Modern Scots comprises the varieties of Scots traditionally spoken in Lowland Scotland and parts of Ulster, from 1700.
Throughout its history, Modern Scots has been undergoing a process of language attrition, whereby successive generations of speakers have adopted more and more features from English, largely from the colloquial register. This process of language contact or dialectisation under English has accelerated rapidly since widespread access to mass media in English, and increased population mobility became available after the Second World War. It has recently taken on the nature of wholesale language shift towards Scottish English, sometimes also termed language change, convergence or merger.
By the end of the twentieth century Scots was at an advanced stage of language death over much of Lowland Scotland. Residual features of Scots are often simply regarded today as slang, especially by people from outwith Scotland, but even by many Scots.
The varieties of Modern Scots are generally divided into five dialect groups:
The southern extent of Scots may be identified by the range of a number of pronunciation features which set Scots apart from neighbouring English dialects. Like many languages across borders there is a dialect continuum between Scots and the Northumbrian dialect, both descending from early northern Middle English. The Scots pronunciation of come [kʌm] contrasts with [kʊm] in Northern English. The Scots realisation [kʌm] reaches as far south as the mouth of the north Esk in north Cumbria, crossing Cumbria and skirting the foot of the Cheviots before reaching the east coast at Bamburgh some 12 miles north of Alnwick. The Scots [x]–English [∅]/[f] cognate group (micht-might, eneuch-enough, etc.) can be found in a small portion of north Cumbria with the southern limit stretching from Bewcastle to Longtown and Gretna. The Scots pronunciation of wh as [ʍ] becomes English [w] south of Carlisle but remains in Northumberland, but Northumberland realises r as [ʁ], often called the burr, which is not a Scots realisation. The greater part of the valley of the Esk and the whole of Liddesdale have been considered to be northern English dialects by some, Scots by others. From the nineteenth century onwards influence from the South through education and increased mobility have caused Scots features to retreat northwards so that for all practical purposes the political and linguistic boundaries may be considered to coincide.
As well as the main dialects, Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow (see Glasgow patter) have local variations on an Anglicised form of Central Scots. In Aberdeen, Mid Northern Scots is spoken by a minority. Due to their being roughly near the border between the two dialects, places like Dundee and Perth can contain elements and influences of both Northern and Central Scots.
For a historical overview, see Phonological history of Scots.
|Stop||p b||t[a][b] d[b]||tʃ dʒ||k ɡ||ʔ|
|Fricative||f v||θ[c] ð[d]||s z||ʃ ʒ||ç[e]||x[f]||h|
Vowel length is usually conditioned by the Scottish Vowel Length Rule.
|3||/ei/||With the exception of North Northern dialects this vowel has generally merged with vowels 2, 4 or 8.|
In northern varieties the realisation may be /əi/ after /w/ and /ʍ/, and in the far north /əi/ may occur in all environments.
|7||/ø/||Merges with vowels 1 and 8 in central dialects and vowel 2 in northern dialects.|
/e/ in parts of Fife, Dundee and north Antrim.
Usually /i/ in northern dialects, but /wi/ after /ɡ/ and /k/.
Mid Down and Donegal dialects have /i/.
In central and north Down dialects, merger with vowel 15 occurs when short and with vowel 8 when long.
|8||/eː/||Always long in many varieties.|
|11||/iː/||Always long in many varieties.|
Final vowel 11 may be /əi/ in Southern dialects.
|12||/ɑː, ɔː/||Always long in many varieties.|
|13||/ʌu/||Vocalisation to /o/ may occur before /k/, especially in western and Ulster dialects.|
Often varies between /ɪ/ and /ʌ/ especially after 'w' and 'wh'.
/ɪ̞/ (/æ̈/) occurs in much of Ulster except Donegal which usually has /ɛ̈/.
|17||/ɑ, a/||Usually /ɑ/, often /ɑː/ in south west and Ulster dialects, but /aː/ in Northern dialects.|
|18||/ɔ/||Some mergers with vowel 5.|
Words which differ only slightly in pronunciation from Scottish English are generally spelled as in English. Other words may be spelt the same but differ in pronunciation, for example: aunt, swap, want and wash with /a/, bull, full v. and pull with /ʌ/, bind, find and wind v., etc. with /ɪ/.
|Vowel 4 in a(consonant)e. In Northern dialects the vowel in the cluster 'ane' is often /i/ and after /w/ and dark /l/ the realisation /əi/ may occur.|
|Vowel 12 for final a in awa (away), twa (two) and wha (who), but may also be /ɑː/, /ɔː/, /aː/ or /eː/ depending on dialect|
|The unstressed vowel /ə/|
|C||/k/ or /s/|
|Silent in word final nd and ld, but often pronounced in derived forms. Sometimes simply n and l or n´ and l´ e.g. auld (old) and haund (hand) etc.|
|E||Vowel 16. bed, het (heated), yett (gate), etc.|
|Vowel 2 in e(consonant)e|
|The unstressed vowel /ə/|
|G||/ɡ/ or /dʒ/|
|I||Vowel 15. E.g. big, fit (foot), wid (wood), etc.|
|Vowels 1, 8a and 10 in i(consonant)e|
|The unstressed vowel /ə/|
|Vowel 5. Often spelled phonetically oa in dialect spellings such as boax (box), coarn (corn), Goad (God), joab (job) and oan (on) etc.|
|The unstressed vowel /ə/|
|R||/r/ or /ɹ/ is pronounced in all positions, i.e. rhotically|
|S||/s/ or /z/|
|May be /ʔ/ between vowels or word final|
|Silent in medial cht ('ch' = /x/) and st, and before final en, e.g. fochten (fought), thristle (thistle) and also the 't' in aften (often) etc.|
|Silent in word final ct and pt, but often pronounced in derived forms e.g. respect and accept etc.|
|U||Vowel 19 but, cut, etc.|
|Vowel 7 occurs in u(consonant)e, especially before nasals, and sometimes for u alone|
|Vowel 6 in u(consonant)e in some words|
|The unstressed vowel /ə/|
|Y||Vowels 1, 8a and 10 in y(consonant)e|
|/jɪ/ or /ŋ/, may occur in some words as a substitute for the older <ȝ> (yogh). For example: brulzie (broil), gaberlunzie (a beggar) and the names Menzies, Finzean, Culzean, Mackenzie etc. (As a result of the lack of education in Scots, Mackenzie is now generally pronounced with a /z/ following the perceived realisation of the written form, as more controversially is sometimes Menzies.)|
As of 2022, there is no official standard orthography for modern Scots, but most words have generally accepted spellings.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, when Scots was a state language, the Makars had a loose spelling system separate from that of English. However, by the beginning of the 18th century, Scots was beginning to be regarded "as a rustic dialect of English, rather than a national language". Scots poet Allan Ramsay "embarked on large-scale anglicisation of Scots spelling". Successors of Ramsay—such as Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott—tended to follow his spelling ideas, and the general trend throughout the 18th and 19th centuries was to adopt further spellings from English, as it was the only accessible standard. Although descended from the Scots of the Makars, 18th-19th century Scots abandoned some of the more distinctive old Scots spellings for standard English ones; although from the rhymes it was clear that a Scots pronunciation was intended. Writers also began using the apologetic apostrophe, to mark "missing" English letters. For example, the older Scots spelling taen/tane (meaning "taken") became ta’en; even though the word had not been written or pronounced with a "k" for hundreds of years. 18th-19th century Scots drew on the King James Bible and was heavily influenced by the conventions of Augustan English poetry. All of this "had the unfortunate effect of suggesting that Broad Scots was not a separate language system, but rather a divergent or inferior form of English". This 'Scots of the book' or Standard Scots lacked neither "authority nor author". It was used throughout Lowland Scotland and Ulster, by writers such as Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Murray, David Herbison, James Orr, James Hogg and William Laidlaw among others. It is described in the 1921 Manual of Modern Scots.
By the end of the 19th century, Scots spelling "was in a state of confusion as a result of hundreds of years of piecemeal borrowing from English". Some writers created their own spelling systems to represent their own dialects, rather than following the pan-dialect conventions of modern literary Scots. The variety referred to as 'synthetic Scots' or Lallans shows the marked influence of Standard English in grammar and spelling. During the 20th century, with spoken Scots and knowledge of the literary tradition waning, phonetic (often humorous) spellings became more common.
In the second half of the 20th century a number of spelling reform proposals were presented. Commenting on this, John Corbett (2003: 260) writes that "devising a normative orthography for Scots has been one of the greatest linguistic hobbies of the past century". Most proposals entailed regularising the use of established 18th-19th century conventions and avoiding the 'apologetic apostrophe'. Other proposals sought to undo the influence of standard English conventions on Scots spelling, by reviving Middle Scots conventions or introducing new ones.
A step towards standardizing Scots spelling was taken at a meeting of the Makar's Club in Edinburgh in 1947, where the Scots Style Sheet was approved. J. K.Annand, Douglas Young, Robert Garioch, A.D. Mackie, Alexander Scott, Tom Scott and Sydney Goodsir Smith all followed the recommendations in the Style Sheet to some extent. Some of its suggestions are as follows:
In 1985, the Scots Language Society (SLS) published a set of spelling guidelines called "Recommendations for Writers in Scots". They represent a consensus view of writers in Scots at the time, following several years of debate and consultation involving Alexander Scott, Adam Jack Aitken, David Murison, Alastair Mackie and others. A developed version of the Style Sheet, it is based on the old spellings of the Makars but seeks to preserve the familiar appearance of written Scots. It includes all of the Style Sheet's suggestions, but recommends that writers return to the more traditional -aw, rather than -aa. Some of its other suggestions are as follows:
The SLS Recommendations says "it is desirable that there should be traditional precedents for the spellings employed and […] writers aspiring to use Scots should not invent new spellings off the cuff". It prefers a number of more phonetic spellings that were commonly used by medieval Makars, such as: ar (are), byd, tym, wyf (bide, time, wife), cum, sum (come, some), eftir (after), evin (even), evir (ever), heir, neir (here, near), hir (her), ir (are), im (am), littil (little), sal (shall) speik (speak), thay (they), thaim (them), thair (their), thare (there), yit (yet), wad (would), war (were), wes (was), wul (will). David Purves's book A Scots Grammar has a list of over 2500 common Scots words spelt on the basis of the SLS Recommendations. Purves has also published dozens of poems using the spellings.
In 2000 the Scots Spelling Committee report was published in Lallans. Shortly after publication Caroline Macafee criticised some aspects of that, and some previous spelling suggestions, as "demolishing the kind-of-a standardisation that already existed where Scots spelling had become a free-for-all with the traditional model disparaged but no popular replacement", leading to more spelling variation, not less.
|at times (whiles)||whyls|
|are; aren't||ar, are; arena, arna|
|anyone, anybody||oniebodie, onybody|
|could; couldn't||coud, cud; coudna, cudna|
|eight, eighth||echt, echt|
|eleven, eleventh||eleivin, eleivint|
|everyone, everybody||awbodie, awbody|
|nine, ninth||nyn, nynt|
|seven, seventh||seivin, seivint|
|should; shouldn't||shoud, shud; shoudna, shudna|
|will; won't||will, wul; winna, wunna|
The spellings used below are those based on the prestigious literary conventions described above. Other spelling variants may be encountered in written Scots.
Not all of the following features are exclusive to Scots and may also occur in some varieties of English.
The is used before the names of seasons, days of the week, many nouns, diseases, trades and occupations, sciences and academic subjects. It is also often used in place of the indefinite article and instead of a possessive pronoun: the hairst ('autumn'), the Wadensday ('Wednesday'), awa tae the kirk ("off to church"), the nou ("at the moment), the day (today), the haingles ('influenza'), the Laitin ('Latin'), The deuk ett the bit breid ("The duck ate a piece of bread"), the wife ("my wife") etc.
Nouns usually form their plural in -(e)s but some irregular plurals occur: ee/een ('eye'/'eyes'), cauf/caur ('calf'/'calves'), horse/horse ('horse'/'horses'), cou/kye ('cow'/'cows'), shae/shuin ('shoe'/'shoes'). Nouns of measure and quantity are unchanged in the plural: fower fit ("four feet"), twa mile ("two miles"), five pund (five pounds), three hunderwecht (three hundredweight). Regular plurals include laifs (loaves), leafs (leaves), shelfs (shelves) and wifes (wives).
|I, me, myself, mine, my||A, me, masel, mines, ma|
|thou, thee, thyself, thine, thy (Early Modern English)||thoo/thee, thysel, thine, thy*|
|we, us, ourselves, ours, our||we, (h)us, oorsels/wirsels, oor/wir|
|you (singular), you (plural), yourself, yours, your||you/ye, you(se)/ye(se), yoursel/yersel|
|they, them, themselves, theirs, their||thay, thaim, thaimsels/thairsels, thairs, thair|
The second person singular nominative thoo ([ðuː], Southern Scots [ðʌu], Shetland dialect [duː]) survived in colloquial speech until the mid 19th century in most of lowland Scotland. It has since been replaced by ye/you in most areas except in Insular Scots where thee ([ðiː], Shetland [diː]) is also used, in North Northern Scots and in some Southern Scots varieties. Thoo is used as the familiar form by parents speaking to children, elders to youngsters, or between friends or equals. The second person formal singular ye or you is used when speaking to a superior or when a youngster addresses an elder. The older second person singular possessive thy ([ðai]), and thee ([ði], Shetland [diː] along with thine(s) [dəin(z)]) still survive to some extent where thoo remains in use. See T–V distinction.
The relative pronoun is that ('at is an alternative form borrowed from Norse but can also be arrived at by contraction) for all persons and numbers, but may be left out Thare's no mony fowk (that) bides in that glen (There aren't many people who live in that glen). The anglicised forms wha, wham, whase 'who, whom, whose', and the older whilk 'which' are literary affectations; whilk is only used after a statement He said he'd tint it, whilk wis no whit we wantit tae hear (he said he'd lost it, which is not what we wanted to hear). The possessive is formed by adding 's or by using an appropriate pronoun The wifie that's hoose gat burnt (the woman whose house was burnt), the wumman that her dochter gat mairit (the woman whose daughter got married); the men that thair boat wis tint (the men whose boat was lost).
A third adjective/adverb yon/yonder, thon/thonder indicating something at some distance D'ye see yon/thon hoose ower yonder/thonder? Also thae (those) and thir (these), the plurals of that and this respectively.
In Northern Scots this and that are also used where "these" and "those" would be in Standard English.
|this, these||this, thir|
|that, those||that, thae|
The modal verbs mey (may), ocht tae/ocht ti (ought to), and sall (shall), are no longer used much in Scots but occurred historically and are still found in anglicised literary Scots. Can, shoud (should), and will are the preferred Scots forms. Scots employs double modal constructions He'll no can come the day (He won't be able to come today), A micht coud come the morn (I may be able to come tomorrow), A uised tae coud dae it, but no nou (I used to be able to do it, but not now).
Negation occurs by using the adverb no, in the North East nae, as in A'm no comin (I'm not coming), A'll no learn ye (I will not teach you), or by using the suffix -na sometimes spelled nae (pronounced variously /ə/, /ɪ/ or /e/ depending on dialect), as in A dinna ken (I don't know), Thay canna come (They can't come), We coudna hae telt him (We couldn't have told him), and A hivna seen her (I haven't seen her). The usage with no is preferred to that with -na with contractable auxiliary verbs like -ll for will, or in yes/no questions with any auxiliary He'll no come and Did he no come?
|are, aren't||are, arena|
|can, can't||can, canna|
|could, couldn't||coud, coudna|
|dare, daren't||daur, daurna|
|did, didn't||did, didna|
|do, don't||dae, daena/dinna|
|had, hadn't||haed, haedna|
|have, haven't||hae, haena/hinna/hivna|
|might, mightn't||micht, michtna|
|must, mustn't||maun, maunna|
|need, needn't||need, needna|
|should, shouldn't||shoud, shoudna|
|was, wasn't||wis, wisna|
|were, weren't||war, warna|
|will, won't||will, winna|
|would, wouldn't||wad, wadna|
The present tense of verbs adhere to the Northern subject rule whereby verbs end in -s in all persons and numbers except when a single personal pronoun is next to the verb, Thay say he's ower wee, Thaim that says he's ower wee, Thir lassies says he's ower wee (They say he's too small), etc. Thay're comin an aw but Five o thaim's comin, The lassies? Thay'v went but Ma brakes haes went. Thaim that comes first is serred first (Those who come first are served first). The trees growes green in the simmer (The trees grow green in summer).
Wis 'was' may replace war 'were', but not conversely: You war/wis thare.
The regular past form of the weak or regular verbs is -it, -t or -ed, according to the preceding consonant or vowel: The -ed ending may be written -'d if the e is 'silent'.
Many verbs have (strong or irregular) forms which are distinctive from Standard English (two forms connected with ~ means that they are variants):
The present participle and gerund in are now usually /ən/ but may still be differentiated /ən/ and /in/ in Southern Scots and, /ən/ and /ɪn/ North Northern Scots.
Adverbs are usually of the same form as the verb root or adjective especially after verbs. Haein a real guid day (Having a really good day). She's awfu fauchelt (She's awfully tired).
Adverbs are also formed with -s, -lies, lins, gate(s)and wey(s) -wey, whiles (at times), mebbes (perhaps), brawlies (splendidly), geylies (pretty well), aiblins (perhaps), airselins (backwards), hauflins (partly), hidlins (secretly), maistlins (almost), awgates (always, everywhere), ilkagate (everywhere), onygate (anyhow), ilkawey (everywhere), onywey (anyhow, anywhere), endweys (straight ahead), whit wey (how, why).
Ordinal numbers end mostly in t: seicont, fowert, fift, saxt— (second, fourth, fifth, sixth) etc., but note also first, thrid/third— (first, third).
|one, first||ane/ae, first|
|two, second||twa, seicont|
|three, third||three, thrid/third|
|four, fourth||fower, fowert|
|five, fifth||five, fift|
|six, sixth||sax, saxt|
|seven, seventh||seiven, seivent|
|eight, eighth||aicht, aicht|
|nine, ninth||nine, nint|
|ten, tenth||ten, tent|
|eleven, eleventh||eleiven, eleivent|
|twelve, twelfth||twal, twalt|
Ae /eː/, /jeː/ is used as an adjective before a noun such as : The Ae Hoose (The One House), Ae laddie an twa lassies (One boy and two girls). Ane is pronounced variously, depending on dialect, /en/, /jɪn/ in many Central and Southern varieties, /in/ in some Northern and Insular varieties, and /wan/, often written yin, een and wan in dialect writing.
The impersonal form of 'one' is a body as in A body can niver bide wi a body's sel (One can never live by oneself).
|above, upper, topmost||abuin, buiner, buinmaist|
|below, lower, lowest||ablo, nether, blomaist|
In the North East, the 'wh' in the above words is pronounced /f/.
Scots prefers the word order He turnt oot the licht to 'He turned the light out' and Gie's it (Give us it) to 'Give it to me'.
Certain verbs are often used progressively He wis thinkin he wad tell her, He wis wantin tae tell her.
Verbs of motion may be dropped before an adverb or adverbial phrase of motion A'm awa tae ma bed, That's me awa hame, A'll intae the hoose an see him.
Verbless subordinate clauses introduced by an (and) express surprise or indignation. She haed tae walk the hale lenth o the road an her seiven month pregnant (She had to walk the whole length of the road—and she seven months pregnant). He telt me tae rin an me wi ma sair leg (He told me to run—and me with my sore leg).
Diminutives in -ie, burnie small burn (stream), feardie/feartie (frightened person, coward), gamie (gamekeeper), kiltie (kilted soldier), postie (postman), wifie (woman, also used in Geordie dialect), rhodie (rhododendron), and also in -ock, bittock (little bit), playock (toy, plaything), sourock (sorrel) and Northern –ag, bairnag (little), bairn (child, common in Geordie dialect), Cheordag (Geordie), -ockie, hooseockie (small house), wifeockie (little woman), both influenced by the Scottish Gaelic diminutive -ag (-óg in Irish Gaelic).
|dusk, twilight||dayligaun, gloamin|
The eighteenth century Scots revival was initiated by writers such as Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, and later continued by writers such as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Scott introduced vernacular dialogue to his novels. Other well-known authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, William Alexander, George MacDonald, J. M. Barrie and other members of the Kailyard school like Ian Maclaren also wrote in Scots or used it in dialogue, as did George Douglas Brown whose writing is regarded as a useful corrective to the more roseate presentations of the kailyard school.
In the Victorian era popular Scottish newspapers regularly included articles and commentary in the vernacular, often of unprecedented proportions.
In the early twentieth century, a renaissance in the use of Scots occurred, its most vocal figure being Hugh MacDiarmid whose benchmark poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) did much to demonstrate the power of Scots as a modern idiom. Other contemporaries were Douglas Young, John Buchan, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch and Robert McLellan. The revival extended to verse and other literature.
William Wye Smith's New Testament translations appeared in 1901 and in 1904 in a new edition. In 1983 William Laughton Lorimer's translation of the New Testament from the original Greek was published.
From Hallow-Fair (Robert Fergusson 1750–1774)
From The Maker to Posterity (Robert Louis Stevenson 1850–1894)
From The House with the Green Shutters (George Douglas Brown 1869–1902)
From Embro to the Ploy (Robert Garioch 1909 - 1981)
From The New Testament in Scots (William Laughton Lorimer 1885- 1967) Mathew:1:18ff