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A look at the relationship of the Scots and English Language

by David Percival 

A History of Scots

The following is extracted from an article submitted by Karen Angelosanto to the Institute of Linguists Magazine February – March 2002 Edition.

At the recent IOL conference in Edinburgh, the question ‘Is Scots a language?’ was raised. It is a question that vexes many. Those  who hold strong opinions on either side have many different reasons for asking it.. Since the decision as to whether something is accorded the status of a language is always made on geopolitical  rather than linguistic grounds, whether Scots deserves to be called a language is actually not a question with which linguists need concern themselves overmuch. What must be made clear, however, is that Scots is not an impoverished or substandard dialect of English.

That Scots is related to English is not in any doubt, but to classify it as a weak, undesirable dialect is just plain wrong. Briefly, Scots and English share a common ancestor in a language descended from the language spoken by the Angles. Sometime around the 9th century, this language that we now call Old English (OE) came to dominate most of what is now England. OE later split into Northern OE and Southern OE. Later still, Northern OE underwent a second split; one version looking south for its influences and becoming what is now the English of the north of England, the other drawing upon different influences and developing into Scots. By around the 14th century, Scots was a fully fledged national language in all of Scotland  except the Gaelic speaking areas. It grew and changed like any other language for the next 300 years, becoming the language of the royal court and the law and enjoying a particularly high point in the literature of the 16th to 18th centuries. Scotland has a long and distinguished literary heritage that stretches back to John Barbour’s poem Brus   and comes right up to date with poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid and Tom Leonard, the inspired drama of Liz Lochhead and the prose of exciting new writers such as Matthew Fitt.

The table below shows the development of Scots alongside that of English.

                                         Scots                                                         English

to 1100

Old English

to 1100

Old English

to 1375

Older (pre-literary) Scots

to 1250

Early Middle English

to 1450

Older (Early) Scots

to 1475

Late Middle English

to 1550

(Early) Middle Scots

to 1650

Early Modern English

to 1700

(Late) Middle Scots

from 1650

Modern English

from 1700

Modern Scots



A serious study of any language must take into account the history of the people who speak it. There is no language that exists independently of social and political context. The fluctuating status of Scotland  over the past 700 years has had an enormous influence on the language and upon people’s attitude to it.

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