In praise of dictionaries, and regional variation

I was reading the dictionary in bed late last night / early this morning. Not a standard English dictionary, but one charting words in Scots. I was surprised to find a vast array of words I had never heard. Given that the volume is almost five hundred pages long, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, but it did. Here are half a dozen examples which could probably be used for a Scots version of “Call my bluff”:

Jurr – the noise of a small waterfall descending among stones and gravel.

Mourie – A gravelly sea-beach.

SlorkThis has two definitions – To make a disagreeable sound in eating, and to walk through slush with wet shoes that regorge the water in them.

Phring – Wife or consort.

Grue – half-formed ice.

Stravaig – To saunter or wander aimlessly

While one or two of these suggest their meaning through the sounds they make, the others are baffling. I had heard the term “Stravaigin” before, as this is a restaurant in the West End of Glasgow. Didn’t know what it mean though, until recently.

There’s a lot to be said for reading the dictionary. At the very least(!), you learn new words. My favourites are those that give you some idea of the origin of the words, such as two of my Gaelic dictionaries. Take the word “tarbh” for example. This refers to a bull. Pronounced “Tar-rav”, it comes straight from Latin, “taurus”. Many other words have an agricultural origin, or are related to the turning of the seasons. How much more evocative is “An Dùbhlachd”, the dark / stormy days, than “December”?

Getting back to English, particularly the variant spoken in Scotland, I first encountered regional variation as a child, moving from Glasgow to Midlothian. Most noticeable was the glottal stop, and using the word “ken” for “know what I mean?” at the end of sentences. For the glottal stop, think of someone saying “bottle”, and ending up with “bow-al”. In Arabic they go further, and have two letters that consist almost entirely of the glottal stop. When learning, they say that the only time westerners use those muscles is to retch, so if you feel ill when you say it, you’re getting close to the right pronunciation! Back in Scotland, the biggest variation I’ve noted is in Aberdeenshire, where “Doric” is spoken. There, I was greeted in friendly fashion with “Fit like, loon?”. Confusing, to say the least. Down here, near Glasgow, it would be “How’s it going, son?”. Doric has a wide range of words that are unfamiliar to me. The local paper, the Press and Journal, has a page devoted to Doric each day, and I felt proud if I could get through it with a good grasp of the subject under discussion. This is not in any way to disparage Doric. As an aside, there is a brilliant sketch about Doric-speaking Scots interacting with their Standard English-speaking counterparts. Search for ‘Doric call centre‘ on YouTube for it.I love the fact that such a small country can have so much dialect variation. For my North American readers, Scotland is about a quarter the size of Montana (30,000 square miles, as opposed to approximately 145,000).

So, Standard English has its place, but I love the wide range of non-Standard words in Scots. There is also a strong sense of identity and belonging in speaking some of these words. I see and hear the same things when Geordies (people in Newcastle upon Tyne) say particular things, such as “Haway hinny, we’re gannin’ doon the ‘Toon”. Lovely. In Britain, we’ve historically had linguistic input from a variety of sources, including Europe, Scandinavia and Ireland. Since the middle of the twentieth century, we’ve also incorporated phrases and words from further afield. I frequently use the word “shufti”, in the sense of having a look at something. This was brought back by British soldiers from the Middle-East, and Arabic.

What I’d like to know from my friends from outside the UK is this: Do you find that there is a lot of regional variation in your speech? Luxembourg for example, is a tiny country, but do people up north near Wiltz and Hosingen speak a different dialect to those down near the French border? What about Germany? I’m pretty sure that they use different expressions between north and south, but perhaps my friends can answer that. In the United States, it is readily apparent that significant regional variation exists, just compare a speaker from the Louisiana bayou to someone from Washington State. But what about people living in the same state? Do you hear a lot of variation from one end of (for example) Nebraska to the other?

This is intended to be an open discussion, so please let me know what you think. I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on regional variations, or just what you think of dictionaries!


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