Scottish Slang and Dialects Explained
Dae ye ken Scots?
The Scots language and Scottish slang are loved the world over. From the harsh Aberdonian tones of Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons to Rabbie Burns’ best poetry to Glasgow’s weird and wonderful Scottish slang, everyone knows Scots to a degree.
Many people here on Scottish Voice-Over will know that Scots is a language in its own right, but for those less familiar, Scotland has various languages. So, what are they, and how are they different? More specifically, where does Scots fit in?
Misconceptions between Scots and Scottish English
Before we delve, let’s dispel the common misconceptions around Scottish languages. Many people out with Scotland may think that Scots is simply English spoken with a Scottish accent, be it with some regional slang thrown in. This isn’t the case. In Scotland, we call people speaking English with a Scottish accent Scottish English.
Scottish English is a regional dialect of the English language. However, it does differ from English at times, as some people speak Scottish English with Scots thrown in as a form of Scottish slang; similar to how Indians may speak Hindi with Indian English thrown in. This mixing of Scottish English and Scots in everyday life can cause people to become confused between the two.
To quickly recap, Scottish English is a regional dialect of the English language. Scots is a separate language altogether.
Misconceptions between Scots and Scottish Gaelic
Another common mistake people can make when they aren’t familiar with Scottish languages is mistaking Scots for Scottish Gaelic.
Scottish Gaelic is a Goidelic language and belongs to the Celtic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is a language that is native to the Gaels of Scotland, originally developed from Old Irish, and is considered an indigenous language by the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages.
On the other hand, Scots developed from Early Scots; which itself in turn was a medieval language that evolved from Middle English.
Fun Fact: Scots is sometimes called Lowland Scots to help distinguish it from both Scottish Gaelic and Scottish English.
In summary, Scots developed from Middle English. Scottish English is a regional dialect of Modern English. Scottish Gaelic is a Goidelic language developed from Old Irish.
With all that clear cut and oot the way, it’s time to discover the different Scots’ regional dialects and their Scottish slang.
Scots as a Language
Like many other languages of the world, the Scots language is considered to have its own regional dialects. This status of Scots as a language with its dialects is officially recognized by the Scottish Government and other international bodies but is contested by some scholars and linguistic experts.
Much of the contention arises from the idea that there is no universally agreed-upon way to distinguish dialects from languages in linguistic theory.
Nevertheless, most scholars treat Scots as a distinct Germanic language that is similar to English but with some key differences. Much like Norwegian and Danish are closely linked but distinct in their own right. One key difference to note between English and Scots is that the two languages have different grammar structures. In contrast, Scottish English is considered to have Scottish slang words as opposed to a different grammar structure.
Scots even has a government launched a program to teach the newer generations about the language and the language can be studied to a Higher degree.
So, what exactly are the Scots dialects?
The Dialects of Scots
The Scots dialects have been classified using a hierarchal structure. Thus, the language can be separated into four main national dialect groupings; the Insular, Northern, Central, and Southern dialects.
These four national-level groupings act as umbrella terms that help classify the many different regional dialects and sub-dialects. For such a small nation, it may be surprising to learn that there are around ten distinct regional dialects. It is understood that these regional dialects break down further into sub-dialects for specific areas, such as cities or counties within Scotland. This is why Scottish slang also differs in different places when we refer to Scottish English. Usually, Scottish slang used in Scottish English comes from the Scots language.
The ten main dialect groupings within Scots are Shetland, Orkney, Caithness, North East, East Angus & Kincardine, East Central South, Borders Scots, South Central, West Central, and East North Central.
To illustrate how Scots is classified, we can use Fife as an example. Fife is a region in Scotland that has a very distinct sub-dialect called the Fife dialect. As Fife is located within the East Central North region, the Fife sub-dialect can also be considered an East Central North dialect. As East Central North is within the national level Central grouping, a Fife sub-dialect can also be regarded as a Central dialect.
It can be a bit confusing but is structured in such a way to assign classification based on geographical region.
Despite the many sub-dialects of Scots, generally speaking, all the different Scots dialects are mutually intelligible between Scots speakers with very minute differences.
Characteristics of Scots Dialects
Scots’ is a beautifully diverse language for such a lesser spoken language and even today, many people recognise Scottish slang from Scots dialects globally. However, the ten main dialects we highlighted previously all have their own characteristics.
The Orkney Dialect
The Orkney dialect includes words and phrases that can be traced back to Norse influence. That being said, the Orkney dialect tends to have a rising intonation that is also found in languages such as Welsh or Irish but does not have stress patterns akin to that of Norse. Instead, the dialect uses unique Norse-influenced vocabulary that is entwined with the dialect’s phonetics, such as ‘whar’, meaning both ‘who’ and ‘where’.
The Orkney dialect also uses the verb ‘to be’ to replace ‘to have’. So, for example, ‘I have just made food’ becomes ‘I’m just meed the food’. The verb ‘to be’ is also used in the future tense; for example, ‘I’m just coming’ would be ‘I’ll just be’. Another common way this dialect differs could be that it sometimes uses a plural for a singular noun, and the ‘j’ or ‘g’ sounds become ‘ch’ sounds. So ‘jam’ would become ‘cham’.
The Orkney dialect also has certain sub-dialects in that different parts of Orkney speak slightly differently. The North Ronaldsay sub-dialect, for example, has a unique phonetic function where a hard ‘k’ sound softens to a ‘ch’ sound, so that the sentence ‘how are you keeping?’ would be ‘hoo are thoo cheepin?’
Fun fact: the Orkney dialect is called ‘Orcadian’ or ‘the Orkney dialect’ in English but is referred to as ‘Orkney’ in Scots (including the Orkney dialect itself).
The Shetland Dialect
The Shetland dialect, like the Orkney dialect, has been heavily influenced by the Norse. Shetland has Norse stress patterns in speech, such as vowel sounds common in both Shetland and Scandanavia like ö or the Shetland-wide tendency to use ‘t’ or ‘d’ in place of the mainland Scots ‘th’ – for example, ‘this’ being ‘dis’ or ‘thick’ being ‘tick’.
Another noticeable difference in Shetland is the second person singular pronoun, so ‘you’ is pronounced as ‘du’. However, the objective form of ‘you’ is ‘dee’. So, ‘I don’t like you’ would be ‘I dunna laek dee’ but ‘you are stupid if you believe him’ would become ‘Du are daft if du believes him’.
Shetlanders who speak the Shetland dialect are also commonly known to use ‘she/shö’ or ‘he/him’ when referring to inanimate objects such as cars, boats, or even books. A car, for example, could be referred to as ‘she/shö’, and a book could be referred to as ‘him’. That being said, ‘shö’ is more frequently used as part of a local sub-dialect of the broader Shetland dialect.
Much like Orkney, Shetland’s dialect is referred to as ‘Shetlandic’ or ‘the Shetland dialect’ in English but is written as ‘Shetland’ in Scots and the Shetland dialect. However, when the dialect’s own name is spoken in the Shetland dialect, it is expressed as ‘Shaetlan’.
The Caithness Dialect
The Caithness dialect is most similar to the North East dialect in that an ‘f’ is used in place of a ‘wh’ sound. So, for example, ‘what’ becomes ‘fat’ and ‘when’ becomes ‘fan’. The ‘th’ at the start of words is also lost but not replaced so that words like ‘the’ becomes ‘e’, ‘that’ becomes ‘at’, and ‘this’ becomes ‘is’.
It is also more common in speech for Caithness speakers to replace vowel sounds like ‘ai’ ‘oo’, and ‘u’ with ‘ee’. For example, ‘hair’ becomes ‘heer’, ‘made’ becomes ‘meed’ or ‘bone’ becomes ‘been’. The last noticeable characteristic of Caithness is that there exists a crossover of phonetics between Scottish Gaelic and Scots for the ‘ch’ sound. It gets softened to an ‘s’ or ‘sh’ so that a word like ‘chapel’ becomes ‘shapel’. Caithness speakers will commonly refer to ‘it’ and ‘it’s’ to ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘hers’.
The Caithness dialect is commonly known as ‘Caitness’ in Scots and is referred to in the same way within the Caithness dialect itself.
The North-East Dialect
The North-East dialect is distinct in that it has many words not seen or heard in other dialects of Scots, such as ‘cappie’ meaning ‘ice-cream cone’ ‘stewie-bap’ meaning ‘floury roll’ or ‘dubby’ meaning ‘muddy’. North-East dialect speakers also use ‘nae’ in place of ‘no’ in all senses.
For example, other dialects would use ‘A’ve nae mair left’ (I’ve no more left) and ‘A’m no comin’ (I’m not coming). The North-East dialect would use ‘A’ve nae mair left’ and ‘Am nae comin’ instead. One of the most famous North-East dialect sub-dialects is Doric from Aberdeen, the dialect Groundskeeper Willie’s voice actor imitates. Doric is mainly spoken by Aberdonians and people of the surrounding areas. It uses the ‘ee’ sound in place of the ‘ui’ sound in other Scots’ dialects to make ‘good’ or ‘guid’ be pronounced and spelled as ‘gweed’, as a more obvious example.
One last distinct difference in the North-East dialect is the ‘a’ before an ‘n’ in other Scots words sometimes becomes an ‘ee’ in the North East dialect such as ‘yin’ or ‘ane’ becoming ‘een’ or ‘lane’ becoming ‘leen’.
The East Angus and Kincardine Dialect
The East Angus and Kincardine dialect mainly covers the Mearns (Kincardine) and the Angus (Eastern Angus) sub-dialects. The East Angus and Kincardine dialect has various pronunciations that separate it from the North East dialect and Doric, as well as more Southern dialects.
The Mearns or Angus sub-dialects use phonetics that change their words, such as ‘how’ being pronounced as ‘hoo’, ‘bone’ being pronounced as ‘been’, and ‘stone’ being pronounced ‘steen’. This dialect also has a rounded sound to a few words that distinguish it from Southern dialects such as ‘moon’ being ‘mune’, ‘spoon’ being ‘spune’, or ‘good’ being ‘gude’.
What is particularly unique is that the county of Angus is huge, meaning that it has phonetics from both the Northern and Central national dialect groupings, which forms the unique sound of the East Angus and Kincardine dialect. However, ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’ are ‘foo’, ‘fit’, ‘far’ and ‘far’ respectively.
The East Central North Dialect
The East Central North dialect covers the Western half of Angus, all of Clackmannan, Fife, Kinross, Stirlingshire, Falkirk, and half of Perthshire. This includes Dundee, where a Dundonian sub-dialect exists, and Fife, where a Fife sub-dialect exists. This Fife sub-dialect can also be known simply as Fife Scots or East Neuk Scots.
The East Central North dialect shares many of the same phonetics and spellings as the East Angus and Kincardine dialect, such as ‘bone’ being ‘been’ and ‘stone’ being ‘steen’, or ‘moon’ being ‘mune’ and ‘good’ being ‘gude’. However, it differs from the East Angus and Kincardine dialect with the inclusion of ‘hoo’ ‘whit’ ‘whaur’ and ‘whan’ being ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’ respectively.
The East Central North dialect’s primary distinction from the East Angus and Kincardine dialect, or any other Scots dialect, is that it has an ‘eh’ phonetic (particularly in Fife and Dundee). So, for example, ‘I’ can be heard as ‘eh’ traditionally, as well as ‘my’ being ‘meh’ and ‘eye’ being ‘eh’.
The East Central South Dialect
The East Central South dialect covers the areas in Scotland between the Firth of Forth and the Borders region. It incorporates many sub-dialects such as Lothian Scots from the Lothian counties or Edinburger Scots from the city of Edinburgh.
Like most dialects, many words remain consistent, but some have slight variations. For example, the East Central South dialect uses ‘whae’ and ‘twae’ in place of the more common Scots’ spellings ‘wha’ and ‘twa’ for ‘who’ and ‘two’. In the Southern sub-dialects, you may hear ‘ou’ instead of ‘we’, and the dialect has unique words such as ‘pannie’ for ‘river’, ‘chorie’ for ‘steel’, ‘deek’ for ‘look’, ‘lowie’ for ‘money’, ‘gadgie’ for ‘man’, and ‘barry’ for ‘good’.
East Central South dialect speakers also split the sounds of words into two groups, depending on if the vowel sound is long or short. Scots words like ‘mune’ and ‘dune’ become ‘min’ and ‘din’ in this dialect, while words like ‘use’ become ‘yaise’.
The West Central Dialect
The West Central dialect is a dialect spoken across North and West Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, and the surrounding towns and cities of Glasgow. This has given rise to distinct sub-dialects such as the Lanark sub-dialect or the Glesca or Glesga (Glasgow) sub-dialect.
However, most sub-dialects in the region are grouped into ‘city’ and ‘non-city’.
The Glesca sub-dialect is also endearingly coined as ‘The Patter’ by Glaswegians and includes unique words such as ‘the buroo’ meaning ‘unemployment office’ and ‘mentions’ meaning ‘graffiti’. The Glesca sub-dialect also uses unique phonetics such as ‘gaunae no dae that’ in place of ‘daena dae that’, ‘dinny’ in place of ‘daena’ or ‘dinah’, and ‘canny’ instead of ‘canna’ or ‘canah’. Other common words are ‘wean’ in place of the Scots’ word ‘bairn’ meaning ‘child’.
However, outside of Glasgow, North and West Ayrshire and Lanarkshire use phrases such as ‘awa’, ‘braw’, and ‘ken’ in place of ‘away’, ‘beauty/fine’, and ‘know’. It is also common for speakers of the West Central Dialect to cut forms so that something like ‘go out’ or ‘gae oot’ becomes ‘g’oot’ or water ‘watter’ to become ‘wa’er’. Many of the West Central Dialect’s unique words have found their way into common use via Scottish slang.
Somewhat disappointingly, city-based sub-dialects were eroded away in favor of English in education systems in the 19th and 20th centuries. This inadvertently led to the Scots language associated with poverty in cities, as city folk tended to have a better standard of living than non-city folk. However, in the 21st century, a revival of Scots is underway in this region’s cities.
The South Central Dialect
The South Central dialect is primarily spoken in the regions between and including South Ayrshire (including Ayr itself), Stewartry and Wigtown, Nithsdale, and Galloway. The East-most boundary is marked by Dumfries, which is considered to be within the South Central dialect.
Scots has been spoken as far back as the Middle Ages in these regions, not long after the Scots language developed from Middle English. As a result, there are a few different sub-dialects in the South Central Dialect, with the most noticeable being the Galloway (Gallowa), Wigtownshire, and Nithsdale sub-dialects.
For Wigtownshire, spellings remaining consistent, and the sub-dialect has little to no unique words to distinguish it from other South Central sub-dialects. However, the phonetics of pronunciation differ due to Irish immigrants in the Stranraer and Wigtown areas.
In the Nithsdale sub-dialect, people would traditionally use words and spellings like ‘blaa’ and ‘craa’ instead of the Scots’ words ‘blaw’ and ‘craw’, meaning ‘blow’ and ‘crow’ respectively.
Region-wide, the South Central dialect is characterized by words such as ‘gyid’ ‘min’ and ‘shin’ meaning ‘good’, ‘moon’ and ‘shoes’ respectively. This dialect also has some extension contractions in their speech, such as ‘in the’ becoming ‘I’e’’ so that ‘in the morning’ would become ‘I’e’ mornin’.
Borders Scots is a dialect of Scots that is sometimes known as ‘Southern Scots’, but Southern Scots in and of itself is a sub-dialect with Borders Scots. The dialect is can also be called simply ‘Borders’ depending on the speaker. Historically this dialect was often called the ‘yow and mey dialect’ due to its unique pronunciations.
An example of the speaking style found in Borders Scots is that ‘you’ would become ‘yow’, but words like ‘now’ and down’ would stay ‘now’ and ‘down’ rather than ‘noo’ and ‘doun’ in other Scots dialects. This means that most Scots words that end in ‘oo’ and ‘ee’ become ‘ow’ and ‘ey’ respectively.
The other main distinction of Borders Scots from other dialects is the ‘ai’ sound in Scots becoming ‘eea’ in Borders Scots and the ‘e’ sound in some words becoming an ‘a’ sound. Some examples could be ‘baith’ meaning ‘both’ becoming ‘beeath’ in Borders, or ‘bedbecoming’ being ‘badbecoming’.
Borders Scots also harbors some unique words such as ‘barry’ meaning ‘good’ or ‘gadgie’ meaning man, which are also words that pop up in the East Central South dialect.
Scotland truly is a linguistic melting pot (or nightmare, depending on who you ask) for such a small place. The diversity in Scots from the Glescu dialect to the Doric dialect is something not to be taken too lightly, but equally not something to get too bogged down in.
So, what was your favorite Scottish slang word or dialect? What dialect do you speak?
We aw ken a wee bit o’ Scots, and that’s aw that matters!