Analysing the anti-Scots scrievers

Last year I completed a Masters course at the Open University with a module on ‘discourse analysis‘, a subject that sounds formidably intellectual but actually is remarkably practical and hugely relevant to any study of Scots and linguistic nationalism. ‘Discourse’ means the stories we tell each other as a community and in particular the stories the powerful elites tell us about ourselves through the media, education, and religion and so on, essentially to keep us all under control

In an earlier blog post I collected a range of anti-Scots articles going back 15 years or more. These represent the views of Scottish ‘elites’; writers, journalists, politicians and pundits who feel sufficiently uncomfortable by the advocacy of Scots to attack it in print. It can be seen these elites rely on long-established practices – so-called ‘discourses of domination‘ to maintain their power.

Each of their points could be challenged line by line but what is far more interesting is to explore the socio-cultural context of these writers, the drivers and assumptions that motivate them. On the OU course I was particularly impressed by Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), an academic approach developed among others by English sociolinguist Norman Faircough. One prominent CDA advocate, Dutch linguist Teun van Dijk, explains how CDA helps us to uncover “the strategies of manipulation, legitimation, the manufacture of consent and other discursive ways to influence the minds (and indirectly the actions) of people in the interests of the powerful“. It attempts to map out “the strategies of dominance and resistance in social relationships” and uncover hidden ‘ideologies’, according to Fairclough and colleagues “ways of representing and constructing society which reproduce unequal relations of power, relations of domination or exploitation“. Although as you might expect, CDA is often associated with a ‘western Marxist’ stance, it also works pretty well for a Scottish autonomist stance,

In future posts I’ll explore how CDA might work to unpack anti-Scots language arguments but it may be best illustrated for the moment by a non-linguistic example.

Scottish nationalists often express frustration by the way they see asymmetric political access to media, particularly the Scottish press and the BBC is used coercively by the London and Scottish unionist power elites to ‘manufacture consent’ (e.g as suggested by the infamous BBC anti-independence videos see right). This they argue is not simply the fair statement of an alternative political position, but an open abuse of power. The aim is to create and maintain a British ideology. Not exactly hidden, perhaps, but a key CDA insight might be that is British ‘nationalism’ – rarely self-labelled – becomes normative and naturalised to the point of invisibility and Scottish nationalism – invariably labelled as such –  is highlighted as the deviant  ‘other’ to be resisted.This would explain both the subtle and low-intensity ‘institutional unionism’ in so much of Scottish media and why open accusations of bias in, for example, the BBC are usually dismissed out of hand rather than investigated and corrected.

Back to linguistics, in exactly the same way the relentless drive to English-only monolinguism – again never described as such, but that is what it is – has become so normal and naturalised that any advocacy of Scots, no matter how modest, must therefore be deviant and strongly resisted. Gaelic advocacy on the other hand can be accommodated as Gaelic is now so weak it poses no threat to the elites whatsoever.

The problem for the most of us who are not professional politicians and journalists is that according to van Dijk we “lack the knowledge of rules and strategies of grammar or discourse, [we] may not have sufficient knowledge to detect lies and manipulation, or strong counter-opinions or counter-ideologies to argue against and reject influential text and talk“.

It seems to me if we want to argue for a healthy multilingualism in Scotland, where Scots, Gaelic and Scottish English are normalised and dynamic parts of our linguistic culture, tools such as critical discourse analysis might be useful approaches to begin to counter the powerful propaganda of the anti-Scots establishment.


Fairclough, N. and Wodak, R. (1997) ‘Critical discourse analysis’ in van Dijk, Teun A. (ed.) Discourse as Social Interaction , vol. 2, London/Thousand Oaks/New Delhi, Sage.

van Dijk, T. A. (1993) Principles of critical discourse analysis, Discourse and Society, vol. 4, pp. 249–85.

A aye hae a wee saft spot fur Catalan

My specialist topic! Quite a lot of similarities between Catalan and Scots in terms of the linguistic ‘distance’ from their dominant neighbours. Spanish speakers moving to Catalonia can understand most of it very quickly and learn to speak it in weeks or months. Big differences are that Catalan is the major carrier of Catalan identity and of course it is spoken by the middle classes, that is really why it has “survived”. Interestingly it was standardised as recently in 1913, about the same time Scots was also being properly documented. Like Scots, the urban dialect (mainly of Barcelona) is considered corrupted, and Catalan school teachers make a lot of effort weeding out Spanish ‘barbarisms’ and and preventing ad hoc Catalan-Spanish mixing (‘catanyol’). Valencian and Mallorquin are considered separate languages but the mainstream versions are linguistically almost identical to Catalan and almost fully comprehensible.

Catalan: a language that has survived against the odds

Catalan is not, as some believe, a dialect of Spanish, but a language that developed independently out of the vulgar Latin spoken by the Romans who colonised the Tarragona area. It is spoken by 9 million people in Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Isles, Andorra and the town of Alghero in Sardinia.


How to speak Scots – a wee trick to try

Speaking Scots naturally outside the “hame” environment of friends and family can be challenging. People often lapse into English as they are afraid of being misunderstood or even appearing a bit odd.

There are three interrelated reasons for this.

  1. Scots is still a heavily stigmatised language, so any attempt to use the language at full strength as will be noticed i.e you will be regarded as ‘taking a stance’.
  2. Even in Scots speaking areas, using non-dialectical Scots can also be slightly provocative as people may think you are inaccurately mimicking their speech. This has happened to me!
  3. Only a minority of lowland Scots (some say about 40%) have a working knowledge of the tongue. So if you use 100% Scots grammar and vocabulary, the other person may simply not understand you.

At first sight these problems seem a bit unsurmountable. There is however a way of using Scots in everyday speech that takes advantage of the way Scots is usually mixed in with English.

We are all accustomed to changing the speech we use in formal situations like work to the more chatty way we speak to friends and family. We spontaneously dial up or down the ‘tone’ depending on the circumstances. Most Scots speakers can also easily increase and decrease their use of Scots words and grammar forms in a conversation. How can we make use of this innate ability?

  1. People keen on using Scots pepper their English with ‘markers’, wee words like aye, wee, no or nae (for not), ken (know) and so on.
  2. If the other speaker responds by using Scots themselves, more Scots words, phrases and grammar forms are gradually stirred in.
  3. If either participant gets confused or uncomfortable the Scots words and grammar forms are simply dialed back to more standard English.

This sliding between Scots and English happens all the time, usually without thinking.

If you want to use Scots more in conversation I suggest you just try to do this a bit more consciously. Gradually increase your use of Scots words, phrases and grammar in natural conversation and you may be surprised how many people will be happy to speak at least some Scots back to you.


The ‘secret’ grammar of Scots

Grammar is the glue that holds any language together and is made up of the rules that make our speech and writing comprehensible to others. Although native speakers of a language usually have an instinctive feel for these structures, learners usually need some formal presentation. In the case of Scots, however, even fairly fluent native speakers are likely to be unaware of the language patterns they are using.

It is only when these are written down can it be appreciated how rich Scots grammar is, how it differs often quite markedly from standard and colloquial English and how the forms used today often derive directly from older Scots usage. Given the status of Scots as a primarily spoken tongue, many researchers report a loss of distinct grammatical forms due to convergence with English, but what is really astonishing is how much remains.

Until about 15 years ago anyone wanting to find out about Scots grammar had an uphill task. Only two comprehensive grammars had been published; James Wilson’s largely forgotten study Lowland Scotch based on interviews with inhabitants of the Perthshire village of Dunning, published in 1915 and William Grant and James Main Dixon’s 1921 classic Manual of Modern Scots centred on the literary language. Both these essentially ‘descriptive’ grammars were out of print for decades – though can now be ordered as reprints from Amazon.

However from the late 90s there was a comparative avalanche of Scots ‘prescriptive’ grammars, aiming to set out rules of usage. David Purves’ booklet A Scots Grammar was published in 1997; about the same time as Andy Eagle’s Wir Ain Tung, essentially a reworking of Grant and Dixon, appeared on the web. Also in 1997 Philip Robinson produced the masterly Ulster-Scots – a grammar of the traditional and spoken language, again something of a homage to Grant and Dixon. These reference works were joined in 1999 by Susan Rennie’s Grammar Broonie, a workbook aimed at young learners and in 2002 by L Colin Wilson’s Luath Scots Language Learner, the first-ever Scots language course for the complete novice with extensive sections on grammar. Alexander Bergs also published Modern Scots in 2001, a detailed review of literature which essentially updates Grant and Dixon based on more recent sociolinguistic research, providing us the most definitive descriptive grammar of Scots to date.

It should be noted that Scots being a primarily oral language there is a very close link between descriptive works like Grant and Dixon and Bergs and prescriptive texts. This has been less true of English where prescriptive grammars dominated until comparatively recently when English ‘corpus’ grammars based on databases of actual usage appeared.

As David Purves reminded us in 2002 “in any language revival, an essential stage is the fixing of standards amongst the welter of variation that is always found in the untended garden of natural speech“. So far no ‘official’ body has emerged in Scotland to ‘fix standards’ but the publications above provide the next best thing; a remarkably consistent description by language scholars of how the core grammar of Scots currently functions. This is as close as we currently have to ‘standard’. The somewhat overstated dialectical variation in Scots pronunciation and vocabulary Purves alludes to does not seem to extend to grammar.

The Scots Haunbuik Scots Grammar will be published here very soon.

More resources

  1. The The Aiberden Univairsitie’s Scots Leid Quorum’s Innin Ti the Scots Leid (1995) is a useful 44 page booklet and where I started with the grammar of Scots. Strong on spelling and of course grammar with some useful vocabulary lists.
  2. Alexander Bergs (2001) Modern Scots draws together a wide range of 20th century research on the modern tongue to provide the best detailed descriptive grammar of current usage.
  3. Andy Eagle (2002) Wir Ain Leid [] An extensive re-working and up-dating of Grant and Dixon and currently the most comprehensive work on Scots grammar currently available. Particularly strong on dialects.
  4. William Grant and James Main Dixon (1921) Manual of Modern Scots. A superb attempt to describe a standard ‘literary’ Scots based on contemporary East Central speech and (mainly) 19th Century literature. The wide range of sources include ‘Kailyard’ writers (eg Barrie, Crockett, Maclaren), Bell (see below), Burns, Scott and Stevenson as well as local papers and ‘reminiscences’. Available as a reprint from
  5. David Purves (2002) A Scots Grammar (Revised Edition) published by the Saltire Society, Edinburgh is as close as we have to an ‘official’ grammar for standard Scots. Lots of examples.
  6. Susan Rennie and others (1999) Grammar Broonie published by Polygon, Edinburgh is aimed at children (and their teachers) and is a basic introduction, with exercises.
  7. Philip Robinson (1997) Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language, published by The Ullans Press, Belfast. Outstanding scholarship; a re-writing Grant and Dixon for the Ulster dialect.
  8. L Colin Wilson (2002) Luath Scots Language Learner published by Luath Press, Edinburgh, the first Scots language course for the complete novice , has excellent sections on grammar.
  9. Wilson, James (1915) Lowland Scotch Meticulous investigation of the speech of the Perthshire village of Dunning (where I used to live!): pronunciation, grammar, wordlists, sayings, idioms, expressions. Legend has it this was the book that inspired Hugh MacDiarmid to start screivin awa in Scots, and I’m not surprised. Available as a reprint from
  10. The Concise English-Scots Dictionary (1993) and its companion Essential Scots Dictionary (1996) from The Scottish National Dictionary Association and published by Chambers, Edinburgh are the best prescriptive dictionaries available and were used to attempt a standardised spelling for this grammar.

The case against Scots

Whenever Scots dares to raise its head above the parapet, self-important critics line up to take aim. Money for old rope, eh? Here are a few articles that map out the critics’ broad anti-Scots arguments.

Allan Massie– One of the Scots language’s most vocal critics, lays out his case in five articles from 1999 to 2004.

  • Massie A (1999) Scots language is a load of Auld Lallans For the truth, sadly, is that there is no such thing as the Scots language. By that I don’t mean that people don’t speak some variety of Scots, or Scots-English but there is no standard form of Scots either spoken or written.
  • Massie A (2003) Cultural Arena The existence of “what we now call the Scots language” means we can’t be described as a Celtic nation.
  • Massie A (2003) We Scots have a sober and enlightened nationalism – let’s be thankful Bizarre article suggesting that the lack of a linguistic culture to defend has made Scottish nationalism nicer. “For once you start by insisting on linguistic purity, you are all but bound to move on to insisting on other sorts of purity too. Such a nationalist movement is likely to become exclusive and consequently intolerant.”
  • Massie A (2004) Makkin a right mess o’ the Scots language Makkin yer voice heard in the Scottish Pairlament (sic), ….is a truly wretched and dismal little document, though published, I’ve no doubt, with the very best intentions. What it shows, sadly, is the debility of the Scots language today…My own view is that the most we can hope for is that more of us will write and speak English in a Scots fashion, with a good larding of Scots vocabulary. But the phoney Scots of the “Pairlament” document has really nothing to be said for it …The original document  The text of the original document.
  • Exposed to ridicule (Feb 2004) Allan Massie is entirely right: poorly-written documents in some ill-thought-out linguistic mixter-maxter offered as “Scots”, far from doing any service to the language, merely expose it to ridicule, …Language development is not a task for amateurs; nor can it be achieved by slapdash, undirected efforts, however well intentioned. Why, then, is it being left to them? (letter responing to above article)

William McIlvanney, one of Scotland’s great writers adds his support to Alan Massie.

  • McIlvanney W (2002) Reviving the Scots language But any serious rehabilitation of the Scots language? Forget it. A language lives on the streets and, when its ability to be creatively subversive dies there, so does the language.

Other critical articles

  • K Wilson (1998) Scots: Language or dialect? Kenneth Wilson examines the question of what actually constitutes a language (and decides that frankly Scots isn’t one). Extract from a 1998 Cencrastus article.
  • A Morris (2002) Communication complexities rich in verbal whigmaleeriesThe Scots tongue was something spoken only by the ill-educated who knew not high, true English as probably spoken by God and His angels. Scots, it seemed, carried seeds of social destruction, since those speaking it were likely to become wood-hewers and water-drawers“.
  • MSPs in ‘Lunatic’ Proposal to Teach Scots Language (extract 2003) “This is an appalling waste of time and valuable resources – it’s absolute madness. Scots is not a living language, it’s an entirely artificial construct being promoted by a gang of people who are trying to tell us that what’s effectively slang ought to be taught to children”. Daily Mail (London)
  • Scots fails to cross language barrier (2010) “A key component in any definition of language is that it is held by those most associated with it to be one. But according to a new study, almost two-thirds of the Scottish public do not believe Scots is a real language.” Scotsman
  • Fury over SNP campaign to boost Scots ‘language’.(extract 2011) “Taxpayers are to fund a ‘spending spree’ on the Scots language under SNP plans to hire an army of bureaucrats and erect new street signs“.
  • Crumley A (2003) Boldly going where only Trekkies have gone before, Oregon gets to grips with Klingon The author seems to find amusing the SLRC aims “ti gie a heeze ti the implementation o… schemes for trainin teachers, actors, braidcasters or ither fowk uizin Scots in public… ti uphaud an assist ither bodies wi similar aims an ti mind whit they ar daein”.


Who speaks Scots? The 1996 survey revisited

As part of the 2011 Census, for the first time the people in Scotland were asked to say if they could understand, speak, read and / or write Scots (see the Aye Can site). The results will be available some time next year and will no doubt be the subject of much debate as people argue their validity, irrespective of the result. 

In the meantime the only data available is the 1996 Scots Language Survey. Although the survey is 16 years old it is until next year the only data we have avaiable on how much and where Scots is spoken.

In the summer of 1996 the General Register Office for Scotland, GRO(S), carried out a survey on the Scots Language to investigate the feasibility of including in 2001 census a question similar to the question in the 1991 Census asking the respondent’s proficiency in Gaelic. The survey was the result of a long campaign by Scots language proponents.

How was the survey carried out?

The research was done in two phases, firstly the reaction of a focus group of likely Scots speakers to a Census type question was tested (their responses were correlated to an assessment of their language ability) and secondly commercial polling organisations were asked to test three questions variations on three representative surveys of 1000 people. Thus in all some 3111 people were polled.

What did they conclude?

Not surprisingly the survey found “The language used in Scotland today retains a lot of traditional speech forms, though there is a continuum of speech type in the Scottish population ranging from clearly English to clearly Scots.” The main problem the researchers found was that after years of suppression, people were poor at defining their own abilities as Scots speakers. Thus in the survey report, GRO(S) concluded that the responses to a Census question would be “a self-assessment of a concept which is poorly defined by the public and would measure the prevalence of a speech tradition derived from Scots rather than a particular ability in the Scots language. Given this qualification the results would probably be of limited use to those seeking to meet educational needs.” The report recognised that “the inclusion of a census question would undoubtedly raise the profile of Scots“, but suggested that surveys using some (as yet undeveloped) linguistic test/index would be more useful and appropriate.

How many Scots speakers did they find?

Even given the caveats above the survey found about 30% of the population of Scotland will respond “Yes” to a question of the form “Can you speak Scots or a dialect of Scots?“. This would correspond to about 1.5 million affirming they speak Scots, a figure still widely quoted.

What were the regional variations?

Note there is no data from Orkney and Shetland. Given the strong influence of attitudinal factors (see below), the researchers felt that some of the regional differences may be do to local differences in acceptance of Scots. For example Doric now has a reasonably high status in Grampian and people may be more ready to confess to speaking it.

As an aside, the researchers noted that although the idea that Scots dialects are strongly differentiated was very prevalent, older people who had known people from all over Scotland during the War “denied the existence of dialect differences strong enough to hinder communication”. This notion of major dialectical difference in Scots remains a persistent and harmful myth today.

Age and class

The evidence suggests that Scots speaking is related to age and class. Younger age groups are less inclined to assess that they speak Scots and people in lower socio-economic groups were marginally more likely to say they spoke Scots. However the relationships were surprisingly weak related to region.






How did the census define a Scots speaker?

A person classified as speaking with a Scots accent would use the same words as an English-speaker but sound different; a person speaking with a dialect would chose words that are local variants of the ‘mainstream’ language; a person whose speech was classified as being a different language would use constructions of the language as well as vocabulary“.

The researchers “came to the view that ‘Pure Scots’ did exist at one end of a continuum to English and that many people’s speech could clearly be placed as predominantly stemming from one or the other of the two languages, and that there was much maintenance of traditional speech forms and vocabulary.

Attitudes to Scots

Many attitudinal views about Scots were expressed, and the researchers suspected this may interfere with respondents willingness to respond to the questions. “In Britain – where accent, dialect and class effect language – language ability is very difficult to assess, especially since in an assessment situation, language readily changes“. The report quotes J Menzies’ 1991 paper suggetsing “‘Code-switching’ or ‘dialect sliding’ will be exacerbated:

  • If a mode of speech or dialect is considered slang;
    Where the interrogator does not share a speech code (The researchers found that the presence of a Scots expert in the assessment team “drew out the Scots speaking ability”);
  • Where the language is undergoing a process of assimilation or corruption by a neighbouring (powerful) language – since its inception;
  • Where the differentiation between the two languages (in this case from Anglo-Saxon into English and Scots) was never ‘complete’;
  • Where the language is unrecognised by some of its speakers
  • Where, superficially, the language is not of any apparent use in daily transactions to an outsider and finally, and most powerfully;
  • Where English is viewed as a lingua franca for communication outside the local and family community.

While many thought Scots should be encouraged more in schools, English was commonly viewed as the prestige language of communication. “Good spoken English was related to improved employment opportunities”, indicating a continuing perceived or real prejudice against the language. There was much support for learning more about Scots history and literature, some support for Scots medium teaching, but also for teaching Gaelic as the “true and prestigious language of Scotland”.

How important was the survey?

It should be emphasised that the aim of the survey was not directly to identify Scots speakers, but to test potential Census questions. One problem is that each of the three main surveys used a slightly different question wording. This turned out to have a marked influence on the responses. Nevertheless as the largest survey of its type attempted until the 2011 census, the GRO(S) project yielded useful information, and the use of commercial polling organisations to carry out the surveys made it reasonably objective. The figure of 1.5 million Scots speakers has been widely used, even in official documents.

However, while emphatically recognising the existence of the Scots language as one end of a linguistic continuum the report warned that for survey purposes ‘Scots’ could at the time only be a broad concept because of firstly the linguistic diversity within the Scottish population and secondly the lack of general education and information on what ‘the Scots Language’ actually is. It is likely both these themes will raise their heads when the analysis of the 2011 census starts.


Aye Can (2011) Scots in the census site

Máté, I (1996) Scots Language Research Report, The General Register Office for Scotland, Ladywell House, Ladywell Row, Edinburgh EH12 7TF (Tel 0131 334 4295)

Menzies , J (1991) An investigation of attitudes to Scots and Glasgow dialect among secondary school pupils, Scottish Language, 110 (Winter), Association of Scottish Literature Studies (Ed McLure D)

Scots as a ‘social mechanism’

This wee scrieve frae the kenspeckle Marxist lang-heid Eric Hobsbawm (that deed yestreen) in the Guardian the day caucht ma ee.”The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.” It made me think aboot Scots, shuirlie ane o Scotland’s maist important ongaun ‘social mechanisms’ linkin oor current sels tae oor fore-fowk.

[Vocabular: scrieve – piece of writing, kenspeckle – famous, lang-heid – thinker, yestreen – yesterday, ee – eye, ongaun – continuing, sels – selves, fore-fowk – ancestors]

“The Broons” – how ‘Scots’ are they? (Part 2)

To start the analysis I collected the data was in two corpus collections;

  • The 1940s collection of 5292 words (15 texts)
  • The 2006/7 collection of 3073 words (13 texts)

The research also had access to the Open University’s version of the British National Corpus (BNC-OU) , a spoken (i.e. conversational) corpus of 1,035,176 words of spoken English for comparison. I used ‘concordance’ linguistic analysis software to look for systematic variation (and similarities) in the two vernacular collections in comparison with each other and the English BNC-OU. Here is what I found.

  1. Overall structure: The comics can be interpreted as ‘pseudo-conversation’ in that they attempt to tell a story. Moreover, they are aimed for the most part at children, so some clarity and brevity in the storytelling might be expected. For example, there is little ellipsis of whole words and phased, though there is much shortening of functional words e.g. “ye’re”, “he’s”. Questions are quite common, in the first 10 comics in V1 they occur in 12% of the speech bubbles. There is almost no use of tags (“is it no?”), presumably for brevity. Disfluency is frequently represented by false-starts, hesitators and pauses (indicated by dashes) e.g. “It’s like this – look!” and “Oh – er – p-pleased tae meet ye.” Inserts such as “Ach!” and “Oh!” are likewise frequent. The use of “an’” (and) as a link between utterances is particularly noticeable, mimicking the real-time production of natural conversation. The main characteristic of the test as representing “speech”, though is the vernacular range, and this will be addressed below.
  2. Orthography: The lowland Scottish phonological system is distinct, complex and challenging to transcribe authentically as fiction (e.g.Corbett 1997, Hagen  2002). Watkins adopts a what would now be considered a non-standard though consistently-applied orthographical convention (although spelling conventions are often hotly debated), for example using Burns-like apostrophies to indicate ‘missing’ letters in Standard English e.g. “o’”, “a’richt” and “Gran’paw”.
  3. Phonology: Some of the Scots vowel system are represented e.g.”hame” (home), “lang” (long),“cauld” (cold), “oot” (out), “tae” (to) and “ony” (any) but common pronunciations are missing such as “ah” for “I” and “oo” more generally in words such as “soond”, “poond”(but “mooth” and “hoose” do appear) and “ai” in “caird” (though “pairt” appears). The tendency for Scots to clip some final consonants is represented in e.g. “bein’” (being – the “ing” is never used in the early comics), “an’” (and), “no’” (not) and “a’” (all), hence “a’richt” and “Gran’paw” above. The tendency for the hard “ch” sound in “nicht”,(night), “brocht” (brought) and “michty” (mighty) is sometimes represented.
  4. Grammar: The most noticeable grammar differences is the replacement with the shortened form “-n’t” in standard conversational form with “-na”, hence “dinna” (don’t), “canna” (can’t). There is a trace of the distinctive Scots use of the definite article in “the nicht” (tonight). The irregular “strong” verb forms are generally not used apart from “kent” (knew) and “telt” (told). Modal verbs, apart from “hae tae” (have to) are generally in the standard form, although there are common vernacular equivalents. Watkins does use interrogative forms, however, such as “wha?” (who?), “whaur” (where?) and “whit?” (what?).
  5. Vocabulary: The Broons uses a distinctive vocabulary but by no means uses all the lexical repertoire available to many of its readers. Typical vocabulary is  “aye” (yes), “but an’ ben” (country cottage), “bonny” (pretty), “bairn” (child), “bide” (stay), “dub” (puddle), “claes” (clothes), “ken” (know), “mind” (remember), “Maw” (Mum), “Paw” (Dad), “ower” (too as well as over), “picters” (cinema) and “lassie” (girl). The exclamations such as “Jings!” and “Crivvens!” have already been mentioned.

Were there differences between 1940s and 2006/7 text? In this study while slight changes are noticeable, they are not simply indicative of a loss of vernacular forms.

  • In the original 40s strips there was considerable variation in vernacular use, some were more ‘anglicised’ than others, for no apparent reason.
  • Much of the core “functional” grammar and lexis seemed unchanged (although the “-na” endings had changed to “-nae”, suggesting an influence of Glasgow dialect).
  • The 2006/7 strips dealt with more modern subjects (television shows, cars, sky-diving, telephones, survivalism etc) so more general lexis is to be expected.
  • There was an influence of modern phraseology e.g. “cheap as chips”.
  • Some “new” Scots phrases appeared “Weel!”, as well as more “Scots” spellings “feenished” (finished), “groond” (ground),”puir” (poor), “eediots” (idiots), but some were tending towards anglicisation e.g. “juist” (just) was spelled as “jist” or often “just”. “Sae” (so) was morphing into the standard form and some of the rarer words in the early strips such as “dub” (puddle) were missing from the later sample.

How different is this from the ‘standard’ English collection?Using the concordance program, the top 50 corpus items were listed from the BNC-OU conversational corpus and compared with the top 50 items in the 1940s collection. Starting with the BNC-OU benchmark, the 1940s list shared 58% of the terms, but 18% were equivalent vernacular forms (e.g. “tae/to”, “ye/you”). In other words there was only a 40% match in the most common words. In the 1940s corpus, 14 items (28%) had a distinctive Scottish orthography

tae, an’, ye, o’, no’, a’, oot, ma, Paw, wi’, juist, Maw, Jings, wis.

Interestingly in the newer corpus, this had climbed to 18 items (i.e just over a third).

tae, ye, an’, o’, whit, a’, ma, oot, aye, no’, hae, ye, jist, dinnae, ken, wis, aff, aboot

In other words, by this criterion The Broons had actually become more vernacular.

I then compared the most frequent 100 words. The results were similar. 33% of the top 100 words were identical between the BNC-OU corpus and the combined 1940s and 2006/7 corpus and 22% were the vernacular form equivalents. Again looking at the Scots forms in the two corpora, in the 1940s collection again 28% had a Scots orthography but in the contemporary collection a striking 37% of items were Scots. Again the trend is apparently quite opposite that identified by Hoyer.

How were the words used? Bronislaw Malinowski (cited in Hewings 2005 p14) argued that choices of words and grammar were dependent on culture and (sociocultural) context. These choices may be subconscious, but are nonetheless motivated. In the case of Scottish vernacular language, diglossia and accommodation theory may be highly influential, and the Broons can be considered a case where lexicogramatical choice (initially by Dudley Watkins) was used to construct an identity for his characters. By using concordance software, the quantitative extent of this becomes clear, but what is the qualitative role of vernacular variants? The distribution may of course be arbitrary or historical, but that would undermine the idea of linguistic choice. Looking at the most frequent vernacular words in the combined Broons corpus, is it possible to determine their function?

tae, ye, an’, o’, whit, a’, ma, oot, aye, no’, hae, yer, jist, dinna(e), ken, wis, aff, aboot, weel, mind, ane, wee, Paw, ye’ve, twa, cannae, fae, Hen, nae, doon, Jings!, oor, mair, efter, ower.

Most are functional words; noticeably the only verbs are mental processes “ken” (know) and “mind” (remember). There is also the affirmative “aye” (yes), the affectionate diminutive “wee” and the exclamation “Jings!”. Personal and possessive pronouns are represented; “ye” and “yer”, “ma” and “oor” as is the question “whit?” (what?). There are three negatives “nae’” (no), “dinna(e)” (don’t) and “canna” (can’t) and a judgmental adverb “ower” (too). Running a concordance reveals that four times out of 10, “dinna” is a negative command. Similarly “hae” (have) often  – 22% of the time according to a concordance search – appears in the modal expression “hae tae” (have to). Two words are personal nouns (“Hen” and “Paw”).

Thus even this small set of words there is a strong sense of personal interaction and judgement. Much of the dialogue is in question form, personal pronouns are common The modal verbs almost always have vernacular elements e.g. “ye’ll need tae”, and “hae tae”. Likewise, attitude is indicated by asserted evaluations such as “This’ll no dae”, “Jings!”, “Ye auld gowk!” and vernacular phrases such as “wee” and the diminutive suffix “-ie” as in “hoosie” are commonplace. Informal constrictions, particularly contractions such as “that’s” (a phenomenon shared with colloquial English) further reduce social distance are use as are intensifiers, particularly the evaluative  “ower”. This linguistic features are used to reduce the social distance between the characters and the characters and the reader.

The comic book mode is quite highly structured. A theme is usually set out in the first few panels, and thematic progression occurs through repeated language and visual clues, leading to the inevitable denouement. Each strip is a mini-morality tale, usually variations of “pride comes before a fall”. The importance of word choice here is that complex situations have to be explained quickly, so using the readers’ linguistic and cultural references can make this process more efficient, aid identification and reduce communicative distance (i.e. seem more immediate).

In my view the debate about Scots language and writing has suffered from the neglect of this rich linguistic field from established linguists. The curious role of The Broons and Oor Wullie deserves more attention and it is encouraging that linguists (from outside the British Isles, it should be emphasised) are now beginning to work with this resource. I believe for example the continuous debates on Scots orthography have (deliberately?) overlooked this enrmous collection of popular texts.

Maybe the argument is that the vernacular of The Broons is simply not ‘Scots’. The use of concordance software allows us to say that The Broons is about 50% Scots, considerably more than many Scots speakers would use in everyday conversation. However the intriguing idea emerges whether the “differences” i.e. vernacular words have some special communicative value. By looking at the most common non-standard terms in I suggest that they cluster around fundamental mental and processes relating to personal interaction. Moreover I found that far from eroding, vernacular forms in The Broons, although they had indeed changed, were actually about 10% more prominent, quite a significant increase.


Anon. (2007a) The Broons, D.C Thomson & Co Ltd, London
Anon. (2007b) The Broons and Oor Wullie 1946-1956 The Golden Years, D.C Thomson & Co Ltd, London
Corbett, J. (1997) Language and Scottish literature Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Hagen A I (2002) Urban Scots dialect writing, Peter Lang AG, Bern
Hewings A (2005) Corpus and grammatical description in K A O’Halloran and C Coffin, Book 1 E303 English grammar in context, The Open University, Milton Keynes

“The Broons” – how ‘Scots’ are they? (Part 1)

“The Broons” and “Oor Wullie” remain significant icons of Scottish popular culture, stretching back some 70 years. The most distinctive feature of both comic strips, still published weekly in the The Sunday Post newspaper is the use of Scottish vernacular language. The one-page comic strips were created by Dudley D. Watkins, who continued to draw and write them until his death in 1969. Watkins’ visual and linguistic style has been faithfully replicated by the publisher since then.

According to Brightwell (2006) the language was closely aligned with publisher D. C. Thomson’s overall editorial policy of ‘realism’, intended to attract the large Scottish urban audience. This was remarkably successful. Brightwell continues, “Both strips, written in broad Scots dialect, were hits; the Scottish public rapidly took them to their hearts, and there is little doubt that they played a major part in the paper’s phenomenal success. In 1971, shortly after Watkins’ death, the Sunday Post had an estimated readership of just under three million, a staggering 79 per cent of the adult population of Scotland”.

This saturation market penetration has a unique socio-cultural aspect. For most Scots, these strips were and remain the only mainstream and regularly available written representation of their spoken language. Given that there was a deliberate focus on authenticity we can assume the dialogue, although wholly fictional, is at least to some extent representative of the way people speak or spoke.

Given that this copious resource (of nearly a million words per strip) stretches back over some 70 years, it is surprising there has been so little interest in it from linguists. In one of the few academic studies of these texts, German linguist Anne Hoyer investigated the process of lexical change in “Oor Wullie” (Schwartz, 2007). She acknowledges the “Scotticisms” in the cartoons function as instruments of national identification but through computer based corpus analysis that the vernacular elements had been eroding over the years to be replaced by Standard English. A ‘corpus’ is a large collection of digital texts, often transcribed from printed or spoken material.

As part of an Open University assignment in 2008 I investigated Hoyer’s claim with respect to The Broons. I created a 8,000 word corpus of texts in “The Broons” spanning two periods of approximately 60 years apart: late 1940’s (represented in a selections of reprints) and 2007 (from that year’s Broons annual). I then did a frequency analysis to undertaken to identify patterns of distribution of vernacular forms when compared with standard English conversational texts (as represented by an OU corpus). I also wanted to find out whether some of the methodologies of corpus analysis could shed light on the sociolinguistic aspects functions of “The Broons” as socially positioned texts.

Why has this remarkable resource been so ignored? It was suggested above that right-wing publisher D.C.Thomson deliberately positioned the comic to appeal to a certain audience. It is still widely thought among Scottish metropolitan intellectuals that “The Sunday Post” itself represents a particularly conservative and sentimentalised vision of Scottish life. Scottish historian and intellectual Tom Nairn’s harsh 1960’s quip that Scotland would only be tolerable when “the last Kirk minister has been strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post” is for many still a potent trope. Even some Scots language enthusiasts view the Scots of the Broons with distain.

However, given the unusually onerous linguistic role “The Broons” and “Oor Wullie” comics have (as virtually unique written representations of vernacular culture), the “Scottishness” of the texts is an issue that corpus analysis may illuminate, again as Hoyer suggests. The problem is that the Scottish ‘vernacular’ is notoriously hard to pin down as it functions neither as a language nor a dialect. (See Style-shifting and codeswitching in Scots – what is it and why does it matter?).

The concluding aspect of my study was more challenging, and went beyond what Hoyer was attempting in her PhD. The hypothesis was that the role of vernacular forms in the ‘affective’ domain (informal,emotionally rich discourse) may be the main social reason for their survival. If corpus analysis revealed that vernacular lexis and grammar were ‘doing the communicative work’ in these affective areas, we have the basis for both a quantitative and qualitative analysis to predict where vernacular will tend to persist in the ‘cline’ identified by several Scots linguistic studies.

An interesting question is the authenticity of the data itself (transcribed from the speech bubbles of the strips). Should the texts be regarded as works of fiction or as representative of genuine spoken dialogue? Clearly the partial focus of this study on sociolinguistic aspects would demand that the dialogues is to some extent ‘authentic’ and representing realistic linguistic and not purely invented as an artificial language by Dudley Watkins and later authors.

There is no easy answer to this. There are a number of arguments and counter-arguments. It seems reasonable to assume that Watkins attempted to mimic the speech patterns of urban Scots, and that the sheer popularity of his creations would indicate some identification on the part of the readership with the language, and therefore some degree of linguistic validation. On the other hand, The Broons is an artistic, possibly over-sentimental, creation and the language is deliberately part of that ethos. The use of characteristic ‘bowdlerised’ expletives such as “Jings!”, “Crivvens!” and “Michty Me!” are sometimes taken as indicators of the inauthenticy of the language. The reverse could equally be true – these terms were not invented (and are clearly based on various blasphemies) and in fact were the only way Watkins could indicate the robustness of the vernacular language.

The texts may also be inauthentic in another sense; Watkins may have had to compromise ‘Scottishness’ for readability. Thus for example although the final ‘g’ is dropped in words like gettin’, seein’ etc, the equally common written Scots conventions of dropping the final ‘d’ and replacing ou with oo (e.g. soon’ for sound) are avoided.

Nonetheless in the absence of genuine corpora (transcriptions) of spoken Scots there is an academic tradition for using fictional dialogue in Scottish literature as the basis of linguistic analysis, of which Hagen’s (2002) review of urban Scots dialect writing is a good example.


Brightwell G (2006) Dudley Dexter Watkins [no longer available]
Hagen A I (2002) Urban Scots dialect writing, Peter Lang AG, Bern
Schwartz M (2007) Research on Oor Wullie Initiated in Heidelberg

Style-shifting and codeswitching in Scots – what is it and why does it matter?

Understanding the concepts of style shifting and codeswitching are fundamental to explaining the spoken dynamics of the Scots Language. In this post (based on an academic assignment, hence all the references) I will outline what they are and explore the differences and similarities between them with reference to shifting/switching between Scots and Scottish English.

The first point is both style shifting and codeswitching focus on how speakers draw on their linguistic repertoire (Holmes, 1992:21) to communicate shared social meaning in a linguistic community. Variation in speech pattern is used primarily to convey personal identity and to negotiate social relationships (Swann, 1996:324).

  • Speakers may deliberately or unconsciously shift between different accents or varieties of their language depending on context and style refers to these choices of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.
  • Codeswitching is associated with multilingual communities where individuals changeover between languages (codes), according to social factors such as identity, relationship negotiation and perceived prestige of the code itself.

Explaining style-shifting

Style shifting is considered a fundamental axiom of sociolinguistics (Bell, 1976 as quoted in Wardhaugh 2002:18). Bell claims “there are no ‘single style’ speakers of a language, because each individual controls and uses a variety of linguistic styles and no one speaks exactly the same way in all circumstances”. One of the key sociolinguistic variables that has been shown to influence style shifting is the degree of formality of the context. Speakers use more ‘high prestige’ forms in more formal situations and ‘vernacular’ alternatives in less formal contexts. Formality is of course subjective but in a discourse can be indicated by the subject matter, the physical setting, the occasion and the relationships, differences and relative statuses of the participants. Various linguistic features shift, including vocabulary (the use of slang and dialect words), grammar (use of the passive tense) and pronunciation.

Bell drew on the classic work of the American linguist William Labov who in the 1960s studied the occurrence of the non-prevocalic /r/ from different social-class backgrounds in New York (described in Wright 1996:277-279). He found that speakers were consciously aware of prestige accent features (in this case articulating the /r/) and tended to use them more in speaking styles demanding a high degree of attention, for example reading out word lists, than in emotionally engaging personal narratives.

Holmes (1992:14) describes this as a contrast between affective, informal emotionally rich discourse and more formal referential styles. In groups, however, several researchers suggest that speech patterns tend to converge when speakers want to show a degree of social solidarity with either the interlocutor (so-called ‘accommodation theory) or more generally the audience. Accommodation theory suggests the opposite can also occur; conscious linguistic divergence can be used to emphasise difference in status or identity (although I will argue this is more a feature of codeswitching). As Swann (1996:310) notes “style is likely to operate in more than one dimension, allowing speakers access to a more complex range of social meanings”.

Codeswitching – two languages?

Style shifting may occur across sub-varieties of one regional or social dialect or between different dialects; however codeswitching implies two distinct languages coexisting throughout a linguistic community clearly providing speakers a much wider linguistic repertoire. Codeswitching is often associated with diglossia where each language (or variety) has a specialised social function, usually with one regarded as a high (prestige or formal) variety and the other(s) as low. Myers-Scotton (1996:334) however identifies a more complex interplay between English and Swahili in East Africa which is closely related to the construction of social identity. One language or the other is usually expected or as linguists say ‘unmarked in a particular context, but sometimes the speaker makes a conscious unexpected or marked choice. This is usually an attempt to renegotiate an aspect of the relationship between speakers, for example to express solidarity or underline authority. Each code therefore refers to or ‘indexes’ a shared social meaning; “a particular set of rights and obligations that will hold between participants in an interaction” (Swann 1996:334).

Sebba (1993 described in Swann 1996:315) noted that in a study of codeswitching among young black speakers in London “a switch from English to Creole marks a sequence out as salient; it stands out; it is part of the utterance that other parties in the interaction respond to”, again emphasising codeswitching’s affective function. The Creole example also highlights that although linguistically speaking, the differences between codes may be considerable (English and Swahili), there may also be switching between more closely related varieties (English and Creole or Scots). This raises the question of how style shifting codeswitching differ.

However, one of England’s leading dialectologists, Trudgill (1983:114) argues in codeswitching “the two linguistic varieties in a diglossic situation are considered to be discrete”, also there is standardisation of each variety (speakers thus know which they are speaking) and “the high variety has in all cases to be learnt as a school language”. This implies that unlike style shifting the speaker has a sophisticated understanding of the linguistic norms and knowledge of the speech community she is in and a high degree of awareness of the code she is using. The really debatable point in Scots use is to what extent the speaker knows what ‘correct’ or standard Scots is. But as Swan (1996:316) notes amyway “there is a problem of establishing clear linguistic boundaries between ‘varieties’ and attributing features unambiguously to one or another”.

The context of Scots

McArthur (1998) analyses the linguistic standing of ‘non-standard’ English varieties, including patois and Scots. As he notes, the linguistic status of Scots is currently very much contested with linguistic ‘separatists’ such as Kay (1993) ranged against pragmatists (e.g. Jones 2002) and conservatives. McArthur usefully finds Scots a middle ground as “an English language, part of his model of a plurality of ‘Englishes’. Jones (2002:5) suggests “the linguistic manifestations of Scots should be seen as a type of scale or cline, encompassing a very broad range of usage and formal characteristics”, but is this cline an example of style shifting or an example of codeswitching?

Trudgill (1983, p112) recognises the distinctiveness of Scots as a bridge between style shifting and codeswitching; “Native speakers of Lowland Scots dialects may switch, in relatively formal situations, to standard English (spoken with a Scots accent of course). It is legitimate to regard this situation as rather different from that of an English speaker who simply switches styles.” He gives three reasons

  • degree of linguistic difference between Scots and English
  • the presence of co-occurrence restrictions (avoiding Scots forms when speaking Standard English)
  • the fact that standard English is the linguistic variety normally learned in school.

Aitken (1979:86) makes a similar point; “Some [Scots] speakers can switch cleanly from one to the other—these people have been called dialect-switchers. Others again cannot or do not chose to control their styles in this way, but they do shift styles in a less predictable and more fluctuating way—these people we may call style-drifters.”  Aitken contrasts the more active change I have associated with codeswitching to the perhaps more unconscious process of style shifting, but places both on Jones’ variation ‘cline’.

All this suggests that in Scotland (and maybe with respect to Creole, too) style shifting and codeswitching cannot easily be distinguished. If so it should be possible to relate and mix theoretical approaches from both to what we know of our bridging example of Scots. Firstly there is a perceived contrast between the Scots ‘vernacular’ and Scottish or standard English ‘prestige’ varieties. Purves (2002) puts this forcibly; “At school, a policy of cultural repression became the norm and generations of children were presented with an image of ‘correct’ or ‘good’ English but little or no attempt was made to present an image of good Scots. Commonly, the natural speech of Scots children was simply represented as a deviation of good English”. Thus we have (in codeswitching terms) a form of diglossia where English is associated with formal contexts such as education and in these settings “Scots will be equated with illiteracy, inarticulacy, low intelligence, or other negative qualities” (Wilson 2002:9). He goes further; “People who normally express themselves in Scots will often, if able, go over to English when talking to strangers, because not to do so might be seen as uncouth or ignorant”. This seems an extreme example of what Bell (1991 cited in Swann, 1996:302) calls audience design but Jones (2002:49) also identifies what he calls the classic ‘Labovian paradigm’ of reducing occurrence of  vernacular forms in Scots (he gives the example of the glottal stop substitution for /t/) with increasing social class and formality. Accommodation theory would however suggest this works on several dimensions. Scots can also be used to emphasise both difference and commonality. Where speakers have the repertoire, Scots is used in affective, informal emotionally rich discourse. Scots is therefore a language of social solidarity. Gumperz (1982 cited in Swann, 1996:302) distinguished in codeswitching between we codes (home and family) and they codes (public and formal contexts). Scots role in the affective domain may be the main social reason for Scots’ survival.

Codeswitching theory also suggests a structural reason for Scots’ survival; the grammars of Scots and English are structurally very similar. Switching can be at the level of the individual word (or even sound); there is no need to wait for the end of a phrase or a clause boundary (Swann 1996:316) so there is a very intimate and often creative mix between the two varieties. This has inevitably led to some loss of linguistic integrity, but its very adaptability ensures the affective Scots repertoire remains embedded and usable, even within what can be argued is an increasingly anglicised matrix. As Kay (1993:151) observes “the closeness and similarity of Scots to English…has been a source of weakness and a potential source of strength”.

What style shifting and codeswitching clearly tell us is that individuals are sophisticated (and at least partially) self-aware users of language and will apply all parts of their ‘linguistic repertoire’ to create a rich and adaptable personal spoken identity.

However there is also an additional political dimension to codeswitching which makes it a more powerful concept. Consider the situation of Catalan and Spanish in Catalonia. To a remarkable extent the sociolinguistic situation in Scotland and Catalonia are comparable (Kay 1993:144-147). However the political situation is very different and in this context the notion of conscious and deliberate changeover between codes is a key part of the redefinition of shared social meaning. As with Quebec in the 1970s (c.f. Heller 1996:331), deliberate ‘top down’ codeswitching accompanied by personal choice has increased the contexts where Catalan is the unmarked (expected) option. This has been a major part of defining local linguistic and political identity over the last decade. Thus while both style shifting and codeswitching are very similar when they are reactive phenomena (c.f. accommodation theory), I consider the availability of identity-indexed discrete linguistic varieties enables code switching to underpin a conspicuous proactive and sometimes political role.

If Scots is considered a ‘dialect’ (a non-discrete variety of English), although quite complex and creative phenomena may be occurring, it cannot be a vehicle for proactive social change. As a language or linguistically a discrete ‘code’ (different from English), the opportunity for proactive change opens up. This is why the status of Scots is so important, and the ‘dialectisation’ of Scots can be considered a political process.


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