Pronunciation model: Scottish English

View the key for Scottish English here.

‘Scottish English’ is a notoriously difficult term to define. Jane Stuart-Smith (2008) borrows Jack Aitken’s terminology in describing language in Scotland as a ‘bipolar linguistic continuum’, extending from broad Scots to Scottish Standard English (SSE), and is the product of centuries of dialect contact and language change. The continuum does not perfectly mirror education levels, geography, or levels of formality, though some associations are clearly evident. It should be noted that Scots is not a form of English, but a language recognized by the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages. Stuart-Smith notes that both linguists and native speakers find difficulty with recognising Scots as a linguistically distinct variety from SSE, and it remains debated whether Scots is a truly autonomous language. There is considerable variation across Scotland in speakers’ familiarity with Scots, and there is a national levelling of dialects towards English. These factors impact how the OED renders ‘Scottish English’ pronunciations as there will be significant variability. The OED model is intended to largely reflect SSE, a variety for which there is minimal regional variation, highlighting some of the most distinctive features of the variety. Yet a number of OED entries of ‘Scottish’ association are of Scots origin and speakers’ familiarity with Scots may well influence their pronunciations.

Similarly, the two primary sources of ‘Scottish’ pronunciations are actually dictionaries of Scots, being the Concise Scots Dictionary (SNDA 1985, hereafter ‘CSD’) and the Dictionary of the Scots Language (Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. 2005), the latter comprised of A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (‘DOST’, spanning 12th century to 1700) and The Scottish National Dictionary (‘SND’, spanning 1700-2005). The CSD was the outcome of a desire for an abridged version of the DOST and SND to date, and has an established connection with the OED having utilized OED material where DOST was not yet complete. Regarding the pronunciations given by CSD, it states that ‘[o]ften CSD gives only the vernacular Scots pronunciations, and it is taken for granted that the reader is aware that (Scottish) Standard English pronunciations also exist’ (p.xxiv), but proceeds to note six circumstances in which SSE pronunciations may be given (including misleading spellings, frequency of SSE versus Scots pronunciation, and Scots legal terms). The CSD and SND agree on many pronunciations, but a number of differences exist. The CSD based theirs on the SND transcriptions but utilized other authorities on Scots pronunciation as well as consultation of Scots writings and local speakers. Meanwhile, the SND’s second supplement updated it to 2005 (released in online form only). It is not straightforward to determine patterns of discrepancy between the CSD and SND, often appearing to be entry-specific.

The approach taken in the OED is to largely reflect SSE (using a modified set of the symbols of John Wells as a starting point) but recognize the variation regarding Scots vocabulary. Utilising the CSD and SND, pronunciations of Scots-origin words are ones which are minimally converted from the Scots, into an OED model for ‘Scottish English’ which reflects many of the commonly noted vowel features of SSE as shown in the table below.

The distinction between PRIDE and PRIED reflects a distinctly Scottish phenomenon known as Aitken’s Law or the Scottish Vowel Length Rule, by which certain vowels are short in some environments but phonetically long in others. The ‘long’ environments are before /v/, /ð/, /z/ or /ʒ/ (‘voiced fricatives’), before /r/, in open-ended-word final environments, and before a boundary (morpheme boundaries like ­past tense -ed). In single-quality monophthong vowels (evidence suggesting primarily /i/ and /u/), the distinction is purely of length, a distinction we have opted not to reflect in the OED transcriptions as this phonetic feature is relatively subtle to non-SSE speakers though it is likely to be reflected naturally in the spoken pronunciations. The two-quality diphthong vowel in PRIDE, however, is affected in both length and quality, such that the ‘short’ version also starts with the highest point of the tongue higher in the mouth and potentially reaches a ‘closer’ finishing point than the long version (though there is variation in the transcriptions of both versions). In the OED, therefore, there is the potential for /ʌi/-/aɪ/ differences in pairs such as pride-prize, wide-wire, pride-pry, and pride-pried. As with most rules, however, there are exceptions. Words such as spider and cider also have /aɪ/. There is often greater variation as to speakers’ pronunciations of these exceptions and there are hypotheses for their existence, but the presence of unexpected long forms is a feature reflected in the OED where evidence supports their inclusion.

The NURSE/BERTH/BIRTH distinction is another area where Scottish English is distinct. Usually predictable from spelling, the typical patterns are ur→/ʌr/ (nurr), er/ear→/ɛr/ (nerve, learn), ir→/ɪr/ (nirl), but exceptions do exist. Similarly, unlike the standard of its neighbour, Scottish English has not merged NORTH and FORCE.

The final vowel distinction of note is that of the HAPPY vowel, which is /ɪ/ rather than /i/ as often found elsewhere. This again is a particularly distinctive feature of Scottish English, although variably discussed as being nearer /e/.

Scottish English is rhotic, hence /r/ patterns similarly to U.S. English. Wells and Stuart-Smith note that in reality, the stereotypical ‘trilled’ /r/ is more commonly a simple approximant, one with a curled-tip (‘retroflex’), or a ‘tapped’ /r/.

A deviation from many sources on Scottish English is the OED’s representation of both /θ/ and /ð/ as /θ/. This is a phonetic, rather than phonological, feature of SSE (Stuart-Smith 2008) but one which is a notable and fairly consistent feature of the variety. Crucially, however, this interacts with Aitken’s Law, such the vowel of a word with a ‘voiceless’ /ð/ (such as assythment /əˈsaɪθmənt/) retains the long vowel as if the following sound was voiced.

Some aspects of the Scottish English model affect very specific features. Word-medial -ing is rendered as /ɪŋ(ɡ)/ unless historically a compound; if sufficient evidence, word-final/compound -ing may have a primary pronunciation of /ŋ/ followed by /n/. It shares with several other varieties a voiceless labial-velar fricative sound at the start of words such as which and where, represented in the OED by the sequence /hw/, but CSD /wr/ sequences are rendered simply as /r/. Coalescence is similar to the ‘British English’ model, and the voiceless velar fricative /x/ (as in loch) is often present in the only pronunciation of an entry (unlike the British and U.S. varieties, where it is always accompanied by a non-/x/ variant).

Given the discrepancies between source transcription systems, and the necessity of distinctions not found in British English, OED editors maintain consistency across the Scottish English transcriptions with reference to a particular set of precedents which go beyond the standard vowel set. These include words such as tousle (with /ʌʊ/ not /u/), glaik (with /e/ not /ʌi/), and claut (/ɔ/).

Scottish English words in particular provide one further challenge, namely that there is frequently considerable variation in the spelling of a word as well as in its pronunciation. It is entirely feasible that the spelling of a word will not directly reflect its pronunciation, but to reflect all such possibilities and combinations would be impractical. Instead, the pronunciation(s) given under the label of ‘Scottish English’ follow that particular spelling of the headword, and significant variant pronunciations linked to other spellings may be indicated in other sections of the entry (not in the primary pronunciation section).


Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. 2005. Dictionary of the Scots Language [online]. Available at [Accessed 11 May 2016].

Scottish National Dictionary Association. 1985. Concise Scots Dictionary. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Stuart-Smith, J. 2008. Scottish English: phonology. In: B. Kortmann & C. Upton, eds. Varieties of English 1: the British Isles. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp.48-70.