global English scottish English

Bunker and slitter

© Brand XScottish English week continues with another fantastic guest post, this time about learning Scots by Mairi MacDonald.


Bunker and slitter*. Two new words I’ve learnt recently. I’m not learning a new language, just slowly improving my own. Considering I was brought up in Scotland and I have a Scottish accent, my knowledge of Scottish English or Scots is pretty poor. Many believe that it is a language of its own whilst others believe it is a dialect of English. Whatever the answer, the connection between the two is deep rooted.

There are plenty words I hear frequently but would never use. “Ken”, meaning ‘to know’, has evolved into a slang,  an unthinking tag at the end of every sentence, similar to the English “innit”. I wouldn’t say “bairn” (a baby, child), though I’d expect to hear it while out and about. I do say “aye” and “wee” and sometimes “och” but I’ve never ever heard anyone say “Hoots, mon!”

Scottish English was discouraged at school, apart from a brief spell every January when we’d have to learn a Burns poem. Perhaps the teachers were afraid that when we went out into the wide world other English-speaking people wouldn’t understand us. Perhaps it was a class thing – after all educated people simply don’t say things like “Ah yistae be a nanny but ah’m no’ a nanny noo, eh naw.”**

This past bias against Scots I feel was misplaced. Placed in the right hands, Scots can be a very demanding and creative language – just read anything by Hugh MacDiarmid. Whatever the reasons for this suppression, things have clearly moved on since then; on a visit to my son’s primary school I was pleased to spy an A to Z illustrating Scottish words cheerfully displayed on the walls of the dining room – A is for “aipple” (apple), O for “oxter” (armpit), S for “slater” (woodlouse) etc.

Scottish English stems from our  distinct history and its impact on our language. Take the Scottish pronunciation of mouse (“moose”), house (“hoose”) and out (“oot”). These examples are closer to Old English and other North European languages than standard British English. Partly because of our historic links with Scandinavia and partly because we didn’t have a 1066 and us Northerners missed out on the Normans tweaking our language, at least for a little while. The Scots language began its slow decline with the Union of the Crowns (1603) and gained speed after the Act of Union (1707) where standardised English was introduced as the language of education, law and politics. In spite of this, more old words have survived longer in Scotland than in other parts of the UK and strong regional varieties have persisted.

So it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at Scots. And don’t worry if a face-to-face encounter with the language  leaves you with a blank stare; we’re all students of our own language in one way or another.


*A bunker is a kitchen worktop and slitter is a verb which means ‘to eat or work messily’.
**“I used to work as a nanny but I don’t any more.”

If you want to hear Scots, download a podcast from the Scots Language Centre.
For more on Hugh McDiarmid, see this website.

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Mairi MacDonald


  • Dear Mairi Macdonald,

    Thank you very much indeed for this interesting information on Scottish English or Scots (this latter reference it’s entirely new for me…). I’ve thought it could just be used for “people”, and not for the language.
    When I visited your stunning country, in 2001, I enjoyed listening to some people at the Edinburgh Castle, and I took some notes on a few Scottish words.
    I would very much appreciate your sincere opinion on some lines I’ve written about “Global English” at the Teaching English website/mceupc’s blog.
    Looking forward to receiving your knowledgeable comment.
    Best wishes,

  • Fascinating! I was born in Ayr, and had a great aunt who used to call the sink a “jawbox” as in “jist pit every’hin’ in the jawbox” (just put everything in the sink). And “slitter” could be used as an noun: “Och, yer (you are) an awfy (awful) slitter”.

  • In Norwegian (closest Scandinavian country to Scotland)
    House = hus
    Mouse = mus
    Out = ut.
    Child = barn
    to cry = gråte
    to know = kjenne
    to understand = sjønne

    Nothing too surprising here. Common language is always influenced by close neighbours and trade partners.

  • Dear Mairi Macdonald,

    I find very interesting what you bring in attention to us by
    the words Bunker and slitter, entirely new for me.

    We want some more please!


  • My late brother-in-law was a Scot from Glasgow. His mother was from Montrose and she twice visited us in Flanders where Dutch is the mother tongue. She was often surprised by occasional similarities between her local dialect and standard Dutch or even dialectical Dutch. She then referred to Norwegian influences on her Montrose dialect.
    Anyway, “ken” is Scottish for “to know “. “to know” in Dutch is “kennen”.
    Isn’t it is wonderful,how old Germanic influences still survive in the various dialects

  • Thank goodness, i thought I had imaging part of my childhood. My Scots mother was always telling me off for ‘slittering’, usually messing about in the garden with water. My Ulster-born mother-in-law had never heard of the word so I thought I had got it wrong. My Devonshire father was with the Artillery attached to the Highland Division during the war so was posted to Perth where he met mother. They lived at Castlecary for a while before moving to Dorset and Father used a lot of Scots words but delivered in a Deven accent.

  • Anent (Scots or Scottish English??) your statement that the noble verb ‘ken’, which has a full range of tenses – present , future and past – ( ah ken, ah dinnae ken; ah’ll ken, ah winnae ken; ah kennt, ah didnae ken) …”has evolved into a slang”, I ‘would ask you to look up the defintion of ‘slang’. The verb ‘ken’ has a full range of uses. The interrogative ‘ken?’ at the end of a question may well be a colloquial shortening of “dae ye ken?”, but that does not make it ‘slang’. Nor is it the only current usage of the verb, as you imply.
    Secondly, in what sense are Scots ‘Northerners’? Of where? Is someone from Gretna, in southern Scotland, a ‘northerner’.?? Indicative of a mentality which meant nothing before the Union of 1707, I’m afraid, and one that would puzzle people from the north of England as well.
    Thirdly, and most importantly, there is a vast diffenence between ‘Scots’ and ‘Scottish English’ , something lexicographers should be aware of. ” I stay in Glasgow” is Scottish English for ‘I live in Glasgow’; “ah bide in Glesgae” is (my dialect of) Scots. “I went for the messages” is Scottish English for ‘I went food shopping’; in my form of Scots it would be ‘ah gaed the messages’. Scottish English often uses English lexis in a different way; Scots lexis and grammar are very divergent from English.

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