Some Interesting Bits about Scottish Speech – Well, Some Scottish Speech

Do you want to play “Henry Higgins”, the linguist in My Fair Lady who can tell a person where they grew up – within a few blocks? His approach was to use the sounds of your speech to identify where you come from. How does this work?

Virtually all languages have dialects and idiolects. An idiolect is a minor variation that often allows people to identify a given person. This is something that people who imitate particular people use to make the hearer think of that person. A person who imitates Bette Davis for example tends to pronounce “p”, “t” and “k” (technically voiceless stops) with a great deal of air. Most dialects of English tend to release little air when these sounds occur at the end of a word. Try this experiment:

Say the word “pit” and hold your hand close to your mouth, you will, in all likelihood, feel a puff of air after the “p” but not after the “t”. Linguists write this as phit- The raised “h” indicates the puff of air and the raised “-“ the lack of it,

Now say the word “tip” and you will feel a puff of air after the “t” but not the “p”.

If you want to sound like a Bette Davis imitator, you need to release the same puff of air after the “p” and the “t” in both words.

English does not have any words which are distinguished only by whether the “voiceless stop” is released with a puff of air or not.

Dialects are spoken by smaller speech communities than those that speak the same language. Dialects are generally seen as variations in a language. In general people tend to think of languages as not being “mutually intelligible” while dialects are “mutually intelligible”. This is not a great definition for many reasons. Some people are better at understanding some dialects than others. Some dialects are more easily understood by a speaker of one dialect than another. Dialects have somewhat different pronunciations and vocabularies. To many American English speakers Scots is relatively unintelligible, but, to many people in Scotland who do not speak Scots, it remains intelligible. People who only speak English in India, may have a terrible time understanding Scots – and vice versa!.

In New York, it is common to lose the sound of “r” after a vowel and before a consonant. “New York” is pronounced as though it were New Yok. Similarly words like “farmer” become more like “fama” . In Boston, the “r’ is also lost, but there is a change in the vowel as well.

New York speech tends to use a glottal stop (the closing of the throat that occurs for most English speakers when they say “Uh oh” when “t” occurs before “l”. The glottal stop is often written by linguists with a “?” without the dot below. So “Uh oh” would be written /ə?o/. For many New Yorkers “turtle” is /tə?l/ whereas in other places in the USA the second “t’ is pronounced like a “d” ‘tərdl”. So New Yorkers distinguish “hurtle” from “hurdle” and “turtle” from “turdle” (which strikes some as meaning “a small turd”).

In Oklahoma, “I” and “e” before “n” are pronounced the same so that “pin” and “pen” have the same pronunciation as to “kin” and “Ken” and also “tin” and “ten”.

Some dialects in Scotland are well known for their pronunciation of words like “who” where the “wh” is pronounced like an “f” . This is a fairly well known shift. There are two others that seem less known on the whole.

One of the interesting variations that occur in some dialects of English spoken in Scotland are found in the vowel sounds. For many English speakers the words “fir” and “fur” are pronounced the same, but in some areas of Scotland, these are pronounced with a different vowel. I won’t bother you with the variation itself but suffice it to say that the “u” or “fur” is pronounced further back in the mouth than the “I” of “fir”.

A second variation is one which leads to a distinction between words like “sighed” and “side” or “tied” and “tide”. For most of the English speaking world, each of these pairs is pronounced the same. However in some Scottish dialects they are different. “Tide” would be /təyd/ and “tied” would be /tayd/. Similarly “side” would “be /səyd/ and sighed would be /sayd/.

The form “tied” is the past tense of the word “tie”. This word ends in a vowel and is an “open” syllable read /tay/. When the past tense marker “d” is added, /tay/ remains and adds the “d” to become /tayd/. On the other hand “tide” /təyd/ is a closed syllable and remains /təyd/!

Listening carefully to different languages and dialects can be fun. In many cases if you get good at it, like Prof. Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (or the musical version thereof, My Fair Lady), you can place a speakers place of origin (or at least where they grew up and learned to speak), by hearing the way they speak the language.