Variation in Scotland: The Linguistic Status of Scots Then and Now

Seminar Paper, 2001

11 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. The Status of Scots Speech
2.1. Language or Dialect - A General Distinction
2.2. Standardisation
2.3. Rise and Fall of Middle Scots

3. Linguistic Characteristics of Middle Scots
3.1. Orthography and Phonology
3.1.1. The Vowels
3.1.2. The Consonants
3.2. Morphology
3.3. Lexis
3.3.1. Latin Influence
3.3.2. French Influence
3.3.3. Gaelic Influence
3.3.4. Dutch Influence
3.3.5. Old Norse Influence

4. The Situation Today

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The linguistic status of Scots today is certainly best described as ambiguous. There are never ending conflicts between those who support and those who oppose a potential official status of Scots, and no solution seems to be at hand. Moreover, linguists do not even agree on linguistic features, which makes it hard to present reliable results.

This paper tries to find out about the possibility of labelling Scots a language or a dialect. In addition to that, it takes a closer look at the linguistic features of Middle Scots and the situation of Scots today.

2. The Status of Scots Speech

2.1. Language or Dialect - A General Distinction

We know that terms such as „language“ or „dialect“ are notoriously difficult to define. According to Attila Dósa (1999:78) the term „dialect“ refers to a form of speech (a regional and/or social variety) which is not accepted as standard, whereas a language is a collection of regional and/or social varieties, one of which is accepted as standard.“ This implies that the status of a form of speech depends on whether or not it possesses a standard variety. (Dósa 1999:78)

In the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Crystal 1995:298) one finds an entry about the term „regional dialect“: „A regional dialect refers to a features of grammar and vocabulary which convey information about a person’s geographical origin.“

Finally, Glenville Price (1984:186) states that a language is the form of speech that „becomes the accepted and standardized language of a different nation-state”.

2.2. Standardisation

There can be no doubt that only the existence of standardisation makes the status of language possible. It is mostly a consequence of political, social and economic needs.

The development of a nation state usually creates the establishment of a standard language. This standard language gains social prestige and acceptance by being taught in schools and being used by „model speakers“, e.g. public speakers on TV and radio, actors, poets and preachers.

Above all, there has to be a language code, e.g. the codification of spelling (orthography), grammar and official dictionaries. (Dósa 1999:82-83)

2.3. Rise and Fall of Middle Scots

Most linguists agree that Scots used to have a right to be called a language during the fifteenth and sixteenth century. From the beginning of the fifteenth century on the language of Scotland became increasingly different from the English used in England, especially in pronunciation and vocabulary, due to political and social changes. Scottish people developed an awareness for their own nationality and their language reflected that. (Fennell 2001:193)

During this period there was a flowering of literature in Scots. It was the golden age of the famous poetry of the ‘Makars’, such as Robert Henryson and William Dunbar. Linguists refer to their form of the Scots literary language as ‘Middle Scots’ (Barber 1976:29)

Scots was a national language at that time, used in the royal court and spoken by most of Scottish inhabitants. (Dósa 1999:70) However, it did not develop into a standard for several reasons. Scottish writers were influenced more and more by the early English poetry of Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate. They borrowed southern words and word-forms to fill lexical gaps or for metrical and rhyming needs. (Görlach 1985:19)

Furthermore, there was no translation of the Bible into Scots at that time and most of the books published in Scotland were written in the southern dialect.

Political changes led to the Union of the Crowns in 1603, and in 1707 the Union of Parliament made Scotland lose its independence and declared English as national language. (Fennell 2001:193-194)

By the end of the seventeenth century, the Scots literary language had practically vanished. (Barber 1976:36)


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Variation in Scotland: The Linguistic Status of Scots Then and Now
Free University of Berlin
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linguistics, english, scots, england, variation, debate, scotland, language, englisch, sprachwissenschaften, linguistik, dialect, Dialekt, standardisation, orthography, phonology, vowels, lexis, Morphologie, morphology, Old English, Altenglisch, Lehnwort, Latein, Schottland
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Magister Artium Melanie Bobik (Author), 2001, Variation in Scotland: The Linguistic Status of Scots Then and Now, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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