Scottish accents

Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Mon Dec 3 07:52:12 UTC 2001

I lost the URL that goes with this article, so here it is in its entirety.
Fair use in my opinion, but feel free to sue me.

The Scotsman, 3 December 2001
Have kilt, will lilt
Wha's like us? Damn few, and they're a' deid etc. Ok, so wha soonds like us?
Well, damn few again, but they a' want tae, it seems.
Which is why a couple of language experts have come up with the idea of a CD
to help people the world over learn to speak with an accurate and realistic
Scottish accent.
The trouble is, boffins from Edinburgh University have reasoned, is that
when people think of Scottish accents, they think Rab C, or Billy Connolly,
or Scotty from Star Trek. You could add to that Sean Connery, or Mel Gibson
in Braveheart, or for the very elderly, Harry Lauder. Or for the very
lacking in taste and musical appreciation, the legendary Andy Stewart.
The result of the attempt to fix this terrible injustice is Scotspeak, a CD
which shows how to mimic four genuine, non-hammed-up regional accents. The
boffins were approached by the Scots Language Resource Centre in Perth after
approaches "by actors from home and abroad who wanted to know more about
Scots accents".
It is expected that thousands of CDs will be winging their way to wannabe
actors and actresses the world over. Glassfronted beach- houses in
California will echo to impassioned cries of: "Ah sed, gies the boatle or ah
'll murdur ye".
(Readers - especially linguistically qualified ones - should take my
attempts at transcribing my own accent phonetically as those of a mere
punter. However, should anyone be able to guess my exact birthplace, a
Rabbie Burns tea towel will be your reward).
Meanwhile, Manhattan penthouses will be the backdrop to whispered: "Ah only
ivvur luv'd yoo, ye ken that, hen!" And sweat-soaked classes at RADA will
see scores of beautiful people chanting: "It wiz yoo! Ah ken it wiz yoo that
stole ma jam piece!"
Which is all very nice (ye ken) but it will be our undoing. Because why fix
something that isn't broken? Or more accurately, something that is clearly
broken but which everybody likes?
People the world over love Scots accents the way they hear them most often
which is from the mouth of Scotty in Star Trek re-runs, wailing: "Ah cannae
wurk mirrakuls, captain!" while Kirk pretends he (a) understands and (b)
They adore Sean Connery as he slurs his way through an accent that while
truly charming, is plainly a work of fiction and a surplus of "sh" sounds.
And they think Mel Gibson is just the very dab as Braveheart. So much so
that they all think they can do a Scottish accent.
It must be the most imitated in the world: seldom have I met anyone who didn
't think they could manage it, from a fat sweaty Turkish lad who was trying
to drown me by renting out faulty dive equipment to me on holiday some years
ago ("You Scotteesh? Ha! Feerst I teech you thees then I teech you thee
sword! Ahahahah!") to every single American I ever met. In the past they
would cry "Ah Mishter Blofeld! We meet again" in accents that sound rather
as if they're shouting through a mouth of toffees coated in broken glass,
and in more recent days they shout "An unyin huz layurz! Shrek huz layurz!"
None of these are realistic, but why stop them? Why tell them the right way
to do it? What if they then don't actually like us as much and stop giving
us a far bigger share of movie space and affection than our nation's size
might otherwise merit? Foreigners' perceptions of the way we sound, for some
inexplicable reason, make them happy. And trying to sound like us makes them
even happier. Why? Maybe the language experts can give us a clue: it is
odd - other than for occasional racist comic value. You do not, for example,
see Germans enter an office and have people loudly do impressions of them
speaking English in an Allo Allo accent. And French people likewise speaking
English don't find themselves parodied.
But we do, for some reason, and don't take offence (though after the first
few dozen American colleagues' cheery attempts at Scotty accents or "There's
a moose loose aboot the hoose" sort of thing, patience can wear thin).
But a real Scottish accent, well, that's a different matter. Some years ago,
in Hong Kong, I worked beside a Chinese woman who spoke flawless Cantonese,
Mandarin, English and French. After six months of working together, one day
she said pleasantly: "You speak English quite well: what is your first
language?" I'm sure my reply was suitably suave and witty, but it wouldn't
have mattered anyway, as she admitted that she understood somewhere around
half of what I ever said anyway, and usually laughed to humour me.
Likewise, on a recent work visit to New York, it was with a heavy heart I
learned my hotel was to be on 36th Street. Not that I have anything against
36th Street, I don't, it's perfectly functional. As is 37th which I hate.
And 38th and all the other 30s because, rendered through a Scottish accent
such as mine, cab drivers who seldom have English as their first language
(either), assume it's 50-something.
Every time. Having got in late at night and said Fifth Avenue and 36th
Street, we set off. I see 30th pass, then 31st, and happily think "home, and
sleep". At 32nd I search for cash to pay. At 35th I undo my seatbelt and get
ready to get out. We cross 36th at high speed, and I see my hotel blur past.
By 37th I'm querying: "Um: 36th?" The cabbie says "Yas! Fifty seven!" By
39th I'm shouting "Thirty six, three, six," and he's yelling "You say fifty
seven! You say fifty seven!"
By 45th I'm walking homeward, shaken, in an incoherent sort of way. Every
I feel sure if I attempted it in a Sean Connery accent I might have more
luck. "Yesh, I wishhhh to go towardsh sherty-shixth shtreet, and fasht!"
would surely get me there, as might a Braveheartish "Parrrrrrk Avenue and
Thirrrrrrrty Sixth: ye can take our countrrry, ye can take our taxi farrres
Don't get me wrong, I love being Scottish. As hobbies go, it's a winner. And
people love it. They just don't understand what I say much of the time.
Which is probably no bad thing either.

Paul Frank
English translation from Chinese, German,
French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese
Tel. +33 450 709 990 - Thollon, France
E-mail: paulfrank at

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