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Scottish English

Scottish English

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Did you know there are three official languages in Scotland: English, Scots, and Gaelic?

  • Scottish English is spoken throughout Scotland.
  • Scots is used in the main cities, the Lowlands, and the Northern Isles.
  • Gaelic has remained in the Highlands and the Western Isles.

All three of these languages coexist and influence each other. Whilst Gaelic is a unique language that looks and sounds remarkably different from English, Scottish English and Scots both derive from Anglo-Saxon Old English and exist on a language continuum. This means people may use both Scottish English and Scots at the same time to varying different extents.

Today we'll learn about the use of English in Scotland, the history and influence of Scots, the linguistic features of Scottish English, and of course, some examples.

Let's gang! (Let's go!)

Scottish English Definition

You're probably aware by now that it's best to think of English as a plural, i.e., Englishes. Well, the same is true for Scottish Englishes. The term Scottish English is used as an umbrella term for all the varieties of English that can be found in Scotland, from Edinburgh to the Shetland Islands. On the other hand, the term Standard Scottish English (aka Scottish Standard English or SSE) is used to describe the standardized version of English used in Scotland, often associated with the upper classes.

A good way of highlighting the use of English in Scotland is by looking at the language continuum used across the country. A language continuum is a chain of language varieties and dialects spoken across a geographical area that differ slightly but mainly remain mutually intelligible. On the Scottish language continuum, Standard Scottish English sits at one end and Broad Scots at the other.

Broad Scots or Lowland Scots is simply the Scots language. The words Broad or Lowlands are added to help differentiate Scots from Scottish Gaelic.

Scottish English, Image of dialect continuum, StudySmarterFig 1. The Scottish language is a continuum.

Many Scottish residents will change their language use, i.e., from SSE to Scots, based on their situation and location, a phenomenon known as code-switching.

Someone from Glasgow might use Standard Scottish English in a job interview and then begin to use an increasing amount of Glaswegian (aka Glasgow Patter, a variety of Scots and Scottish English) when talking with their friends over a wee swallie (a quick drink) at the pub.

One reason Glaswegians (as an example) might code-switch is because, historically speaking, Scots has been associated with the working classes and Standard Scottish English with the upper classes.

Keep in mind that although each dialect on a continuum is supposedly mutually intelligible, some Standard Scottish English users may find Broad Scots a little tricky to understand.

Let's now look at the languages on either side of the continuum.


Before we delve into Scots, let's clear an important detail up. Scots is considered a "sister" language of English and not a variety. What does this mean? Scots is a cognate language of English, meaning they both share an ancestral language. In this case, both languages came from Anglic (aka Old English). Scots also took influence from French, Latin, Gaelic, and Dutch.

Although it isn't widely known, The Scottish government recognizes Scots as an official language, stating it has an estimated 60,000 unique words and phrases, a rich literary history, and has been used by royalty, politicians, writers, and ordinary people for centuries. Additionally, in a 2011 census, around 1.5 million Scottish residents stated they spoke or understood Scots in some capacity.1

Scots is primarily a spoken language; currently, no schools in Scotland teach Scots or use it as a mode of instruction.

Language Classification and Politics

When Scotland joined the United Kingdom in 1707, the status and future of Scots was threatened as English (with the standard British accent known as received pronunciation) became the language of status and government. Many wealthy and educated citizens of Scotland were sent to London to learn the language and remove their Scottish accents. By the 18th century, the use of Scots in literature and education was almost eradicated.

Although the prestige of Standard British English continued to strengthen, the everyday people of Scotland continued to use Scots, and in the 19th century, a wave of poets, such as Robert (Rabbie) Burns, brought Scots back into the wider public's attention.

Today, Scots has received the official recognition it deserves and is recognized as one of the three official languages of Scotland.

There are four main Scots dialects present in Scotland:

  • Insular Scots - Insular means island, and Insular Scots refers to the language spoken on the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Insular Scots is heavily influenced by Scandanavian and Norwegian and dates back to the 1400s. Today, Insular Scots is arguably the Scots dialect furthest sounding from English.

  • Northern Scots - Northern Scots can primarily be found in the North East of Scotland, including the city of Aberdeen. The most noticeable difference from other Scots dialects is the use of an /f/ sound in place of the /w/ sound.

  • Central Scots - Central Scots is the widest-spoken Scots dialect in Scotland because it covers the "central belt," which includes Edinburgh and Glasgow. Central Scots became widely used and standardized as the Scottish government came to be based in this area. Today, it is probably the closest Scots dialect to English.

  • Southern Scots - Due to the geographical location in which Southern Scots is used, it is often called Borders Scots or simply Borders (the border being the one between England and Scotland). Southern Scots primarily differs from other Scots dialects in terms of its vowel sounds. For example, long "oo" (/ʊ/) sounds are pronounced more like "ow" (/aʊ/).

Naturally, each of the four dialects can be divided further into other dialects. For example, Glaswegian (Glasgow Patter) is a prominent dialect that falls within Central Scots. However, Glaswegian also draws upon Scottish English, meaning it can be considered a dialect of both Scots and English.

To understand the above statement better, think of the Glaswegian dialect in terms of a language continuum with Standard Scottish English on one end and Central Scots on the other.

Scottish English, Image of Edinburgh, StudySmarterFig 2. Central Scots can be heard in Edinburgh.

Standard Scottish English

As previously stated, Standard Scottish English (SSE) is the standardized version of English used across Scotland. It is typically linked with the professional and upper classes as it is often deemed more "proper" than Scots and other Scottish dialects. Someone speaking SSE shouldn't have an issue being understood in any English-speaking country, whereas someone speaking pure Scots likely would.

On a basic level, Standard Scottish English is similar to Standard British English, except it has some differing linguistic features taken from Gaelic and Scots, such as accent, vocabulary, phrases, and sayings (we'll cover these features in detail soon!). In summary, the line between Standard Scottish English and Scots can often be quite blurred.

Across Scotland, Standard Scottish English is the default language for things like the news; however, the use of Scots on the TV, radio, and in newspapers is growing.

Standard Scottish English is usually spoken more than written, and in official institutes, such as the government, education, and law, Standard British English is used. Although Scotland has its own devolved government, it still answers to Westminster. Therefore, all official documents will be in Standard British English.

Scottish English Example

Now we've got the basics covered, let's look at some examples of Standard British English compared to Standard Scottish English and Standard Scots.

Standard British English - "I know the girl who went to London four years ago."

Standard Scottish English - "I ken the lassie that went to London four years ago."

Scots - "Ah ken the lassie that gaed tae Lunnainn fower year ago."

Despite the neat division between the languages shown above, there is every possibility that someone in Scotland could use a mix of all the words you see above, based on how they feel at the time! Remember, code-switching is often natural and subconscious.

Scottish English Features

Now, let's focus on the features of Scottish English. Many of the features that differ from Standard British English are due to the influence of Scots and Gaelic; therefore, many of these features will be the same as Scots.

Scottish English Words

Let's take a look at a list of Scottish English words with phonetic transcription. The majority of these words have come from Scots.

Word MeaningPronunciation


Bairn Child


Bonnie Pretty/handsome


Kirk Church


Outwith Outside


Braw Excellent


Dreich Wet and gloomy (weather)


Haiver Talk nonsense


Piece Sandwich


Scottish English Phrases

Scottish English phrases are colloquially known as Scotticisims; the term refers to the influence of Scots on the English language. Here are some examples:

Phrase Meaning
Whaur dae ye bide? Where do you live?
D'ye ken?D'ye no ken?Do you know?Don't you know?
A'm droukit!I'm soaked (from the rain).
Ah umnae.I'm not.
Haud yer wheesht!Be quiet!
Haste Ye Back.Come back quickly.
Gie it laldy.Give it lots of effort.
We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns.We're all the same/ We're all God's children.

Scottish English Grammar

The grammar of Standard Scottish English is much the same as that of Standard British English. While grammatical differences may be heard in spoken language (heavily influenced by Scots), the grammar of written Scottish English typically remains the same.

There are a few key differences that can be observed:

  • Negative contractions end with the suffix -nae. For example, Would + not = wouldnae, could + not = couldnae, and did + not = didnae. The word no itself can also be replaced with nae (not commonly written).

  • Use of the word no instead of not. For example, "He's surely no gonna be there."

  • Use of the relative pronoun that over who. For example, "The man that was there."

  • Turning irregular verbs into regular in their past tense forms. For example, telt instead of told and selt instead of sold.

  • A more flexible approach to the use of past tense verbs and past participles. For example, "I seen that show" is deemed acceptable, whereas in Standard British English, it would have to be "I saw that show" or "I have seen that show."

Scottish English Accent

The Scottish English accent is due to a difference in phonological features. Here are some key features of Scottish English that differentiate it from Standard British English.

  • Rhoticity - The Scottish accent is predominantly rhotic, meaning the /r/ sound in the middle or at the end of a word is always pronounced. This differs from most other British accents, which are non-rhotic and do not pronounce the /r/ sound in the middle or at the end of words.

  • The fricative "ch" sound - Fricative consonants are made when air is forced through a small gap between two speech articulators. In Scottish English, when a "ch" appears at the end of a word, e.g., loch, a fricative sound is created in the throat. In Standard British English, the sound is pronounced as a hard /k/.

  • Vowel sounds - Words that typically have elongated diphthong vowel sounds in Standard British English are pronounced shorter and sharper in Scottish English. For example, book (/bʊk/) sounds more like /buk/.

  • Aspirated wh-words - The wh- sound at the beginning of words like what and which is typically aspirated in Scottish English, meaning it is pronounced with an exhale of air.

Scottish English - Key takeaways

  • There are three official languages in Scotland: English, Scots, and Gaelic.
  • The use of English in Scotland exists on a language continuum (a range of languages and dialects people use). At one end of the continuum is Standard Scottish English and at the other is Broad Scots.
  • Scots is a cognate language of English, meaning they both share an ancestral language.
  • Standard Scottish English (SSE) is the standardized version of English used across Scotland. It is typically linked with the professional and upper classes and deemed more "proper" than Scots.
  • Scottish English has vocabulary, sayings, grammar, and phonological features, primarily influenced by Scots, that differ from Standard British English.

1. Education Scotland. History of Scots From the Middle Ages to the present day. (2022).

Frequently Asked Questions about Scottish English

Scottish English is an umbrella term for all the varieties of English spoken in Scotland. On the other hand, Scots is a cognate language of English and a language in its own right. 

First things first, there isn't a singular British accent, and Scotland is part of Britain. 

The Standard Scottish English accent differs from a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent in a few ways:

  • The Scottish English accent is rhotic (pronounces all /r/ sounds), whereas RP is non-rhotic.
  • The /ch/ sound is fricative in Scottish English.
  • Vowel sounds, especially diphthongs, are shortened in Scottish English.
  • Wh- words, such as what and which, are aspirated in Scottish English.

English is widely spoken across Scotland. The English varieties spoken in Scotland fall under the umbrella term Scottish English. Scottish Englishes typically have their own unique accent that differs from other English varieties. 

Scottish English differs from Standard British English and other English varieties in terms of lexicon, grammar, and accent. These differences are primarily due to the influence of the Scots language and Gaelic. 

Yes, Scots is one of the three official languages of Scotland. 

Final Scottish English Quiz

Scottish English Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


How many official languages does Scotland have?

Show answer


Three. Scottish English, Scots, and Gaelic.

Show question


True or false, Scots is a variety of English?

Show answer



Show question


Choose the best definition of language continuum.

Show answer


A chain of language varieties and dialects spoken across a geographical area.

Show question


What is code-switching?

Show answer


The act of switching between languages, dialects, and formal registers based on environment and context.

Show question


Briefly explain why someone from Glasgow might code-switch between Standard Scottish English and Scots.

Show answer


They might choose to use Standard Scottish English in a more formal setting and then switch back to Scots when with their friends and family. This is because Standard Scottish English has historically been deemed more proper than Scots. 

Show question


Name three languages that influenced Scots.

Show answer


Old English 



Show question


True or false, Scots is the official mode of instruction in Scottish schools?

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Show question


Which language is used in the Scottish Government?

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Standard British English 

Show question


What is the main difference between Standard Scottish English and Standard British English?

Show answer


The accent 

Show question


What does bonnie mean?

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Show question


What does Haud yer wheesht! mean?

Show answer


Be quiet!

Show question


Is Standard Scottish English a rhotic or non-rhotic language?

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Show question


Which sister language do Modern English and Scots share?

Show answer



Show question


Contract would + not according to Scottish English.

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Show question


BONUS: Who wrote the Scottish poem Auld lang syne?

Show answer


Robert (Rabbie) Burns 

Show question


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