Aerial view of Glasgow

Accents and dialects of Scotland

Although the Acts of Union in 1707 declared English the official written language of Scotland, the history of spoken English is far more complex. Find out more about Scottish English and its relationship with Scots and Scottish Gaelic.

The linguistic landscape of Scotland is considerably more complex than it is in most of England and Wales, with a broad range of dialects and older language forms contributing to a rich and varied national voice.

Scottish Gaelic: back from the brink

As in Wales, an ethnic Celtic language exists alongside English – in this case Scottish Gaelic. Like other heritage languages, it is experiencing something of a revival as a result of a renewed sense of national identity and recent positive legislation. The census of 2011 revealed that 58,000 people in Scotland currently speak Gaelic with a 0.1% rise among speakers aged under 20.

Unlike the status of Welsh in Wales, Gaelic is not a compulsory subject in the vast majority of schools in Scotland and there are very few Gaelic-medium schools at all. Moreover, Gaelic has for some time been restricted geographically to areas of the Highlands and the Western Isles; the language suffered catastrophically as a result of the Highland Clearances in the 18th century. Nonetheless it remains a community language in some parts of Scotland, notably in the Hebrides, and it has left its mark on the English spoken there and in other parts of the country.

English in Scotland

The type of English spoken in Scotland is more difficult to define than elsewhere in the UK. From the time of the Union of Parliaments in 1707, the official written language of Scotland became aligned with that of England. As such, Standard English has been used as the language of religion, education and government and so it became the socially prestigious form adopted by the aspiring middle classes.More markedly than in England, however, Standard English continued to be spoken with a variety of local accents.

RP – the regionally non-specific accent of the upper middle classes in England – has a negligible presence in Scotland (unlike Wales, for example, where it retains a certain degree of prestige in some areas). This means that even the most socially prestigious forms of English spoken in Scotland contain elements that are characteristically Scottish. The variety of speech we might recognise as educated Scottish English contains the occasional word – outwith for ‘outside’ – or grammatical structure – I’ve not heard for ‘I haven’t heard’ – that is distinctively Scottish.

Above all, though, Scottish English is recognisable by its pronunciation: speakers do not make the same distinctions in vowel length made by speakers with other English accents and the vast majority of speakers in Scotland are rhotic – that is, they pronounce the <r> sound after a vowel in words like farm, first and better.

Scots dialect

Alongside Standard Scottish English, the local vernacular language, Scots, a dialect descended from Old English and closely related to Northumbrian dialects has maintained a strong presence, especially in rural communities. There has been heated debate among linguists for many years as to whether Scots constitutes a dialect or a distinct language in its own right. It has recently been officially classified as a ‘traditional language’ by the Scottish Executive and recognised by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, but even in Scotland experts remain divided over the issue. Whatever its status – language or dialect – large numbers of speakers would certainly claim to speak Scots, not English. Indeed Scots boasts a literary tradition dating back long before Robert Burns in the 18th century and still thriving today, as demonstrated by contemporary authors such as Irvine Welsh.

Blurred boundaries

In practice, the distinction between those who speak Scots and those who speak Standard Scottish English is rather blurred. In some cases we might instantly be able to categorise an individual according to which variety he or she speaks, but more often than not, perhaps particularly in urban areas, speakers tend to drift between the two alternatives depending on context. In other words, they might speak a version of Standard English with a local accent, but frequently use features that we associate with Scots, such as saying wee for ‘little’, or using grammatical constructions like does nae for ‘doesn’t’ or simply sprinkling their speech with isolated archaic pronunciations such as rhyming house with goose or head with heed.

Listen to the UK’s regional accents and dialects

Click on a location on the map to hear speakers from 70 different locations recorded from the mid-20th century to the present day.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.