Home > 8. The Dragons of Grammar, B. The Living Artifact > Scots & Scottish Gaelic–What Makes a Language?

Scots & Scottish Gaelic–What Makes a Language?



So how many languages are spoken in Scotland these days?

This is a tough one: when do two dialects drift apart and become separate languages? Common sense tells us when we’re dealing with a language other than our own: Can you understand the person speaking to you? How often do you have to resort to a phrase book? Are they understanding you when you speak?

Using this guideline, let’s compare some translations of Scots, Scottish Gaelic, and

a) Here is the KJV for Matthew (1:18-25)

18: Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
19: Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.
20: But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
21: And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
22: Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
23: Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
24: Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:
25: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

b) Next, a sample in Modern Scots of the same passage:

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; an sae he wis een ettlin tae dae, whan an angel o the Lord kythed til him in a draim an said til him, “Joseph, son o Dauvit, be nane feared tae tak Mary your trystit wife intil your hame; the bairn she is cairrein is o the Halie Spírit. She will beir a son, an the name ye ar tae gíe him is Jesus, for he will sauf his fowk frae their sins.”
Aa this happent at the wurd spokken bi the Lord throu the Prophet micht be fulfilled: Behaud, the virgin wil bouk an beir a son, an they will caa his name Immanuel – that is, “God wi us”.
Whan he hed waukit frae his sleep, Joseph did as the angel hed bidden him, an tuik his trystit wife hame wi him. But he bedditna wi her or she buir a son; an he caa’d the bairn Jesus.
c) Finally, we have the opening of the Gospel of Mark in Scottish Gaelic (RT couldn’t find the opening of Matthew in SG):
T oiseachd soisgeul Iosa Criosda, Mac Dhe.Air reir `s mar tha e sgriobhte san fhaidh Isaias: seall, cuiridh mi m` aingeal roimh do ghnuis, a reiticheas do shlighe romhad.Guth neach ag eigheach san fhasach: Reitichibh slighe an Tighearna, agus dianaibh a rathadain direach.Bha Eoin anns an fhasach a baisteadh, `sa searmonachadh baisteadh an aithreachais gu mathanas pheacannan.Agus chaidh duthaich Iudea uile mach ga ionnsuidh, agus muinntir Ierusalem gu leir, is bhaisteadh iad leis ann an abhuinn Iordain ag aideachadh am peacannan.Agus bha Eoin air eideadh le fionnadh chamhal, is crios leathair mu mheadhon; agus dh` ith e locuist is mil fhiadhaich. Agus shearmonaich e ag radh:Tha fear nas cumhachdaiche na mise tighinn as mo dheigh: neach nach airidh mise air cromadh sios is barail a bhrogan fhuasgladh.Bhaist mise sibh le uisge; ach baistidh esan sibh leis an Spiorad Naomh.

Well, it seems clear that Scots is a definite variant of English, while Scottish Gaelic is another language altogether.  In other words, with a few exceptions, the Scots excerpt is comprehensible to a speaker of Standard English, while the SG excerpt isn’t. Case closed.

Or maybe not. Here are some considerations:

1) Scots comprises several dialects; the one in use here might be given in the most standard or correct dialect. After all, this is the New Testament. What would the passage look like in Northern or Insular Scots? In this context, RT should note that he has run across a couple of poems written in Scots that were not nearly this easy to understand.

2) The Scottish Gaelic version is given in a spelling that strikes RT as highly unphonetic, especially to an English speaker. What if the passage were presented in a phonetic spelling accessible to the English ear? Would underlying similarities and word histories help us decode more words?

3) Modern English, as is often remarked, has migrated quite a distance from the Elizabethean KJV. This makes for an interesting contrast with the Scots passage, which seems to have out-evolved Standard English, including phonetic spellings and grammatical structures that sound far more idiomatic to us than the KJV.

4) Remember Scottish English, the version of English spoken in Scotland? Here are some sample phrases from SE:

What a dreich day! meaning “What a dull, miserable, overcast day” (of weather)

It’s a fair way to Skye from here meaning “It’s a good distance to Skye from here”

It’s a sair fecht meaning “It’s a real struggle/It’s hard going”

Just play the daft laddie meaning “Act ingenuously/feign ignorance”

I’ll come round at the back of eight meaning “I’ll come round just after eight o’clock”

He’s a right sweetie-wife meaning “He likes a good gossip”

To RT, the answer to this post’s initial question is:

Southern (or lowlands) Scottish people speak two dialects of English: a) Scottish English, which takes some getting used to but is still undoubtedly English; b) Scots, which is difficult for many other English speakers to understand and requires a certain amount of study and practice to master;

Northern (or highlands and island) Scottish folk speak two languages: a) Scottish Gaelic and b) several dialects of Scots that may in fact be so different that they constitute a language separate from Standard English.

Almost everyone understands Standard English. This is most likely a threat to both Gaelic and northern Scots speakers–their languages are becoming more Englished and Americanized. Or maybe it’s just the latest direction that language in the north is taking.



PhotoStatue of Robert Burns at Eglinton Country Park, Irvine, North Ayrshire, Scotland; WikiCmns; Public Domain; Author: Rosser1954 Roger Griffith.


  1. January 9, 2013 at 8:07 am

    To quote Chomsky: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” It’s a brilliant way to describe the distinction between a dialect and a language. I don’t know how the armed forces of Scotland are organized though…

  2. January 9, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Skuggsja: Tho military power is certainly helpful in deciding whose language becomes standard, my guess is that the real test is whether or not a language is used in business: people follow success and adopt its language(s). RT

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