as a mere dialect of English.
Many describe how up until the abolition of corporal punishment in schools they were belted or beaten for speaking Scots.
The 20th Century saw a Scots and Scots gaelic ‘revival’ movement called ‘The Scottish Renaissance’ with figures like Robert Garioch, Helen Cruikshank, Hugh MacDiarmud and Tom Scott among others
– Fast forward to the modern era and Scots is recognised as a distinct language in The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and by the Scottish Government
– Modern Scots literature continues to flourish in poetry and prose. Modern scots has been represented on TV shows like Still Game and film such as Trainspotting. The situation of the past is slowly improving but not quite there yet.

8 Myths about Scots

1) Scots is a dead language
Reply: Go most places in Scotland and you will find it is not. It is the common language of a majority of people (which makes the EU calling it a minority language somewhat insulting). It’s spoken in the streets. Scottish people do not always realize they are using Scots at first due to the prejudice of those who call it a mere dialect and unfamiliarity with some words and their etymology.

2) Scots is dying
Reply: While it has suffered no doubt it continues to be spoken and written. It’s true it doesn’t have the prestige it did in previous centuries but that doesn’t mean it’s not longer used. I believe it will continue to be in use for a long time yet. In fact currently it seems written Scots is increasingly popular.

3) It’s just bad English
Reply: False. It has its own literature stretching back to the 13th century.

4) Scots is a mere dialect
Reply: This perception arose due to the apologetic apostrophe and anglicization of spellings.It was up until that point treated as an equal and distinct language as writing from the time shows.

5) There are Scots words like or spelled/sounded the same as English ones therefore it is not or not very different.
Reply: This results from what’s known as Cognates which is when a word shares a common heritage. It’s common in many languages the world over. Scots has ‘Ken’ meaning ‘to know’, Dutch has ‘Kennen’ and so does German. They all share a common ancestor. There’s also what’s called ‘False friends’ whereby words sound and/or are spelled the same but differ in meaning. The German word ‘Bekommen’ means to receive not to become as ‘become’ is in English. No one would say that a word which is similar to English in spelling or pronunciation in German or Spanish etc, was the same word or an English word. Scots gets treated unfairly and unjustly.

6) The Scots being used in literature is to some extent ‘synthetic’ and not of that speaker’s time or region.
Reply: This may or may not be true. But this is another of the double standards Scots is being held to. In English to use English words for all over, from any period or place is considered genius but for Scots speakers or writers it is denigrated. More properly using Scots this way is ‘broad Scots’. There’s nothing wrong with it. It is done in many languages. To say Scots speakers/writers must only use their own regional words is to place unfair constraints on their language usage.

7) Scots speakers/readers cannot recognize words therefore they are not fluent in the language
Reply: For a long time in the modern era, Scots speakers/readers/writers have been denied access to written forms of Scots. This situation is gradually changing. It’s just about becoming familiar with spellings, pronunciations and older words. It’s much the same as learning words in any language.
Few easily recognize and can understand Medieval English straight away without help.

8) There are some English words in common with Scots therefore they are not Scots words.
Reply: Both have a common heritage so this is likely to happen (this occurs in many other languages which exist side by side), as well as by cultural interchange with words from Scots being used by English speakers.

Well Known Scots Writers

John Barbour
William Dunbar
Allan Ramsay
Robert Fergusson
Robert Burns
William Soutar
Robert Garioch
Hugh MacDiarmid
Sydney Goodsir Smith
Tom Scott
Hamish Henderson
Edwin Morgan
Liz Lochhead
Jackie Kay
Tom Leonard
Sheena Blackhall
Matthew Fitt
Anne Donovan.
Billy Kay.

Some Scots Words

Auld Lang Syne
dree your weird
Tak Tent
Fash from French fasch (annoy)

Scots has a great many connections to words which come from Latin, French, German, Dutch and many of the other continental germanic languages as well as from Scots Gaelic.

Sources and some further info:

Own knowledge and experience as a lifelong speaker of the language. Scots and it’s European Roots. Scots and German Similiarities. I’ve chosen some scots and germanic etc words and compared them. sentence in germanic languages compared by me. of Scottish Language


One comment on “Brief Introduction to Scots

  1. helenjbeal
    August 12, 2012

    Excellent stuff – I learned a lot on there and am definitely inspired to read more Scots!

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This entry was posted on August 9, 2012 by in Linguistics and tagged .
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