Blethering on – Scots influence on current English

The last three weeks I’ve written about crowd funding. This week a thought I’d take a break from that subject and say something about words. Every language – every living language – grows constantly in the mouths of the people who use it. And one of the ways in which all languages grow is by the addition of new words. But where do these words come from?

Old New Words

Blethering on
A Scottish saltair (cross) made by two contrails.

Paradoxically, some new words are really old words. Words that once were used and then fell out of general use but have been preserved in dialect. English is rich with words of this sort. Just lately political events have stirred up the silt of dialect and brought a number of words into use that most speakers of modern English have not previously been aware of.

As you may know, September will see a referendum in Scotland on whether independence from the United Kingdom is the wish of the majority of Scots, or whether the country will continue as a part of the UK. On both sides of the question politicians, journalists and public figures have been presenting the arguments. And on both sides there is been an attempt to reach out to Scots by using Scottish words in the national media and other fora where “standard English” – which generally means the English of the educated middle class from south of England – normally dominates.

Cameron hears the skirl of the pipes

Under normal circumstances even politicians and members of the media with Scottish roots conform to the southern English norm. People who slip into a broader dialect are either ignored or made fun of. But lately this has changed. Even the normally posh-spoken British Prime Minister David Cameron has been heard to drop the occasional Scots word. (In a speech in favour of the Union, he referred to the skirl of the bagpipes. Not a very obscure reference to be sure.)

In a recent article, the BBC published a glossary of “new words” – that is, Scottish words – that have re-emerged and are currently circulating in standard English. These are very familiar to Scots, but probably opaque to most of the rest of the population.

Among the words are Aye and Naw. These mean Yes and No respectively. If you didn’t know, you probably worked that out without much difficulty. But there’s also Mibbe, which means Maybe. And – more obscurely – Mibbe ayes, mibbe naws, which means Maybe yes and maybe no.

“The Scottish Youth Parliament website designed to help young voters make up their minds is also called Aye, Naw, Mibbe,” says the BBC.

Blethering on

The English have also met Blether – a Scots version of the English Blather – meaning to talk foolishly or to talk very much. A fun fact for Swedes is that blether and blather both derived from the Old Norse (aka Viking) blađer. This is also the origin of Swedish pladder. Which, of course, means more or less the same thing.

Other fun words are Chappin which means knocking. Campaigners on both sides have been chappin doors to reach members of the general Scottish public and present their arguments. And have been Tweeting about it. Similarly Haivering (rambling in speech, talking nonsense, not getting to the point), Feartie (fearful), Scunnerd (disgusted, made sick by), in a Swither (in a state of uncertainty), Thrawn (perverse, obstinate), Rammy (a general fight) have all been much more widely used recently. Especially on the social media which is perhaps the most common way in which these words have reached the wider English speaking world.

Mibbe ayes, mibbe naws

With all these politicians and campaigners chappin and haivering, the normally thrawn Scots are in a bit of a swither about what to do. It’s not that they are feartie, far from it. And they’re happy to get into a rammy, if only a verbal one. But all the blethering has left them with an answer that is mibbe ayes, mibbe naws. We’ll only know what they decide after they have voted on 18th September.

To find Scots words from English visit the On-line Scots Dictionary. Or visit the English to Scots Translator.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

6 thoughts on “Blethering on – Scots influence on current English”

  1. Intressant. Jag har läst lite om folkomröstningen i svensk media. Vad jag inte är riktigt säker på är om den bild jag har av Skottland stämmer längre. Jag måste ska att jag främst fått den från Ian rankin s deckare och de är ingen munter bild. Fattigdom och elände. Men vad jag förstår är det Skottland inte överrens stämmande med dagens Skottland…

    • Ian Rankin is a good detective story writer and he can paint a gritty, very realistic picture of Scotland, but – it is always a picture. Scotland has a population roughly the same size as Denmark in a land area roughly twice as large, but I guess there are plenty of people in Britain and the US who think they know it just from having seen The Killing or Borgen.

  2. So it is not the old Romans or the old Greeks we can thank for developing our language. It is the old Norwegians. Who would have thought that? Or, maybe, they only thought us how to pladdra? Think I have to take that back, my father in law being from Norway …

    • Hehe! Many old languages have run together to form the ones we use today. The roots of English lie in the Anglo-Saxon dialect of German from 1500 years ago, but there is a huge number of French origin words (around 35% of the 20,000 most commonly used English words is the usual figure). Depending how you count, between 5% and 7% of modern English comes to us from the Vikings. By contrast all the modern Scandinavian languages have their roots in Old Norse, but Swedish has a massive vocabulary (c.40%) borrowed from Low German – it’s just the loans were made so long ago that you don’t notice them because they have become “naturalised”. Of course, both Swedish and English have borrowed from Latin and Greek too, but not nearly to the same degree.

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