Scottish speech doesn’t have a great reputation among English speakers. The Scots are regularly used as punchlines for their unintelligible, thick accents, along with their stereotypical kilts and bagpipes. But it isn’t just humans who ask themselves “What is Scots?” and who have trouble understanding them. Robots have trouble, too:
In fact, Scottish accents have become a test for voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. To address this, Google put out an open call for thick Scottish accents so they could try to teach Google Home how to understand them.
None of this is meant to show that Scottish people don’t know how to speak English “correctly.” It just happens that the Scottish accent is the most divergent from the American or British accent. If Silicon Valley were in Scotland instead of California, you could be sure Siri would have a thick Scottish brogue, and it wouldn’t be able to understand anyone else.
Why do the Scottish have such a notably thick accent? And what is Scots? Well, there just might be a language divide. Hundreds of years ago, when Middle English (or Inglis) was spreading throughout the British Isles, English-Scottish boundaries isolated two of the Middle English-speaking populations from one another. Middle English became Modern English for England, while Scotland developed its own way of speaking: Scots.
So What Is Scots — A Language Or A Dialect?
According to the 2011 census of the United Kingdom, there are about 90,000 native speakers of Scots. If you take into account the people who learned it as a second language, this number makes a massive leap to almost 1.6 million speakers.
Despite having so many self-proclaimed speakers, there’s disagreement over whether Scots should be considered a language, even among Scottish people. What is Scots? In one survey, 64 percent of respondents said that Scots was not a language. Even more interesting, people who said they frequently spoke Scots were less likely to say that it was a language than those who don’t speak Scots at all. That likely means Scots-speakers can understand English more easily than English-speakers can understand Scots.
Unfortunately, there’s no foolproof test for determining what’s a dialect and what’s a language. One of the more useful tools is looking at mutual intelligibility (even though there are separate languages that are mutually intelligible). We’ll leave intelligibility up to you. Can you understand this sample of Scots from a Scots Wikipedia entry?
Scots (or “Lallans”, a poetic spellins for lawlands) is a Wast Germanic leid o the Inglis varietie that’s spaken on the Lawlands an Northren Isles o Scotland an en tha stewartrie o Ulster en Ireland (whaur it’s kent as “Ulster-Scots”, “Scotch”, or “Ullans”). En maist airts, it’s spaken anent tha Scots Gaelic an Inglis leids.
In this sample alone, you can glean a few things about Scots and what is Scots. A number of words are exactly the same as they are in English (“Isles” and “is”). Several words are almost the same, except for the vowels (“maist” instead of “most,” “spaken” instead of “spoken”). Then there are words that are simply different (leids for “languages,” kent for “known”). Of course, if you are reading the language written down, you have a better chance of understanding it than if it were spoken to you in an accent. It should also be noted that Scots is not a monolith, with its own varieties spread throughout the country.
A Brief History Of Scots
English and Scots are very similar to each other, and that’s because they are both descended from Anglo-Saxon, or Old English. Before English arrived in the 6th century, the language of the area now known as Scotland was Gaelic. But with the invasion of tribes from the European mainland came linguistic diversity. The direct ancestor of Scots was brought to the British Isles by Germanic tribes, specifically the Angles and the Saxons. The new language started to gain influence, replacing Scots Gaelic in the Scots Court at some point after 1018, when the Scots-speaking region of Northumbria officially became part of Scotland in the Battle of Carham.
By the 16th century, Scots was the language of most people in Scotland. At this point, the Scots language had spent centuries developing separately from English. If this had continued, Scots would likely have continued changing and become its very own, very distinct language. But then, a convoluted succession of royalty ruined everything.
James Charles Stuart, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, became King James VI of Scotland in 1567 at just 13 months old after his mother was forced to abdicate the throne. Thanks to royal intermarriage, he was also the great great grandson of King Henry VII of England. When England’s Queen Elizabeth I died without leaving an heir, the English courts brought James in and he became King James I of England. As he ascended to the throne, he took the Scots Court with him to England, and all of a sudden the individual identity of Scotland was dealt a major blow.
Scotland was still technically independent until the 1707 Act of Union, which officially unified England and Scotland, forming the United Kingdom. English was the language of the church and the state, and Scots became regarded as an inferior dialect. In spite of that, Scots has not gone away, and it still remains a vital part of the Scottish identity.
The 21st Century Scots Revival — What Is Scots In Recent History?
In 2014, a referendum was held that let Scotland decide whether it wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. With just over 55 percent of the vote, the Scottish people decided they wanted to stay. In the midst of this, Scots became a major talking point in regard to the identity of Scotland.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Scots language was considered inferior to English. It wasn’t taught in schools or spoken in formal environments, and it was far more associated with casual conversation and lower classes. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Scots breached a very limited amount of use in education and media. Its proximity to English and its lack of universality has led to the near extinction of this language a number of times. If you’ve asked yourself before “What is Scots?” it’s probably because it doesn’t frequently cross into the realm of public consciousness. Even among those who speak it today, they’re usually speaking more of a Scots-English hybrid than the “pure” Scots of the 1500s.
And yet, Scots lives on. It lives on in the beautiful poetry of Scots poets, including the one by Robert Burns you hear every New Year’s Eve. Then there’s Scots Wikipedia, which is far less encyclopedic than Wikipedia in other languages, but still presents an abundance of information in Scots. There are also several children’s books that have been written in or translated into Scots, like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane. Scots isn’t going away anytime soon.
It’s hard to understate just how important a language can be to a culture. While it’s easy to think of language as just a means for communication, speaking the same mother tongue as your ancestors connects you to your heritage, to your place in the world. As long as that’s true, Scots will be spoken.