It’s all Gaelic to me: A foreigner’s guide to understanding Scottish slang

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Struggling to understand the sophisticated Scottish slang? Kat from South Africa discloses her helpful hints on how to understand and fit into Scotland.

I promise, it's not just me...

Even mother tongue English speakers reach for the dictionary when hearing the Scottish tongue, although native Scots do speak English, the amount of slang and idiom in Scottish speech makes you wonder if you have studied English at all. To guide you on your linguistic journey into the Scotland, here are some helpful hints to understanding the normal Scottish person’s speech.

tips and tricks
Keep reading for Kat's top tips!

“Scottish slang” words

Many words spoken by Scottish people can be determined without too much effort. “Aye” means “yes”, “wee” means “little or small” and “nae” means “no”. If something is too “dear” , they could be referring to how expensive it is instead of how beautiful or precious it is to them. Should someone ask if you “ken” they are not asking your name (unless you are actually called Ken) but actually whether you have understood them or not. For example, “We can’t go outside because it is snowing, ya ken?” Generally, this is rhetorical, and the speaker assumes that 'you ken' their question without response. Should someone say you gave a good “shout” they are referring to your voiced opinion or comment.

Who needs to speak using full words? Not the Scots!

The Scottish dialect also makes frequent use of contractions when speaking, for example, “cannae” is “cannot”, “winnae” is “won’t” and “huvnae” is “have not”. These contractions can make it harder to discern meaning, however, with slow and careful attention you cannae go wrong - see what I did there? When encountering a Scottish person and you perhaps struggle to understand, try and focus on words in the middle of the sentence as they have less embellishment and give the clearest meaning through more familiar words. Similarly, the Scottish also snip the ends off words such as “wi” being “with” or “fo” meaning “for”.

Local terms

Frequently used Scottish terms simply don’t appear in any other English speaking vocabulary, however, they remain culturally important terms to Scottish speakers. “Hogmanay” is what Scottish people call their New Year’s Eve celebrations which are enthusiastically celebrated and have absolutely nothing to do with hogs. If someone invites you to a “ceilidh”, pronounced kay-lee, you have an opportunity to attend an evening of traditional Scottish dance and music, I would advise you say yes. Finally, “Burns Night” has nothing to do with fire but is a day honouring the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. This involves a plate of haggis (a traditional Scottish dish) being served over a recitation of his most famous poems.

Tha mi duilich (sorry), no need to complicate things!

Occasionally on sign posts you may encounter the Gaelic spelling of places when leaving Edinburgh, however, these will usually have English spelt names right above them. Overall, Gaelic’s unique spelling will just confuse you more than needed and so there is no reason to spell it out here as I would simply be confusing you further.

So get ready to start saying “Hiya” instead of just “Hi”, calling drinks “bevvies” and you cannae ken how many more Scottish-isms you’ll find yourself learning and understanding during your time here, however long it may be.

Gaelic language
International Marketing Intern at Edinburgh Napier University

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