People often suggest that there is not much Scots spoken in Edinburgh, but in fact there are many Scots speakers to be heard. Of course, there are many Scottish English speakers in the city, some of whom are described as “pan-loaf” (that is the accent once closely associated with the Edinburgh fee-paying schools) and there are still a few Morningside accents around, but most of our Scottish English speakers have some knowledge of Scots and many are bilingual in Scots and English, drifting between one and the other depending on the formality of the situation.
Gradually, Scots is being used confidently and well in formal settings and a large proportion of the population of Edinburgh are first and foremost Scots speakers. They have their own accent and vocabulary, even their own grammar and idiom.
Most of the features of the Edinburgh dialect are found in other parts of Scotland, especially in the Midlothian area, and the dialects of East Lothian are closely related, but there are a number of features that, taken together, distinguish the Edinburgh dialect of Scots. Even within Edinburgh there are subtle variations. For example, rhyming slang is a feature of many cities and Edinburgh is no exception. “Are you blind?” would be rendered in central Edinburgh as “Are ye Blackfriars Wynd?” Leith, however, has “Are ye Cables Wynd?” In Leith, the pronoun “them” is pronounced to rhyme with “hame” rather than with “hem”. This feature is by no means exclusive to Leith but it does seem to be much more a feature of Leith than Edinburgh generally.
Conversational tags are often linked to a particular area, ken? Such use of “ken” or “ye ken?”, common in Edinburgh, decreases once you are west of Ratho and is virtually non-existent in Glasgow. Frequent use of other markers of conversation such as “like”, “likes” and “likesay” can also suggest that the speaker is from the Edinburgh area.
A number of words used by Travellers have been taken up and while “gadgie” (man) “chorrie” (steal) and “barry” (very good) are quite widespread in Scotland, “shan” (bad) is less so. It has been in Edinburgh since the early 18th century but faded out, to be reborrowed recently, and it is now often used by schoolchildren in the sense of unfair: “That’s shan, miss!”.
An interesting feature of Edinburgh grammar, which is shared with Hawick, is the ability to use two modal verbs together to give sentences such as “I’ll no can dae that” or “I used tae could dae that”.
Throughout Scotland, in spite of all the regional variations, there is a shared core of Scots words and grammar, and so it is accent that provides the most refined differentiation between regions.
Unfortunately, this can be the hardest thing to pin down and actors were asking the Scots Language Centre for information about Scots accents.
This is why the book Scotspeak was written.
It covers Scottish standard English and the Scots accents of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh, giving a transcript and analysis of a number of recordings. Recordings are available at www.scotspeak.co.uk. In these recordings the tune of the Edinburgh voice is quite distinctive. It does not have the marked downs and ups of Glasgow and is on a bit of a plateau with a slight drop at the end of statements, almost like the tune of a revving motorcycle or an express train going “over-the-points, over-the-points”. A peculiarly Edinburgh trait is the pronunciation of “tr-” so that it sounds like “chr-” (“tree” sounds like chree”) and “thr-“ so that it sounds like “shr-” (“three” sounds like “shree”).
Some other features need to be taken together as they are common to a much wider area. As in many cities, the glottal stop is frequent. The pronoun “I” is usually “A”, contrasting with “Eh” in Dundee and “I” in much of the north-east. The negative is formed using “-nae” as in “cannae”, “dinnae” etc. This begins to change to “-na” as you move up the coast.
The vowel in “aw” words like “braw” and “snaw” and after loss of “l” in ba(ll) is the same as Scottish English “awe”. Again, this turns to and “aa” sound as you move north. The final vowel in “barrae” (barrow) sounds like the vowel in “say”, contrasting with the Glasgow “barra”.
Sadly, Edinburgh is one of the trendsetters when it comes to younger speakers losing the “wh-” sound that distinguishes “which” from “witch” and the “-ch” sound that distinguishes “loch” from “lock”. These changes seem to be happening to a much greater extent amongst Scots speakers than Edinburgh speakers of English.
Nevertheless there is a great wealth of Scots in the city which has been home to some of the greatest writers in the Scots language past and present.
n Christine Robinson is director of Scottish Language Dictionaries and teaches Scots at Edinburgh University. Carol Ann Crawford is a voice and dialect coach. Scotspeak: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Modern Urban Scots is published by Luath Press