The notion that there is a language called Scots, separate from the English language, instead of just a Scottish dialect of English, makes a lot of folks hopping mad. There is a regular reader who is Scottish who refuses to accept this. The reason is that if you listen to Scots carefully, it does sound like they are speaking a grotesquely distorted and bizarre form of English.
But the thing we linguists keep hammering away at is that if you can’t understand people, they are speaking a different language. People just can’t seem to accept that.
It’s true that Scots is very close to English. Some say that Scots must be more than 90% intelligible with English. This is not the case at all. I don’t have any figures, but a look around the Net showed that the consensus is that Scots is simply not intelligible to many or most speakers of even “Southern English” in the UK (the English spoken in the southern half of the UK). I would gather that even a lot of Northern English speakers can’t make heads or tails of it either. Let’s just forget about American English speakers.
So, bottom line is that Scots is just flat out unintelligible to the vast majority of English speakers.
What does unintelligible mean? According to SIL, unintelligible means you understand less than 70% of what someone is saying. SIL says partially intelligible is 70-89%, and intelligible is 90-100%.
If you ever tried to watch Trainspotting, you know what I am talking about. I think it had subtitles when released her, and it sure needed them, because I could scarcely make out a single word they were saying. Keep in mind that intelligibility differs by individual. A good friend of mine said he watched that movie and figured out the lect about 1 hour into the movie and then was able to make sense out of it, but I never got it.
He’s also a musician, so that may have something to do with it. There’s increasing evidence that musicians are better at language than others. Polyglots are often musically talented. In a lot of ways, language is all about the ear.
To make matters worse, the lect in Trainspotting was not even the real deal, hardcore Scots. It’s just basic Scottish English, not even real Scots at all. It gets pretty hard to figure out where true Scots, Scottish English with heavy Scots interference, and Scottish English proper begin and end.
There are five main dialects of Scots: Insular Scots (Orcadian/Shetlandic), Northern Scots, Central Scots, Southern Scots and Ulster. As the commenter below notes, intelligibility is quite difficult among dialects of Scots, and it looks like we are looking at more than one language here.
Lafayette Sennacherib, a Scotsman, writes:
In Scotland, if you go five miles in any direction you encounter a dialect that no one else understands, roughly based on English, but as if there has been little population movement in or out of each little region for 500 years, which is quite possible. There is actually no broad Scots; the poems of Burns are in the dialect of the county of Ayrshire, spoken only there and then.
These days, I as a Glaswegian (from Glasgow, though living in London) find it really hard to understand Ayrshire people when they lapse into dialect, even though it’s little more than 20 miles away. The Edinburgh dialect in Trainspotting is also completely foreign to me, again from only 30 miles away.
As for Shetland or Aberdeen…I worked with a guy from Aberdeen for a year, and only picked out about half a dozen words in that time – if he spoke to me I’d just look philosophical and utter, “Ay mate.”
Funny that although there are lots of accents in the USA, the language is so uniform when there are so many people from so many places. But maybe that’s why – they have to learn a standard dialect to communicate with each other.
Here are some audio samples of Scots from a village called Rosehearty. Here is some more Scots, a 2 minute recitation of a New Testament story. Here are some samples of Ulster Scots, which is pretty much the same language as Scots. This is Philip Robinson reading from a novel called Fergus An The Stane O Destinie. This is clearly a foreign language! This is nothing like Scottish English at all. It’s simply another language altogether.