New Linguistic Survey of Scots

“So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her.”Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon

A Scots QuairI always consider myself to be bilingual – Scots and English. English for school, for work, for writing this and which was my mother’s birth tongue. And Scots – for when I want to express how I feel, my everyday language – which was my father’s tongue although he too was bilingual.

Most Scots’ born folk have this ability to switch seamlessly between two languages and new Scots too – those who have chosen to live here – pick it up very quickly. It is so seamless we do not even realise when we are doing it. Despite centuries of being battered about and attempts to diminish the power of Scots as a language it continues to be spoken an increasingly to be written in.

A new linguistic survey of Scots is to be undertaken, led by the University of Aberdeen. It is the first such piece of research since the 1950s. The Linguistic Survey of Scots will  cover the Scots-speaking areas of Ulster as well as Scotland.

The 2011 census reported that there are  1.6m speakers of Scots in Scotland – and there you have a problem – the  definition of Scots (because Scotland has a population of 5.4million). Is the low number of people recorded on the census as speaking  Scots because most do not realise that they are bilingual?

Robert Millar Aberdeen UniRobert McColl Millar, Professor in Linguistics and Scottish Language at Aberdeen University, says it is essential that we gain a better understanding of the way words are used in Scots spoken today and in the recent past if we are to assess how it has changed and how the language might be ‘preserved’.

He said:

“In Scotland we have the Linguistic Atlas of Scotland and Dictionary of the Scots Language but both draw heavily on material collated in the 1950s. In Ireland no such equivalent exists for Ulster Scots.

“The Linguistic Survey of Scots in the 1950s was ground breaking but does it remain relevant today? This is a question we will be seeking to address.

“This will be the first real attempt to move towards a survey that will give us a sense of the language in the 2020s. We hope it will represent the same great leap forwards as the original survey did and can contribute greatly to our national dictionaries.”

The researchers will attempt to establish an understanding of Scots across the generations and for both men and women as female voices and those of younger people were under-represented in the original survey.

Professor Millar says they expect to see significant change:

“Language naturally changes over time and words are replaced and cannibalise.

“Much of what makes Scots so distinctive is entwined with occupations and pastimes that have changed beyond recognition since the surveys of the 1950s.

“In fishing and farming, for example, there are many words associated with machinery or equipment that is no longer in use; the technology now utilised does not have a name in Scots, the Standard English word being used universally.

“Nonetheless Scots continues to play an important role in our cultural and everyday lives and informs both our identity and sense of place.”

The researchers will adopt a more scientific approach to the new survey and the project will get underway with a two day colloquium, Scots Words and Phrases in the Contemporary World: Back to the Future, at the University of Edinburgh on 8th and 9th of April 2019

The Scots Language Centre/ Centre for the Scots Leid states:

“Scots is one of three native languages spoken in Scotland today, the other two being English and Scottish Gaelic.”

“Scots is spoken by young and old alike “

Professor Millar said:

“We will use the north-east of Scotland, which has one of the best preserved native speech varieties, as a test bed but want to collate information from across Scotland and the areas of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland where Ulster Scots is spoken.

“Our approach will be much more scientific and we want to make our findings freely available on the internet once it is complete.

“We know that many communities have produced wordlists and dictionaries of local words and usage. I am personally aware of many, but by no means all, of these. We are also aware that many people have compiled lists of words and phrases which have never been published; some have inherited lists of this type from friends and relatives. Other people may have notes and recordings produced for local history projects or for other purposes. To make any new survey truly representative, we need a greater understanding of what local and regional resources we have.

“This project is only possible with the support of Scots speakers in local communities and if they are the ones to provide us with the material required, it is only right that they should also share in anything produced as a result.”

Details of the symposium can be found here: Scots Words and Phrases in the Contemporary World: Back to the Future

Professor Millar can be contacted at

“Most are to be found bilingual, employing the Doric with their close friends and relatives and speaking good English in their business dealings and in conversation with strangers.”-         FA Ferguson’s description of the town of Brechin, Angus, from ‘Third Statistical Account of Scotland’, written 1952 and revised 1967. 

Reporter: Fiona Grahame



Categories: Uncategorized

Tagged as: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply