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Scottish – An independent language?

English is a truly global language, spoken by an estimated 360 million people worldwide as their first language with a further 500 million who speak it as a second language.

Due to the huge number of people globally that speak English to some level, it is not unusual to hear English used as a lingua franca to facilitate communication between people across the world.

It is perhaps somewhat ironic then that the English spoken throughout the British Isles can be some of the hardest to understand; nowhere more so than in Scotland.

In the run up to the vote on Scottish independence, many television viewers from around the world have been treated to samples of various Scottish dialects that would normally not receive as much exposure.

Comprising numerous dialects across the country, it is possible to divide the country into four separate regions – The Highlands, the Scottish Lowlands, the northeast and the islands each contain many unique accents and dialects but in these divisions contain more similarities than differences.

Scottish English developed from language contact between the Scots language of the Scottish lowlands, considered a sister language to English, and Standard English after the Act of Union united the Kingdoms of Scotland and England.

The Scots language, not to be confused with Scots Gaelic, developed out of Northumbrian Old English, then later early Northern Middle English. Changes began to occur due to the impact of immigrants to Scotland from the north and midlands of England who at the time spoke a version of Middle English that had taken a huge influence from Old Norse. Scots was then shifted further by the Auld Alliance with France, a relationship that lasted for 265 years and infused Scots with both Norman and Parisian French.

Highlands English has a far more Gaelic influence on vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax than any other dialect in Scotland. Often, the accent that accompanies Highland English can often be mistaken for Irish, the accents of Highland English and Hiberno-English have more in common than Highland English has with other Scottish dialects, most likely due to the Gaelic influence on both dialects.

Doric is possibly the hardest dialect to understand, even leaving some fellow Scots baffled. Doric is the dialect spoken in the northeast of Scotland, drawing influence from Scots, Gaelic and Scandinavian languages.

The term Doric is something of a linguistic joke, referring to the Dorians of Ancient Greece who were thought of as uncivilised by the Athenians of the time. Doric came to mean rustic in English.

Doric employs some fantastically colourful vocabulary.

  • Allagrugous – awful, terrible
  • Bosie – hug, cuddle
  • Cat-sookins – wet, limp hair
  • Fan div ye yoke? –  When do you start work?
  • foggy bummer – Bumblebee
  • Heid-bummer – boss
  • Fit – what
  • Quine – girl

These are just a few examples of the extensive vocabulary used in Doric.

Famously, the Glaswegian dialect is often cited as the hardest dialect and accent to decipher for visitors to the UK. Historically Glasgow has been a beacon for immigrants over the years, from the highlanders displaced during the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries to the mass exodus of the Irish during the famine.

This influx of different accents and dialects had a strong influence on the West Scots/Central Scots dialects of the time and has resulted in quite unique idioms, vocabulary and pronunciation. These, coupled with the often quick-fire delivery serves to make Glaswegian a somewhat impenetrable dialect. In a recent study, Londoners failed to understand two out of every three sentences delivered in Glaswegian.

In formal settings, most business is conducted in Standard Scottish English, an altogether easier accent to understand. Scotland has worked and traded globally with great success for hundreds of years. There is a big difference between the vernacular of the office and that of the pub and street. While bewildered tourists may be a common sight around Glasgow, the boardrooms of companies in Scotland do not display the same phenomena. However, if you do find yourself with an upcoming meeting in Scotland, it may be worth your while revisiting some classic Billy Connolly routines to prepare.

As the vote for Scottish independence draws near much has been made of Scotland’s ability to present itself as an individual nation, separate to England and the rest of the UK. Certainly, linguistically, Scotland has done just that for hundreds of years.

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