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April 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Scotland vs The English


This article was previously published in the Slovenian mag IN, (Autumn 2023) issue.

Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome and Canterbury, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Europe. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and has his own YouTube channel which contains a series of interactive English video lessons. He is author of two books, “I was a happy man...then one day I came across Laughter Yoga” and “Learning English through the mind and the body” and is currently working on his third book, “Life is full of surprises”. He used to attend Pilgrims TT summer courses as a guest speaker. Email:


The phonetic alphabet

Pronunciation is the biggest problem for most students of English, essentially because the way a word is written and spoken is often quite different. Spelling is not just a problem for learners of English, but for many mother-tongue speakers themselves. Hence, when we need to write someone’s name down, we usually ask for the spelling, as even a simple name might have an infinite variety of spelling options.

When I studied my first course many years ago on how to teach English to non-native students, I was told that the phonetic alphabet was the solution to the problem of pronunciation. Initially it seemed good, as it made distinctions between sounds, however, it was when I spoke to my Scottish colleagues that I realised the limits of this technique. It was essentially made for a specific kind of English, that from the south of England, which is where I was brought up. Any other region of England from the Midlands up to Lancashire, Yorkshire, The West, Wales, Northern Ireland and of course Scotland, pronounced their vowels slightly differently and in some cases even some of the consonants. And this is without venturing out into other forms of English, not only the native speakers of Australia, the USA and South Africa, but the lingua franca that is the most common form of English used today among non-native speakers.

Scottish pronunciation

I had my first real experience of Scottish pronunciation while I was working part-time at a market research company. This involved phoning households around the UK, asking them a variety of questions on a wide range of topics and noting down their answers. On one occasion, I was speaking to a lady from the Scottish Highlands, who was extremely polite and friendly, however, I did notice that her accent was significantly different from any other that I’d heard before. After I had conducted the interview, I needed to get her name and other personal details which meant I’d have to ask her for the spelling, as I often did with our English households.

At a certain point as I was writing her details and repeating aloud what she was saying, I said, E. She interrupted, no, E. I replied, yes, E. No, she insisted, E. I said, yes, E for elephant. No, she insisted again, E for apple. E for apple, I repeated with surprise. Ah, A for apple I inquired? Aye, she replied. So, although to me it appeared that she was pronouncing A as E, when I said E, she knew that it wasn’t her A, but an E.

This whole episode looking back in hindsight was absolutely hilarious, but showed some of the major differences between Scottish and Southern English pronunciation. Added to this, the Scots have many of their own words. Aye, which of course sounds like I, means yes. Bonnie is their word for beautiful, lassie is a girl and wee means small. Therefore, a wee bonnie lassie is a small and beautiful girl. 

Although the Scottish accent becomes more different from English the further you move towards the Highlands, it is still reasonably comprehensible. The most incomprehensible Scottish is that spoken in Glasgow, especially when spoken at speed. It’s the equivalent of cockney in London. If you are not from the area, it seems like a completely different language. When I first visited Glasgow, the number of times I had to ask people in the street to repeat themselves was unbelievable.

While in Glasgow, I walked into Mr. Singh’s Indian restaurant which I had noticed from afar as dinnertime approached. This should have been a safe haven, as the Indian accent was something I was used to hearing quite often in London. However, initially I was served by two or three different waiters, all quite young and wearing kilts, but with Indian faces. They all spoke to me in Glaswegian and I couldn’t decipher a word of what they were saying. After the third one left, a real Indian wearing a turban came to my table and spoke to me with a strong Indian accent. Ah, that’s better, I replied, as I was then able to make my order.  


The Scottish vs English rivalry

The Scots love nothing more than to see the “arrogant” English lose and this was illustrated in the early 2000s, during the Six Nations rugby tournament. Italy, the newest and weakest team had just beaten Scotland for the first time, a moment for the Italians to be proud. As Italy tends to focus almost exclusively on football however, other sports even in victory rarely get a look in. I phoned some of my Italian friends to inform them of this great victory. One of them phoned me back the next day to recount an amazing story. On the evening of this great victory, she had been driving past a Scottish pub in Rome with a couple of her friends when they noticed a Scotsman standing outside the pub with a beer in his hand, smiling and singing happily. My friend was somewhat confused. She told her friends that Scotland had lost to Italy, so it was strange that this man was smiling and singing. Her friends suggested that perhaps Danny had got his information wrong and maybe Scotland had in fact won. No, she insisted, Danny doesn’t get this kind of information wrong. As her curiosity was getting the better of her, she decided to take the risk and ask this man why he was smiling and singing in the rain. After cautiously inquiring as to the Scottish result, she then summoned up the courage to ask, well, why are you so happy then? His reply was, because England lost to Ireland! So, the fact that Scotland had been humiliated by little Italy was offset by the pleasure in seeing England lose out on their dreams of winning the title as they had been defeated by Ireland. 


Racism in Scotland?

One of the first and indeed one of the best black footballers to play for England back in the 1980s was John Barnes whose family came from Jamaica. Barnes was extremely talented and skilful and after impressing at Watford (the first English club he played for), he was signed by Liverpool, where he went on to win a plethora of titles, cups and other prizes. The first time he played for England, he was booed, not by the opposition who might have wanted to put him off, but by his own fans, the English who refused to accept him as an English player due to the colour of his skin. This was at a time when racism was rife on the English terraces and so this kind of behaviour though shocking, was not entirely surprising.

After John Barnes retired as a football player, he became a manager for a few years.  One of the teams that he managed was Celtic, one of the big teams from Glasgow. After he had left Celtic, a Scottish journalist caught up with him to reflect on his experiences in football. One of the questions asked was whether or not Barnes had ever been racially abused in Scotland due to the colour of his skin. He answered by saying that he had never been racially abused for the colour of his skin and that the only abuse he had ever suffered in Scotland was for being English.

This sums up the Scottish approach to racism and to the English pretty well. Glasgow is one of the few, if not the only city in Europe to possess a museum of Religion which describes the beliefs and ideas behind all religions, not just Christianity. This is largely because Glasgow is a multicultural, cosmopolitan city.



I have tried to give a humorous but at the same time serious description of some of the main aspects of Scottish language and Scottish culture. There is a stereotype of the Scots being mean and tight-fisted with their money, however, my personal experience is that they are extremely generous people, probably far more than the average English person. If you want to see how generous the English are, look no further than the International Evening event at the annual IATEFL Slovenia conference to see what few products are on the English table compared to the numerous delicacies and delights provided by many of the smaller and poorer countries from the Balkan regions.

Among the different regions of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, I would say that the Scots are probably the friendliest of the lot and have a great sense of humour, which makes them even more appealing to me, as I can always share a joke or two with them. 


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Tagged  Voices