Does Scotland Have Its Own Language?

By Craig Neil
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Table of Contents


Scotland is one of 4 countries (Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) in the United Kingdom – a sovereign state located in the northwest of Europe.

Each country is classed as a separate entity, yet they share many facets of the same culture and history, including the languages that are spoken in them.

From the days of the earliest tribes, Scotland traditionally used a Gaelic language that derived from Ireland, but after the union with England in 1701 the country quickly adopted English as its primary spoken language.

People throughout modern Scotland now use a variety of languages, but the 3 main ones are English, Scots, and Scottish Gaelic.

To answer the question ‘does Scotland have its own language?’, studies show that 99% of people living in Scotland speak English and 1% speak Scottish Gaelic.

Of the English speakers, 30% use a dialect known as Scots which derives from Old English but includes a number of unique regional words.

Kilt Shoes Socks

What language is mostly spoken in Scotland?

The predominant language of Scotland is English, and 99% of all people living in Scotland speak English fluently.

There are currently around 5.5 million people living in Scotland which means that as of the 2011 census, 5.1 million people over the age of 3 speak, read, and write English.

The second-most spoken language in Scotland is actually a derivation of English. Scots is spoken in the Lowlands as well as the Shetlands, Orkney, Aberdeenshire, and Moray, and as of the 2011 census more than 1.5 million people identify Scots as their main language.

There are subdivisions of Scots in different areas of the country, and depending on the location you will hear Scots referred to as Doric, Lallans, Buchan, Dundonian, Glesca, and Shetlandic. All variations are collectively known as the Scots language.

Meanwhile, only around 60,000 people speak fluent Scottish Gaelic, mainly in the Highlands and the islands where it is routinely taught in schools.

Isle of Harris

How many official languages does Scotland have?

There are 3 official languages spoken in Scotland today – English, Scots, and Scottish Gaelic.

Although English is by far the most spoken language in Scotland, during the last census it was discovered that over 150 languages are spoken in total in Scottish homes the length and breadth of the country.

In addition to Scottish Gaelic (which only gained royal assent as an official Scottish language in 2005), Scottish people communicate in an Old English dialect known as Scots, British Sign Language, and a variety of minority languages used by immigrants.

Information gathered in the 2011 census showed that 57,000 people living in Scotland speak Gaelic, while 23,000 said they could understand Gaelic but could not read, write, or speak it.

scottish parliament building pin

The greatest proportion of people who speak fluent Gaelic lives in the Western Isles where around half the population speak it fluently. Additionally, around 5% of people living in the Highland council area speak Gaelic, along with 4% in Argyll and Bute.

According to the 2011 census, after English, Scottish, and Gaelic, the most common language in Scotland is Polish which is spoken by around 1% of the population (or 54,000 people).

However, it is expected that this number will reduce drastically in the next census due to the number of Polish that has returned to their home country post-Brexit.

Minority languages are mostly spoken at home in the larger cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, where 12% of the population speak languages other than the ‘big three’.

Of this 12%, around 23,000 speak Urdu, 23,000 speak Punjabi, 17,000 speak Chinese, and 15,000 speak French.

Scotland Flag

Is Scottish and Irish Gaelic the same?

The roots of the Gaelic language start with the Gaels who originated from North Eastern Ulster (a northern area of Ireland). The Gaels spread from Ireland to Scotland, England, and then France, before they were crushed by the Roman Empire.

During their travels they spread their language to many parts of the British Isles and Celtic influences can still be heard in modern-day Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, Cornish and Manx.

As each region developed their own cultures over the course of many centuries, Scottish and Irish Gaelic became quite distinct from each other, and it’s a known fact that the modern iterations of these languages sound very far apart.

In fact, ask most people from Southern Ireland to interpret Scottish Gaelic and you will find they are unable to do so, yet Northern Irish people who are geographically closer to Scotland are often able to understand Scottish Gaelic, and vice versa.

While some people claim Scottish and Irish Gaelic are just derivations of the same language, the consensus is that they have enough differences to be classed as separate languages.

Scotland Mountains Highlands

Is Scots a separate language?

Scots is a dialect of English that is commonly called Broad Scots or Lowland Scots.

Before the 15th century, the term ‘Scots’ specifically referred to Gaelic, but as English became more and more common ‘Scots’ transitioned into meaning the common variant of English spoken in Scotland that has its own unique words, just as there are different English words with the same meaning spoken in Liverpool, Newcastle, and other regions of Britain.

Today, ‘Scots’ is an official language of Scotland that is considered as being separate to the English spoken elsewhere in the UK, though it is also considered by some to be a slang language.

It’s certainly true that when reading sentences written in Scots it generally appears to be a phonetically-spelt version of English in a Scottish accent, as seen in the examples below:

ScotsEnglish
eneuchenough
fraefrom
fowkfolk (people)
mairmore
owerover

However, Scots has developed over several centuries and it is now quite different to the regional dialects found in other parts of Great Britain, to the extent where some words with the same meaning are completely different in the Scots and English versions:

ScotsEnglish
ettlepurpose
mucklelarge
ginif
haudcontinue
synethen
Scottish Clan

Whether Scots is a distinct language or not becomes even more difficult to determine when you consider there are several variations spoken across the country, including Insular Scots, Northern Scots, Central Scots, and Southern Scots, each of which has its own sub-dialects.

Many people in Scotland today (64% according to a government study) do not consider Scots to be a language at all, so determining whether it’s a dialect or a language tends to boil down to the individual’s politics.

What is agreed, though, is that Scots is an important part of Scottish culture, hence the reason why its use is actively encouraged by the Scottish government almost as much as Gaelic.

To this end, it is now possible for children to study Scots as a language just as they would any other, with certifications awarded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

In addition to the school curriculum there are several online resources where it’s possible to read and hear how Scots is used. The first, of course, is YouTube, which has a large collection of videos of people speaking Scots from across the country.

The second recommended resource is robertburns.org which features a complete collection of Burn’s poetry, the majority of which was written in Scots.

Third, take a look at the Scots Language Centre website which has several interactive learning exercises aimed at children. This website features a wealth of information about the history of Scots and also has information to help adults connect with the language.

Scotsman Kilt

Is Scottish Gaelic still spoken?

Scottish Gaelic is still spoken in Scotland, though its usage varies from place to place.

Head to the Highlands and you’ll see almost all road signs labelled in English and Gaelic, whereas the Lowlands tend to display just the English names.

Gaelic is rarely heard in the main cities of Scotland – and very rarely in Edinburgh – but its use in Glasgow is steadily rising to the point where the percentage of Gaelic speakers is close behind the Highlands.

Even so, Glasgow and the Highlands don’t come close to the islands of the Outer Hebrides, where over 50% of the population are able to converse in Scottish Gaelic – in no small part due to the fact those islands have high numbers of primary schools that teach the language.

As far as the popularity of the language goes, there was a marked decline in Gaelic speakers leading up to 2001 when the national census showed an 11% decline in the number of people able to converse fluently in Scottish Gaelic.

However, that situation is now reversing, and thanks to the introduction of Scottish Gaelic education centres the number of Scottish Gaelic speakers has risen to around 1% (approx 58,000 people) of the total population of Scotland who can speak, read, and write Gaelic.

For more fascinating facts about Scotland, check out the Facts, Culture and History archive.


Resources

  • Scots Language Centre – Online information site about the Scots language and its collective dialects.
  • Wikipedia – Page on the languages of Scotland, including their history and modern usage.
  • Learn Gaelic – Free online resource featuring structured courses to learn Scottish Gaelic.
  • RobertBurns.org – Website about Scottish poet Robert Burns. Includes his complete works.

Frequently asked questions

How do Scottish people say hello?

Because the most common language in Scotland is English, most people say variations of ‘hello’, ‘hi’, ‘hiya’ etc, just the same as in any other English-speaking country.
Even if you were trying to converse in Scottish Gaelic, the phrase will sound the same, as the translation for ‘hello’ is ‘halò’.

Why does Scotland speak English?

Scotland is a primarily English-speaking country due to the Acts of Union of 1707 when Scotland and England were joined under the banner of the United Kingdom.

The act declared that English would be the official language of Scotland from the date the act was passed, and would be the standard language of religion, education, and government.

However, the Scots dialect and the Scottish Gaelic language continued to be used throughout Scotland after 1707, and they are still used in many regions of the country today.

Is Scots older than English?

English – or specifically, Old English – is older than Scots.

Scots has been spoken for many centuries, but it originated from Old English in the 1100s. Old English is also known as Old Northumbrian, which was itself introduced by Germanic invaders in the 5th century.

Are Scots Celtic or Germanic?

Scottish people are descended from a combination of Celts (Picts and Gaels) and Germanic Angles.

Highland Scots are descended from Gaels who travelled across Scotland, England and France from Ireland during the time of the Roman Empire.
Lowland Scots are descended from the Angles of Northumbria, who are Germanic in origin.

The Kingdom of Scotland was founded on an amalgamation of Picts, Gaels, Cumbrians, and Angles.

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