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Scots Language Research

Edinburgh University's FITS Project: From Inglis to Scots

The FITS team, Edinburgh University

"For hiddowis, haw, and holkit is thyne ee,
thy cheikbane bair and blaiknit is thy ble"

The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy
(For hideous, dull and hollowed out is your eye,
your cheekbone bare and pallid is your skin)

If you ever had the need to declaim some choice Older Scots words – such as those that Dunbar set aside for Kennedy – you would, no doubt, like to do so with gusto and bravado, as well as with the words' true historical pronunciation. But: how much do we know about the sounds – that is, the phonology – of Older Scots?

The language we call 'Scots' today descends from the northern dialects of Old English spoken until around the 11th century. After that time, the language of the kingdom of Scotland and the language of the kingdom of England started diverging in their pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and even spelling. Scholars know a fair amount about the development of Middle English in the south, but Older Scots, the medieval language used in Scotland, known first as Inglis, and later as Scots, is still relatively under-studied.

Research in the linguistic history of Scots relies on written records of the language, preserved in Scottish archives. One of the most striking aspects of the earliest materials is the sheer number of spelling variants for what are now single words with fixed spellings. A simple word like "which", for example, has multiple spellings in early Scots, including: qhwilk, qlk, qlk, qlk, quhilk, quhilke, quhlk, quhylk, quk, quylk, qwhilk, qwhilke, qwhylk, qwilk, qwylk. Historical linguists apply various analytic tools to sort through different sets of variable spelling in a systematic way. By looking at similar sounds and spellings across different words, times and places, they can begin to understand what such spelling differences imply.

A new project entitled From Inglis to Scots (FITS): Mapping Sounds to Spellings, based at The University of Edinburgh's Angus McIntosh Centre for Historical Linguistics, is taking a fresh look into what we know about the earliest stages in the history of Scots – in particular its systems of spelling and the sounds that lie behind them. The project, funded by a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council Grant, focuses on the earliest surviving records of the language, gathered together in the Linguistic Atlas of Older Scots: 1380-1500. The goal – projected for late 2017 – is a freely accessible database reconstructing the pronunciation of Scots words throughout the Middle Ages. The research will also produce a catalogue of the phonological changes that shaped medieval Scots. It is hoped that close examination of variation in spelling from place to place may even shed light on the origins of different accents of Scots today.

So, if you want to adopt an authentic reading of the Makars' verses, including their "flyting", or if you are interested in why Scots has "whilk" while English has "which", or if you are simply fascinated by the ways in which languages change over time, keep an eye out for the FITS project and its evolving web-presence.

The FITS team

The FITS Project
Angus McIntosh Centre for Historical Linguistics
The University of Edinburgh
Room 2.01, Dugald Stewart Building
3 Charles Street
Edinburgh EH8 9AD