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.


  • Aitken A J (1979) Scottish speech in  Aitken A J and McArthur T (eds) Languages of Scotland, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Occasional Paper Number 4, Chambers, Edinburgh
  • Heller M (1996) Strategic ambiguity: code switching in the management of conflict in Graddol D, Leith D and Swann J, English: history, diversity and change, Routledge, London
  • Holmes J (1992) An introduction to sociolinguistics, Longman, London
  • Jones C (2002) The English language in Scotland: an introduction to Scots, Tuckwell Press, East Linton
  • Kay B (1993) Scots: the mither tongue (revised edition), Alloway Publishing, Darvel
  • McArthur T (1998) The English languages, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  • Myers-Scotton C (1996) Codeswitching with English: types of switching, types of communities in Graddol D, Leith D and Swann J, English: history, diversity and change, Routledge, London
  • Purves D (2002) A Scots grammar: Scots grammar and usage (revised and extended edition), The Saltire Society, Edinburgh
  • Swann J (1996) Style shifting, codeswitching in Graddol D, Leith D and Swann J, English: history, diversity and change, Routledge, London
  • Trudgill P (1983) Sociolinguistics: an introduction to language and society, (revised edition), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth
  • Wardhaugh R (2002) An introduction to sociolinguistics (fourth edition), Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Wilson L C (2002) Luath Scots language learner, Luath Press, Edinburgh
  • Wright S (1996) Accents of English in Graddol D, Leith D and Swann J, English: history, diversity and change, Routledge, London


Scots as a cultural tool

Daniel Everett’s “Language: the cultural tool” is  an entertaining and convincing riposte both to Noam Chomsky’s notion of ‘universal grammar’ which has dominated linguistics for decades and Steven Pinker’s populist ‘language instinct’. Both these theories claim the capacity and underlying language structure is somehow genetically ‘programmed in’ to the human brain, and that the difference between for example Scots and Somali are so superficial to be hardly worth studying. Above all, Chomsky and Pinker argue that culture is of minimal importance to the structure of languages.

Everett refutes this almost completely, basing his case on his own decades-long fieldwork with the Pirahã people of the Amazon and the emerging evidence from a wide range of other researchers that culture is vitally important to language formation.  Everett argues that language is a tool, highly adapted to a particular culture and well capable of having evolved from non-language cognitive skills. There was simply never any need to evolve a ‘language instinct’ and it is the actually the culturally-contextualised differences between languages, not their underlying similarities (which may be due more to basic cognitive processes than genetics anyway) that help us understand how human language works.

The ‘language as a tool’ notion seems an especially useful way to think about Scots. Everett’s often sprawling book is studded with quotes applicable to our language. Scots has evolved “to meet the needs of our culture and social situation” (p. 3), the very tool “by which we created our social world” (p. 218). But as we use language we “modify it and shape it to serve us more effectively. Language has been shaped in its very foundation by our socio-cultural needs” (p. 218). As a “cognitive tool” for its speakers any language “comes to encode their solutions to the environmental and other problems they face as a culture” (p. 302).

Language and culture are forever intertwined.  Everett views culture as the “external cognitive link between multiple individuals (p. 169). Language is essential to the development of culture as it “results from networked knowledge and behaviour with others and brings meaning from the world” (p. 169). Language is therefore both “a product and a producer of culture” (p. 169) and therefore “there can be no culture without language, no language without culture, and no society without both (p.187) for the simple reason that “culture is present throughout our conversations and stories” (p. 198).

Language is made up of an (arbitrary) set of linguistic symbols or signs “socio-cultural contracts entered into by all members of a speech community…these contracts are underwritten by culture, which provides people with external, shared memory” (p.120). The term contract is perhaps misleading in its formality and Everett later quotes the Scottish philosopher David Hume; “languages are gradually establish’d by human conventions without any explicit promise” (p. 205). Everett adds ” we must ‘go along’ with this language contract, assenting to language conventions by our use of them, or we are doomed to be language-less” (p.207). These signs are therefore “cultural tools” which we need – as Scots – to “tell stories and to communicate about a past event, without having to recreate it every time we talk about it” (p.120). We make use of culturally-contextualised non-literal meanings all the time in Scots, cultural keyword and shortcuts which are hard to translate into English.

Culture is about communities  and having a sense of “social belonging” (p. 237), “having a language to learn, one that others have developed for us” (p. 35). “The function of language  is not for the expression of thought but for the social purpose of communication” (p.225) and the idea of an identified language “community” is important. “We do not communicate solely to transmit information but to produce an effect –a behaviour  or a way of thinking – in our hearers” (p.223) so “we need to make sure that the people we want to talk to use the same symbols as we do, and use them in more or less the same way” (p.170), this may be especially in a Scots/English complex where the similarities between the two tongues mean misinterpretation is easy.

I particularly like the following passage (p.170)  which sums up the ‘distributed’ nature of Scots, and indeed of any language.

Each individual possesses a larger or smaller subset of the entire society’s value and knowledge depending on that individual’s experience and intelligence. These internalized values an knowledge then serve as tools to help the individual know what to do, what to expect, how to react, and so on. to the various dangers, pleasures, and other experiences of life without having to develop an entirely original response to each stimulus. These tools enable us to spend less time worrying about how we should live and spend more time living and doing.

Everett also touches on another sensitive area for Scots activists; “once a language is written down it almost always develops two styles, one written and one spoken” (p.142). “Few, if any, writers speak as they write (p. 200); we can make our sentences longer and more complex and use richer vocabulary simply because the reader has more time to interpret them. However “its influence extends into the spoken language as well (p.276). The result is “many languages have been changed by new literature, from idiomatic expressions to their very grammar (p.200).

The ‘tool’ theory implies languages “fit their cultural niches and take on the properties required of them in their environments … some languages are better than others at expressing some things, and … some are capable of expressing things that others simply cannot” (p. 234). Even though languages are adapted to what they do, unfortunately “language seems to come out particularly badly in [the] smorgasbord of uninformed opinions. Everyone seems to have a view about language: who speaks it correctly, which languages are superior and so on (p. 232). Everett reminds us “judgements of the [linguistic] inferiority of other groups have no scientific basis. They are, rather, the reflex of bigoted judgements about the speakers of these varieties” (p.230).

Everett’s approach implies Scots should be considered one of our most important cultural creations, indeed our most complex behaviour, a vehicle for sharing our history, values and ideas. The current form of Scots has been “determined by function” (p.27) but the very survival of that form ratifies its continuing value to Scottish culture. Even quite light use of the language;  cultural-specific pronunciations and, the occasional use of Scots words  can still be “a sign of cultural belonging”, and can take on a “secondary cultural value” (p. 316) of huge importance to the speaker.

As we know, “the loss of language brings loss of identity and sense of community” (p. 305). The reason is its effect on culture ” a living thing that bears the accretions of generations of lives, of our suffering, triumph, defeat of thousands of says of boring routine and the past interactions of people long dead” (p. 323). Therefore he concludes with an example: “The French possess a repository that dwarfs the Louvre – their own beautiful language and the culture that grew alongside and nourishes it (p. 326). The same could  also be said of Scots – perhaps our greatest cultural treasure

Gaelic and Scots – why are they treated differently?

Nihtinen, A. (2005) Scotland’s linguistic past and present: paradoxes and consequences“, Studia Celtica Fennica, No. 2, pp. 118-137

Atina Nihtinen, a Finnish scholar, has written several papers on Scots based on the work she did in the mid-naughties for her thesis on the language of the Shetlands. This paper sets out the broader Scottish contexts, and it is a reminder of how useful it is sometimes to “see oursels as ithers see us”. She explores the widely diverging historic and current attitudes towards Gaelic and Scots, aiming perhaps to explain the differences in funding and status, which to an outsider (and many insiders) appear illogical if not downright bizarre. This is not to ding doon Gaelic; most active Scots speakers, sensitised to linguistic variety, seem to be quite fond of our ‘other national tongue’ and envy rather than begrudge the hugely disproportionate funding it attracts.

How did Gaelic achieve this fortunate position as the symbol of Scottish linguistic diversity while Scots, spoken by perhaps twenty-five times more Scottish inhabitants, remains the neglected stepchild, locked away the cellar?

Remember until the 16h century Scots was the language of state at a time when Gaelic, even then very much a declining minority tongue, was barely regarded as Scottish at all, considered even speakers as a dialect of Irish.

Nihtinen, drawing on the work of Horsborugh pins the blame on the Celtic romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries when the post-Culloden Gaels, now forever neutered as a threat to the British state could safely be romanticised. Celticism was developed as and remains today a safe, tourism-friendly largely depoliticised identity. Gaelic is well-funded because of not despite of being spoken by comparatively few people ‘far away’ from the centres of power. Why fund it at all? Funding Gaelic provides a tokenistic fig-leaf of Scottish linguistic diversity; overt linguistic oppression, went out of fashion soon after Welsh activists started burning holiday homes.

Which brings us to Scots. Scots is everything that Gaelic is not; widely spoken by voters all over the lowlands, easy-to-learn, and a far stronger indicator of Scottish identity than Gaelic, wonderful tongue that it remains, ever can be. This makes Scots a political hot-tattie, not because there is a language question per se in the sense of linguistic demands, but that the British state fears that increased Scots awareness leads to an increased sense of Scottishness and they can’t have that, for rather obvious reasons. Nihtinen points to various research showing their fears are maybe well-founded. This is why we have seen ever since the rise of modern nationalism increasing attempts to downgrade Scots, as we have seen regarded as separate Scottish language long before Gaelic as a ‘dialect’. The discourse of dialect is a political not a linguistic discourse but has become so successfully ‘normalised’ that even Scots activists habitually defend themselves  against this trumped-up charge. As evidence for this look 15 miles west of Scotland. In Northern Ireland the British state actually want Scots speakers to feel more ‘Ulster’ so Ullans, the dialect of Scots spoken there, is enormously well funded and seems to have been promoted to full language status.

Nihtinen’s paper is now a few years old but is still an excellent introduction to these bizarre paradoxes, hinting at rather than exposing (as I have started here) the political underpinnings of the Scottish ‘language question’.


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