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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Scots Versus Scots Gaelic: There’s a Difference!

Wait. What? I dinna understand ye.
Wait. What? I dinna understand ye.

Although most Scots speak English as their first language, Scotland has three officially recognized languages. The first, of course, is English. The other two are Scots and Scots (or Scottish) Gaelic. This may seem confusing. After all, aren’t Scots and Scots Gaelic the same? The answer is a resounding no! In fact, Scots is more closely related to English than to Scots Gaelic. Here’s a peek at the three languages:

Scots: Ach, it’s dreich! Tae a keek oot the windae.

Scots Gaelic: Ugh, tha e grumamach! Thoir sùil a-mach air an uinneig.

English: Ugh, it’s gloomy. Take a quick peek out the window.

If you’re a native English speaker, you probably got some sense of what the Scots sentence said, even if words like dreich and keek were unfamiliar. Now, if I add Irish to the mix, you will see some similarities with the Scots Gaelic sentence: Ugh, tá sé gruama. Sracfhéachaint amach an fhuinneog (Ir.).

So, what’s going on here? Easy. Scots Gaelic is a Celtic language from its Goidelic branch and is believed to have developed from Old (or possibly Middle) Irish. Scots is considered a Germanic language derived, scholars say, from Middle English.

Some people question whether or not Scots is a language. They argue that it’s simply a dialect, but it is recognized as an indigenous language by the Scottish government, as a minority language by the European Union, and as a “vulnerable” language by UNESCO.

Stand with Ukraine.
Stand with Ukraine.

While it is an offshoot of English, it also has influences from Latin, French, Middle Low German, and traces of Nordic languages as well as loan words from Scots Gaelic. Also, the language has four distinct dialects of its own. If you’re a native English speaker, Scots, at first, might sound like a dialect of English with slang words, but, if you’re exposed to more of it, you will soon find your knowledge of English is not enough to help you understand an extensive conversation in Scots.

Actually, you don’t even need to experience that much Scots before you it has words that’ll leave an English speaker scratching her head. Here’s just a taste (pun intended) from Robert Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis”:

Is there that owre his French ragout / Or olio that wad staw a sow / Or fricassee wad mak her spew / Wi’ perfect sconner / Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view / On sic a dinner?

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care / And dish them out their bill o’ fare / Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware / That jaups in luggies / But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer / Gie her a Haggis!

Say what? Click here to read the whole wonderful poem in the Scots language along with an English translation.

Now, Robbie Burns lived in the mid-18th century so you might think the above is just old-fashioned English. When I taught high school English, my students used to complain they couldn’t read Shakespeare's plays because they didn’t know Old English. (It’s written in Modern English, actually). The archaic language argument falls apart, however, when you discover that, according to the 2011 Census of Scotland, 30% of Scots (that’s more than 1.5 million people) said they could speak the Scots language. Only 1% of Scots can speak Gaelic.

Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware / That jaups in luggies / But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer / Gie her a Haggis!
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware / That jaups in luggies / But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer / Gie her a Haggis!

Today, there is a movement in Scotland to preserve the Scots language. In 2015, the Scottish government created the Scots Language Policy to encourage the use of the language as well as to promote recognition of it and respect for it. And the topic of preserving and promoting the Scots language continues to this day.

According to the Scottish Parliament’s website, on March 28, 2023, Stephen Kerr, MSP, asked “what guidance it has provided to local authorities to promote the teaching of the Scots language.” His question was answered by Jenny Gilruth, MSP on April 21, 2023. As part of her response, she said that the Scottish Government had given approximately £550,000 to organizations which worked to develop high quality education in Scots language learning and which provided resources to make Scots education accessible.

It is clear from this and other measures taken by the Scottish government that Scots is respected in Scotland and there is a desire to ensure its continuance. Also, it is obviously regarded as a language, not a quaint, old-fashioned way of speaking or a regional dialect that a person needs to be educated away from. Scots is valued.

Now for the fun part. Here are some Scots words and phrases. But first, a quick note: unlike many languages, Scots does not have standardized spelling, so there can be two or more ways words may be spelled. Often, the spelling is a representation of how the word is pronounced in a particular area of Scotland. For example: athoot, ithoot, athout, all of which mean without.

--Awbodie ahn awthin aawhaur aw weys is aaricht: Everyone and everything everywhere in every way is all right.

--me ainsel: me myself

--aulddame: grandmother

--not aataw: not at all

--an aa: and all (meaning also, too, or as well)

--aiple, epple, appil: apple. Contrast this with the Scots Gaelic ubhal and the Irish úll

--Another contrast is the words for whisky / whiskey. In all three languages, the words literally mean “water of life.” In Scots Gaelic, the phrase is Uisge Beatha, in Irish it’s uisce beatha, but in Scots it’s aqua-vitae showing either the influence from Latin or Nordic languages. Compare it with aquavit (Norweigian), akvavit (Swedish and Danish).

Ach, it's a dreich dae!.
Ach, it's a dreich dae!.

In most online lists or videos about the Scots language, you’ll find a few words that always come up. The top two are braw and dreich. Both are commonly used to describe the weather. Keep in mind, the weather in Scotland is often cold and drizzly.

--Braw: fine or pleasant, as in Wha’ a braw dae th’ dae! (What a fine day today!)

--Dreich: gloomy, dreary, or dull. Ach, it’s dreich! (Uh, it’s gloomy!)

Note: Braw can also mean excellent, for example: The haggis wis braw.

Here are some words and phrases you won’t find as often but they are interesting or simply delightful.

--Bahookie: backside. Mind yer bahookie!

--Glaikit: stupid, foolish, or thoughtless

--Dook: a dip in liquid or to dip in liquid. It’s braw. Ah’ll tae a dook in the loch.

--Coorie: cuddle or snuggle. It’s dreich. Ah’ll stay and coorie under my blanket.

--Fankle: to tangle or a confusion. The cat’s got ma knitting in a fankle.

--Shoogle: wobble or shake. Give the jelly a shoogle an see if it’s set.

--Peely-wally: pale, looking sick. Aaricht, lass? Yer looking peely-wally.

--Haver: talking foolishly or speaking nonsense.

--Wheest: be quiet! Wheest! Yer havering.

--Mony a mickle maks a muckle: Look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.

--Yer bum’s oot the windae: You’re havering.

--Yer aywis at the cow’s tail: You’re dragging your feet.

--Ye make a better door than a windae: You’re standing in my way.

If you’d like to explore the language further, three great sites that helped with my research for this post are: (words), (phrases) (an extensive list of words, phrases, and spelling variants. The site also has cartoons to illustrate some of the words. It’s an excellent resource.)

There are many YouTube videos in which you can hear the Scots language spoken. However, if you just watch one, I recommend listening to it sung. Click here for a stirring rendition of Robert Burns’ poem “A Man’s a Man For A’ That” being sung by Sheena Wellington at the Opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

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Slán go fóill

All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) was done by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.

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