Thursday’s posts look at sociolinguistics or child language acquisition: accents, stereotypes and how children learn to speak.

Coming from Scotland, I often get comments, ranging from;

“Where about in Ireland/America/Canada are you from?”,

to the lovely impersonation;

“Scahhhtlahhnd”, (which usually sounds extremely un-Scottish.)

What usually distinguishes different accents from one another most obviously is the vowel sounds. Of course, there are some accents; the strong Scouse accent, which has the lovely [kx] sound to replace [k] (“finger lichkin’ chichken”), and some Irish accents, which realise [th] as [t] (“tree hundred and tirtytree”), among others, which realise consonants differently. However; the biggest distinguishing factor between accents, even for these accents, is vowels.

For instance, there’s the North/South divide in pronunciation of words such as grass and bath. In the North, pronounce grass with a long vowel and you’re a posh pansy. My sister is called Hannah, and so we call her Hannah Banana. This doesn’t work in the South, where she lives, because Hannah is pronounced with a short a and banana with a long one; the words don’t rhyme.

We call the short a a high, back vowel – if you try saying grass in a northern accent, you can see it comes from the top and back of your mouth. A long a comes from much lower, and is much more rounded.

Scottish accents definitely have this variation – and other variations in vowel pronunciation. Lot, cloth and thought are all pronounced with the same vowel sound, where they wouldn’t be in other English accents.

[ʊ] doesn’t exist in Scottish accents. This basically means pull and pool are pronounced the same.

However, considering that the only difference in terms of consonants between Scottish accents and other British English accents is that we have a rhotic r (along with many other Northern and Irish accents), Scottish is incredibly hard to understand. It’s been voted the most difficult accent to understand in the UK. Why?

Okay, so there are a few dialect markers in Scottish accents which distinguish it from other accents. Aye for yes, wee for small, cannae for cannot… these are the most obvious, but there are others I didn’t even know were Scottish until I left home. A lot of these words have no direct translations into English.

For instance, I commonly use the word squint, as in “that picture is squint” and get strange looks. Squint means not straight, or on a slant. It can only really be used for pictures or photos on a wall, so isn’t the same as wonky. It is, I think, an essential word. I don’t understand how England manages without it.

Scaffy is also apparently Scottish – it means run down, a bit scuffed up. It’s an insult – but not as much as other word such as minging or manky, and has a different feel to it.

Dreich is a word which describes the most common weather experienced in Scotland – cold, wet, cloudy, windy.

A ned, depending on who you ask, is an acronym of Non-Educated Delinquent or a shortened version of ne’er do well, and is our version of an English chav.

But that can’t be why it’s a difficult accent to understand. Firstly, this vocabulary is dialectal; and all dialects have a few words not used in other accents.

Let’s consider the fact that it was “the Scottish accent” that was voted the most difficult to understand.

There is more than one accent in Scotland.

Go to the Highlands and Islands and you’ll find an accent unlike anywhere else in the world. This is because this is the part of Scotland where Gaelic was spoken – until it was banned. People learned English from English-speaking people, and were forced to learn it. Elsewhere, in the East and the South, English came in as a lingua Franca from Old Northumbrian, so the two accents developed differently. Similarly, in Orkney, there are markers (such as peerie meaning small) which can be traced to Scandinavian roots.

The accents of Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dundee, Fife, the Borders… they all differ.

So, let’s assume that “the Scottish accent” which was voted the most difficult to understand is the most spoken one… This is Glaswegian; Glasgow being the most populated city as well as the most infamous.

There are differences in Glaswegian phonology (ball is pronounced baw, for instance – and most commonly followed by one of a selection of words which make it rude), but these are no harder to understand than other accents’ phonological differentiations.

What makes Glaswegian difficult to understand is that what differentiates it is two things not found in other accents (other than Northern Irish, or Ulster Scots, which is not as affected by it): nasality and peculiar intonation patterns.

Glaswegian is a very nasal accent, making it (in my humble opinion) less pleasant than other Scottish accents, and also giving the other Scottish accents the bad reputation of its difficulty to understand.

On top of this, Glaswegian has very strange intonation patterns.

The human brain is trained to listen, not just to words and body language, but also to intonation. We go up at the end of a question, we talk in a deep voice if we’re upset, and so on.

We start learning this from a young age – this is why we talk to children with exaggerated intonation patterns (“Who’s a good girl?”). If we spoke to people our own age like this, we’d more likely than not get a slap in return.

Glaswegian intonation patterns are not the same as other British English ones; and so we’re not trained to pick up on them. Glaswegians do what’s known as high rising; going up at the end of sentences, making them sound like a question? Lots of accents do this, though; Glaswegian goes even further. The human brain, unless trained to understand the Glaswegian accent and intonation patterns, can’t understand the words through the strange intonations.

Coupled with the speed it’s usually spoken at, nasality and intonation make “the Scottish accent”, or Glaswegian, hard for people to understand it.