As language learners, we often focus on cultures that are far-flung. With our eyes and ears fixed on the far away, any richness around us can end up playing second fiddle. But occasionally, when you take a moment to pause, you realise the beautiful relevance of the local to your learning. So it is with Doric Scots and my journey with learning Icelandic and Norwegian.
Doric is the dialect of Scots that is typical of Northeast Scotland, particularly Aberdeen and the surrounding fishing towns and villages. It boasts a very particular vocabulary of its own, which differs a fair bit from the Scots heard elsewhere in the country.
Although based in Edinburgh when I’m here, I’m lucky to be surrounded by friends and family who speak this colourful, unique and linguistically intriguing variety as their home tongue.
The most curious thing is its substantial overlap in vocabulary with North Germanic languages. As a student of Norwegian and Icelandic, it is constantly throwing up nice surprises. Now and again friends will use a word that is unfamiliar in English. However, there is often more than a slight chance that it has a cognate somewhere in Scandinavia.
It’s certainly true that some of this North Germanic vocabulary is well attested throughout Scotland. Bairn (child) and kirk (church) are two that even south-of-the-border anglophones will recognise.
That said, Doric adds a whole raft of other northern terms like thole (bear, stand) and muckle (much, lots) that give the dialect a special Nordic twist.
Routes and roots
How they ended up in Doric, but lost to the rest of English (and even Scots), is unclear. Perhaps they were brought here by Viking invaders who assimilated into the local culture man hundreds of years ago. Maybe they travelled here by more peaceful routes via visiting sailors, fisherman and traders. There again, maybe they were more widespread, longer ago – perhaps standard English used to have these terms, and has since lost them.
Not knowing for certain lends these special words a delicious mystery. Words are stories, histories, and trying to fathom their beginnings is a unique delight of etymology.
It’s also worth pointing out, along the way, that there once lived a full-blooded, bona fide North Germanic language on Scottish soil: Norn, a language close to Faroese and Icelandic, which flourished until relatively recent times on the northern isles. Little surprise, then, that the language group still has such a presence in some modern-day varieties of Scots.
But beyond the delightful surprises, could these similarities have a more practical purpose?
Spotting links between the local and the far away object of study can be a huge support when it comes to memorising vocabulary. It assists in creating memory hooks – multiple points of reference that pin a new word into the neural net of your brain. Rather than a single pair of points – English and Icelandic – you can now create a memory that is fixed by a third point, the Doric translation. Noting that gráta (to weep) corresponds to Doric / Scots greet holds that entry much faster in memory.
Now, I am a backseat etymologist. The list below is not based on extensive research of mine, but of frequent questioning of ever-patient friends and extensive excursions on Wiktionary. As such, here is a list of some touchpoints I’ve spotted between Doric, general Scots and North Germanic languages. It is far from complete or exhaustive, but shows some nice crossovers between Doric, Icelandic and Norwegian.
I have checked these entries with handy Doric-speaking friends, as well as the brief but brilliant Doric word list here. My conclusions proceed from superficial observations (and lots of fun trying to spot patterns), so please let me know in the comments if you know a different etymology, or reason for the overlap.
Doric / Scots terms with Nordic analogues
- bairn : child
- bide : wait / stay
🇮🇸bíða (‘stay’ in Doric Scots – archaic English sense of ‘wait’ matches Icelandic bída)
- breeks : trousers
🇮🇸buxur 🇳🇴bukse – a word the rest of English has all but lost (although you can still hear britches / breeches in old cowboy films!)
- claes : clothes
🇮🇸klæði (cloth – the more usual Icelandic term for clothes is föt) 🇳🇴klær
- ee / een : eye / eyes
The plural in -n is remarkably similar to the Norwegian øyne (eyes)
- fit / far : what / where
The interesting thing here is not that the words have cognates in Doric – after all, the Standard English what / where come from the same route. What is interesting is that the Doric retains an initial fricative sound, just like the Nordic counterparts 🇮🇸hvað / hvar 🇳🇴hva / hvor
- ging : go
🇮🇸ganga (walk) – the Doric retains the Germanic -ng- that the shortened Standard English root has lost
- greet : cry, weep
- het : hot
Still close phonetically to the Standard English hot, although the different vowel echoes the Icelandic heitt
- hoast : cough
🇮🇸hósta 🇳🇴 husta (and also, husten in German!)
- mate : food
- muckle : much
- oxter : armpit
🇮🇸öxl (although this means ‘shoulder’ in Icelandic!)
- quine : woman
🇮🇸kona 🇳🇴kvinne – also note that Standard English has a cognate in the word queen
- smit : infect
🇮🇸smita 🇳🇴smitte (and of course, the Standard English word smitten in a more figurative sense)
- thole : bear, stand
- tint : lost
🇮🇸týnt (it is not clear whether Doric only retains the past participle, or also an equivalent to the infinitive týna – to lose – too)
- tow : rope
- teem : empty
Much as we can do this with Doric Scots and Nordic languages, you can scout English for other traces of history that can help your learning adventure. Greek, Latin and more have made their mark in similar ways. As well as memory aids, the payoff is a deeper, richer understanding of the language you call your own mother tongue.
Often, learning a foreign language can teach you much about the lesser-spotted intricacies of your own – particularly the twists and turns of its pathways through social geography and history.
11 thoughts on “Doric Scots: Treasure Trove of Nordic Gems”
Thanks for this post.
Native Doric speaker here in Aberdeen.
I’ve been learning Norsk & Nynorsk for the past three years on and off through work, friends and travel. I’m surprised there’s not more articles on Norwegian/Doric, it’s always Scots. I’m guessing because there’s a larger population of central belters driving writing/publishing any research and Doric is very regional.
I agree, I’m surprised not more has been written about Doric specifically. It seemed like a real gap in online knowledge when I was searching for concrete references for the post. I suppose it’s quite a niche overlap, Norwegian and Doric, but it’s great to hear from someone else who has experience with both of them! I think Norwegian and Scots (in all its flavours) fit together really well as objects of study. Thanks for your comment!
As a young boy in the Skene area of Aberdeenshire during the 1940’s we would, in the Autumn, “burn the moss” By that we meant we would burn the dead vegetation on boggy ot marshy areas. Noting that the Swedish word for marsh is “moess” I have often wondered about the similarity of the two words. Are there any other areas of Britain where a marsh is referred to as “the moss”?
As someone who grew up with Doric speaking parents at home, on starting school realised that Doric is not English. As an adult I watch quite a bit of Nordic drama on tv, albeit with subtitles I noticed the similarities between the Nordic languages and Doric. I found that it is not to difficult to work out what is going on without having to pay very close attention to the subtitles. I came across this post trying to get the history of Doric and the languages it is closest too/derived from. It is good to know others too have noticed the similarities – given there is scant reliable information about the linguistic history of the Doric language.
Going down this rabbit hole; I think I should self-publish something in this field. Yeah it’s pretty niche but something that could be useful in future as a lot less people speak Doric and more words are lost.
As someone from Aberdeenshire who has moved to live in Oslo, learning Norwegian was made somewhat simpler by the similarities you mention here. Another one and actually the first I came across was “kloot” being the word for a cloth in both Doric and Norwegian. I would love it if someone took the time to study and examine the similarities between these two languages/dialects.
I’d love someone to write a book that lists all of these. I’ve since found out that Dutch also had a big influence on both Scots and Gaelic, so there’s a whole other dimension. ‘Kloot’ reminds me of the German ‘Kleid’.
I’m English, and I have been trying to learn Danish using the app “duolingo” and I’m constantly seeing the same or similar words as English, and as I’ve got an interest in languages, and their history and development, I have really started to open my eyes to this huge subject. I seem to be able to understand Doric quite well, which is unusual for someone south of the border, I find thick Glaswegian hard though. I’ve watched a few videos from Doric TV on YouTube, I’m fascinated. (By the way I didn’t vote for brexit, and I hate Westminster)
It’s amazing when you start spotting the connections – we definitely all have more in common than that which divides us, and language is just scratching the surface. If you’re new to the Scandi languages, you’ll be amazed at how much Norwegian you’ll understand from your Danish too. Held og lykke med det! 🙂