The surprising similarities between Scots and Swedish

Photo by Jonathan Brinkhorst on Unsplash

Scots, the language spoken mostly in lowland Scotland, has some words which bear a striking resemblance to words in modern Swedish.

I grew up around Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland. Basically everyone I know from there speak varying amounts of the Scots language, depending on the exact area they’re from, their parents, their socio-economic background, and even who they’re currently speaking to, even if they’re not aware of it.

Most people don’t regard it as a separate language — it’s just “slang” English to them. I didn’t come to fully appreciate Scots as a distinct thing until I met my now wife. She’s from Philadelphia, USA, and having to explain my words and turns of phrase to her made me realise the breadth and colour of the language we use around Glasgow. It helps that we’re both kind of language nerds.

Incidentally — the kind of Lowland Scots I’m talking about is not to be confused with Doric, the dialect spoken in the North East, which I barely understand, and certainly not Gaelic, the Celtic language spoken in the Highlands and Islands, which I also don’t understand.

I had quite a few Swedish-speaking friends in university, which led me to study the basics of Swedish on Duolingo out of curiosity. It turns out to be a rather nice language, easy enough to pick up the basics, with lovely vowel sounds and a real “sing-song” quality.

Several years later, and having regrettably mostly lost touch with my Swedish friends, my Swedish language skills now mostly only extend to being really anal about pronouncing IKEA product names and offending Danish people.

Here are some of the things I still remember (Swedish/Scots):

  • Bra/Braw (good)— Swedish people, being the generally happy people they are, say “bra” (pronounced with a really round “a”, like you’re really posh) a lot. Braw isn’t all that common in Scots anymore, but you might still hear older people saying it.
  • Barn/Bairn (baby) — it’s still really common for Scottish people to call a baby a “bairn”. My family still refer to my (24 year old!) sister as “the bairn”, as she’s the youngest.
  • Hus/hoose (house) — we retain this pronunciation of house, along with other words like moose (mouse).
  • Flytta/flit (to move house) — English is missing this wonderful verb. We also use it as a noun, e.g. “a flittin”.
  • Gråta/greet (to cry)—your harassed mum might ask “what are ye greetin fur?”
  • Dyka/dook (to dive) — the “y” in Swedish is pronounced quite similarly to the “oo”. When I was younger I mostly heard this in reference to “dookin for apples”, the Halloween tradition of trying to fish apples out a barrel of water with your teeth, and “going for a dook”, i.e., landing in water (usually through misadventure). I’m not sure if the weans (children, “wee ones”) still dook for apples anymore.
  • Kika/keek (to peek) — I still hear this a lot. You might “keek” through someone’s letterbox to see if they’re home if they’re not answering the door quick enough.

I’ll leave you with a couple of anecdotes of what can go wrong as a beginner in Scots.

When I got worried my Gran wasn’t answering the door, my wife thought she’d give that last word a try, and suggested I “keich” through the letterbox (in Scots, “ch” is pronounced like in German, so sounds quite different from “keek”). This means “to shit”.

In a similar vein, she thought she’d have a go with the wonderful Scottish word “skiddling”. I don’t know if there’s a similar word in any other language, but it’s really specific in Scots. It means playing with water, and is pretty much only deployed when you’re tasked with washing the dishes as a child, and become distracted with filling the glasses up and emptying them out again — your mum will say “stop skiddling and get on with it!”.

That’s at least what my wife meant to say. Instead she said “skittering”, which means “having diarrhoea”.

As to the reason for the similarities? Scots and Swedish are both Germanic languages. The Vikings also visited Scotland from about the 8th Century onwards, pillaging our villages, and leaving their words and their ginger hair.

Updated 11 Feb 2021 to correct mistakes. I had mistakenly used two Danish words, apologies for this.

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32 year-old Glasgow-born creative, figuring out life one day at a time — ♡ cats, coffee, hops

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Stewart Everett

Stewart Everett

32 year-old Glasgow-born creative, figuring out life one day at a time — ♡ cats, coffee, hops

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