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Scots spelling system in Early Modern texts

To follow anglicization and the loss of Scottishness in writing

- By Marcel Bas 

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Scots spelling system
3. The manuscripts and their analysis
3.1 A deposition from 1540
3.2 A text from 1560-61
3.3. A deposition from 1567
3.4. A deposition from 1576
3.5. A memoir from 1601
3.6. A legal report from 1619
3.7. A journal from 1682-4
3.8. A letter by a man in 1684
4. Conclusion
5. Footnotes
6. References

Marcel Bas
Author: Marcel Bas

1. Introduction

In the early modern period (1500-1700) Scottish writers wrote both in Scots and English. It was in this era - particularly after 1603 -- that Scots became gradually associated with popular language, and English with learned language. Reasons for this can be found in religious reforms and bookprinting. Scots and English are closely related, they share a common ancestor (Anglo-Saxon) and today there is some discussion as to whether Scots is a dialect of English or a language in its own right (McArthur 1998:138-142). Indeed, often the distinction between Scots and English is blurred. In the early modern period this was already the case written texts. We will see this in the forthcoming research.

In the spoken language there are many varieties of Scots, each with its own (social) function; today most Scottish speakers use a variety of English with a broad Scots accent, coloured by some Scottish words. In the Scottish Lowlands here are pockets and communities of Scots speakers who use the basilect of a Scots dialect (an estimated 1,5 million people). A basilect is the variety of the dialect which is closest to the original -- Scots -- language or dialect and farthest from RP or the standard language (Trudgill & Hannah 2002: 110, 111, 120).

Most Scots speakers have a range of registers of Scots, Scottish English and Standard English at their disposal, which they mix as a means of code-switching in various social situations. Speakers of a Scots basilect will tend to use the variety of Scottish English that is closest to RP (also known as the 'acrolect') in educated circles or areas outside the Scottish language area, whereas in situations with peers -- in pubs or other leisurely situations - the 'truly Scots' basilect will prevail. In written texts Standard English will prevail too, unless if one consciously attempts to write in Scots, as poets and writers of the present-day Scots revival do, inspired as they are by Robert Burns and Hugh McDiarmid (Crystal 1995: 333). My use of both the words 'Scots' and 'Scottish English' to specify the Germanic language of Scotland here, already indicates that there is a continuum in language use in Scotland where Standard English is on the one end and Scots on the other.

Throughout history Scots has gradually been replaced in educated usage by English (Trudgill & Hannah 2002: 91); the demise of the written national language can be followed by studying texts written as early the 16th century. In the early modern texts we can not only trace the anglicization of Scottish vocabulary, but also of Scottish spelling. I will attempt to demonstrate the character and the use of the Scottish spelling system throughout the early modern period, as described by Manfred Görlach (Görlach 1991: 59). Different than today, Scots was the dominant language in the early modern period. Before the Treaty of Union in 1707 Scots (or Scottis) was generally accepted to be a language in its own right. In 1707 English (Englis) became the language of government and polite society in Scotland. But the demise of Scots as a book language had already begun in the latter half of the 16th century (Görlach 1991: 19). About the gradual demise of Scots and switching from Scots to English and vice versa in the early modern period, Görlach mentions:

Since in EModE times competence in written English was not as common as it is today, and the need to switch from the spoken to the written language and back again was less frequent, it may be assumed that the two subsystems were further apart then than they are in modern speech communities. (Quoted from Görlach 1991: 12)

From this I can safely assume that Scots was losing prestige, while English filled in the gaps. That this had -- and continues to have -- an effect on the command of the Scots language, orally and in writing, is a logical consequence.

The flag of Scotland
The flag of Scotland

2. The Scots spelling system

This section will focus on the Scots spelling system of the early modern period. In this period, Scots was a full-fledged language with a distinctive spelling of its own that dated back to Middle Scots (Barber 2000: 172). It was the spelling already used by the Middle Scots 'Chaucerians' such as Robert Henryson (c. 1430-c. 1506). By the time the early modern period begun (around 1500), the spelling system had already undergone its first vowelshift (Barber 2000: 172): the Middle Scots and Northern Anglo Saxon (i.e. Northumbrian) monophthong [a:] (=long, open a), spelled as ai/ay, oi/oy and ei/ey, had undergone a shift to a raised, open [E:] (long, open e as in Thames). South of the Humber [a:] was rounded to an open [o:]. Consequently, Old English [ha:m] became [hE:m] in the North (Scotland) and [ho:m] in the South (England). The spelling continued to be used at least until the latter half of the 19th century (The Younger 1858).

Görlach presents the early modern Scottish system as follows:

  1. Word-initial /xw/ was preserved in Scots (conventional spelling quh).

  2. Most i-diphthongs merged with long monophthongs in fourteenth-/fifteenth-century Scots; hence, i/y could be used as an indication of vowel length.

  3. OE /a:/ developed into southern English lengthened lot-vowel . but into Scots open /E:/.

Görlach continues with a few common characteristics of Scots spelling:

quh corresponds to EModE wh;

w/u/v are largely interchangeable;

ţ, 3 are often found in manuscripts, but in printed books <3> is replaced by ;

ch represents /x/ (a sound more commonly preserved in Scots), and corresponds to EModE gh;

sch is widespread for /S/, EModE sh;

i, y can indicate vowel length.

Based on the guideline given by this spelling system I studied seven manuscripts in early modern Scots, provided and edited by Bridget Cusack (Cusack 1998). Whenever the purpose of a certain way of spelling was unclear to me, I consulted the exhaustive Dictionary of the Scots Language on, and the 1858 Scots dictionary Handbook of the Scottish Language by Clieshbotham the Younger (which uses the same spelling system, with the exception of ţ and 3) to see whether an instance of unexpected spelling reflected a deviation in orthography or whether it reflected a true Scots morphological or phonetical difference with English. For example, fand as a past tense of to find is indeed Scots and does denote found in English, according to the dictionary. To find English-related etymological and other language historical explanations I consulted the Online Oxford English Dictionary (henceforth OED).

In the 16th and 17th centuries these manuscripts served a practical purpose (journals, wills, accounts, depositions) and they had been written not by poets or literary writers, but by ordinary yet literate citizens. The authors had no pretension to be artists or scholars while they wrote. These "naďve documents" (Cusack 1998: x) written in everyday language should reflect unrestrained Scots spelling or at least another spelling that was generally in use in those days. My aim was to see if the Scots spelling system matches the spelling of the manuscripts. From this we can determine whether or not, and how, the gradual demise or anglicization of Scots in written texts also included the spelling used by the authors. Starting with the oldest text, from 1540, and finishing with the most recent text, from 1684, will we be able to see a development of phasing out of the aforementioned Scots spelling characteristics?

The Rampant Lion flag of Scotland
The 'Rampant Lion' or Royal flag of Scotland


3. The manuscripts and their analysis

3.1. A deposition from 1540. Here I find Scots spelling:

  • quh- for word-initial /xw/: quhen, quhidde, quhill (Eng. until, cf. Eng. while), vmquhill (Eng. deceased)

  • w/u/v used interchangeably: lauder, devly (Eng. duly), vnderstud; evyll vs. deliuerand

  • 3: 3eid (went), 3eiris, 3ow; but also yeiris; ţ: yaim (Eng. them), ye (Eng. the)

  • ch representing /x/: aycht, worcht, coucht (Eng. bought; cf. cheap/to cope)

  • sch for /S/, corresponding to early modern English sh: schew, scho (Eng. she) (3)

  • i, y indicating vowel length: aigis (Eng. ages), gaif (Eng. gave), geif (Eng. give), guid (Eng. good); but I also fid also gud

  • OE /a:/ developed into Scots /E:/: hayme, straikis (Eng. strokes), aycht (Eng. oath); but also banis instead of expected bainis/baynis


The above would need the following comments: discrepancies consist of the lengthening, e.g. guid/gud, banis instead of bainis/baynis. Is this a case of anglicization of lengthening the pronoun or did the author consider this Scots phoneme to be an /a/? A double lengthening form such as hayme could represent English-inspired hypercorrection.

I often found pairt (Eng. part), which is a Scots lexical peculiarity of lengthening without an expected English equivalent *poart (cf. traist instead of Eng. trust). Geif also represents a Scots lexical peculiarity. Note also incidental 'innovative' yeiris alongside 3eiris in this manuscript. By this time Ţ and y had merged into one grapheme, hence yaime, ye, etc. Scho denotes she and the use of o is not related to spelling.

3.2. A text from 1560-61.

  • quh- : quhome, quhen, quhare

  • w/u/v: (texts from 1650) wordes, wald, devill, vicar, Blude, cumin. In a text from 1561: vpon, lwrkand, rewenged.

  • 3 and ţ: 3e, 3or; ye, yis

  • ch: this sound had not been found in the text.

  • sch: fische

  • i and y for vowel length: smayk/smaik (Eng. rogue), chais, gayt, cayre; but quhome, quhare and gude

  • OE /a:/ > Scots /E:/ (ai): maist; but na thing, na man, fra and ony (Eng. any). Note also traist

I see here that there may have been at least two different scribes at work: the former was capable of alphabetically distinguishing /v/, /u/ and /w/ from each other (texts from 1650), whereas the latter was not (text from 1651), as Görlach's Scots spelling system predicts.

There could have been confusion about whether ai could be used both for /E:/ and for /a:/: I see that quhare had been written with a vowel lengthening that I recognise from English (final -e). I also see the hybrid forms cayre and quhome. Fra and na both derive from OE frá and , if these words are indeed the Scots cognates of English fro and no. In Scots there are more words that lack the predicted vowel shift OE á > Sc. ai (cf. quha in 3.3 herebelow). But both a's are in final position, which could explain the exception. Ony should be any; ony is the Middle Scots and the early modern Scots equivalent of modern English any (OED). It is a "variety with an unexplained change of vowel" (Dictionary of the Scots Language).


3.3. A deposition from 1567. Here I also find Scots spelling as described by Görlach:

  • quh-: quh, qlkis (= quhylkis Eng. which [plural]), quhen, quha (Eng. who)

  • w/u/v: vponn, vter (Eng. outer), suffer, twa, ansuerit

  • 3 and ţ: 3et (Eng. gate; 3 indicates palatalisation under influence of e, hence 'yet'), 3oung; yat, yai

  • ch: licht, heich (what was coucht (Eng. bought) in the previous manuscript is coft in this one) (4)

  • sch: no words with this sound could be found

  • i and y for vowel length: befoir, cariit (Eng. carried), cloik, haif, saim, treis; but also yame; tuik, but also tuke. (1)

  • OE /a:/ > Scots /E:/ (ai): laird, but also lord; Quha, ane

This manuscript shows consistent Scots spelling without much English influences, except for a few lengthened vowels, such as the rare yame instead of more the frequent yaim, and tuik followed by tuke in the next clause. At first sight this looks like English spelling, unless the final -e had indeed been pronounced. This is unlikely, since Scots phased out final e sooner than English: cf. Early Modern Scots mak, tak, etc. (Barber 2002: 172).

I also found that lord was written interchangeably with laird and I found the interesting yet consistent use of ane and quha. All these cases are, however, not due to spelling but due to Scots phonology.

Lord should be laird in Scots: OE hláford (e.g. 'loaf-keeper') > lárd > laird. This is, again, not a matter of spelling but of the entry of an English word which, of course, was pronounced differently. And ane, quha both derive from words with OE /a:/ (án and hwá), but they show an 'a' in Scots. These are clearly matters of lexis and phonology, and not of spelling. In other words, people did say /a:n/ and /xwa:/ and not */E:n/ and */xwE:/. Compare English indefinite articles a and an as opposed to one, which does display the Southern vowel shift.


3.4. A deposition from 1576. The spelling system is Scots:

  • quh-: quhat, quhyte, Quhy

  • w/u/v: vyer (Eng. other), ansuerit, followit, hevye, husband, vp

  • 3 and ţ: 3ard; ye, yame

  • ch: wychtis

  • sch: sche (Eng. she)

  • i and y for vowel length: heid, foir (Eng. four), bairdit; seik (Eng. ill)

  • OE /a:/ > Scots /E:/ (ai): bairnis (but elsewhere barne), hame

A lexical difference is found in sche, which seems English. Scho is not used at all in this manuscript. The use of ai as /E:/ is unclear.

3.5. A memoir from 1601. This displays Scots and English spelling.

  • quh-: quhilk; but also wher

  • w/u/v: vpe (Eng. up), tuk, continewed, ws

  • 3 and ţ: yield, yit (3 is phased out); yt, yrfra; but elsewhere the, ther, thre

  • ch: besaught

  • sch: schipper, schoure/shoure

  • i and y for vowel length: scheit, seiking; but also: frie, heavin, thrie

  • OE /a:/ > Scots /E:/ (ai): almaist; but also: steanes, nane, bathe (Eng. both)

Here I find ea replacing ei in heavin and elsewhere extream, and the lengthening i is often placed before lengthened vowel. Furthermore, sch and sh are used interchangeably, as are ai and a in the OE /a:/-derivants. The letter 3 has been replaced by y and ţ by th, which also happened in English around that time (OED). Only the shortened forms yt and the like have retained thorn. Sch is often replaced by sh, which also happened in England around 60 years before (OED).


3.6. A legal report from 1619: this text has retained all the Scots features.

  • quh-: quhan

  • w/u/v: leawe, Vitness, wp

  • 3 and ţ: phased out by y and th

  • ch: slicht, micht

  • sch: scho

  • i and y for vowel length: teith, baik; but also: sie

  • OE /a:/ > Scots /E:/ (ai): almaist


3.7. A journal from 1682-4 displays very little Scots spelling. We find retension of ţ, phasing out of 3 and a nearly completely English spelling system. The use of u in uitnes and and ues could point to Scots, as could a single instance of ane, and fand instead of found. In the South fand was already no longer in use in the sixteenth century (OED).

3.8. A letter by a man in 1684 shows scarce use of the Scots spelling system:

  • quh-: qch, gch (=quhich, guhich), grfor; but who

  • w/u/v: trowths, you, upon, powr, now

  • 3 and ţ: 3 phased out by y and ţ retained in yt, elsewhere phased out by th.

  • ch: phased out by gh

  • sch: this sound could not be found

  • i and y for vowel length: sies, swiet, dier; but great, keped, befor, sam, felien (Eng. failing).

  • OE /a:/ > Scots /E:/ (ai): I could not find examples

Besides unusual spelling I see English morphology: gch is a hybridization of Scots quhilk with English which; who should be quha in Scots. Lengthened e has an i , but i follows e in this manuscript. Could this be a rendering of the English pronunciation /i:/ of ee? Other instances of vowel lengthening are not given or they lack the conventional Scots fashion: knon, sowr, they, meay, seay.

Edinburgh in the Scottish Lowlands, which are the home of Scots


4. Conclusion

Throughout the manuscripts I have found a relatively stable use of the Scots spelling system. As from 1600 I notice that the Scots spelling is slowly being replaced by English or otherwise non-Scots spelling systems. The text in 1619 shows a conservative spelling, but after this text Scots is rapidly being phased out. That this is coupled with English words and pronunciations need not be coincidence: according to Görlach (Görlach 1991: 19) Scots lost prestige as a book language as from the latter half of the sixteenth century, when English was the language of spiritual reform and bookprinters.

The authors of the texts can be compared with the various ways in which one could write (and speak) use Scots; sometimes the Scots spelling was used in a conservative way (3.6), and sometimes without clear rules (3.8). Hypercorrections could occur where people are no longer sure about how they should spell correctly. Hence we see double lengthenings such as hayme.

I can conclude from the studied manuscripts that as the Scots spelling system was gradually dismissed, the number of English morphological and lexical increased: sche, what, who, continewed, where Scots would have scho, quhat, quha, continuit. Anglicization lead to diminishing of Scots spelling and lexis, and to confusion in some cases (3.8). Many inconsistencies are not necessarily related to English: swiet, sien (but the writer uses dielien and biely whereas the bold printed syllable had short /i/. The English bookprinter Caxton preferred gh as /x/, which must have lead to the phasing out of ch in the writing of some authors.

Nevertheless, in today's Scots spelling system ch is still in use (sch- is not); as are i-lengthening in ui and ai as derivative of OE /a:/. Scots can still be written and its basilect is still is a full-fledged language; only the number of people who can write it well is scarce if we compare it with the command of English.


5. Footnotes

(1) Certain features are similar to spelling conventions in early modern Dutch. One of them is i and y which indicate vowel length in Dutch too; Dutch place-names like Oirschot and Helvoirt draw our attention, and Dutch words like huis and luid (house, loud) indicated yet older, lengthened, Dutch pronunciation /u:/. Many Dutch printers worked in Scotland. That Dutch printers have introduced spelling innovations in the South is nothing new, if we remember Caxton's collaboration with Dutch colleagues and the influence they had on his spelling. One of these colleagues was his journeyman, Wynkyn de Worde from the Netherlands. He probably came from the town of Woerden.

(2) Clieshbotham the Younger (1858), Handbook of the Scottish Language, 10,000 Scottish Words and their meanings, Richard Griffin and Company: Glasgow & London

(3) Scho interestingly shows a variety of the much debated transformation of OE seo into Modern English she: seo < scho is easier to imagine than seo < she.

(4) This is a difference in speech, common in Germanic languages: cf. Eng. shaft vs. Du. schacht; Eng. draught, pronounced with an 'f', as [drα:ft]


6. References

Barber, Charles (2002), The English Language, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Clieshbotham the Younger (1858), Handbook of the Scottish Language, 10,000 Scottish Words and their meanings, Richard Griffin and Company: Glasgow & London

Crystal, David (1995), The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the Engli,sh Language, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Dictionary of the Scots Language,

McArthur, Tom (1998), The English Languages? English Today 11.

Oxford English Dictionary, online version:

Trudgill, Peter and Jean Hannah (2002), International English, 4th edn, London: Arnold.

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