Scottish English through the ears of a native

Scottish English through the ears of a native

Around 1980 I stayed for a couple of nights in a hotel in Birmingham, England, about 200 miles to the south of my native Scotland. Feeling thirsty, I asked at the public bar for a Coke. Off went the bartender and she returned promptly. But she was not bearing the Coca‐Cola that I expected. “Is this what you want?” she asked cheerily. And she presented me with a cork.

I was amused and surprised. I articulate my speech clearly. In my speech the words Coke and cork are very different. The vowels are not even close to each other, and, like any Scot, if I say an ⟨r⟩ you’ll hear it. Yet I was misunderstood, and I was misunderstood because Scottish English speech exhibits fundamental differences from all other varieties of English. This essay is a celebration of Scottish English speech and an exploration of these differences.

Setting the scene

First let me explain the geography, for the benefit of any reader who does not know the UK. By far the largest constituent of the United Kingdom in terms of population is the nation of England, with 58 million inhabitants. To its west, England shares a common border with the nation of Wales, which has 3 million inhabitants. To its north, England shares a common border with the nation of Scotland, which has 5 million inhabitants. Across the sea from Scotland to the south‐west is Northern Ireland, with 2 million inhabitants. The UK consists of these four parts, and the predominant language in all four is English. See Figure 1.

The four constituents of the UK Scotland England Wales Northern Ireland
Figure 1: The four constituents of the UK

Scottish English consists of those varieties of English that, taken together, characterise the speech of the people of Scotland. Within Scottish English there is of course a lot of variation. There is variation by region, by social class, by age, by gender, and in places even between Protestant and Roman Catholic. But the major variation is not primarily by any of these. The major variation is along a “bipolar continuum” – a line with two ends – with Scottish Standard English at one end and Broad Scots at the other. Scottish Standard English or SSE is the formal, prestige, variety of Scottish English: it is the characteristic speech of the professional class in Scotland and the accepted norm in schools. It is also by far the easiest variety for outsiders to understand. The other end of the continuum, Broad Scots, tends to be less formal, varies more by region than SSE does, and is notoriously impenetrable to outsiders. Many Scottish speakers are able to code‐switch along the continuum to fit the social situation that they are in or that they want to create. This essay is primarily about Scottish English as a whole; where I consider variation within Scottish English, I mainly consider variation along the Broad ScotsSSE continuum.

Is Broad Scots a dialect of English or a distinct language? That question has a linguistic answer and a political answer, and the two answers are different. Linguistically, Scots used to be a separate language, evolved from Northumbrian Old English around 1100 AD, but over the three centuries since the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 it has become so diluted by contact with modern English that most linguists now regard modern Scots as a dialect of English. I will follow the majority linguistic view and call it a dialect. But there is a quip that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. God forbid that Scotland might ever have an army or a navy, but the essence of the adage is that a dialect will be politically regarded as a language if there is sufficient national will for it to be so regarded, and in this case there is ample such will. Since 2001 the UK government has accepted Scots as a language and has recognised it as such under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The Scots dialect has nothing to do with Scottish Gaelic. English, with Scots, is a Germanic language, whereas Scottish Gaelic is a distantly related Celtic language which only about 1% of the population of Scotland can speak. I cannot speak or understand any Scottish Gaelic.

SSE can stand for “Scottish Standard English” or “Standard Scottish English”. I prefer the former name. It emphasises that SSE is not merely a variety of English: it is a variety of Standard English. It sits under the umbrella of Standard English as surely as does the King’s English, or General American English, or General Australian English. The reason that SSE is called a “variety” of English is not that it varies from anything. In linguistics, a language variety just means a specific form of a language or language cluster. Everyone who speaks English speaks a variety of English.

Scottish English differs from English English (the English language as used by the people of England) in several ways. It differs slightly in its lexicon, its stock of words. It differs slightly in its grammar, the way that words are put together. But by far the biggest difference is in its accent, the way that words are pronounced. This essay is about accent. Like variety, the word accent in linguistics does not imply a deviation from any standard: a person’s accent simply means the way he or she pronounces words, and a person who speaks the most Received Pronunciation has an accent as surely as I have. We shall see in this essay that accents of Scotland differ from accents of England in ways that are not merely large in size: they are fundamental in nature.

I am from Edinburgh, in the east of Scotland, and I speak Scottish Standard English. I can’t code‐switch. Click on the green text below to hear a sample of my speech, which I trust you have no difficulty in understanding. (There is a volume control in the pale blue header area at the top of this page.)

Which way should we go to Lochwinnoch? One way is seven miles: the other isn’t quite so far, but I don’t want to take the car on that bad road again.

Here is the same passage in another middle‐class SSE voice, this time from Renfrewshire, 50 miles further west. This is the clip used in Wikipedia to illustrate Scottish Standard English.

Which way should we go to Lochwinnoch? One way is seven miles: the other isn’t quite so far, but I don’t want to take the car on that bad road again.

By contrast, here is the voice of the comedian Limmy (Brian Limond), from Glasgow in the west of Scotland, in a voice that is part‐way towards the Broad Scots end of the Scottish English language continuum.

(Click this text to hear the clip. A transcript will appear here after the clip has played once.)

If you are not attuned to Scottish voices, you may have had difficulty with that. But it is by no means extreme. Limmy’s speech is well articulated, as his profession of public entertainer demands. Many Scottish voices, especially from the west of Scotland, are much more impenetrable to outsiders than his.

I intend that readers of this essay should not need any prior knowledge of linguistics. If you are new to linguistics, you may find parts of it to be quite hard work, but I take care to explain everything you need to know. This is an informal essay, not an academic one, and it is not referenced. I avoid technical language wherever possible, but sometimes it is not possible: for example the distinction between a phone and a phoneme is crucial, and I explain it carefully. To indicate pronunciations I use the International Phonetic Alphabet, IPA, and to communicate the meanings of the IPA symbols I arrange that every piece of phonetic transcription – IPA symbols between square brackets – is linked to an audio clip. Each audio clip is indicated by green text: click the green text to hear the pronunciation. As a taster, here are my pronunciations of “Coke” [kʰokʰ] and “cork” [kʰɒɹkʰ]. And I assure you that Coke makes a better taster than cork.

Scottish English and /r/

Any speaker of English hearing Scottish English for the first time will be immediately struck by how strongly /r/ is pronounced:

I was born and brought up in Torry and I’ve never been out of Torry.

Accents of English can be classified as rhotic or non‐rhotic. A rhotic accent is an accent with post‐vowel /r/: a non‐rhotic accent has no post‐vowel /r/. Most accents of England are non‐rhotic, so that warm is pronounced something like [wɔːm], where the symbol ː after the vowel indicates a lengthening of the vowel. Most accents of the USA are rhotic, so that warm is pronounced something like [wɒɹm] with an alveolar approximant [ɹ]: the tip of the tongue is close to the alveolar ridge behind the top teeth, but not so close as to create a turbulent air flow. Until the 17th century, all accents of English had post‐vowel /r/: so we may say that in rhotic accents this “historic /r/” has been retained, while in non‐rhotic accents it has been lost.

Scottish English is strongly rhotic, and traditional Broad Scots accents are the most strongly rhotic accents of native English found anywhere in the world. Scottish English is famous for its “rolled r”, the alveolar trill, denoted [r], as in [ara]. In my childhood the alveolar trill was very frequently heard in Scottish English, right across the language continuum, and in all word positions: pre‐vowel and inter‐vowel as in “three storeys” [θriː ˈstorez], where the symbol ˈ indicates the beginning of a stressed syllable, and even, most spectacularly, post‐vowel as in “door” [doːr]. Nowadays it is less prevalent than it was, and it is likely to be heard only in older speakers or towards the Broad Scots end of the continuum, and mostly only in pre‐vowel and inter‐vowel positions. Otherwise it is weakened to an alveolar approximant [ɹ] as in [aɹa] or an alveolar tap [ɾ] as in [aɾa].

In post‐vowel position, an /r/ often creates an extra syllable: “four” [ˈfoɹ̥], where the combining ring below the [ɹ] indicates a syllabic consonant.

Speakers of Scottish English never have the “intrusive R” of some varieties of Southern British English: “China‑r‑and Japan”. We pronounce ⟨r⟩ assiduously when it is written, and just as assiduously we omit it when it is not written. When a Scot wishes to poke fun at a Southern British accent – not a pastime I would encourage! – the intrusive R is a favourite way to do it. Southern British English or SBE consists of those varieties of English that, taken together, characterise the speech of the south of England, south of a line running from the Severn Estuary to the Wash, as shown in Figure 2.

The home of Southern British English Southern British English
Figure 2: The home of Southern British English

It can be quite difficult, even for a Scot, to pronounce an /r/ strongly in the consonant clusters /rl/, /rm/, and /rn/. Rather than weaken the /r/ in these environments, many Scots continue to pronounce it strongly and insert an “epenthetic” vowel after it. Thus “world” [ˈwʌrʌɫd], “warm” [ˈwɒrəm], “horn” [ˈhɒrɪn], “pattern” [ˈpʰatʰərən]. As a child I was puzzled by these consonant clusters and I remember asking Dad how I should pronounce them. Around me I heard everything from the Southern British English “warm” [wɔːm], which was ridiculed by my school peers as being posh and effete, to the Scots vernacular and (at the time) socially stigmatised [ˈwɒɹam]. Dad encouraged the SSE [wɒɹm] which at first I found quite hard to say. Then when I was 8 we had a family holiday on the Isle of Arran, and I had to be taught that it was [ˈarɪn] and not [ɑɹn].

The upshot is that in normal speech I trill my pre‐vowel and inter‐vowel /r/, but not my post‐vowel ones. The inter‐vowel /r/ in my speech – “Arran” [ˈarʌn] – may sound to some ears like an alveolar tap, but in fact it is a minimal trill, the tip of my tongue hitting the alveolar ridge twice in rapid succession.

In younger working‐class speech in parts of Scotland, there is evidence that post‐vowel /r/ is beginning to be lost altogether. It will be missed.

Phonetics and phonology, Phones and phonemes

Before I discuss the vowels of the English language, I have to explain some subtle but important distinctions between concepts.

Phonetics is the study of the sounds of a language. By contrast phonology is the study of the systematic organisation of the sounds of a language. The difference will become clear shortly.

The elementary sounds of a language are known as its phones. The sounds [pʰ] as in “pit” [pʰɪtʰ] and [b] as in “bit” [bɪtʰ] are distinct phones. The word gutted is standardly pronounced [ˈɡʌtʰɪd] or may be non‐standardly pronounced with a glottal stop [ˈɡʌʔɪd], and the sounds [tʰ] and [ʔ] are likewise distinct phones. But – and this is crucial – in the English language the distinction between [pʰ] and [b] is different in kind from the distinction between [tʰ] and [ʔ]. The distinction between [pʰ] and [b] has meaning in English: the two phones signify different things. If you say “bitch” in error for “pitch” then you have said a different word, and you may risk a slap across the face. By contrast, if you say [ˈɡʌʔɪd] in place of [ˈɡʌtʰɪd] you have not said a different word: you have merely said the same word in a different way. The contrast between [p] and [b] is a deep contrast which is part of the systematic organisation of the English language, part of its phonology; whereas the contrast between [tʰ] and [ʔ] is a shallow contrast, a mere phonetic contrast, the sounds being equivalent to each other in the phonology of the language and having the same function.

Phones that are equivalent to each other in that sense are said to represent the same phoneme. Thus in English [tʰ] and [ʔ] represent the same phoneme. By contrast [pʰ] and [b] represent different phonemes; they differ at the phonemic level. The phoneme that [pʰ] represents is written /p/, and the phoneme that [b] represents is written /b/. Meanwhile the phoneme that both [tʰ] and [ʔ] represent is written /t/. The phones [tʰ] and [ʔ] are said to be allophones of the phoneme /t/. The pronunciations [ˈɡʌtʰɪd] and [ˈɡʌʔɪd] are both /⁠ˈɡʌtɪd/ at the deeper, phonemic, level, and they differ only in the surface, phonetic, realisation of the phoneme /t/. Phones are enclosed between square brackets, while phonemes are enclosed between slashes, called in this context phonemic brackets.

A phoneme is therefore an abstraction, but it is not just an abstraction. There is psycholinguistic evidence that phonemes are represented in the mind of the speaker and the hearer in a way that mere phones are not.

Formally, a phoneme of a language is an equivalence class of all phones that share the same signifier for the phonology of the language. But I hope I explained it better than that.

The vowels of the English language

What are the vowels of the English language? Linguists may agree on the facts of the matter and yet disagree on the best way to analyse these facts and to organise them into a coherent system. Here I follow the analysis of Prof. Heinz Giegerich of the University of Edinburgh in his textbook English phonology – An introduction.

The vowel system of Southern British English

It may seem odd to consider the vowel system of SBE before we consider the vowel system of Scottish English, but there are good reasons.

The vowel system of Scottish English shows big differences from all other varieties of English. These differences are not merely surface differences of how vowel phonemes are realised: they are fundamental phonological differences, differences of structure, differences in the identity of the phonemes themselves. These differences can be usefully shown by contrasting Scottish English with SBE, because SBE, while not at all close to Scottish English phonologically, is in language contact with it and is no farther away from it phonologically than other varieties of English are.

The Southern British English vowel system has 19 vowel phonemes, by the most conservative account. They consist of six short⁠–⁠long pairs, together with three major diphthongs and four vowels derived from historic /r/. These are:

Short⁠–⁠long pairs:

Short Long
/ɪ/ “bit” /iː/ “beat”
/ɛ/ “bet” /eɪ/ “bait”
/a/ “Sam” /ɑː/ “psalm”
/ʊ/ “look” /uː/ “Luke”
/ʌ/ “butt” /əʊ/ “boat”
/ɒ/ “cot” /ɔː/ “caught”

Major diphthongs:

/aɪ/ “buy”
/aʊ/ “bough”
/ɔɪ/ “boy”

Vowels derived from historic /r/:

/ɪə/ “beer”
/ɛə/ “bare”
/ʊə/ “sure”
/ɜː/ “sir”, “per / purr”

I have not counted the schwa [ə], the weak vowel of the word the [ðə]. The phonemic status of the schwa is problematic, though it may be represented as /ə/ between phonemic brackets for practical purposes.

Unlike phonetic symbols in square brackets, the symbols used for phonemes do not represent particular sounds and so they are to a greater extent arbitrary. For example the phoneme that I have denoted as /əʊ/ has the pronunciations [oː] and [əʊ], amongst others, in different accents – listen carefully to the difference if you are not very familiar with IPA – and the phoneme itself is denoted /o/, /oː/, /⁠əʊ/ or /oʊ/ by different authors. But it is the same phoneme in all accents – that is, it serves the same function in the structure of the English language in all accents – and so there is no overriding reason to denote it /⁠əʊ/ in the context of SBE just because it happens to be pronounced [əʊ] in SBE. It is in fact usually denoted /⁠əʊ/ in the context of SBE, but that is a convention rather than a matter of principle.

A diphthong is a vowel that changes during its production, as for example [aɪ] changes from [a] to [ɪ]. That distinguishes it from a monophthong, which is a vowel that sounds the same from start to finish. I use the term “major diphthongs” for /aɪ/, /aʊ/ and /ɔɪ/ because the articulators (specifically the lips and/or tongue) typically move a long way in their production. Some other vowel phonemes are realised as diphthongs in SBE – for example the vowel of “day” is realised as [eɪ] as in [deɪ], and the vowel of “snow” is realised as [əʊ] as in [snəʊ] – but the articulators do not move so far. In the context of SBE these may be termed “minor diphthongs”.

The vowel system of Scottish English

The basic vowel system of Scottish English has only 12 phonemes instead of 19:


/ɪ/ “bit” /i/ “beat”
/ɛ/ “bet” /e/ “bait”
/a/ “Sam”
/u/ “Luke”
/ʌ/ “butt” /o/ “boat”
/ɒ/ “cot”


/aɪ/ “buy”
/aʊ/ “bough”
/ɔɪ/ “boy”

Things to notice

There are four things to notice.

First, the headings Short and Long are absent. In Scottish English all the vowel phonemes in the 6 × 2 table are essentially short. That does not mean they are all realised as short in all environments: more of that later. But they are all realised as short in most environments. I lived most of my life not understanding why the vowel phonemes in the 6 × 2 table are said to be long or short: I assumed it was just a conventional labelling that had nothing to do with duration, because all those vowel phonemes have essentially the same short duration in my native Scottish English and I was deaf to the differences of duration in other varieties of English. Conversely, a few months ago I was helping at a children’s drama rehearsal in Edinburgh in which a young member of the cast who speaks SBE had to say the Scots line, “Mind yer heid!” (Be careful of your head!) But she pronounced the vowel of “heid” long in her native phonology, and it sounded so silly and wrong. “It’s no yer heeed, lassie, it’s yer heid!” She couldn’t correct it, and we changed the line.

I follow convention by denoting the vowel phonemes that are long in SBE but short in Scottish English as /iː eɪ uː əʊ/ in the context of SBE and /i e u o/ in the context of Scottish English, even though they are the same phonemes.

Secondly, notice the heading Monophthongs. All the Scottish vowel phonemes in the 6 × 2 table are starkly monophthongal, and the contrast with the SBE “minor diphthongs” is clear:

Phoneme Word SBE Scottish
/eɪ/ or /e/ day [deɪ, deː]
/əʊ/ or /o/ snow [snəʊ, snoː]

Thirdly, the vowels derived from historic /r/ are absent. It may come as a surprise to speakers of Scottish English to discover just how much it is here that they are freed from. The vowels in Southern British English “eat” and “ear” are quite different: [iːtʰ, ɪə]. It would be an over­simplification to say that the letter ⟨r⟩ is pronounced as [ə]: the initial segments [iː] and [ɪ] also differ, both in quality and in length. Likewise the vowels in SBE “hate” and “hare” are quite different: [heɪtʰ, hɛə], and again the [eɪ] and the [ɛ] differ both in quality and in length. Likewise the vowels in SBE “toot” and “tour” are quite different: [tʰu:tʰ, tʰʊə], and again the [u:] and the [ʊ] differ both in quality and in length. Finally the vowels in SBE “putt” and “purr” are quite different, [pʰʌtʰ, pʰɜ:], and again the [ʌ] and the [ɜ:] differ both in quality and in length. In Scottish English, on the other hand, “eat” and “ear” have the same vowel; “hate” and “hare” have the same vowel; “toot” and “tour” have the same vowel; “putt” and “purr” have the same vowel: [itʰ, iɹ; hetʰ, heɹ; tʰʉtʰ, tʰʉɹ; pʰʌtʰ, pʰʌɹ]. By the same token, in Scottish English “sit” and “sir” have the same vowel (for many speakers); “pet” and “per” have the same vowel (for many speakers); “cat” and “car” have the same vowel (for many speakers); “not” and “nor” have the same vowel; “coat” and “core” have the same vowel; “out” and “our” have the same vowel; “Boyd” and “Moir” have the same vowel; and “tie” and “tire” have the same vowel: [sɪtʰ, sɪɹ; pʰɛtʰ, pʰɛɹ; kʰatʰ, kʰaɹ; nɒtʰ, nɒɹ; kʰotʰ, kʰoɹ; ʌʉtʰ, ʌʉɹ; bɒɪd mɒɪɹ; tʰaɪ, tʰaɪɹ].

The upshot is that Scottish English has no need of any part of SBE’s elaborate system of vowel phonemes derived from historic /r/. In this regard Scottish English is much more simple and logical than SBE. This simplicity may be lost in future if post‐vowel /r/ is lost.

Fourthly, notice the three gaps in the 6 × 2 table. Most accents of Scottish English have a single vowel phoneme for “Sam” and “psalm”, a single vowel phoneme for “cot” and “caught”, and a single vowel phoneme for “look” and “Luke”. I will say a little about each of these three phonemes.


Yes, I know it seems extraordinary to speakers of English outside Scotland that here in Scotland psalm is generally pronounced [sam]. But it is so, and here is the evidence, from Pastor Gordon Mackintosh: “Psalm 1”, [sam wʌn]. And palm is pronounced as “Pam”, and calm as “cam”, and balm as “bam”. The single phoneme in Scottish English that serves for both “Sam” and “psalm” is phonetically close to SBE /a/ of “Sam” and is therefore generally identified with it, so that the long /⁠ɑ:/ of SBE “psalm” is regarded as the missing phoneme.


Again here is the evidence. “And apparently a couple got caught shagging in there” [ɡɒʔ kʰɒʔ]. Apologies for the naughty content, but the juxtaposition of the words got and caught was too good an opportunity to miss. Notice that got and caught rhyme exactly, and of course both vowels are equally short: very short in the rapid speech of this particular clip. Generations of Scottish schoolchildren think that 5th November is Guy Fox night, and wouldn’t know whether it is Ralph von Williams and Auto Vaughan Bismarck or something different. The official song of Heart of Midlothian Football Club in Edinburgh includes the couplet:

Our forwards can score and it’s no idle talk;
Our defence is as strong as the old castle rock.

and again as you can hear from this recording, the rhyme is perfect. The single phoneme in Scottish English that serves for both “cot” and “caught” is phonetically close to SBE /⁠ɒ/ of “cot” and is therefore generally identified with it, so that the long /⁠ɔ:/ of SBE “caught” is regarded as the missing phoneme.


Scottish English has a single vowel phoneme for look and Luke. It comes as a surprise to many speakers of Scottish English to learn that these two words are pronounced differently in most parts of England: “look” /lʊkʰ/, “Luke” /lu:kʰ/. The single phoneme in Scottish English that serves for both “look” and “Luke” is phonetically fairly close to SBE /u:/ of “Luke” and is generally identified with it, so that the short /⁠ʊ/ of SBE “look” is regarded as the missing phoneme.

Likewise, in Scottish English pull and pool are pronounced the same, with the same vowel phoneme that serves for look and Luke. In most parts of England they are pronounced differently: “pull” /pʊl/, “pool” /pu:l/, which comes as a surprise to most speakers of Scottish English. Again I spent most of my life not knowing this, despite hearing speakers from England around me all the time.

Vowels in unstressed syllables

In the English language a syllable may have primary stress or secondary stress, or may be unstressed. In an unstressed syllable the quality of the vowel may “reduce” to a “weak vowel”. For example notice the difference in the pronunciation of the letter ⟨a⟩ as between the words “duality” and “dual”. The second syllable of “duality” has primary stress and its vowel is /a/ – /⁠ˌdju:⁠ˈalɪtɪ/ – whereas the second syllable of “dual” is unstressed and its vowel reduces to a schwa – /⁠ˈdju:əl/. (The symbol ˌ indicates secondary stress.) In Southern British English, vowels in unstressed syllables always reduce. The 6 short vowel phonemes of Southern British English reduce in unstressed syllables to just 3 weak vowels: the vowels [ə], [ɪ], [ʊ], as in the, in, to when spoken without stress: [ðə, ɪn, tʊ]. (In SBE a syllable with a long vowel or a diphthong always has at least secondary stress and the vowel does not reduce.) In Scottish English, vowels reduce to a much lesser extent. Many speakers of Scottish English, myself included, have the full set of 9 Scottish monophthongs even in completely unstressed syllables, as illustrated by the unstressed first syllables of the following words: “intense”, “except”, “absurd”, “Dundee”, “obtuse”, “react”, “chaotic”, “prudential”, “coerce”. For those speakers, these 9 vowels, at the beginning or end of a content word in an unstressed syllable, may all reduce somewhat, but not as far as in SBE, and none of them to a schwa. In Scottish English the only words that can begin or end with a schwa are function words like at and the.

I am writing this with my television on, and I have just heard the word drama spoken by a Scot. The Oxford English Dictionary gives /⁠ˈdrɑ:mə/ whereas the Scot said /⁠ˈdrama/ with its two vowels identical in quality. In Scottish speech the second vowel of “drama” can reduce to [ʌ] but no farther, and in my view it cannot reasonably be analysed as a schwa, despite what some authorities have said.

With its full range of vowels in unstressed syllables, Scottish English avoids what has been called the “derdi‐derdiness” of Southern British English: the monotony of one nondescript vowel after another.

I should add that the facts of vowel reduction and stress in SBE are messy, and there are alternative analyses to the one given here.

The “Scottish vowel length rule”

We have seen that all Scottish monophthong vowel phonemes are basically short. The /aɪ/ diphthong, also, is basically short. Some of these however are lengthened in certain environments. The phonemes, the environments and the amount of lengthening vary from region to region within Scotland. Some authors talk of a “Scottish vowel length rule”, but the “rule” is stated differently everywhere you read it. At the very least however, in stressed syllables the vowel phonemes /i/, /u/ and /aɪ/ are lengthened before /r/, before voiced fricatives (you’ll see in a moment which consonants these are) and at the end of a morpheme (a unit of meaning, which may be a word or a part of a word). Hence short “teeth” but long “teethe”; short “proof” but long “prove”; short “rice” but long “rise”; short “cushion” but long “fusion”; short “side” but long “sigh” and hence long “sighed”: [tʰiθ, tʰiːð; prʉf, prʉːv; rʌis, raɪz; ˈkʰʉʃən, ˈfjʉːʒən; sʌid, saɪ, saɪ+d]. (The symbol + denotes a morpheme boundary.) Notice the two allophones of /aɪ/ in Scottish English: short [ʌi] in “rice” and “side”, and long [aɪ] in “rise”, “sigh” and “sighed”.

Variation within Scottish English: /⁠ɑː/ and /⁠ɔː/

Not all speakers of Scottish English have all three homophone pairs Sam⁠–⁠psalm, cot⁠–⁠caught and look⁠–⁠Luke. Some SSE speakers, especially middle‐class speakers from Edinburgh and Glasgow, have separate phonemes /a/ as in “Sam” and /⁠ɑː/ as in “psalm”. A smaller number have separate phonemes /⁠ɒ/ as in “cot” and /⁠ɔː/ as in “caught”. Very few have the separate /⁠ʊ/ and /uː/ phonemes of SBE “look” and “Luke” respectively. Where such speakers have /⁠ɑː/ or /⁠ɔː/ or both, they have them as borrowings from SBE, and they tend to borrow them complete with their SBE phonology and a long duration. Also, as befits borrowings, the incidence of these phonemes in Scottish English does not always match their incidence in SBE. Many SSE speakers who say “father” and “rather” with the borrowed /⁠ɑː/ vowel will also say “gather” and “salmon” with the /⁠ɑː/ vowel, even though in English English these are /⁠ˈɡaðə/ and /⁠ˈsamən/.

In my own speech I have separate “Sam” and “psalm” vowel phonemes, though phonetically they are quite close together: /sam, sɑːm/. I have separate “cot” and “caught” vowel phonemes in formal speech: /kɒt, kɔːt/; but not in informal speech: “I caught the ball” /aɪ kɒt ðə bɒl/. It should be clear from what I have said above that I have not got separate “look” and “Luke” vowel phonemes.

Variation within Scottish English: /ɪr/, /ɛr/ and /ʌr/

The Scottish English pronunciation of /⁠ɪr/, /⁠ɛr/ and /⁠ʌr/, in words like sir, per and purr, is not stable. Many speakers of Scottish English, myself included, contrast these three endings as I indicated above, but many collapse the three vowel phonemes in these endings to two phonemes or one, most commonly to the single phoneme /⁠ʌ/, so that for example “herd” becomes not /hɛrd/ but /hʌrd/. The collapsed vowel phoneme may have different realisations from speaker to speaker even within the same geographical region, social class, age and gender. Strangely, some middle‐class SSE speakers in Edinburgh and Glasgow adopt as the collapsed vowel the [ɜː] vowel of Southern British English “sir”, “per” and “purr”, as with this Edinburgh voice:

It’s just more going off and seeing a lot of the same people you’d seen at nursery.

To my ears the Southern British English phonology of [nɜːsʋɪ] sounds strangely incongruous with the Scottish accent of the rest of the sentence. But it is quite a common mixture. I have noticed it particularly in the speech of middle‐class Edinburgh children with English parents.

Variation within Scottish English: /ɒr/ and /or/

In SBE, corn and worn rhyme: /kɔːn, wɔːn/. In Scottish English, they do not rhyme: /kɒrn, worn/. Listen carefully to the difference if it is new to you. Thus Scottish English does not have the “horse⁠–⁠hoarse merger” that most varieties of English have: in Scottish English “horse” is /hɒrs/ while “hoarse” is /hors/. But in Scottish English the distribution of the /⁠ɒ/ and /o/ phonemes before /r/ is unstable. For example some Scots have “torn” /tɒrn/, possibly influenced by the similarity of the spelling to words like corn and born, whereas others, even from the same locality, have “torn” /torn/ as though it were spelled ⟨toarn⟩, possibly influenced by the preterite tense tore /tor/. This is not merely a matter of different surface realisations of the same phoneme, like “cross” /krɒs/ [krɒs, krɔs]. Scots who say /tɒrn/ and Scots who say /torn/ are employing different phonemes: those who say /tɒrn/ are rhyming torn with “corn” and not with “worn”, while those who say /torn/ are rhyming torn with “worn” and not with “corn”.

Phonetically, /⁠ɒr/ and /or/ can be very close together. Here for example is the Scottish author Sir Ian Rankin saying “course”, “force”, “horse” and “Morse” all in the same 30‑minute interview:

That, of course, is problematic.

He said, “I wish I had one like Rebus on the force.”

The Wooden Horse

There’s Inspector Morse

My Scottish ears tell me that he is employing two different vowel phonemes – /kors, fors/ but /hɒrs, mɒrs/ – though I might have difficulty conveying that to anyone who is not attuned to Scottish speech.

Variation within Scottish English: realisation of monophthongs

Within Scottish English there is huge variation in the realisation of some of the monophthong vowel phonemes. We hear “drink” [dɹɪŋkʰ, dɹæŋkʰ]; “hand” [hænd, hɑ̈nd]; “cross” [krɒs, krɔs]; “move” [muv, mʏ:v]. There is considerable variation even within SSE. Although the /⁠ɒ/ vowel of cross can be realised as [ɔ] or even a very short [o], it never merges with the /o/ phoneme or (if the speaker has it) the /⁠ɔː/ phoneme. My own monophthongs are close to the SSE standards: “beat”, “bait”, “bit”, “bet”, “bat”, “but”, “bot”, “boat”, “boot” [bitʰ, betʰ, bɪtʰ, bɛtʰ, batʰ, bʌtʰ, bɒtʰ, botʰ, bʉtʰ].

I assure you that the second voice in the last paragraph above said “drink” and not “drank”. The accent is traditional Buckie, in the north‐east of Scotland.

Lexical incidence of vowel phonemes

I have answered the question “What are the vowel phonemes that Scots have?” and I have answered the question “How do Scots say these phonemes?” I now come to a third question: “What words do Scots put these phonemes in?”

In most cases – and subject to the gaps in the 6 × 2 table, the complications of historic /r/, and the lack of vowel reduction that we have already seen – any given word will have the same vowel phonemes in SSE as it has in SBE. The word coat may be pronounced [kʰəʊtʰ] in SBE and [kʰotʰ] in SSE but, as we have seen, the SBE phone [əʊ] and the SSE phone [o] are allophones of the same phoneme. However when we move along the continuum from SSE towards Broad Scots the phonemes themselves may change. Many Standard English words have Broad Scots variants with different vowel phonemes, and many of these words are high‐frequency words. In writing, these phonemic differences may be reflected in a difference in spelling.

Here is one group of examples. Standard English, including SSE, has the words about, brown, doubt, down, house, now, our, out, round, town, with the vowel phoneme /aʊ/. In Broad Scots these words are aboot, broon, doot, doon, hoose, noo, oor, oot, roond, toon, with the vowel phoneme /u/, and generally with the spelling ⟨oo⟩.

Here is another group. Standard English, including SSE, has the words both, floor, home, more, most, sore, stone, whole, and in SSE these all have the vowel phoneme /o/. In Broad Scots these are baith, flair, hame, mair, maist, sair, stane, hale with the vowel phoneme /e/, and generally with the spelling shown. (The Standard English word hale meaning “healthy” is closely related.) And there are other such groups. The phoneme changes in such words may vary from region to region within Scotland.

These phoneme changes can be confusing, even for Scots. My brother recounts hearing one very proper Scottish lady, trying hard to speak Standard English, hypercorrecting hailstanes (hailstones) into “whole‑stones”.

There are thousands of Scottish English words that are not mere phonological variants of Standard English words, but they are outwith the scope of this essay. (You may have spotted one of them in this very paragraph.)


In this essay I have already said quite a lot about the consonant /r/. Apart from /r/, I have much less to say about consonants than I have said about vowels. For the most part the consonants other than /r/ in Scottish English are pretty much the same as in other varieties of English. I shall just say a little about /x/, /⁠ʍ/, /t/ and /l/.

The phoneme /x/

Scottish English has a /x/ phoneme, a “voiceless velar fricative”, occurring most famously in the word loch /lɒx/ (meaning “lake”). Most other varieties of English have not got this phoneme. It occurs in a number of other Scottish English words of Scots or Gaelic origin, such as dreich (damp and dismal), quaich (a shallow drinking cup with two handles, often used as a trophy), pibroch (a form of music for the Great Highland Bagpipe): /drix, kwex, ˈpibrɒx/. It occurs in many Scottish personal names and surnames, such as Lachlan and Murdoch: /⁠ˈlaxlən, ˈmʌrdɒx/. It occurs in many Scottish place names, such as Brechin, Kirkintilloch, and, comically to non‐Scottish ears, Auchtermuchty: /⁠ˈbrixɪn, ˌkɪrkɪn⁠ˈtɪləx, ˌɒxtər⁠ˈmʌxtɪ/. Most speakers of Scottish English naturally use /x/ when importing proper names from other languages that have a similar phoneme: “Bach”, “Munich”, “Utrecht” /bax, ˈmjunɪx, ˈju⁠ˌtrɛxt/. In an echo of the classical education for which Scotland was once famous, some speakers of Scottish English use /x/ where ⟨ch⟩ in an English word corresponds to the Greek letter χ in etymology: “technical”, “patriarch”, “arachnid” /⁠ˈtɛxnɪ⁠ˌkəl, ˈpetrɪ⁠ˌarx, a⁠ˈraxnɪd/. Many Standard English words with silent ⟨gh⟩ have Broad Scots variants with ⟨ch⟩ pronounced /x/: brought, thought, night, light translating to brocht, thocht, nicht, licht /brɒxt, θɒxt, nɪxt, lɪxt/.

The phoneme /⁠ʍ/

Scottish English distinguishes between “wine” [wʌin] and “whine” [ʍʌin]: it has not got the “wine⁠–⁠whine merger” of most varieties of English. The phone [w] is voiced (the vocal folds vibrate) and [ʍ] is voiceless. In Scottish English the [ʍ] phone is characteristic­ally used in words spelled with ⟨wh⟩.

Linguists are divided as to whether Scottish English has an extra phoneme, /⁠ʍ/, represented by the [ʍ] phone. According to one influential school of thought, [ʍ] is best analysed as a mere surface realisation of the phoneme sequence /hw/. In this essay I take the view that there is a /⁠ʍ/ phoneme in Scottish English.

If you need some light relief at this point, I don’t blame you. Spend 30 seconds watching this clip from the Cool Whip episode of Family Guy. Stewie Griffin speaks in a formal received SBE accent that shares the /⁠ʍ/ phoneme with Scottish English.

The phoneme /t/

In Scottish English, inter‐vowel and post‐vowel /t/ are very commonly realised as a glottal stop [ʔ], so that for example “peanut butter” is [ˈpinʌʔ ˈbʌʔʌʴ]. Inter‐vowel [ʔ] is often the community norm in the central belt of Scotland that includes Glasgow and Edinburgh. “We could even say obligatory for working‐class adolescents”, remarks Jane Stuart‑Smith, Professor of English Language at the University of Glasgow.

Despite its prevalence, the glottal stop is not regarded as Scottish Standard English. But it is not traditional Broad Scots either. It is vernacular departure from the traditional Broad Scots ↔ SSE continuum, dating from the mid‑19th century. It is socially disfavoured, but less so than it used to be. Now that it is no longer explicitly discouraged in Scottish schools, it may well come to be regarded as Scottish Standard English before many more years have passed.

The phoneme /l/

In most accents of English, the phoneme /l/ is light, [l], before a vowel – lap [lapʰ] – and dark or velarised, [ɫ], after a vowel – pal [pʰaɫ]. In much of Scotland it is characteristic­ally dark in all positions:

Limmy’s World of Glasgow!

The consonant clusters /lm/ and /ln/ often have an epenthetic vowel, just as /rm/ and /rn/ can have:

At the scary bit in the film [ˈfɪɫam]

In post‐vowel position, /l/ can create its own syllable, just as /r/ can. Thus feel fiɫ̥]. With some speakers, in post‐vowel /l/ the tongue may not even touch the alveolar ridge at all, so that the sound technically becomes a vowel.

And finally…

My Aunt Elsie, Edinburgh‐born, was minister of a church in Selby, Yorkshire, in the north of England. She had been there for some years, and you might expect that her congregation would have become used to her Scottish accent. One Sunday she intimated from the pulpit that a forthcoming social meeting had a guest speaker, whose subject was “Water plants”. Several members remarked to her afterwards what a strange title that was for a talk. It transpired that the whole congregation, one and all, thought she had said “What are plants?”

If you have followed this essay, you will have glimpsed all the features of the Scottish accent that conspired to create this misunderstanding. From the Scottish perspective, Elsie couldn’t possibly have been saying “what”, because that would have been /⁠ʍ/ and not /w/, but the Yorkshire congregation were deaf to the distinction. From the Yorkshire perspective, it seemed that she couldn’t possibly have been saying “water”, because in their phonology that would have had the long /⁠ɔː/ vowel of SBE “caught”, while Elsie gave it the short /⁠ɒ/ vowel of “cot”. The rhyme of the second syllable of water – the part of the syllable after the /t/ – would be reduced by a Yorkshire voice to practically nothing, and so Elsie’s careful articulation of that rhyme, with its substantially unreduced vowel probably approximating to the [ʌ] of Scottish “purr” [pʰʌɹ] and its rhotic /r/, will have sounded so exaggerated to the non‐rhotic Yorkshire ears that they heard it as a separate word, are. A geographical dislocation of just 170 miles triggered four basic phonological differences in the course of two short syllables.

So now let me recharge my glass with a Coca‐Cola, after carefully removing the cork, and raise a toast to Scottish English:

“Here’s tae us: wha’s like us?”