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.