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A brief introduction to the Scots language

Background

Scots is the name for the language of lowland Scotland. It is a Germanic language, closely related to English. It developed from the northern Old English (or Old Northumbrian) that was introduced into south-east Scotland (south of the Forth) from the 7th century AD onwards, as the kingdom of Northumbria expanded northwards. It was reinforced later by northern English that had been exposed to strong Norse influence after the Norse (Danes and Norwegians) occupied what is now Yorkshire and Cumbria. It started to be more widely spoken in eastern Scotland, north of the Forth, in the 12th century; by the early 15th century it was well established as the language of the Scottish court and parliament; and by the end of the middle ages (that is by about 1500) it had superseded Gaelic in almost all the southern and eastern lowlands. It was introduced into the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland) in the later middle ages, and by the 18th century it had superseded the local Norse language (Norn), which, however, has left its strong mark on the Scots spoken in those islands.

When it was first introduced into Scotland north of the Forth the language now known as Scots was described as ‘Inglis’, and it did not start being described as ‘Scottis’ until the late middle ages. In southern Scotland (south of a line running between the Firths of Clyde and Forth) it is sometimes difficult to distinguish place names that were coined in the post-1100 period from those that date from the earlier Northumbrian occupation, which are referred to as Old Northumbrian, Old English, or Anglian.

While the bulk of the more important place names in the Scottish Lowlands, such as those of settlements and parishes, are either of Celtic origin (Gaelic, Pictish, British), or, in the south-east, of Old Northumbrian origin, Scots place names predominate on detailed maps of almost any part of this Lowland area. This is because most of the surviving names of the smaller hills, burns, bogs and other minor features, as well as later settlements, were coined within the Scots-speaking period. This applies especially to divisions of older estates or landholdings that have adjectives known as ‘affixes’ attached to them to describe the various divisions. Typical affixes are west(er), east(er), nether, laigh, heich or high, over, meikle, and so on. All of these are Scots, but mostly attached to place names that are much earlier. Such affixes usually describe the position or size of different divisions of a settlement-area relative to each other. However, they can also describe the nature of the land typical of the particular division. For example, the extensive lands of Cairnie (a Celtic name) north of Cupar in Fife were divided early in the Scots-speaking period and have come down to us with Scots affixes such as Hillcairnie NO3618, Lordscairnie NO3517, Myrecairnie NO3617, and Newcairnie NO3519. More typically, and probably of slightly later date, the various features of the divisions of an old holding are expressed by such Scots compound nouns as ‘Hilton (hilltoun) of’, ‘Bogton (bogtoun) of’, ‘Newton (newtoun) of’, as in Hilton of Culsh NJ8748, Aberdeenshire. Hilton of Culsh distinguishes it from other divisions of the lands of Culsh such as South Culsh NJ8847 (Scots south), Mains of Culsh NJ8848 (Scots mains of) and Milton of Culsh NJ8848 (Scots milntoun of).

The high number of Scots place name elements in names on modern maps of the Scottish Lowlands is obscured by two factors. Firstly, because of their close relationship, there are many elements that Scots shares with English, more precisely Scottish Standard English, the standard form of the English language spoken in Scotland. Because of the cultural and political dominance of English over the last few centuries it is often assumed that a place name element that is the same as English is English, when it is in fact Scots. Elements such as hill, side, and field, are as Scots as burn, brig, and brae, and belong to the very earliest layer of Scots place names. In areas of Northumbrian occupation (especially East Lothian and the eastern Borders) names with such elements as hill, side, field could even be as early as the 7th or 8th century.

The other factor that has obscured the high number of Scots place name elements on modern maps is the strong English influence on the written language over recent centuries. This was reinforced by the fact that when the Ordnance Survey first surveyed Scotland in the 19th century the language mould into which it was cast was Standard English rather than Scots. The result of all this has given a spurious, and often misleading, English veneer to Scottish place names. For example, places ending in Scots haugh have often been depicted as hall, or similarly the Scots word fa(w) rendered as fal. It has led to uncertainty as to whether a place name coined in the last 200 or so years should be defined as Scots or Scottish English.

Structure of place names

Place names can consist of a single generic element, usually a noun, either in the singular or the plural (Knowe NJ2835, Kaims NT2768). These are sometimes preceded by the definite article ‘the’ (The Bught NX8782). Most place names, however, are made up of more than one element, with a linguistic relationship between the elements. The closest relationship between two elements is known as a compound noun, two words put together to form a new word, which is then used as a place name. Examples of this are hatto(u)n ‘farm or settlement at or with a hall or main residence’, made up of Scots hall or ha ‘hall’, ‘main residence’ and Scots toun ‘farm’, ‘settlement’; hil(l)toun ‘farm or settlement on a hill or upland’, made up of Scots hill and Scots toun; and milntoun ‘mill farm or mill settlement’, ‘milton’, made up of Scots miln ‘mill’ and Scots toun. In effect these can be treated as single generic elements.

The generic can also be qualified by:

  • an adjective, such as black in Blackford NN8909;
  • another common noun put before the generic, such as bow ‘cattle’ in Bowmuir NS9942;
  • a proper noun put before the generic, either a personal name, such as Thomas in Thomaston NS2409 or Mary in Maryhill NS5569 or an existing place name, such as Earnock in Earnock Burn NS6954; and
  • a place name put after the generic (with or without the definite article), followed by of (often reduced to o), such as of Bute in Kyles of Bute NR9966 or o Muckhart in Yetts o Muckhart NO0001.

The element qualifying a generic element is called a qualifying or specific element. An element can be generic or specific, depending on how it is used in a name. For example, in Blackford NN8909 black is the specific, ford is the generic element; whereas in Fordmouth NS9850 ford it is the specific, mouth the generic element.

Scots and Gaelic

Scots and Gaelic have coexisted for many centuries, with Scots superseding Gaelic in the Lowlands in a long and gradual process. This means that many Gaelic words have been borrowed into Scots, a borrowing that is especially strong when it comes to topography or descriptions of landscape. Examples of such Scots words borrowed from Gaelic that are still in use, or at least recognisable even to non-Scots today, are ben, corrie, glen, loch, and strath.

Spelling and pronunciation

There is no generally accepted correct way to spell Scots, and it tends to vary by region, reflecting local pronunciation. For example, the vowel that in central Scotland is pronounced as a long open o (as Standard Scottish English awe) is pronounced in north-east Scotland as a long open a (as in Standard Scottish English shah, bra). The spellings haw and haa reflect this, and ha is commonly used to cover both. In earlier writing an apostrophe will be found in such words, for example, ha’, to indicate the loss of ll, but this is no longer acceptable. In general the glossary has taken as its headword the main form found in the Concise Scots Dictionary, giving alternative forms as well as cross references. This dictionary is derived from two major works, the 12-volume Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (Scots before 1700) and the 10-volume Scottish National Dictionary (Scots after 1700). These two very important dictionaries are now available in an easily accessible form on the Dictionary of the Scots Language web site (http://www.dsl.ac.uk).

Vowels

One of the chief features of Scots vowels (as well as the vowels of Standard Scottish English) is that certain vowels are pronounced as a single sound (known as a monophthong), not two sounds put together (known as a diphthong), which is the case in South British Standard English (including English Received Pronunciation). If there is nobody around, say out loud, slowly, how the Queen would say ‘boat’: you will hear (at least!) two different vowels in there. In Scots the same word is pronounced with one single vowel, which can be described as a closed o, very much the sound of the German oo in Boot (‘boat’). In fact, the vowels of Scots are much closer to those of standard German than they are to those of South British Standard English.
Bearing all this in mind, it should be straightforward for anyone familiar with Standard English spelling to be able to pronounce all the vowels in the Scots elements in this index. However, the following should be noted:

  • ow and ou: ow is pronounced as in Scottish Standard English ow in ‘how’; ou is pronounced as in Scottish Standard English oo in ‘look’, though sometimes it is pronounced ow, with doup generally pronounced ‘dowp’, and loup pronounced as ‘lowp’.

Consonants

With a few exceptions, the pronunciation of Scots consonants presents no difficulty to the speaker of most forms of British English. The exceptions are:

  • ch and gh are both used indiscriminately to represent the guttural sound, well known in the Scottish English pronunciation of ‘loch’. Thus the final consonant of Scots laigh ‘low’ is pronounced the same as the final consonant in Scots loch, but is written both as laigh and laich.
  • r is always pronounced, unlike in most forms of English English, where it is no longer heard as r after vowels.
  • wh is pronounced something like hw; Scots (as well as Scottish Standard English) is careful to distinguish between wh and w, which in many forms of English have fallen together as w.

Further information

More information on Scots, Scots dictionaries, and links to other relevant sites, can be found on the Scottish Language Dictionaries website.

As noted above, the Dictionary of the Scots Language brings together the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue and the 10-volume Scottish National Dictionary.

Details of books on Scottish place names can be found on the web site of the Scottish Place-Name Society/Comann Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba.

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