For this interview I talked to a trainee teacher, who spent one year in Scotland and worked as an assistant teacher at the local grammar school in Falkirk. I asked him about the difficulties of understanding a foreign accent, or even a dialect since Scottish English does not only affect the pronunciation of English words, but also vocabulary and some grammatical terms. Since English is the most spoken language all around the world, there are several accents and dialects of the English language in different countries. The origin of every single accent or dialect would be interesting to look at, but in this interview I want to focus on the northern area of Great Britain, the Scots’ English.
Question: What were your expectations before you went to Scotland?
Admittedly, I had been a little bit scared before I went to Scotland. This had nothing to do with Scotland! Even though I had been to Scotland twice before (those were holidays), going there for almost a year was different. I had been to university for five years and in the year I went there, I had made my university degree. Nonetheless, working and living in a foreign country is quite a step.
I had applied at PAD (Pädagogischer Austauschdienst) in order to teach at a Scottish High School. During my studies of English linguistics, I had already come across the variety of British accents and dialects and I still had this vivid image of Highland Scottish in my mind. Meeting native people is always different from your school textbook, particularly because of accent and dialect.
As I intended to teach there, I was a little bit afraid I would not understand the pupils who - that’s what I thought - might not adjust to my language. In fact, the Scottish accent is very special, but, nevertheless, you get used to it very quickly and soon, it is the nicest language to listen to. You get used to it because you are in intimate contact with the language and the people all the time.
I expected the Scottish people to be very laid-back, open-minded, funny, proud (since they really love their country) and nice. They have a very specific sense of humour – even though this might sound a bit too general; but all in all, yes, they are really funny and nice! I had a great time there.
Question: In how far have your expectations been fulfilled?
Living in a foreign country for a year makes it possible to get to know the culture and to meet many people. The people I met became good friends very soon. My colleagues at school looked after me in a very caring way. My pupils were nice, too.
I lived in Falkirk which is between Edinburgh and Glasgow. I met people there and I enjoyed life there. During my stay, I travelled a lot. So, I met people in the north or on the isles as well. So far, I have only made good experiences.
Therefore, my expectations have been absolutely fulfilled!
Question: Since you experienced the Scottish variation of English by yourself, do you think it’s an accent or rather a dialect?
Accent - as far as I know - refers to pronunciation only whereas dialect refers to pronunciation, the lexicon and grammar.
Scottish has a number of words which do not - in the very form - exist in Standard English. By the way, the Scottish do everything they possibly can to be different from the English!
To me and with regards to what I learned and to what I was told, Scottish is rather a dialect than an accent.
Question: What are the particularities of the Scottish dialect?
It would take pages to examine this dialect, but, in short, the pronunciation is very specific. Sometimes I had the impression they almost sing (this refers to intonation; for example raising the voice towards the end of a sentence). Besides, they have a very distinct way to pronounce the /r/; up north, they almost roll it like the Spanish do.
In the Scottish lexicon there exist many words that people from England would possibly not understand or use.
Of course, it is hard to draw the line between colloquial and Standard Scottish, but there do definitely exist many words that are different from the English we know.
Question: Was it very difficult for you as a foreigner to get into the Scottish dialect? Was it difficult to understand?
Which dialect or accent is not difficult to understand when you hear it for the first time? You get used to it very quickly. As I said - very soon, it is the nicest dialect to listen to. It was for the people that I had the opportunity to get used to the accent and dialect as they were very understanding, keeping in mind that English is not my mother tongue. When I asked them to repeat what they had said, they always did so. When I asked them to slow down, they did. They gave me any chance to understand them.
Question: How did the Scottish dialect influence your own English speaking habit?
This is hard to say. My colleagues at school promised: Your accent will change. At the end they said: Your accent has changed. Well, personally, I don’t know. But one thing is for sure: When I was there, my intonation changed very quickly. I’ve been back in Germany for half a year now; probably, my accent is quite German again. I don’t know ... But my language itself improved a lot when I was there and because I was there.
Question: Did you recognise further varieties of the Scottish dialect?
Indeed, I did. The more north you go, the harder it gets to understand the native people. But again, you will probably get used to it when you spend some time up there. Especially on the isles, I recognized distinct varieties of Scottish. You even notice differences when listening to Glaswegian and the Edinburgh accent, even though the distance between these two cities is only about 50 km.
Throughout Scotland, but especially on the isles, many elder people’s language is heavily influenced by Gaelic, for example.
Question: Do you have any explanation of why the Scottish people have some kind of an own language?
The history of the Scottish language is very vivid and goes back a very long time.
The Scottish derived from the Irish and they all derived from Celtic tribes. Their language had been Gaelic, which is still spoken by a number of people and taught in some schools in Scotland.
Scotland has always been oppressed and attacked, for example by northern tribes such as the Vikings and even by the English themselves. The Romans – by the way- did not manage to do it. Very often, as soon language contact has been established, one language (the dominant one) influences the other language (the oppressed one).
Still, the population of Scotland is very small; approx. 5 million people only. Most people live in the south of Scotland (this area is called: Scotland Central Region) because there are most of the bigger cities where people go to study or to work. There are only a bit more than a hundred thousand people living in the well-known Highlands. Scotland is a big country. People have been living in numerous parts of this big and wide country; they might have developed their own dialects and accents until language contacts had been established.
Besides, it is a sign of pride. The Scottish are very proud people.
They have always been oppressed by the English. Having a language being different from the rulers’ language makes them original in a way.
Question: Do you think that it will last for some further hundreds of years? Or will it be replaced by any superior accent of English, like Received Pronunciation?
I don’t think that RP or other accents will replace Scottish accents. Accents are regional varieties of a language; actually, so is RP (it was established in the London-Oxford-Cambridge area).
It has only become so popular because it used to be the accents (besides Standard English as the dialect of the privileged classes) spoken by the elite and ruling class. Later, it was the prominent accent used in the media (and it was also called BBC-English). It has always been associated with social status. Thus, replacing is a harsh term! Superior accents might influence the Scottish language.
Language and language change is always linked with socio-economic and sociolinguistic changes and influences. We will see what the future will bring.
But as far as I am concerned I don’t think that in our modern days, accents will replace accents. I think, people stick to their regional accents or dialects because they identify with their language even though it might be a corruption of the Standard English language.
It is a certain kind of heritage which people will always try to preserve!
Question: Finally, could you say something typical Scottish?
Just a wee one. By the way: wee means small. “Yeeeeeeeeeeees” [je:is] or “Noooooo” [no]! Cheerioh Pals.
Thank you very much for spending some time with the questions and for the additional information about Scotland. So, Scottish English is a dialect rather than an accent because of its differences in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. It origins from Gaelic and has a vivid linguistic history. Thank you for listening. I hope you got a little insight into the Scottish dialect so far.