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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

Names for the Scots Language

The Scots language has been known by several alternative names during its history. The variety of names reflects both changing fashions, and local dialect loyalties. For the unwary, such a variety of names can often be a cause for confusion, leading to misunderstandings about the identity and nature of the language. Below is an alphabetical list of alternative names by which the Scots language and dialects have been known, each giving a little background to the origins and usage of the names in question.

Sometimes the Scots dialect of the Borders region of Scotland is known by this name.

Originally, in the early modern period, Braid Scots meant ‘plain-speaking’ or ‘plain language’ to a Scots speaker. Since the 18th century it has been used to describe a consistently spoken dialect of the language, or, in some cases for English speakers, an unintelligible dialect.

Buchan is the ‘knuckle of the north east’ and this regional name has been given to the particular dialect spoken in that area which is reckoned to be distinct not only from Scots in general but from the rest of the North East. It is also sometimes known as ‘Braid Buchan’.

In Scotland today the name ‘Doric’ is often claimed in the North East – centred on the city of Aberdeen – as the exclusive name for the North East dialect. This is because since the 1980s there has been an effort on the part of some North East organisations to maintain the distinct identity of the region in the face of global and other competing identities. The first Scot to apply the name Doric – as an alternative name for the Scots language – was the poet Allan Ramsay, writing from the 1720s. During the 18th century, Ancient Greek and Roman culture (often called Classical Culture) was much admired by the educated and upper classes who attempted to copy certain aspects. This movement is reflected in, for example, the architecture of grand country and public buildings which included Greek columns and Roman facades. In line with this thinking, and post the Union of 1707, which joined England and Scotland into a single state of Great Britain – the Scots language was now classed as a ‘provincial dialect.’ Scots was now compared with the ‘Doric’ speech of ancient Greece, spoken in Doria, and associated with the country and peasantry, while English, now the formal language of Britain, became associated with Attic, the ancient Greek language of the city states. When Ramsay called Scots Doric he meant that it was associated with the countryside, peasantry and working class: it was therefore another way of saying ‘rustic language.’ Ramsay used the term with some affection, but people coming after him often used it in a derogatory or dismissive sense. And the name was not confined to Scotland: some writers in England also called the speech of the peasantry in England Doric too. In the usage of Scotland, the name Doric was not confined to any single dialect but was employed as an alternative name for the Scots language generally, whether from Aberdeen to Ayr or Dunbar to Dumbarton. Gradually, during the 20th century, the use of the name Doric fell out of use in many places, but recently the name has taken on new life in the North East where its use has been preferred to Scots as a way of highlighting the very distinct features of the dialect of Scots spoken in the region.

A Latin-derived word which can refer to anything related to the city of Dundee, including the local dialect of Scots.

This spelling originated in the Middle Ages and is a variation of the original name by which the Anglo-Saxons knew their language – englisc, literally ‘Angle-ish’ – who had come originally from Angeln (‘the corner’) in Denmark. Their linguistic descendants in both England and Scotland continued to use variations of ‘englisc’ throughout the Middle Ages, though the form ‘Englisch’ came to be preferred in the southern half of Britain. Increasingly, however, as the northern and southern tongues developed, new names came into use to distinguish them, just as was happening elsewhere in Europe with closely-related languages. On the one hand, Scots could use the umbrella term Inglis to refer to the related tongues of both Scots-speaking Scotland, and of England, in a general sense, but on the other hand when Scottish people wished to be specific they spoke of Scots (see below) in Scotland and Suddron in England. In the same fashion, Norwegian and Swedish were often called ‘Danish’ in this period while Dutch was often called ‘German’ and Scottish Gaelic ‘Irish’. And like Scots, these languages could be known by both an umbrella and a specific name. Today the form Inglis, when used in Scots, is now only used to refer to English.

This is the northern Scots form of the more general ‘Lawlands’ which simply means ‘Lowlands’. It is a feature of the Scots language (in common with Dutch) that an –s is often added to a word to create an adjective or language name. In this case, lawland, or lowland, had an –s added to describe anything which belonged to, or was typical of, Lowland culture. Robert Burns, writing from the 1780s, is the first attested as using this as an alternative name for the Scots language in general. Contrary to a popular myth, Lallans does not refer to any particular dialect, real or imagined, but can be, theoretically, applied to any form of Scots because ‘Lowland’ could be, and was, applied to any region of Scotland, north or south, which spoke Scots. In practice, the name Lallans is most closely associated with writing formal or literary Scots which, like standard English or any other high register language, is not associated with any single dialect. It was through the work of Hugh MacDiarmid, attempting to improve the status of Scots during the 1920s, and preferring the name Lallans over others, that the name first took on a particular association with literary writing.

The Mither Tongue is an affectionate name which can be used to refer either to the language as a whole or to a particular dialect.

A Latin-derived word which can refer to anything related to the Orkney islands, including the local dialect of Scots. In Orkney itself the term Orkney is used for the dialect.

This is the term by which people, largely in the city of Glasgow, refer to the dialect of the city. It is meant to describe the language commonly heard and spoken in the street and has a similar meaning to ‘lingo’.

This was originally a contraction of the English word ‘Scottish’. Scotch was used by English speakers as an equivalent for ‘Scots’ (see below) in their own tongue but during the 18th century, through English cultural dominance, it came to be the name used by Scots speakers for their language too. During the Victorian period almost everything relating to Scotland was described as Scotch, from the Scotch Education Department to Scotch whisky. During the 20th century, however, use of the name began to wane in favour of the older, native form ‘Scots’, and the use of Scotch became associated with humour or old-fashioned images. Today Scotch is current as a name among only the oldest speakers and usually in the form The Auld Scotch.

Scots simply means ‘Scottish’. It was first applied as a name for the Germanic language of Lowland Scotland by Adam Loutfut in the year 1494 when he translated a book “out of fraynche in ‘Scottis.” Thereafter the name Scots came into increasing use as a better way of distinguishing the Lowland language from its sister language in England, in much the same way as Danish, Norwegian and Swedish – which also had common origins - are distinguished from each other by their respective names. The name Scots went into something of a decline as English influence increased during the 18th century and was largely overtaken by the English word ‘Scotch’ (see above). However, during the 20th century Scots came back into widespread use and is now the standard name for the language once again.

The distinct dialect of Shetland has been known to its speakers by this name for many years. In English academic writing it is sometimes known as Shetlandic.

Occasionally in the Middle Ages and beyond, Latin writers referred to the Lowland language as Theutonica or ‘German’ which, as an umbrella term, recognised that Scots formed part of a Germanic family of languages.

This is a Northern Irish version of the Scottish word ‘Lallans/Lawlands’. Like Lallans, it is most closely associated with writing formal or literary Scots.

The name of the province of Ulster has been applied to the Ulster-accented Scots spoken in the region, and is descriptive of the language as spoken there, hence the name Ulster Scots.