Scots and Ulster-Scots Are Not Languages

Now don’t get me wrong. This isn’t one of those articles complaining about people who don’t use the standard or official form of English (I don’t do that myself). My aim isn’t to mock and insult everyone who speaks differently than me. Nor I am someone who thinks English should conquer the world and crush all other languages underfoot (I even speak Esperanto!). I support language diversity and think it’s good when people maintain local words and accents, as a world where we all spoke the same bland accent would be very boring.

However, sometimes the support for local languages goes too far. For centuries local dialects and languages were suppressed and discouraged in favour of English and other major languages. As if to compensate, the pendulum has swung the other way and all forms of local speech are studied, celebrated and supported. However, I feel the pendulum has swung too far and now some local differences are being exaggerated and put on a pedestal where they don’t belong.

A good example is Scots, which some people claim is a language and get very upset if you call it anything else. In my honest opinion, language is not the correct title, even dialect is being too generous, it’s really just an accent. If you read an example of Scots, it’s essentially the Scottish accent written phonetically with a few regional words thrown in.

A major problem with calling Scots a language is that most Scottish people disagree. A survey found that most (64%) Scottish people don’t consider it a language, even among people who claim to speak Scots, a majority (58%) said they didn’t consider it a language. Only 29% of Scottish people actually consider it a language. How can you call something a language when even the people who speak it don’t?

Even the Scottish Nationalist Party says little about Scots. Claiming to have your own language would certainly aid the case for independence and emphasis the separate identity (as Irish and Welsh nationalists do). Yet there’s almost no connection between the two. The contrast is revealing between that and other nationalist politicians, who often give speeches in the national language, support community groups and generally support the language. The SNP is one of the few nationalist parties in Britain to have their name in English (unlike Sinn Féin and Plaid Cymru for example).

Let me give you an example of what Scots looks like, from the Scots Wikipedia page (so it’s an example people feel well represents the language). It’s from The New Testament in Scots:

This is the storie o the birth o Jesus Christ. His mither Mary wis trystit til Joseph, but afore they war mairriet she wis fund tae be wi bairn bi the Halie Spírit. Her husband Joseph, honest man, hed nae mind tae affront her afore the warld an wis for brakkin aff their tryst hidlinweys;

Without every studying the language, I can translate almost all of this:

This is the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. His mother Mary was ? Joseph, but before they were married she was found to be ? with the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, an honest man, had intended to confront her before the world and wished to break off their ?

The only words I don’t know are tryst and bairn, which from context I can understand to mean engagement and pregnant. So out of more than 50 words, only 2 caused me difficulty and I can figure them out from context. In other words, I can understand more than 95% of the language without prior study. Another example is from the Scots Wikipedia:

Ireland or Airlann is a kintra in wastren Europe, wi a population o mair nor 4 million. It maks up maist o the iland o Ireland, an haes a mairch wi Northern Ireland, pairt o the Unitit Kinrick.


Ireland is a country in Western Europe, with a population of more than 4 million. It makes up most of the island of Ireland and has a border with Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom.

The only difficult word here is mairch but I remembered an old and barely used English word march which means border and the context confirms this.

How can something claim to be a different language when it is so incredibly similar to English? Without any study of Scots, I can read the vast majority of this. It’s essentially English written phonetically as a Scottish person speaks.


The problem with deciding what is a language and what is a dialect, is that there is no official rule. There’s no test to be passed or committee that can give its approval. You can essentially call anything a language. The divide between what is a language and what is a dialect is arbitrary and some languages have a lot in common (Czech-Slovak and the Scandinavian languages) and some dialects are quite far apart (Arabic and Chinese are considered one language despite large dialectal differences). When Yugoslavia was one country, there was officially only one language (Serbo-Croatian) but since the breakup, each country has claimed that they speak a separate language not just dialects.

There’s an old joke that “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. This is true as languages are very political issues. In fact, I would argue that a major reason why Scots and Ulster-Scots are called languages, is that their respective communities want to emphasise their political identity and separateness from England, while not being able to claim a Celtic language. Scottish Gaelic was spoken in the Highlands, so Lowlanders claim Scots as their language, while Irish is associated with Catholics so Northern Irish Protestants claim Ulster-Scots as their language.

So while there can be no objective view of what is a language and what is a dialect, I will give my subjective opinion. After all, there is no objective view of what is hot or cold but we can still use the words even if we all have separate ideas of what exactly they mean. A dialect is something that is mutually intelligible with the reference language, so a dialect of English is something that an English speaker can broadly understand without prior study.

Scots clearly fits into this category. In fact, I would go further and say that an English speaker can understand the vast majority of Scots without prior study. An overlap of 95% is too close to be called separate languages and I would say too close to even call it a dialect. 5% is a normal variance that you expect within a language as there will never be a uniform and identical standard. Of course, I don’t claim to understand everything and I would struggle to understand someone with a very strong accent, but everywhere English is spoken there are local words and people with strong accents that outsiders would struggle to understand.


If we are to accept that Scots is a separate language, that surely means Irish people too have their own version of English? After all, if you were to write down the way Irish people speak phonetically and use local words, it would be as different to English as Scots is. Sure, people could still understand it just as they understand Scots. You could even argue that there are multiple languages in Ireland, as the way people speak in the West is different to the South etc.

For example, here is a sentence using local words:

“Here lads, do yee want to go bushing and get mouldy tonight? The beure’s away in the big shmoke.”

That’s just as incomprehensible as any piece of Scots, especially if I write it phonetically to make it as different as possible:

“Heare lads, du yee wanna go bushin n git mauldy t’nite? Da beure’s away in da big shmoke.”

(Here guys, do you want to drinking in a field and get really drunk? My girlfriend has gone to the big city (Dublin).”

Maybe I wasn’t born a native English speaker, but actually bilingual, fluent in both official English but also “Connacht” the language of Western Ireland. Why not? Our accent is just as different and as hard for outsiders to understand. Maybe we can persuade Paul Howard to become a translator, after all if phonetically writing an accent is all it takes to make a language, then the Ross O’Carroll Kelly books with their use of North and South Dublin slang/language are actually trilingual.

Why stop there? Americans have a different accent and local words, do they too have their own language? My relatives from Texas and Pennsylvania are difficult to understand, perhaps it’s because they’re speaking their own language? If Scots counts as a language than surely the Southern USA accent does too. America probably has several languages that we’ve been mistakenly called English, don’t forget the South Africans, Nigerians, Australians, New Zealanders etc. If Scots counts as a separate language, then there isn’t one English language but probably 20.

Or we can realise how ridiculous this is. If you and me can communicate together and use the same words, we’re probably speaking the same language. Even if we have different accents and occasionally use different words, that doesn’t mean we’re speaking different languages. The will always be regional and social variance in a language, that doesn’t mean we should exaggerate them and claim their totally different.


I saved Ulster-Scots for last because it’s a far more controversial and political topic. It is worth noting that many of the people who become outraged at those who call Scots a dialect, themselves casually call Ulster-Scots the same (which in turn enrages some Ulster people). Personally I think Ulster-Scots too is an accent and one in even weaker a position than Scots. The Northern Irish government offered a phone service in Ulster-Scots, but after eight years it had never been used.

The issue is extremely political with some Nationalists viewing it as little more than an invention to get grants. The controversy is due to the extremely divided nature of Northern Irish society, if one community receives a benefit, the other community demands the same benefit. So when Nationalists began to request support for Irish, Unionists requested that Ulster-Scots also receive the same support. Some Nationalists dismissed this as insincere as up to this point Ulster-Scots had received little or no attention and support and none of the Unionist politicians claimed to speak it.

To give an example of Ulster-Scots (from Yer guide tae the cheenge-ower)

Dae A need a new aerial?

Gin ye hae guid analogue reception the nou, ye’r like no tae need tae replace yer ruiftap or set-tap aerial for the cheenge-ower – thare nae sic thing as a ‘deegital aerial’. But gin ye hae ill analogue reception the nou, ye’ll mebbe need tae replace it.


Do I need a new aerial?

If you have good analogue reception now, you probably don’t need to replace your rooftop or set-top aerial for the change-over – there’s no such thing as ‘digital aerial’. But if you have analogue reception now, you might need to replace it.

Again, pretty much the same as English, just a phonetic writing of the way Northern Irish people talk. The only difficult word was gin which I could understand from context.

In fact, there is something insulting about the idea that Scottish and Northern Irish people aren’t actually speaking English. If I was to claim that a Scottish person’s speech was too foreign for me and request that they speak English, they would certainly be offended. The idea that we might need translators to translate between these two languages is daft. Should we have classes in school to teach people how to speak Scots?


It’s clear that both Scots and Ulster-Scots don’t have any features of the typical language. There’s almost nothing produced in the language, barely any songs, books, newspapers etc. There’s no dictionary or way to learn this language. The Gaelic languages are endangered but they look like powerful giants compared to the paltry existence of Scots. If I went searching for somewhere to learn the language in Scotland people would probably just laugh. It sounds like the kind of prank you would play on a gullible tourist.

So calling Scots and Ulster-Scots languages is a gross exaggeration and very misleading. Just phonetically writing an accent is not enough to make a language. Furthermore, calling them languages lead to a waste of money in grants and other supports. There are much better use of resources like the Celtic languages which have a long heritage, rich culture and are in dire need of support. Scots is but a pale shadow of even small languages like Scottish Gaelic. So be proud of your local words and regional speech, but don’t pretend it’s a separate language.

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8 thoughts on “Scots and Ulster-Scots Are Not Languages”

  1. Not a comment on your central point, but on something non-essential that you take in on the way. This:

    “Claiming to have your own language would certainly aid the case for independence and emphasis the separate identity (as Irish and Welsh nationalists do).”

    Actually, the language issue has probably retarded the development of Welsh nationalism. The primacy of Welsh-language cultural issues over economic ones prevented Plaid Cymru from officially aiming for independence until this century, with the leading theorist of the party’s early years doing a complex terminological dance that ended up in the conclusion that independence ‘wasn’t worth having’. Instead they espoused ‘self-government’ – without ever really being able to define what the difference was in either English or Welsh.

    In addition, a popular perception grew amongst those who did not speak Welsh that concern with ‘the language’ was a thin veil for personal advancement and a lack of concern with the conditions of the working-class. That reaction has informed a visceral, near-racist and often downright weird hatred for ‘North Wales’ from politicians and authors from the former mining areas of south Wales.

    The resulting division has helped prevent nationalists and socialists working together for – at least – the best part of a century.

  2. You clearly didn´t read the whole wikipedia article, as there are also a few more than significant grammatical differences, such as still using the old English word ¨yonder¨ as well as having plural forms for ¨that¨ and ¨this¨

    1. Using the word yonder doesn’t count as a grammatical difference, nor does it make Scots a separate language as yonder is a valid English word, even if it is rarely used. English also has plural forms of this and that, “these” and “those”

  3. Interesting!

    You probably know all this, but “bairn” means child. It’s from Old Norse, and it’s used in the north of England too. The word for “child” in modern Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic is very similar. So “wi bairn” is “with child”.

    “Tryst” is actually a reasonably common Standard English word, I would have thought, though not used in quite the standard way in the extract you’ve provided.

    I think you’ve made a convincing case for Scots not being a separate language. Quite how different a version of a language has to be before it’s a dialect is not something I understand.

    I like the way Scots is so Germanic in places: widdershins/widersinnig, nicht/Nacht, lift/Luft. Obviously, English is pretty Germanic too.

  4. Gaelic was widely spoken throughout Scotland, even in Galloway which is as far south of the Highlands as you can get in Scotland, and was done so well into the mid 1800’s. The language was spoken in both the north, the Isles and the lowlands throughout much of Scotland’s history pre 1900’s, which preliminary research would easily have shown you. As for Scots? Try ‘translating’ Doric or braid, rather than a relatively modern ‘phonetic’ dialect.

  5. I’ve given you a ‘like’ because I found you views interesting, not because I entirely agreed with them. I agree that ‘Ulster Scotch’ is a bit of a joke and funding scam, but hey if that was the price of peace … ? Scots itself began to diverge from English and no doubt if the Union had not taken place would have developed its own literary idiom, standards and so on, just as each of the Scandinavian languages have. In the event when the centre shifted to London writers used the developing metropolitan standard and Scottish idiom was relegated to ‘character speech’, comic verse etc. In Scotland itself there is a continuum from ‘Broad Scots’ to (almost) Standard English. E.g. a university lecturer would lecture in the latter but slowly revert to the former when chatting with friends down the pub, especially if they came from his own neuk o the woods. The continuum is a slippery slope and speakers are constantly sliding up and down it.

    I might add that many people were punished and/or humiliated at school because of their local speech, so in a way recognition of Scots is simply an attempt to compensate and show respect.

    As for there being no dictionary a little research would have turned up this page :
    http://www.dsl.ac.uk/
    The DOST can usually be found in any decently stocked Scottish library.
    Sae awaa wi ye! 🙂

  6. Nonsense.
    Firstly your translations are wrong. “Trystit” shares a root with “trust” but does not translate directly as “engaged” or “trusted” and “bairn” is child. A case in point.
    Second, it is normal for greater mutual intelligibility to exist between written forms of related languages than between spoken forms. I couldn’t put a figure of 95% on it, but a monoglot Dutch speaker would understand written German pretty well. They’d also understand quite a bit of of written Swedish and Danish. Could a monoglot Dutch speaker converse with a German, Swede or Dane and are they merely dialects of the same language? “Not very easily” and “no” are the answers.
    Even Swedes and Danes struggle to speak to each other, and written intelligibility between the two languages approaches 100%.
    Speaking of idiom, go out there and ask a random sample of Londoners to tell you what “auld lang syne” means. I guarantee that despite its fame not many would answer correctly. Who says “old long since” when they mean “a long time ago” anyway?
    The real test is whether you can understand the spoken language. Scots exists in a continuum, and the places furthest from England, such as the rural North East, have the broadest most conservative varieties of the language/ dialect/ whatever you wish to call it.
    I can assure you from personal experience that unless you took some time to learn it you could not simply tune your Standard English attuned ears into a conversation conducted in rural Doric Scots and hope to understand it. My personal experience of speaking to rural north east farmers when I lived near Aberdeen was that you could understand perhaps, in the best case scenario, 70% of it. It was not unusual to hear a complete sentence or segment of speech which was 100% unintelligible to me. Upon asking for clarification I would often be told that they were “spikkun Aynglish”!
    Missing >30% of the words is not mutual intelligibility in my opinion. It is partial intelligibility at a level which probably exists between speakers of uncontroversially separate yet closely related languages such as Spanish and Portuguese or Danish and Swedish.
    Had Scotland and England remained separate countries, Scots would have developed a separate standard and the two would be regarded as related but different languages. Since the Union, Scotland has adopted standard English as its standard, but very broad spoken Scots persists in the places furthest from England. I would say its status as a regional language is about right.

  7. Cool article, and I agree with you.

    May I suggest that what could make this argument confusing in some discussions is that some people will conflate Scots with Scottish Gaelic, and Ulster Scots with Irish Gaelic, which ARE both genuine languages. Obviously nobody who actually speaks them, or knows people who do, would make that mistake (and I don’t think anyone here makes them!), but we all know how in debate the assumptions don’t always match up.

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