The United Kingdom is home to a diverse array of languages and accents. This diversity tends to arise when a particular area is occupied by the same group of people for a long time. And the British Isles — despite going through any number of political changes — has been home to the same groups of people for centuries. Even someone not from the area can hear the difference between someone from England and someone from Scotland (though each of these countries has plenty of diversity in themselves). But it’s the accent that has led Scots to have a strange problem. Computers have a hard time understanding them.
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 be able to handle a thick Scottish brogue.
Why do some Scots have such a notably thick accent? Well, there 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.
Is Scots A Language Or A Dialect?
According to the 2011 census of the United Kingdom, almost 2 million people of Scotland said they had some ability in Scots. That accounts for just about 40 percent of the entire population. Of this number, about 1.2 million said they could understand, read, write and speak Scots, while the other 800,000 could do at least one of the four.
Despite having so many self-proclaimed speakers, there’s disagreement over whether Scots should be considered a language, even among Scottish people. 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. Take the second stanza of Scots poet Robert Burns’ “Halloween.”
Amang the bonie winding banks,
Where Doon rins, wimplin, clear;
Where Bruce ance rul’d the martial ranks,
An’ shook his Carrick spear;
Some merry, friendly, countra-folks
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, an’ pou their stocks,
An’ haud their Halloween
Fu’ blythe that night.
In this sample alone, you can glean a few things about Scots. A number of words are exactly the same as they are in English (“banks” and “spear”). Several words are almost the same, except for the vowels (“amang” instead of “among,” “nits” instead of “nuts”). Then there are words that are entirely different (“wimplin” and “bonie”). 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 people who lived in the area now known as Scotland mostly spoke Pictish and Cumbric, which are both Indo-European languages. Around this time, Gaelic was also arriving in the area, which would eventually evolve into Scottish Gaelic and become the majority language of the region.
Yet 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 many people in Scotland. At this point, the 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 caused the language to change course.
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 independence 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 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
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, the language lives on. It lives on in the beautiful work of Scottish poets, including the one by Robert Burns you hear every New Year’s Eve. There are also several children’s books that have been written in or translated into Scots, like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane. And thanks to the international connections allowed by the internet, people from all over the world are able to talk to each other about Scots and help in its revival. There’s a budding community of speakers and learners on Reddit, and helpful resources like Aye Can and the Scots Language Centre.
The internet can also cause problems, though. The most recent controversy around Scots erupted in an unlikely place: Wikipedia. For a while, Scots Wikipedia was home to thousands of articles, and was cited by many publications (including this one) as an example of the revival of the language. But in September 2020, many people discovered that the Scots language on the website was very inaccurate. And there was a reason for this: a huge number of the articles were written by an American teenager who didn’t know the language. The result was articles written in something that looked like Scots, but had a number of errors. He claims his intentions were good — he admired the language and thought he was translating accurately — but many defenders of the language believe he has done huge harm to the language. One example of this is that some companies teach artificial intelligence systems how to understand a language using Wikipedia as data. If the Scots on the website is wrong, the language the artificial intelligence learns is wrong. And so once again, robots and the people of Scotland are at odds.
It’s hard to understate 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.
This article was originally published on February 7, 2018. It has been updated to address errors, as well as to introduce new information. An earlier version of this article cited Wikipedia as an authentic source for the Scots language, but it has since been reported that much of the language there is inaccurate, which this article now reflects.