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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid


The 2005 supplement to the Scottish National Dictionary, accessible through the free online Dictionary of the Scots Language, has a citation from Christina Forbes Middleton’s ‘Doric’ poem The Dance in the Village (1981) which catches a very recognisable snippet of mother-daughter interaction:

Fin ma mither spiers fit I've been up tae
I can safely divulge ma plans
An' look her straicht in the face an' say:
'I wis only haudin' HANS!'

A straight answer to a straight question, indeed.

The word speir ‘ask’ (there are various spellings) has a long history in Scots, and it is still in pretty widespread use. DSL’s earliest citation is from another Aberdeenshire poet, the great John Barbour, whose epic poem The Bruce dates from 1375, but the word has even older roots. All the Germanic languages, of which Scots is one, have what we call ‘cognates’, i.e. words with a common ancestor: German spüren, Dutch speuren, Swedish spörja. The word was used in English in the Middle Ages - Sir Thomas Malory, in his fifteenth-century collection of stories, tells how Sir Lancelot ‘spyrred of [i.e. asked] men of Douer where was kyng Arthur becom’ – but it seems to have died out there soon afterwards.

A related word is the noun spoor.  In English, spoor means ‘track’ or ‘trail of an animal’; it seems to have died out in medieval times but was borrowed back from Dutch in the nineteenth century, when the British Empire expanded in southern Africa and clashed with the Boers, who spoke ‘Cape Dutch’ (i.e. Afrikaans). Spoor is rare in Scots, being recorded in DSL only from Orkney, apparently with a highly specialised meaning: ‘the excrement of an otter’. DSL derives the word from English spoor, but it may be ‘Norn’, cognate with Norwegian spor. Tread carefully!