Scottish Standard English, Scots, and Fifty Ways to use a Scunner

Two things inspired this, the first being a post by the brilliant cygnoir about how she enjoyed hearing Scottish Standard English being spoken every day. The second was from an almost equally prestigious source, the Times of London’s letters page. I’d love to point you at the latter, but Roop charges for Times Online, and frankly, I think getting one of his newspapers once a week is more than he deserves, of which more later.

First of all to cygnoir, who is my friend and fellow Edinburgh-based writer Halstead Bernard. In her December 18 post, she wrote:

“Today I am having a day of expat feelings, so I am going to talk about something I love about living in Scotland and something that annoys me.

I love hearing SSE (Scottish Standard English) every day. In fact, I have done tireless (read: not tireless) research to bring to you the absolute best (read: or just really good) sentence to hear in SSE: “Will you tell the girls about the murder rate of squirrels in third-world countries?” I also love hearing the following words: dreich, guddle, drouthy, numpty, outwith. I hope I didn’t offend anyone by writing this. At least I didn’t say …

Haggis. I am vastly annoyed by the punchline to jokes from non-Scots being, “Haggis!” And I love haggis, so it’s not like I object on culinary grounds. It’s just such a lazy joke, like responding to anything Italian by saying, “Spaghetti with meatballs!”

Hm, now I’m hungry.”

Typically sweet of Halstead to concern herself about offending someone by liking their accent. Rather than offending, it motivated me to put a clip of those words up on Freesound as one example of how SSE sounds. However, in the unlikely event of any of my fellow Scots being so tightly wound that they are offended, I say only this.

Firstly, Halstead, and her husband, Funkyplaid, are as far from the stereotypical brash Yankee as you could possibly get. They are charming, educated folks, who have actually gone the length of coming to live and work in this dark, cold, rocky outcrop of the European mainland with us.

Secondly, we should thank our lucky stars other English speakers find our accent charming. A brief Google search discloses that SSE speakers are considered the most reassuring to hear in an emergency; that call centres value us as our voices are thought to reflect probity and caution; they’re even rated second most pleasing to listen to after something called ‘Queen’s English.’

Compare that with the poor old Scousers, the Liverpool accent being considered ‘least intelligent and least trustworthy,’ amongst fellow Brits.

The only time I’ve been to the States, at a conference in Nashville, (where, actually, I didn’t meet hardly any stereotypical brash Yankees – hey, maybe we should revisit that stereotype, eh?) there was indeed a charming lady who peppered with me with questions until confessing that she was only doing it to hear my accent. Come to think of it though, she didn’t ask me about the murder rate of squirrels in Third World countries.

Was that so bad? I didn’t think so (just for the record, anyone with Irish (Northern or Southern), Spanish or French accented English automatically gains extra points from me. I know that’s not the way it should be, but it is. Apologies to any of those I pepper with questions).

In my Freesound clip, I used what I understand to be SSE: in other words, what I would use in normal everyday speech, particularly if speaking to a non-Fifer (like everyone, I guess, my accent does broaden out when speaking to fellow natives).

So much for Scottish Standard English.  What about that rather more contentious, not to say slippery concept, Scots?

Accents fascinate me. Probably because I’ve been born and brought up in Scotland, I’ve always had an ear for the way intonations and pronunciations of Scots accents change, even if you travel a few miles in any direction. I could tell you if a person came from Kirkcaldy or Dunfermline, for example, the two biggest Fife towns, about ten miles distant from each other. I could be pretty sure of my ground if you asked me to tell if a person had spent most of their life in North Fife, or across the Tay Bridge in Dundee, where the accent changes again markedly. Going further north, the Doric of Aberdeen changes the pronunciation again.

Which makes rendering them into a written approximation doubly difficult. Take the phrase, ‘see you later.’ In Fife, the pronunciation turns that into something like ‘seeyuh lu’er,’ with a glottal stop replacing the ‘t’ in the last word (interestingly, the phrase seems to lend itself to heavy accenting in other languages, too – the Spanish ‘hasta luego’ (lit. until then) is classically pronounced ‘aasta loowego,’ but generally comes out as ‘’sta logo.’)

There are about a zillion other examples. ‘What,’ is pronounced ‘Whit,’ Whut,’ or even, in the North-East, ‘Fit.’ Some of these variations are better documented than others, and Fife hasn’t to my knowledge been much written down.

When I was working on my chapbook of Fife football fairy stories, I had to basically create a whole etymology of words and phrases to smooth out the different tries I’d had over the course of three stories at getting Fife pronunciation on the page. When I was working on my Soundcloud version of Thrawn Janet, I even had to take a red pen to Robert Louis Stevenson (I know! The sheer impertinence!) to make sure I was comfortable with one or two of the Scots words.

According to English Accents and Dialects, (5th edition) Hodder Education, 2012: “Describing Scots as a dialect of English is problematic in a number of ways … historically speaking, it would be more accurate to say that Scots and English are dialects of a language that is the common ancestor of both, because both derive from a West Germanic dialect that was imported to Britain from northern Germany and Denmark  in the mid-fifth century. The history of Scots is just as long as the history of English in these islands … but even today many Scottish people are not altogether sure what distinction is intended by the use of the term ‘Scots’ versus ‘Scottish English.’”

As our American friends might say, you bet your ass, buddy. And I’m not even going anywhere near the socio-political implications of Scots being a distinct language. No sirree Bob. Not in Referendum Year. Instead, let’s go back to see what the Times of London letters page was mithering (a good Mancunian word) about.

Referring to an earlier report (which I didn’t see, as we take the Guardian during the week, only succumbing to the blandishments of News International because, frankly, the Guardian’s Saturday edition isn’t as good, no matter how bleeding heart liberal it might be) entitled “Scots mind their language and hang on to braw words,” there was a minor stushie (nope, didn’t think Microsoft Word would recognise that one) over the meaning of Scots words still in current use.

First out of the blocks was a William Warrack of Sheffield, and the meaning of three words, ‘braw,’  ‘glaikit,’ and ‘scunnered.’ Mr Warrack, rather unsportingly I felt, let slip that his reference point, Chamber’s Scots Dialect (sic) Dictionary, had been compiled by his great grandfather, the Rev. Alexander Warrack.

According to this authority, ‘glaikit’ is defined as ‘giddy or foolish in an affected manner;’ ‘braw,’ rather than being beautiful, is handsome or even able bodied, and rather than being bored, ‘scunnered,’ according to Mr Warrack’s great-grandfather, “implies loathing, repugnance or disgust.”

Meanwhile, a Mary Pirie of Tighnabruaich felt that scunnered meant annoyed, rather than bored.

So who’s right, the Sheffield-resident descendant of a celebrated etymologist, or the redoubtable Mrs Pirie? The answer, of course, is both of them, and neither. Because the whole point of these surviving Scots words is there is no exact English equivalent. That’s why we keep using them!

Take the simplest of these, ‘braw.’ It could be applied to either sex, to mean beautiful or handsome. There are probably more handsome women in Scotland than beautiful men, but let’s leave that to one side: the point is, it’s a good general term indicating positivity, something the Scots are not universally noted for, it’s fair to say. (I was reminded the other day of the phrase from Wodehouse about there being no difficulty differentiating between a ray of sunshine and a Scot with a grievance. Outrageous English propaganda, of course.) Braw can also be used to denote general satisfaction with a state of affairs, as in, ‘that’s braw.’

And now, ‘glaikit.’ I fear I must depart from Mr Warrack’s great grandfather, as glaikit to me doesn’t mean ‘giddy or foolish in an affected manner.’ It may be it meant that in 1911, but to me the nearest standard English equivalent is gormless. It denotes, I think, a lack of common sense, a lack of self-knowledge, or just plain witlessness: but, crucially, is also usually associated with how the person looks.

There was an excellent example the other day when I was dropping off Daughter and Heiress somewhere, and she asked, not without an element of sarcasm, whether she could wait in the car or whether I thought she should ‘stand outside and look glaikit.’ Now, D & H is in full possession of her mental faculties: I would even go so far as to say she has more than her share of common sense for a teenager. It wasn’t that she was glaikit; it was, notwithstanding any internal degree of cerebral activity, that she would look glaikit. I let her wait in the car.

However, that’s only my opinion, and that, I think, is what makes Scots as a language so slippery. Even if one is to consult noted authorities such as Mr Warrack’s great-grandfather, it’s not the end of the matter. The etymology of words changes with time, and with geography. There’s no central medium like the movies or the telly to create some sort of universal acceptance of what a word like glaikit might mean. That’s why I tend to disagree with attempts to codify Scots into some kind of unitary linguistic organism called Lallans.

Which leads me, finally, to scunner. Ah, scunner! Shall I compare thee to a Scottish summer’s day? Thou art yet more changeable and inconstant. Mr Warrack and Mrs Pirie are, again in my view, both right. Scunnered can involve the English words they use: it can imply loathing, repugnance or disgust. It can also mean annoyed.

But they’re both also wrong. Scunnered can encompass boredom. It can involve varying degrees of annoyance, boredom, loathing, repugnance and disgust. In fact, almost any word in a similar vein can be implied by the use of the word scunnered. You can be scunnered with your job, your nearest and dearest, with the fading fortunes of your football team, or with the whole lot of them. It can denote that you’re finished with a topic, or an aspect of your existence.

As a verb, it can be in the active or passive voice. You can be scunnered with something, or you can even scunner yourself. Used as a noun, it can be a wearisome or troublesome activity, or even something more like a feeling – Stevenson, in Thrawn Janet, uses it to mean a feeling of dread. It also can denote loathing, repugnance, disgust or similar with a person – as in, ‘That George Osborne (or it could be Rupert Murdoch, Ed Miliband, or Alex Salmond) is a pure scunner.’

Right, that’s all for now. I think I might have scunnered myself with the whole thing.





  1. A whole post devoted to SSE including references and a bespoke audio clip? I may be a bit biased, but I think this is my favourite blog post of yours yet. Thank you, Andrew! 😀

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    My writing group comrade and friend Andrew C. Ferguson crafted this wonderful post about Scottish Standard English. It even includes a bespoke audio clip of him reading my favourite sentence to hear in SSE. Go, read, listen!

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