Why the Scots Speak English

by Donald D. Erwin



Before we delve into why Scots speak English we should first ask and answer some primary questions; such as: What is language? How did man acquire it? How did it evolve? The questions are inseparable, and there are no easy answers. A classic definition of language that seemed adequate at the turn of the twentieth century stated simply: “Language is the expres­sion of human thought by means of words.” But to have some semblance of understanding what language is we must go back much further in time; way, way back.

It is generally believed that man alone has a sense of consciousness, which is the quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. This human trait has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, sentience, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is.

All mammals instruct their offspring for vary­ing intervals of time in the behavior patterns, movements, sounds, and skills common to their species. But, even though some primates, such as the chimpanzee, may arguably have a primitive sense of consciousness, man alone can reach back into the depths of time and evoke the collective knowledge of all his forebears – the sum total of their wis­dom and folly, aspirations and achievements, triumphs, failures, and dreams since the beginning of human life on earth.

The method with which man manages the miracle of transcending time and death is language. It is this gift, peculiar to Homo sapiens, that has placed man at the apex of the evolutionary ladder. Only man has language. It is possessed universally by man and it is unique to man. “Without language,” said Weston LaBarre, an anthropologist who taught at Duke University in the mid-1900s, “it is safe to say man would never have become fully human.”

Two million years ago the age of the dinosaurs was long past, and mammals were the most successful class of animals on earth. They bore live young, which the mother suckled and protected for months after birth. Many different species of mammals evolved to take advantage of the multitude of habitats on earth. The ancestors of the lion, elephant and rhinoceros were all represented, and among the smaller animals were the ancestors of the horse, wolf, cow, pig and deer.

Man's earliest ancestor was there as well. He was a creature living near water on the forest fringes, one who could stand upright and make simple tools from the stones around him. The earth's oceans and land areas had assumed roughly their present forms. Forests covered almost the entire land surface, thinned in places by forest fires started by lightning, and giving way to savanna on poorer soil.

Homo erectus began evolving in Africa about 1,800,000 years ago. Homo erectus would have had a striking resemblance to modern humans, but with a brain only about seventy-four percent of the size. His forehead was less sloping, and his teeth were smaller. By this time there were a number of sub-species of man, or “hominids.” Most scientists agree that, at this point, the ancestors of man were walking upright, living on the edges of the forest, and eating plant food, fruit and small animals. These vulnerable-looking primates had one other unusual charac­teristic: they used tools. For example, they didn’t cut up their meat with their teeth and claws as other animals did, but by using the edges of sharpened stones.

Homo erectus began migrating out of Africa about one million years ago. His descendants formed separate populations in Africa, Europe and Asia. Isolated by geography, each population evolved independently, but occasional interbreeding insured a steady exchange of genes across regions. The result: separate populations of modern humans, each with distinct physical features.

To modern eyes Homo erectus would have appeared ugly; his jaw was heavy and chinless, with large teeth, and his low forehead swept back from heavy, over­hanging brows. Remains found in one of the best-known Homo erectus sites in a cave near Peking in China show that Homo erectus hunted and killed elephant, rhinoceros, horse, bison, water-buffalo, camel, wild boar, sheep, deer and antelope.

The pursuit of such large game required cunning and intelligence, which meant that the brain of early man had increased in size and complexity. Early man, hunting on his own, could stalk and over­whelm small game, but to bring down larger animals he had learned to hunt in groups. This meant a degree of discipline, along with efficient ways of signaling and coordinating the hunt, as well as other activities.

By this time Homo erectus had probably started to speak. The wonder of human language is transcended only by the enigma of its origin. Scientists have found no example of speech in the highest primates. No anthropoid ape has ever en­larged its range of sounds or given a denotative name to anything. No talking bird has ever improvised a novel combination of the words it knows, on the other hand, no human child has ever developed speech instinctively when reared in isolation. Animals cannot be taught to talk, and children must be taught. It is clear that language is acquired only by human beings born into a linguistic community. Every community of man on earth today, no matter how primitive its way of life, has a fully evolved language system.

It was probably at this time in his history as well that the male of the species developed his role as the hunter, while women probably stayed nearer home gathering plant foods, partly because the adult women were preoccupied with bearing and rearing children. Also, women had probably evolved to the stage at which they became sexually receptive most of the time; this in contrast to female primates who were receptive only annually.

This is not to say that other mammals do not communicate in some way. Wolves, for example, hunt in packs. The musk ox herd works together to surround its weaker members when danger is apparent. The bottle-nosed dolphin or por­poise, with a brain one third larger than man's and equally complex, manifests its high intelli­gence in many ways. The dolphin's communication system is extremely intricate. The sounds it makes are produced in several ways, and range from tones as low as a bass violin to a supersonic pitch of 200,000 cycles, far above the limits of human hearing. Whales have a similar system of communicating. Nevertheless, these, and all other means of communication in the animal world, are inherited. Only man has the capacity for learned speech.


The following timeline is broken down in the usually accepted “stages” of human speech evolution and growth in England and Scotland:

500,000-350,000 years ago: Neanderthal man (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), a now extinct sub-species of modern humans, appeared in Europe. This species of early man was so named because of fossils first discovered in 1857 in a cave in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany. By modern standards, Neanderthal man looked brutish. He had overhanging brows, and his upper jaw jutted for­ward while the lower jaw was heavy and chinless and contained large teeth. His limb bones suggest that he was heavily built, but his brain was as large as modern man, and he could speak.

200,000 years ago: Modern humans, or Homo sapiens, began to evolve as a completely new species in Africa with technologies not unlike those of the Neanderthals. It is now clear that early Homo sapiens, or modern humans, did not come after the Neanderthals but were their contemporaries.

130,000-70,000 BC: During the last interglacial period there were times when the climate in Europe was warmer than it is today, and after the Neanderthals came to prominence there was another mild spell around 40,000 BC. Neanderthal sites have been found in the south of England, and it is possible that early humans made their way north into Scotland, though no traces have been found.

About 100,000 years ago modern humans began to migrate into the rest of the world from Africa. Instead of general interbreeding with other sub-species of Homo erectus, modern humans replaced them, presumably driving all other human tenants on Earth to extinction. By this time human speech, of course, had evolved way beyond the primitive grunts and snorts of Homo erectus. However, genetic evidence published in 2010 suggests Neanderthals did contribute some DNA to anatomically modern humans, probably through peripheral interbreeding between Neanderthals and the earliest humans that dispersed out of Africa.

Around 7,000 BC the first Mesolithic people began arriving in mainland Scotland, probably moving north from England, eventually into all of Scotland, but mostly on the coasts. This was probably the least violent period in Scotland’s history. There was no one there for them to fight, otherwise it would, no doubt, have been a different story entirely. These hunter gatherers had crossed the English Channel from France during the last ice age when much of the world’s oceans were tied up in ice sheets. Sea levels were so much lower that they could actually walk from France to England. Just over twenty years ago a discovery at Kinloch, on the Island of Rum, proved to be the earliest human site yet unearthed in Scotland. It is the oldest Mesolithic (middle Stone Age) site yet discovered, dating back nearly 9,000 years. They had no written language, so linguists have no way of knowing how they verbally communicated.

The life of pre­historic man in Britain is described by Sir Winston Church­ill in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples in a single sentence: “Evidently, for prolonged, almost motionless pe­riods, men and women, naked or wrapped in the skins of animals, prowled about the primeval forests and plashed through wide marshes, hunting each other and other wild beasts, cheered by the songs of innumerable birds." Of their language, nothing is known.

5000 BC: The first intruders, after the Mesolithic people, were the Iberians, a people of Neolithic culture who came up from the Mediterranean area some­time after 5000 BC and settled in the British Isles, swiftly obliterating and replacing the peaceful Mesolithic people they found there. Un­like their nomadic predecessors, the Iberians lived in stilt-houses driven into the soft margins of lake shores and in marshes and fens. They knew how to weave and make pottery, and they buried their dead beneath mounds. They were a dark people, and it is thought that traces of their line may be seen occasionally today in, strikingly dark-haired individuals in the populations of Ireland and Wales. Some scholars believe too that a remnant of their lan­guage still lingers on in Basque, a tongue unrelated to any other known on earth, and spoken now only in a tiny lin­guistic enclave in the Spanish Pyrenees.

750 BC- 500 BC: The long process of creating the historic seedbed of the English language actually began with the arrival of the first Indo-European elements from the continent. The Celts, on their ten-thousand-mile/ten-thousand- year journey from the Indian sub-continent had finally begun to cross the Irish Sea into Argyll. More sophisticated than the resident aboriginal Highlanders, they probably quickly eliminated the males and absorbed the females, in the process strengthening their gene pool and reinforcing the tribal system.

These early pagan Celtic invaders may have also established primitive rudiments of a kingdom. They were, without doubt, one of the dual cores of the current Highland people. They reigned supreme in the Highlands for more than a thousand years, all during the Iron Age and into the early Dark Ages.

The Celts were the first invaders of historic times, and the first whose language is still known today. They crossed the Channel in three main waves. The first to arrive were the Goidels or Gaels, who ultimately settled, under the pressure of later invaders, in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. They spoke Goidelic, an early form of Gaelic. Their language survives today in Irish, Scots Gaelic (Erse), and Manx.

In their wake came the Cymric or Brythonic Celts, who occupied England for the better part of a millennium before the Anglo-Saxons drove them into the mountains of Wales and the peninsular refuges of Cornwall and Brittany. The language spoken by these Celts was appropriately called old Celtic. Philogists (those who study historic literary texts) have shown that the Celtic language spoken by the first century AD was descended from the original Ur-language which had roots in Ur, an important Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, and was one of the early forms of the Indo-European language tradition. In fact, this form of old Celtic was a close cousin to Italic, the precursor of Latin and all of the later Romance languages. Their original speech survives in Welsh, Breton, and in the Cornish dialect. There are also Breton speakers on Cape Breton Island in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

The last of the three invading Celtic waves was the Belgae in the first century BC. The Belgae were a group of Gallo-Germanic tribes living in northern Gaul, between the English Channel and the west bank of the Rhine. The Belgae gave their name to the Roman province of Gallia Belgica, and very much later, to the modern country of Belgium.

55BC: The Belgae, as noted above, was the most active and enlightened group of the Celtic invaders. Horse­men and charioteers, they spread swiftly over the southern and eastern parts of the island. They had fought Caesar in Gaul, and Caesar found them waiting for him when he first landed on a British beach in 55 BC. Their resistance was so fierce that Caesar withdrew back to the Continent.


But enough about our prehistoric ancestors; let’s review how the English language actually came to be. It is really a fascinating story, one that is continuing, and will continue well into the future.

43-449 AD: This is the period that the Roman Empire occupied Britain. From the accounts of the Roman occupiers, and by later classical authors, it is known that by the fourth century AD the predominant people in northern Scotland were referred to as “Picts.” In fact, the term “Picti,” meaning “painted people,” which was used by the Romans, was mostly likely just a nickname used to describe the people who lived north of Hadrian’s Wall. It most likely referred to the Pictish custom of tattooing their bodies and decorating themselves with “war paint.”

Before the Romans arrived in Britain, these northern peoples were probably fragmented tribes who spent much of the time fighting each other. The Roman threat from the south, however, appears to have forced them to create some alliances in order to counteract the Roman move north. This allowed the tribes to resist the continental invaders as well as take advantage of the opportunity for plunder using guerilla tactics. By the time the Roman Empire abandoned Britannia in the fifth century AD, the northern tribes had begun to form into what would later become the Pictish Kingdom.

Throughout history, the Picts have been described as shadowy, mysterious figures. They were regarded as savage warriors by the Romans, and when the Vikings arrived they were the subjects of many of the Norse sagas and histories. Early scholars had many theories about their origin, although these days it is generally accepted that the Picts were not, as once believed, a new race, but were simply the combined descendants of the Celt invaders and the indigenous Iron Age peoples of northern Scotland.

But, since the Picts themselves kept no written records of their lifestyles, beliefs or heritage, their language has now all but disappeared. The only sources that can give vague clues as to its nature are some of the carved inscriptions they left, place-names and certain accounts of Pictish names written by external sources at the time.

For a full century before the departure of the Roman le­gions from Britain there were premonitions of bad times ahead. Even though the citizenry had become accustomed to the easy life under the Roman occupation, with the coun­try at peace, the mood of the people was one of unease. Since 127 AD Hadrian's Wall, a stone rampart seventy-three miles long, studded with seventeen forts and 150 sig­nal towers, protected in front by a thirty-foot ditch, and manned for its entire length by nearly 20,000 soldiers, had successfully shielded the lush lands of southern Eng­land from the barbarians in the north. But around 300 the pressures behind the wall increased. The wild Picts of the Scottish Highlands periodically broke through its defenses, demolish­ing whole sections of the barrier and annihilating local garrisons. Along with these incursions the Irish raiders periodically crossed the Irish Sea to pillage the western shores of Britain.

But most ominous of all were the Saxons – the first of the Teutonic tribes that would ultimately conquer Britain – who crossed the North Sea in their long boats and began to harry and devastate the eastern coast from the Tyne to the Straits of Dover. A new front was thus added to the military burden of the Roman legions and their British auxiliaries. To meet the new danger, a line of fortresses was built along the eastern and southern coasts. For a time these fortresses, serving as bases for a combined British-Roman fleet, held the Saxons at bay. But as the decades passed, the power and frequency of the raids increased. In the year 367 an alliance of Picts, Irish, and Saxons attacked simultaneously, breached the defenses on every front, and looted and laid waste the countryside.

Again and again the imperial government in Rome sent reinforcements and new generals to defend its remote prov­ince. But the Empire as a whole had already begun to crumble from within. Its political and financial foundations were tottering, its urban trade and in­dustry were in a state of chaos, and its famous highroads were infested with bandits and were unsafe for traffic and com­munications. Plus, on every frontier hordes of barbarians beat at the gates of the Roman world. Erupting across the Rhine and the Danube, the Goths, Burgundians, and Vandals overran all of northern and central Europe down to the very heart of the Empire, the Italian peninsula itself.

By the early 400s the Romans, who had controlled England for centuries, had begun to drawn their troops, as well as some of their colonists. Attacks from the Irish, the Picts from Scotland, the native Britons, as well as Germanic tribes from across the North Sea, plus the deteriorating situation in the rest of the Roman Empire, made the retreat a strategic necessity. Beginning in 436 Britain was actively being stripped of its defenses, and in the course of this the ranks of the remaining legions were also weakened by defections, revolts, and mutinies. By the year 449 the last of the Roman legions, all trained British auxiliaries, as well as all Roman colonists, had been withdrawn from the island.

Except for a few local volunteers, the great northern Wall was left unmanned. The Britons, facing invasion and raids from several sources, dispatched a final desperate appeal to Rome. The Emperor Honorius, be­leaguered by invaders at his own threshold, sent his reply, the last offi­cial message Britannia would ever receive from the Imperial Government: “The cantons should take steps to defend themselves.”

As the Romans withdrew, the Britons re-established themselves in the western parts of England, and the Germanic tribes began to settle the eastern parts of Britain by the middle 400s.


449: The Roman withdrawal was complete, and the settlement of Britain by the Germanic invaders began in earnest. The history of the English language really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the fifth century AD. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that time most of the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language dialect. But most of the Celtic speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders, mainly into what is now Wales, Ireland and southern Scotland.

The invaders spoke similar languages, which in Britain developed into what is now called Old English. Old English didn’t sound or look like English today, and all modern native English speakers, if suddenly transported back to those times, would have great difficulty understanding it. Nevertheless, about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots, which was spoken until around 1100.

450-1066: The language we now call English is actually a blend of many languages. Even the original Anglo-Saxon tongue was already a blend of the dialects of Germanic tribes living along the North Sea coast. The primary ones were:  The Saxons in Germany and eastern Holland, the Jutes, possibly from northern Denmark (the area now called Jutland), and the Angles, probably living along the coast and on islands between Denmark and Holland. The Angles came from "Englaland" and their language was called "Englisc" – from which, obviously, the words "England" and "English" are derived. It is thought that the dialects were close enough for each to understand the other.

Later, in the 800s, the Northmen (Vikings) – mostly from Denmark – first began raiding, and then settled in with the Anglo-Saxons from Yorkshire to Norfolk, an area that became known as the Danelaw. Others from Norway ruled over the people in the northwest, from Strathclyde to the north of Wales. The Norse language they spoke resembled Anglo-Saxon in many ways, but was different enough for two things to happen:  One, there were many Old Norse words that were absorbed into English. Two, the complex conjugations and declensions began to wither away as people disagreed about which to use.


In 1066 William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England, and changed the whole course of the English language. This began the period of Middle English (1100-1400). Although, as their name suggests, the Normans were descendants of the same north-men that had invaded England earlier, they had been settled long enough in Normandy in the north of France to adopt a dialect of French. They brought this Norman French with them to England and kept it as the language of their newly imposed aristocracy. In the day-to-day need to communicate, the common language became English, but with a large number of French words, and still more withering of grammatical complexities.

It should be noted that most Scottish noblemen – like their English counterparts – were much influenced by the Normans. Many learned French, and it was common for them to use the Norman form of spelling for family surnames. My own ancestor was no exception. Though his roots were in the Irving/Irvine Clan in Dumphries, he chose to be known as William de Irwyn.

The Middle English period was marked by momentous changes in the English language, changes more extensive and fundamental than those that have taken place at any time before or since. Some of them were the result of the Norman Conquest and the conditions which followed in the wake of that event. Others were a continuation of tendencies that had begun to manifest themselves in Old English. These would have gone on even without the Conquest, but took place more rapidly because the Norman invasion removed from English those conservative influences that are always felt when a language is extensively used in books and is spoken by an influential educated class. For a period there was a kind of linguistic class division, where the lower classes spoke English and the upper classes spoke French. In the fourteenth century English became dominant in Britain again, but with many French words added.

1348: English replaces Latin as the medium of instruction in schools, other than Oxford and Cambridge which retain Latin.

1362: English replaces French as the language of law. English is used in Parliament for the first time.

c.1388: Chaucer starts writing The Canterbury Tales in English.

c.1400: The Great Vowel Shift begins. This was a major change in the pronunciation of the English language that took place in England between c.1400 and 1700. The Great Vowel Shift was first studied by Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), a Danish linguist and Anglicist (one who studies the English language), who coined the term. Because English spelling was becoming standardized in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Great Vowel Shift is responsible for many of the peculiarities of English spelling.


1476-1800: This is considered to be the Early Modern English period, and at the beginning fewer than five million people in the world spoke English, as compared to twelve million speakers of French, ten million of German, and eight million of Spanish.

During the next two centuries English authors, such as More, Tyndale, Milton, Newton, Locke, and Dryden, had a tremendous effect on the evolution of English. At its center was Elizabethan English, the language of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bacon, Donne, Raleigh, Spenser, and the queen herself. From this stage of linguistic development came the earliest varieties of American English. By 1700 the number of English speak­ers had nearly doubled, while German, Italian, and Spanish had scarcely maintained their numbers of two centuries earlier, and only French surpassed the growth rate of Eng­lish among the western European nations.

From the sixteenth century the British had contact with many peoples from around the world. This, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of the printing press by William Caxton in 1476 also meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard. It was about this time also that there was a rapid spread of popular education, as well as the growth of what may be called social consciousness.

As an emergent world language, English advanced with the spread of the London Standard and general edu­cation, with the loosening of class distinctions, and through the influence of what would today be called the mass me­dia. By the year 1500 printed books in all of Europe in­cluded thirty-five thousand titles, most of which were in Latin. During the next 140 years twenty thousand English titles ap­peared in print, and the hand-writing of manuscripts be­came virtually a lost art. England regained its cultural self-reliance with those new sources of influence and the spread of empire.

1564: Shakespeare is born. During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) a lan­guage pattern developed that was to become the base form of early American English. London usage reflected the lin­guistic patriotism of the English Renaissance and accepted forms from a variety of regional and social dialects in the development of a spoken standard.

1604: Table Alphabeticall, the first English dictionary, is published by Robert Cawdrey in London. Although the work is important in being the first collection of its kind, it was never deemed a particularly useful work. At only 120 pages, it listed 2,543 words along with very brief (often single-word) definitions. In most cases, it was little more than a list of synonyms. It’s claimed purpose was “for the benefit and helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or other unskillful persons.” The words chosen were quite arbitrary and often obscure. Within a few decades, many other English dictionaries followed.

1702: The first daily English-language newspaper, The Daily Courant, is published in London, and was one of the world's first regular daily newspapers. It was first published on March 11, 1702 by Edward Mallet from his premises “against the Ditch at Fleet Bridge.” The paper lasted until 1735 when it was merged with the Daily Gazetteer.

1755: Samuel Johnson publishes his English dictionary. After nine years of work, Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. It had a far-reaching effect on Modern English and has been described as "one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship." This work brought Johnson popularity and success, and until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later, his work was viewed as the pre-eminent British dictionary.


1800-Present: Linguists have arbitrarily placed 1800 as the beginning of the Late Modern English period. The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary – pronunciation, grammar and spelling having remained largely the same. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: first, the Industrial Revolution and the resulting technology created a need for new words; and second, the British Empire, which at its height covered one quarter of the earth's surface, resulting in the English language adopting countless foreign words from many cultures.

English since then has been absorbing vocabulary from a huge number of sources: French, the language of diplomacy for Europe for centuries; Latin, the language of the church, and Greek, the language of philosophy and science. Many other European languages have contributed culturally specific words. The American Indian languages, Australian Aborigine languages, and the languages of Africa and India gave us many hundreds of words, especially for the innumerable species of plants and animals of the world. On top of all this, there is the steady creation of new words, and new uses for old words by the many subcultures of the English speaking world.

A century of world wars, technological transformation, and globalization caused the language to grow and expand, and it continues to grow, expanding to incorporate new jargons, slangs, technologies, toys, foods and gadgets. It is in this century that we get doodlebugs, gasmasks, gobstoppers, mini-skirts and rockers. We enjoy cappuccino, chicken masala and pizzerias. We talk of weirdoes and wackos, and we are addicted to TV, websites, cyber-cafes, I-phones and compact discs.

Languages evolve and diversify over time, and the history of their evolution can be reconstructed by comparing modern languages to determine which traits their ancestral languages must have had for the later stages to have occurred. A group of languages that descend from a common ancestor is known as a language family. The languages that are most spoken in the world today belong to the Indo-European family, which includes languages such as English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Hindi; the Sino-Tibetan languages, which include Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean and many others; Semitic languages, which include Arabic, Amharic and Hebrew; and the Bantu languages, which include Swahili, Zulu, Shona and hundreds of other languages spoken throughout Africa. The general consensus is that between 50 to 90% of languages spoken today will probably have become extinct by the year 2100.

Today around 500 million people speak English as a first language, with an additional 580 million or so speaking it as an additional language. English is written, spoken, broadcast, and under­stood on every continent, and it can claim a wider geo­graphical range than any other tongue. There are few civ­ilized areas where it has any competition as the lingua franca – the international language of commerce, diplo­macy, science, and scholarship. It is spoken by Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and adherents of every major religious faith on earth.

The end of WW2, and the emergence of the United States and her British Commonwealth allies as victors, propelled English on the road to becoming an international language. But what makes English the international language? It is the official language of the United Nations and aviation. It’s now the most widely used language in science and on the Internet. If two non-native speakers want to communicate, it's likely they'll do so in English.


But getting back to the subject of this discussion… Why do Scots speak English? Well, as it turns out, that’s a long story. Actually, the question should be: Why do about 98.5 percent speak English, for although there are still a few older people in Scotland who speak another tongue as a first language, and little or no English, they are – as a group – dying off rapidly. The majority of Scotland's people speak English as consequence of England's political and cultural domination during the last 300 to 400 years. However, in order to understand why English is the primary language of Scotland one must have a basic understanding of how English evolved in Britain, Scotland and Ireland during the last two thousand years or so.

The Celts: Nothing would seem more reasonable than to expect that the conquest of the Celtic population of Britain by the Germanic tribes, and the subsequent mixture of the two races, should have resulted in a corresponding mixture of their languages. But apart from place names, only a microscopic sample of Celtic words lingered on in the English tongue as it evolved during the first mil­lennium of its history. Among the few Celtic words of ancient origin still uttered today by English-speaking peo­ple are bin, crag, curse, dun (the color), and possibly ass, which is believed to be a Celtic contraction of the Latin asinus. Such familiar and transparently Celtic words as whiskey, clan, shillelagh, brogue, bog, and bard are recent importations, borrowed from the Irish and Scots in modern times.

For the most part Celtic words survive in place names, especially those of rivers. The Thames was named by the Celts. The Cam perpetuates the Celtic word for "crooked." The Dee means "Holy," and Aberdeen means "Mouth of the Dee." The Avon, the Esk, the Exe, and the Stour are various Celtic words meaning just "water." Other English rivers that have retained their original Celtic names include the Aire, the Derwent, the Ouse, the Severn, the Tees, the Trent, and the Wye.

The reason that so few old Celtic words were absorbed into the body of the English language is that the Celts were the first people to be dispossessed in the turbulent millen­nium of invasions and successions between the Roman and the Norman conquests. Almost invariably a dominant cul­ture imparts its language to the inferior population it has mastered. To the Romans the Celts were definitely inferior, and throughout the Roman occupation (43-449 AD), Latin was the language of law, commerce, and government. It also became a second language for the upper-class Celts, much as French became the language of the aristocracy in Germany and Russia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When Christians began to convert Britain during the third century ad, Latin was, of course, the language of the Church.

Although it is not surprising that the Romans borrowed little, if anything, from the Celts, it is surprising that they themselves left so little imprint on the speech of Britain at the time. For in Gaul and in Spain the influence of Latin had been extreme, altering their languages forever. Also, in a material way, the Romans had transformed the entire land of England, and even the Borders area of Scotland south of Hadrian's Wall. The ruins of their fortifications, temples, villas, baths, and, most of all, their elaborate road system attest to the extent of their enterprise and to the benefits the Pax Romana brought to a previously barbaric people.

So thoroughly did the Romans mold and civilize the Eng­lish Celts that for many years after the withdrawal of the Roman legions the upper class inhabitants still proudly referred to them­selves as Romani, and referred to Latin as “our language.” Yet linguistic scholars can find only the barest sprinkling of Latin words, other than the elements of place names, which were absorbed into the English lexicon as a direct result of the Roman occupation. Quite a few Latin words were subsequently brought to England by the invading Anglo-Saxon tribes, who had learned them through their contacts with Roman legionaries and merchants on the European continent. Most of these, however, pertain to trade or domestic life: e.g. vinum (wine), cuppa (cup), caseus (cheese), discus (dish), mentha (mint), catillus (kettle), unio (onion). Among the few English words whose lineage can be traced directly and un­interruptedly back to the Roman occupation are port and portal from the Latin portus and porta (meaning "harbor" or "gate"); and mountain from the Latin mons. The Latin word castra (camp), became ceaster, meaning a town or enclosed community, and now forms a familiar element in such place-names as Winchester, Manchester, Lancaster, Gloucester and Worcester. But the many thousands of Latin words that today compose half of the English vocabulary made their way into our language centuries later during the Renaissance.


The English Language in Scotland, 325-1066: Near the latter part of the fifth century AD a tribe of Gaelic Scotti from the northern part of Ireland migrated to southwestern Scotland and gave their name first to a part, then to all, of the peninsula north of the Tweed. Three other peoples contested the possession of this area: the Picts, a Celtic tribe, established above the Firth of Forth; the Britons, refugees from the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, settled between the River Derwent and the Firth of Clyde; and the Angles, or “Inglish,” between the River Tyne and the Firth of Forth. From all of these the Scottish nation was eventually formed: English in speech, Christian in religion, as fiery and ready to fight as the Irish, as practical as the English, and as subtle and imaginative as any Celt.

Like the Irish, the Scots were reluctant to relinquish their kinship organiza­tion and thus replace their clan allegiance to the state. The intensity of their class conflicts was rivaled only by their proud loyalty to their clan, and their tenacious resist­ance to foreign foes. The Roman legions failed to conquer them; on the contrary, neither Hadrian's Wall between the Solway and the Tyne (120 AD), or that of Antoninus Pius sixty miles farther north between the firths of Forth and Clyde (140) totally protected the Romans from sporadic skirmishes and raiding parties by the Highlanders. The campaigns of Septimius Severus (208) and Theodosius (368) were aggressive but failed to totally end the periodic invasions south into Britain by the Picts.

In 617, almost two hundred years after the Romans had abandoned Britain, the Saxons under Edwin, King of Northumbria, captured the hill stronghold of the Picts, and named it Edwinburgh, later shortened to Edinburgh. In 844 Kenneth MacAlpin united the Picts and Scots under his crown, and in 954 the tribes recap­tured Edinburgh, and made it their capital.

In 1018 Malcolm II conquered Lothian (the region north of the Tweed), and merged it with the realm of the Picts and Scots. Celtic supremacy seemed assured, but the Danish inva­sions of England drove thousands of “English” into southern Scotland. Over time several generations of changing demographics left a strong Anglo-Saxon element in Scottish blood and speech, at least in southern Scotland.

Duncan I (r.1034-1040) gathered all four peoples – Picts, Scots, Celtic Brit­ish, and Anglo-Saxons – into one Kingdom of Scotland. Duncan's defeat by the English at Durham gave an opening to his general Macbeth, who claimed the throne because his wife Gruoch was the granddaughter of Kenneth III. Mac­beth murdered Duncan (1040), reigned for seventeen years, and was murdered by Duncan's son Malcolm III. Of seventeen kings who ruled Scotland from 844 to 1057, twelve died by assassination. It was a violent age of bitter struggle for food and water, freedom and power.

In those harsh years Scot­land had little time for the frills and graces of civilization, and three centuries were to pass before Scottish literature would begin to be seen. Norse raiders captured the Orkney Islands, the Faroes, the Shetlands, and the Hebrides, and Scot­land lived under the threat of conquest by the Vikings who were spreading their terror over the Western world. Nevertheless, at the end of this period the predominant culture, as well as the spoken tongue, was that of the Gaelic Scots.


Gaelic: A thousand years ago the majority of the Scottish population spoke Gaelic. Medieval Gaelic literature tells us that the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata emerged in western Scotland during the sixth century. Dál Riata grew in size and influence, and the Gaelic language and culture was eventually adopted by the neighboring Picts who lived throughout Scotland. Manx, the Gaelic language of the Isle of Man, is closely related to the Irish Gaelic spoken in northeast and eastern Ireland, and the now extinct Gaelic of Galloway (in southwest Scotland).

Great Britain was established in 1707 as the result of the Act of Union, but the Highland clans did not accept English rule gracefully. In fact, most of the clan chiefs refused to recognize and acknowledge the union, even though the new King of England and Scotland was actually their own previous Scottish king.

The Highlanders and their traditions suffered serious setbacks after being defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. There were a number of actions by the London government: clanship was to be stamped out; the Highlanders were to be disarmed; but perhaps the most grievous was outlawing of the Gaelic tongue. However, since only the richest Highlanders attended schools and universities a rapid change of demographics was not possible. 

The Highland Clearances, on the other hand, was more effective. This was the forced displacement of a significant number of people from the Scottish Highlands during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was caused not by the government, but was carried out by hereditary aristocratic landowners who arbitrarily changed land use practices. The changes were seen to be supported by the government, who gave financial aid for roads and bridges to assist the new sheep-based agriculture and trade.

The result was mass forced emigration to the sea coast, the Scottish Lowlands and the North American colonies. The clearances were particularly notorious as a result of the late timing, the lack of legal protection for year-by-year tenants under Scots law, the abruptness of the change from the traditional clan system, and the brutality of many evictions. The resulting forced integration of Gaelic speakers into other more active cultures resulted – over time – to the decline of the Gaelic tongue.

Currently the language has been largely reduced to the Highlands, some of the Outer Islands, and around one thousand speakers in the Canadian Province of Nova Scotia. It is estimated by the latest government census that the population of Scotland is a little over five million. Of this about 1.16 percent claimed some ability to speak Gaelic, down from 1.5 percent a decade previously. Almost all of those who claimed some fluency of Gaelic were older people. Even so, Gaelic has left its mark across the whole of Scotland and its influence can be seen in Scottish place names, the names of mountains, on official buildings and on bilingual road signs on the west coast and the outer islands.

Gaelic is one of the many endangered languages in the world today, but during the last ten years there has been some interest in Scotland for its revival. This is directly connected to a movement to instigate a growing awareness, and a creation of, a separate Scottish identity. Part of the strategy is an attempt to put in place the teaching of limited Gaelic, along with English, in Scottish pre-schools and kindergartens. Together with the tartan, whisky and bagpipes, Gaelic is part of the romantic Scottish myth, and most Scots believe it is Scotland's aboriginal Celtic language, thus enjoying a high cultural status.

However, Gaelic – like Icelandic and Hungarian – is extremely difficult for non-natives to learn to speak and comprehend. It is also of limited practical value in today’s global economy. The largest problem for Gaelic is the emigration from the Highlands and Islands where the language still survives. Young people move from already shrinking Gaelic speaking areas for education and work, and most don't return. Gaelic organizations are therefore trying to develop local opportunities for work and education where command of Gaelic would be an asset. As a result of their collective efforts the Gaelic Language Act (Scotland) was passed in 2005, which gave official recognition to the language and established an official language development body.


Northumbrian Old English had been established in southeastern Scotland as far as the River Forth in the seventh century and largely remained there until the thirteen century. This is why, in the late twelfth century Adam of Dryburgh, a late twelfth and early thirteenth century Anglo-Scottish theologian, described his locality as “…in the land of the English in the Kingdom of the Scots,” and why the early thirteenth century author of de Situ Albanie wrote that the Firth of Forth “divides the kingdoms of the Scots and of the English.”

Political developments in the twelfth century helped the spread of the English language. Institutions such as the burghs, first established by David I of Scotland (r.1124-1153), mostly in the south and east of Scotland, brought new communities into the areas in which they were established. Incoming landowners were mainly English, Dutch and French. Although the military aristocracy employed French and Gaelic, these small urban communities appear to have been using English as something more than a bridge language by the end of the thirteenth century, although this may not be surprising as the area under the Forth in east lowland Scotland was already English speaking, and had been since Anglo-Saxon times. Although the population of the largest towns would have been counted in hundreds rather than thousands, a radical social shift occurred whereby many Gaelic-speakers became assimilated into the new social system and its language.


Middle English literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is comparatively rare, as written communication was usually in Anglo-Norman or in Medieval Latin. Middle English became much more important as a literary language during the fourteenth century, with poets such as Chaucer and Langland using it in their literary works.

By the early sixteenth century the dialects of northern Middle English, also known as Early Scots – which had developed in Lothian and had come to be spoken elsewhere in the Kingdom of Scotland – had appropriated the name Scots. By the seventeenth century Gaelic speakers were limited largely to the Highlands and the Hebrides.

Furthermore, the culturally repressive measures taken against the rebellious Highland communities by the British crown following the Second Jacobite Rebellion of 1746 caused still further decline in the language's use – to a large extent by enforced emigration. Even more decline followed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


The Scots Language: Many people have heard about the Scots language but aren’t sure what it is. Scots has been spoken in Scotland for several centuries and is found today throughout the Lowlands and Northern Isles. Scots is a Germanic language closely related to English and spoken by about 1.5 million people in Scotland. It is descended from the language of the Angles who settled in northern Britain in the fifth century AD in an area now known as Northumbria, as well as the Lowlands and the Border areas of Scotland. The language was originally known as “Inglis” and has been influenced by Gaelic, Norse, Latin, Dutch, Norman French, Standard French and English. During the Middle Ages this language developed and grew apart from its sister tongue in England, until a distinct Scots language had evolved. At one time Scots was the national language of Scotland, spoken by Scottish kings, and was used to write the official records of the country.

Students of the Middle English period have tradition­ally focused on the dialect situation in England, and especially on those areas in which the standard lan­guage was later to develop. This has led to a neglect of what was taking place in Scotland at the time, where the language was being influenced by a different set of factors, and developing its own distinc­tive character.

From the outset, the region had its own linguistic history. After the fifth-century invasions, what is now the northeast of England and the southeast of Scot­land came to be occupied by the Angles, which led to the emergence of the Northumbrian dialect of Old English. During the Anglo-Saxon period, most of Scotland was Celtic-speaking (chiefly the variety known as Gaelic), but the number of English speakers in the southern part of the country increased a great deal in the eleventh century following the Norman Conquest. Many English noblemen became refugees and fled north where they were welcomed by the Scots King Malcolm Canmore (r.1058-1093). During the twelfth century the movement north continued, with southern families being invited by King David 1 to settle. The majority settled in the larger towns, such as Aberdeen and Edinburgh. These places were largely English-speaking, and gradually English spread through the whole lowlands area, with Gaelic remain­ing in the Highlands.

The English calendar replaced the Celtic one, and the Anglo-Norman feudal system replaced traditional patterns of land holding. Eventually, French became the language of the Scot­tish court. As in England, Latin was used for administration and in the Church until the mid-fourteenth century.

Scots English became increasingly different from the English used in England, especially in pro­nunciation and vocabulary, and many of these differ­ences are still found today.


By the fourteenth century Scots was the main language of Scotland and was used in literature, education, government and in legal documents. However, when Great Britain came to be established in 1707 Scotland's government essentially moved to London, and the Scots tongue lost its political status to English. Even so, the vast majority of people continued to speak Scots, except, of course, the belligerent and stubborn Highlanders who continued to speak Gaelic. English also began to replace Scots as the main written language in Scotland.

For several centuries – until the beginning of the 1980s – Scottish children were under threat of corporal punishment for speaking Scots in school. From having been an independent language used by people on all social levels Scots had declined to the status of being considered a dialect of English; and more than that, a dialect used by ignorant peasants, fishing folk and laborers. As recently as 1993 a man was arrested in Scotland for contempt of court for having spoken Scots in court proceedings.

Even so, the Scots tongue today is spoken by old and young alike and can be heard in both cities and country areas. Many Scottish people have a strong emotional attachment to the language and often feel most comfortable using it among their family and friends. Because the Scots language was for a long time discouraged by government and schools, many people who speak Scots will speak differently when talking to strangers or in formal situations, by mixing their language with English.

Scots was the language used by Robert Burns to write much of his poetry, and today Scots is still used by many poets and writers, but the places one is most likely to encounter it are in people's homes, in the streets, and in the everyday life of communities. At the present time there are no Scots-medium programs, but one can hear varying degrees of Scots used in TV programs, or hear it spoken on radio talk shows, interviews, or used for e-mails and text messages.

In 1983 a Scots translation of the New Testament was published, and in 1985 SNDA's Concise Scots Dictionary was also published, but since the 1990s there has been limited use of Scots in education, the media and in literature.

Scots is also known as Doric, Scotch or Lallans. Some people classify it as a dialect of English, and while it is closely related to English dialects spoken in Northumbria, it has had its own literary tradition since the fourteenth century. Today there is a range of speech from broad Scots to Scottish Standard English, and many people switch between different parts depending on circumstances.

The United Kingdom government accepts Scots as a regional language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and the Scottish Executive recognizes and respects Scots (in all its forms) as a distinct language, and does not consider the use of Scots to be an indication of poor competence in English.

The most recent British census asked if people spoke Gaelic, but not if they spoke Scots. In the meantime, a government study, conducted in 1996, has shown that it perhaps as much as thirty percent of the population, or about 1.5 million people may have a working knowledge of Scots. Furthermore, Scots has far more speakers than has Gaelic – probably twenty times more – but is oftentimes much harder to recognize, indeed even among Scottish people themselves, who tend to confuse it with English with a Scottish accent.

The Scots language has virtually none of the resources that are now channeled in the direction of Gaelic. There is no radio or TV broadcasting in Scots, it is not, generally speaking, taught in school, and it is not at all used as an educational medium. However, there is a Scots renaissance underway, led by singers, poets, as well as movie and theater people. But Scots, the language with many speakers and low status, enjoys nowhere near the public support and awareness that is afforded Gaelic, which has far fewer speakers, but at the same time carries far greater symbolic weight.


The bottom line as to why most people in Scotland today speak English rather than Scots or Gaelic can really be concentrated in a few paragraphs:

Scotland, with a population never exceeding five million or so can, in one sense, be compared to the United States, Canada, Brazil and all of the Spanish-speaking countries in North and South America. All of the latter are the result of major Old World colonizing efforts during the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Spain, with a current population of 46 million, is responsible for another 462 million Spanish-speaking people; Portugal, with a current population of only eleven million, spawned 195 million Portuguese speakers in Brazil; the United Kingdom (less Scotland) reportedly has a population of about 59 million, yet, over time, has produced about 365 million English-speakers in North America (US 330 million & Canada 35 million).

All of the former New World Colonies have something in common – the native indigenous peoples were, for the most part, conquered, suppressed and, demographically-speaking, absorbed. The languages and dialects of the native peoples, many times numbering in the hundreds, were – again for the most part – lost to future scholars. Some of the larger native tribes of North America, such as the Navajo, Hopi and Cherokee, have survived and now have a written language, but many of the smaller tribes have vanished or have been absorbed into the white population. The same is true of the rest of North and South America. All of the native peoples, over time, have had to accept the ways, and language, of their most recent conqueror.

Of course one could say that Scotland was never really conquered by the English. In one sense that’s true. The Scots fought the English for centuries, and although they lost battles they were never conquered. Their downfall began in 1603 with the Union of the Crowns. Queen Elizabeth I of England died March 24, 1603. Two weeks after her death King James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England. Although many Scots nobles objected none acted to stop the merging of the two monarchies. Many felt that James had abandoned his people for the greater prestige of being the monarch of a rising world power. He only visited Scotland once from 1603 until his death in 1625.  

After several decades of unrest, during which both the Scots and the English were uncomfortable with the loose alliance, the mood shifted and the Scottish Parliament passed the Act of Security in 1703, and the Act of Union in 1707 which formed the Kingdom of Great Britain, but which also dissolved the Scottish Parliament. Although there were many side-issues on both sides in the interim which prompted the uneasy alliance, what it all boiled down to was that Scotland surrendered its national sovereignty without firing a shot.

It was after this point that English began its rapid growth in Scotland. First, all parliamentarian decrees and declarations, in Scotland as well as England, were issued in English. All legal proclamations statements were written in English. All business issues that involved England in any way had to be printed in English. Soon, in the upper social levels, anyone speaking Gaelic or Scots was considered to be of the “lower class.” Although isolated universities clung to Latin for a time, most converted to English and soon after private and public schools did as well.

It is said that it only takes a generation or two for immigrants to be immersed into the language, culture and mores of their host country. While it is understandable that absorbing an entire country – with a separate language and centuries of accumulated culture – is certainly different, the process is similar. In Scotland’s case three centuries have now passed, and except for small pockets Gaelic and Scots language speakers, Scotland, like the United States, is an English-speaking offshoot of the Mother Country.

And that, Mrs. Clawson, is why the Scots speak English.


Note: Following a referendum in 1997, in which the Scottish electorate gave their consent, a Scottish Parliament was re-established by the Scotland Act 1998. The first meeting of the new Parliament took place on 12 May 1999. Even so, however, the British Parliament retains the ability to amend the terms of reference of the Scottish Parliament, and can extend or reduce the areas in which it can make laws.