English Dialectology


Scotland actually has more variation in dialects than England! The variations do have a few things in common, though, besides a large particularly Scottish vocabulary:

  • rolled r’s.
  • “pure” vowels (/e:/ rather than /ei/, /o:/ rather than /ou/)
  • /u:/ is often fronted to /ö/ or /ü/, e.g. boot, good, muin (moon), poor…

There are several “layers” of Scottish English. Most people today speak standard English with little more than the changes just mentioned, plus a few particular words that they themselves view as normal English, such as to jag (to prick) and burn (brook). In rural areas, many older words and grammatical forms, as well as further phonetic variations, still survive, but are being rapidly replaced with more standard forms. But when a Scottish man (or woman) wants to show his pride in his heritage, he may resort to quite a few traditional variations in his speech. First, the phonetics:

  • /oi/, /ai/, and final /ei/ > /’i/, e.g. oil, wife, tide…
  • final /ai/ > /i/, e.g. ee (eye), dee (die), lee (lie)…
  • /ou/ > /ei/, e.g. ake (oak), bate (boat), hame (home), stane (stone), gae (go)…
  • /au/ > /u:/, e.g. about, house, cow, now… (often spelled oo or u)
  • /o/ > /a:/, e.g. saut (salt), law, aw (all)…
  • /ou/ > /a:/, e.g. auld (old), cauld (cold), snaw (snow)…
  • /æ/ > /a/, e.g. man, lad, sat…
  • also: pronounce the ch’s and gh’s that are silent in standard English as /kh/: nicht, licht, loch…

Plus, the grammar:

  • Past tense: often, all forms follow the third person singular (they wis, instead of they were).
  • Past tense (weak verbs): -it after plosives (big > biggit); -t after n, l, r, and all other unvoiced consonants (ken > kent); -ed after vowels and all other voiced consonants (luv > luved).
  • Past tense (strong verbs): come > cam, gang > gaed and many more.
  • On the other hand, many verbs that are strong in standard English are weak in Scottish English: sell > sellt, tell > tellt, mak > makkit, see > seet, etc.
  • Past participle is usually the same as the past (except for many strong verbs, as in standard English)
  • Present participle: -in (ken > kennin)
  • The negative of many auxiliary verbs is formed with -na: am > amna, hae (have) > hinna, dae (do) > dinna, can > canna, etc.
  • Irregular plurals: ee > een (eyes), shae > shuin (shoes), coo > kye (cows).
  • Common diminutives in -ie: lass > lassie, hoose > hoosie…
  • Common adjective ending: -lik (= -ish)
  • Demonstratives come in four pairs (singular/plural): this/thir, that/thae, thon/thon, yon/yon.
  • Relative pronouns: tha or at.
  • Interrogative pronouns: hoo, wha, whan, whase, whaur, whatna, whit.
  • Each or every is ilka; each one is ilk ane.
  • Numbers: ane, twa, three, fower, five, sax, seeven, aucht, nine, ten, aleeven, twal…

And finally, the many unique words: lass, bairn (child), kirk (church), big (build), bonny, greet (weep), ingle (household fire), aye (yes), hame (home)… As you can see, Scottish English in its original glory is as near to being different language as one can get, rather than simply another dialect of English. See Clive P L Young’s Scots Haunbuik at http://www.electricscotland.com/tourist/sh_gram.htm for more detail.

There are also several urban dialects, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The thick dialect of the working class of Edinburgh can be heard in the movie Trainspotting.

In the Highlands, especially the Western Islands, English is often people’s second language, the first being Scottish Gaelic. Highland English is pronounced in a lilting fashion with pure vowels. It is, actually, one of the prettiest varieties of English I have ever heard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *