"Lang may yer lum reek!"
It sounds faintly insulting, I know, but this is a traditional Scots greeting for the new year, translating as 'long may your chimney smoke' - or long may your fire burn.
This is an example of Scots, variously described as both a language and a dialect, with many words relatively easily translated back to formal English. There is no universal distinction between a language and a dialect, but in a 2010 poll conducted by the Scottish Government, an overall 64% of respondents agreed that Scots was best considered a dialect. There may be an element of perspective on the matter led by whether or not a person is a native speaker of Scots - in the same survey, 58% of people who spoke Scots regularly considered it a dialect, whilst 72% of people who never spoke Scots considered it a language.
Certainly a native speaking in Scots might be considered challenging for a visitor to understand - but compare 'dialectic' Scots with Gaelic, an entirely distinct language which bears no easy relation to formal English. According to the 2011 census, just over 1% of the Scottish population indicated that they could speak Gaelic at that time.
If you venture to the Highlands on your visit to Scotland, you'll notice that all public signage is presented in both English and Gaelic - the differences in those languages will be easily visible here.
Scots is still in active use around Scotland, and specific usage varies between regions or areas of the country. (In this sense it is again less like a fixed language than a variable dialect.) You will find examples of Scots phrases readily available on t-shirts, posters, mugs and other souvenir items - none of this should override the fact that Scots is a current and contemporary form of expression across Scotland, and is not merely a vestigial linguistic hangover from bygone times. Even any examples of 'old Scots' that you encounter - such as the motto on the side of John Knox's house - can be understood fairly easily with a little effort to translate into formal English.
Be sensitive to the fact that Scots is an integral part of Scottish heritage and culture. You are likely to encounter Scots in conversation with locals, and if you find yourself struggling to understand anything that you hear or read, a polite request for repetition or explanation will be received more warmly than a joke about your lack of comprehension. Just as some people will find comments about 'Mickey Mouse' Scottish banknotes insulting, so are they likely to feel aggrieved at remarks which denigrate the way they express themselves.
During your visit, you may find the following list of phrases a useful reference...
Aye / Naw - Yes / No
Whaur ar ye fae? - Where are you from?
Awa an bile yer heid - Don't be stupid
A dinna ken! / Eh? - I don't understand
Whaur's yer cludgie? - Where's the toilet?
Caw on the polis! - Call the police!
All my private city walking tours are conducted in plain old English, for the ease of comprehension!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...