The vowel and diphthong system in scottish standard english

Seminar Paper, 2007

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The History of the Scottish Languages
2.1. Development and Situation in the Past
2.2. Current Language Situation

3. Vowel and Diphthong System and SVLR in Scottish Standard English
3.1 Vowel and Diphthong System for Scottish Standard English
3.1.1 The Vowels of Scottish Standard English
3.1.2 The Diphthongs of Scottish Standard English
3.1.3 Analysis of Speakers of SSE
3.2 Aitken’s Law
3.3 Current Research on the SVLR

4. Future Development

5. Bibliography

6. Outtakes

1. Introduction

Scotland is a region where language experienced many changes in the historical development. A standard form of English has only been spoken there for roughly three centuries. Before English was established Celtic languages such as Gaelic and Old Norse[1] were spoken in most of today’s Scotland. From the 14th century onwards a form of English deriving from a northern English accent was established in Scotland. This form was called Scots. Gaelic and Scots both survived until today. Especially Scots had a big influence on what today is called Scottish Standard English[2]. Due to all the different historical developments and influences and a strong national consciousness and awareness the Scottish form of Standard English, which is “pronounced with a Scottish accent and retained a few scotticisms in vocabulary” (Wells 1995: 394), has attained a status quite unique amongst the English varieties.

The special phonological system contributes largely to this uniqueness. In SSE one can find phonetic realizations found nowhere else in other accents of English. One such phenomenon is the variation of vowel duration according to the phonetic environment. The rule describing this special feature of Scottish speech is called Aitken’s Law or the Scottish Vowel Length Rule.[3] This rule was depicted (cf. Trudgill and Hannah 1994, Hansen et al. 1996) as affecting all vowels except /I/ and /V/. Wells (1995: 401) talks about the possibility that the SVLR might only affect certain vowels for some speakers of SSE. Recent research by Scobbie et al. (1999), seems to confirm this notion for SSE in general.

The aim of this paper is to give a general overview of the vowel and diphthong system of SSE followed by a discussion of the ‘classical’ SVLR and the results of the new research. This is going to be framed by short discussion of the historical development of the languages spoken in Scotland and by a final speculation of how Scottish speech is going to develop in the future.

2. The History of the Scottish Languages

2.1. Development and Situation in the Past

Not much is known about the languages spoken before the invasion of Angles and Saxons in the territory now called Scotland. However, following Wormland (2005: 2), the first documentary reference of this country can already be found around 320 BC when a Greek mariner mentioned the name of the most northerly cape of the British Island. The word he uses to describe it was “Orcas” a word of Celtic origin which was the name of a local tribe and developed into modern day Orkney. Hence, one can conclude that Celtic speakers lived in the far north of the British Isles at this time.

When the Romans encountered the people of Scotland in the first century AD, they also found speakers of a form of Celtic. The inhabitants of Scotland were, furthermore, described as following a Celtic pagan religion and living in a chiefdom society. However, Roman armies never penetrated far into the country. The so called Hadrian’s Wall was build on the Tyne-Solway line in the 120’s AD to protect the soldiers form the barbarian tribes further north. About 20 years later the Roman forces invade the country further north and build a second wall on the Forth-Clyde line. After unsuccessful raids against the tribes of the north this wall was abandoned again and the Roman army retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans stayed until the beginning of the fourth century and had a strong influence on the people living in zones near their strongholds. Especially the religion the Romans brought –Christianity – was soon adopted by the tribes living in areas of Roman influence (cf. Wormland 2005: 2ff).

Around 450 AD the Angles and Saxons arrived in England. At this time Scotland was divided between four different races (cf. Maclean 1995: 14f) and by their four different languages. The Picts who occupied a territory from Caithness to Forth were of Celtic origin. The area from Clyde to Solway was controlled by the Britons of Strathclyde who were also a Celtic race. Teutonic Anglo-Saxons lived in a territory to south of the Forth stretching into Northumbria and Lothian. The language they spoke was a form of Anglian and, therefore, of Germanic roots. A Celtic race that came originally from Northern Ireland occupied the territory of Argyll, Kintyre and the neighbouring islands. They were called Scots (cf. ibid.). Their language was a form of Gaelic that later developed into Scottish Gaelic and their name was to give the country they lived in its name (Hansen et al. 1996: 64f). The territories of Scots and Picts were united by the marriage of the King of Scots to a Pictish princess in the middle of the ninth century. After this, the Picts disappeared probably by intermarriage with the Scots and the consequent merge of customs and languages. From the eighth century onwards, Norseman attacked and conquered Caithness, Sutherland, Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles and introduced Old Norse into these areas. At the beginning of the 11th century Lothian was invaded by the Scots and, henceforth, under Scottish rule. In 1034 Duncan I King of the Britons of Strathclyde who was a Scot became the successor of the King of Scots. The result was the unification of all parts of today’s Scotland under Scots’ rule (cf. Maclean 1995: 21ff).

The Norman Conquest in 1066 brought another change for the Scottish languages. One reason for this can be found in the fact that more and more Scottish kings grew up in England and enjoyed a Norman education. Many gained friends in the Norman nobility and took wives from the English nobility who brought their Norman following with them. Additionally, land in the south of Scotland was given to Norman nobility who were accompanied by English settlers farmed the land. Hence, a predominantly French speaking nobility was created and English was introduced into the lower classes (cf. Maclean 1995: 26 ff). This resulted into the gradual development of Scots in the 12th and 14th century. The basis for Scots was the language of the northern English farmers living in Scotland which was significantly influenced by Norse (Stuart-Smith 2004: 48). This new language flourished quickly in Scotland and replaced Latin as language of record in the Scottish parliament in 1398. According to Stuart-Smith (ibid.), Scots was noted as a distinct language from contemporary southern forms of English by the 15th century.

The 17th and 18th century brought serious political changes for Scotland. When Queen Elisabeth of England died in 1603, her cousin James VI King of Scotland became her heir. Therefore, James VI King of Scotland was now also James I King of England. Yet, both kingdoms were never united under James rule. It was rejected by the English, although, James I of England and VI of Scotland used the name “Great Britain” to cover both kingdoms and even established a joint flag (“Union Jack”) for them. The reason for the rejection of the Union was that the English did not want to merge identity with the Scots. Hence, Scotland was now reigned by a king that lived in far away London. However, a little more than 100 years later, Scotland and England were finally united by a Treaty of Union. England had grown into a Colonial Power and Scotland hoped for advantages for itself, especially for better economical prospects (cf. Maclean 1995: 107ff).

The political changes of the 18th century also brought about a drastic change for the languages spoken in Scotland. Until now Scots had flourished as a literary and spoken language. Yet, after the Union, it was replaced as a standard by Standard Southern English especially in the ruling and professional class and the use of literary Scots declined. This process is called Anglicisation or restandardisation (cf. Macafee 2004: 59). Although, Scots remained vigorous in rural areas among the working class, this was the beginning of the development of Scottish Standard English as the dominant language spoken in Scotland. To make matters worse for Scots and Gaelic in Scotland, these languages often became the target of attempts to oppress Scottish resistance. Especially with Highland clans the Union was highly unpopular and in 1715/16 as well as in 1745 they rose and tried to free Scotland again, from what they felt to be an English oppression, but were defeated both times. To placate the Highlands acts were passed to root out the Gaelic language or put severe penalties on wearing kilts, plaid or any other tartan garment. Even playing the bagpipes was punished because they were seen as an instrument of war (cf. Maclean 1995: 182ff).

In the 20th century Gaelic belonged to the languages that were quickly dying out. While in 1891 250.000 speakers of Gaelic lived in Scotland the number decreased to only 95.000 speakers in 1951 (cf. Maclean 1995: 194). However, Home Rule movements of the late 19th and early 20th century forced the British government to establish a Secretary of Stated for Scotland with the power to decide upon home affairs, health, agriculture and education (cf. Maclean 1995: 211ff). This established a great measure of administrative independence in Scotland which also helped to preserve the languages spoken there. One example of the attempts to preserve the lesser spoken languages in Scotland is the Gaelic Language Act which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2005. This Act recognizes Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, promotes the use of Gaelic, and tries to ensure its long-term future (cf. “Historic Day for Gaelic”: /21162614 , Viewed 04.06.07).

2.2. Current Language Situation

The current situation of the languages spoken in Scotland is marked by the dominance of Scottish Standard English, although, this is the language with the shortest history in Scotland. Following Stuart-Smith (2004: 48) there are no official estimates of the number of Scots speakers. Hansen et al. (1996: 68), however, state that it is still widely distributed. And while there is still a quite sharp distinction of Scots from SSE in the rural areas (good Scots) it has lost this distinction in the urban areas. Especially in the industrial cities such as Glasgow Scots and SSE have developed into a continuum of variations (cf. Wells 1995: 395). Furthermore, Hansen et al. (1996: 68) point out that social prestige still plays a considerable roll in the use of a language. While some social groups still prefer RP or a near-RP accent to SSE, the Scots dialect especially in rural areas enjoys a considerable covert prestige as can be seen in its use in literature and is even called “good Scots”. This cannot be said about its urban equivalent, though. Working-class Glasgow speech, for example, includes many features normally considered typical for Scots and, thus, mixes SSE and Scots together creating the already mentioned loss of clear-cut distinction between the two varieties (cf. Wells 1995: 395). This form of Scots spoken in Glasgow, therefore, is marked and often called “bad or gutter Scots” (cf. Hansen et al. 1996: 68). Both, Scottish Standard English and Scots also have regional, social and/or situational varieties that are used making a general description of both languages rather difficult.

The third language spoken in Scotland – Gaelic – is, as already mentioned, quickly dying out. While it was once widespread, only 1.2-1.8% of the Scottish population are still speakers of Gaelic and most of them are bilingual with English being there first language (Stuart-Smith 2004: 50). As can be read in Stuart-Smith (ibid.) Gaelic, however, still has a profound influence on the speakers of English in areas where Gaelic is still present. This can for example be seen in the strongly aspirated realisation of /p, t, k/ in the Highlands and Islands whereas a realisation with no or only little aspiration in the rest of Scotland is the norm (cf. Wells 1995: 409).

Especially in urban areas one can find many other ethnic minorities influencing the language spoken. Around 2% have a Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese or other ethnic background. This leads to bilingual, culturally and linguistically diverse populations in schools (cf. Stuart-Smith 2004: 50). Additionally, other standards of English such as RP continue to influence Scottish speech. As Wells (1995: 411) states there is, for example, a loss of word-final /r/ in Edinburgh speech which he says might be the beginning of the loss of rhoticity. This, of course, “would bring Scotland into line with the general non-rhotic norm of England.” (Wells 1995: 411) This, therefore, can be seen as evidence for the influence of other English varieties on SSE “‘even if it is not being adopted in conscious imitation of a Southern English prestige model such as RP’” (Wells 1995: 411) with the wide spread of media and continuing globalisation and playing a considerable role.


[1] Old Norse was spoken mainly on the Islands and in the far north.

[2] Scottish Standard English is in the following text abbreviated to SSE.

[3] Abreviated to SVLR in the following text.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The vowel and diphthong system in scottish standard english
College  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Local and Global Varieties of English
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
446 KB
This could easily have been a grade 1.0, if the practical analysis would have included some more instantiations of relevant vowels as well as an analysis of the various realizations of /ai/ in the entire reading passage.
Local, Global, Varieties, English
Quote paper
Annett Gräfe (Author), 2007, The vowel and diphthong system in scottish standard english, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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