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The Glasgow Dialect (Ra Patter)

By John Walker

This little project occurred as the result of woefully inaccurate information I have seen on various USA websites, concerning the sacred dialect of Glasgow, and the dialects of  Scotland in general, and I hope it will go some way to putting matters straight. I would stress that I am not having a go at English people, or those English speakers who live elsewhere, but I am merely trying to illustrate the difficulties that Scots people have with the English language. English speakers  resident in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere, are all allowed to converse freely in the media in their own versions of “English” without criticism, yet, as it will be found if you care to read on, in these little islands that comprise the UK, we are not.

When I first began to write about my experiences of Glasgow Corporation Transport I could not help but recall the speech used by the bus crews, and how strangers to the city would have struggled to understand the Glasgow dialect. As the articles I wrote have often been read by people from outside the UK I thought it may be appropriate to give a fairly brief guide to the local dialect.

The United Kingdom is a puzzle to people who hail from elsewhere. It professes to comprise four separate “countries”. However, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, are not generally recognised as separate entities elsewhere in the world, and we are all often lumped unceremoniously together as “England”. Why then is it that a resident of Seattle can have a conversation with someone from Florida, thousands of miles away without having to ask for words to be translated, when a Londoner cannot make out a word spoken by a Scotsman, who only lives 400 miles away?  If it were permissible, then Scots would conduct their official business in their own tongue, which, although using English as a base, could be, and indeed formerly was, regarded as a separate language. The requirement to use Standard English for international communication would pose little problem, as, although our local politicians may be ignorant of the fact, we are in that precise situation already.

I am not in favour of the class system that has persisted in most European countries for centuries, although I would have to say that the system exists whether we like it or not. Therefore we have a “working class”, which comprises most of us, a “middle class”, which comprises the majority of our political leaders, and the “upper class” which tends not to become involved in much but ensures that the “controlling” middle classes make decisions that will be favourable towards them. Unfortunately, in Scotland particularly, we also have an “unemployed class”, which comprises a significant part of the population. Therefore, the dialects referred to in this article tend to be the common speech that is very much the preserve of the underprivileged many, rather than the select few.

The common speech of almost the whole of  Scotland  utilises “Broad Scots” words and phrases that are not recognised as “good English” by our governing bodies, and we have to learn from an early age to substitute the words concerned for their English equivalent. This is made very difficult by the fact that some words do not really translate, and our syntax, grammar, and choice of tense, is often different from standard written English. To cite an example, the Scots word “sleekit” is usually translated into Standard English as “sly”, which in no way conveys its true meaning to a Scots speaker, where the word conveys so much more.

Schoolchildren in the UK are obliged to attempt to learn the English as spoken in the south east of England, despite the fact that a Scottish child will never be able to cope with the vowel sounds used by the people of what are known as the “English Home Counties”. If there is any doubt about that, if a southern Englishman utters the words “fir” and “fur” then it will be almost impossible to differentiate between the two, as the vowel sounds are too similar. In Scotland the corresponding vowel sounds are very different, and the problem does not arise. Also, it is almost impossible for us to pronounce those words like our English cousins. In fact, the vowel sounds utilised in south east England are actually beyond the scope of most English speakers worldwide. If you don’t believe me, listen to a native of Newcastle upon Tyne in north east England. Nevertheless, we Scots are obliged to try and master what is to us an alien and over elaborate manner of pronouncing the English language, and this results in a distinct lack of confidence when we are forced to speak “proper English” in public.

Although most of us are able to master written English, the pure spoken language is beyond all but very few of us. Scottish newsreaders on television try very hard to minimise their Scottish accents, particularly the glottal stop, and it is a great source of amusement for me to hear them say, “and now for the Scoddish football results”. They develop a sort of “educated Scots drawl”, which results in this tendency, although one would have to hear it to appreciate the sounds actually made. In essence, we have to make an attempt at being bi-lingual, which causes us untold grief, and creates a source of amusement and feeling of superiority in our English neighbours. It is true that, of the many Scottish dialects, the Glasgow dialect in particular tends to amount to mere mispronunciation of Standard English, interspersed with a relatively small number of slang words, localised phraseology, and rhyming slang, but read on.
 
Other than the Gaelic (a language which does receive official recognition) spoken by what is estimated to be less than 30,000 out of 5 million Scots, Scotland is not credited with having its own language. Our education system ensures that we continue to read and write in English, but is totally ineffective in convincing us that we should all speak like educated southern English speakers. If the main Scandinavian languages are brought into play, many Scandinavians will state that Danish is merely a dialect of Norwegian, yet the Danish language is afforded its separate status, distinct from Norwegian. The Danish grammar and syntax is almost identical to Norwegian, but the pronunciation and spelling differs somewhat. On the other hand Swedish, which shares the same historical roots with both languages, has developed in a manner very much removed from both.  I lived for a brief period in the north of Norway and being Scottish, found the spoken language very easy to assimilate, far easier than “Home Counties English”. When I later visited Sweden on several occasions and attempted to converse in Swedish with the locals they invariably thought I was Danish, due to what they described as my “Lowland” accent. At no time when I attempted to speak Swedish was I mistaken for English. On recent visits to Denmark, the Danes thought our family was from The Netherlands or Germany by our efforts at speaking Danish, and again we were never taken for English.

The Scottish education system has slowly but surely caused the disappearance of many Broad Scots words formerly common in everyday usage, although several books and dictionaries have been produced to remind us of the language and speech of our forefathers. There was an experiment in the county of Ayrshire some years ago to educate pupils in their native tongue, but whatever became of it I am not aware. I would suppose that successive Education Committees ensured its rapid demise, in the name of conformity. We once had our own language, but people who should have known better allowed it to be taken from us.

Now to the speech of Glasgow, and the “Glasgow” accent.  It is extremely difficult to give a geographical breakdown of where the Glasgow dialect is spoken, as there are similarities in the common speech throughout the entire west of Scotland. However, those resident speakers who live within the city boundary tend to be the only true speakers of “Ra patter.” The reasons for this are relatively simple, as Glasgow shares the common trait of all cities in having its own unique “slang” words, phraseology, and rhyming slang, which tend to be watered down the further from the city centre one travels. If a native of Glasgow strikes up a conversation with, say a native of Motherwell, a town some 10 miles distant from Glasgow, and a native of Greenock, almost 30 miles to the west, then there will be broad similarities in their speech, and someone from outwith the west of Scotland who is listening in will simply think that three Glaswegians are having a chinwag. However, after a sentence or two all parties involved will (or should) begin to realise they are actually speaking slightly different dialects. The chances are that both the Motherwell man and the Greenock man will identify the home town of the Glaswegian, but there will be little scope for the Glasgow man to identify the home town of either of the other two, whom he will simply refer to as “teuchters”, which is a word of Gaelic origin used by Glaswegians to refer to non-city types.

An interesting point to note is that a native Glaswegian, who speaks the everyday language of the street, will refer to his native city simply as “Glesca”, with the “s” being soft as in “sugar”. Those Scots, including Glaswegians, professing to have had a “proper” education will often refer to the city as “Glazgo”, or “Glassgow”, hissing the “s” like a snake if they object to putting a “z” in the word, and the rest of Scotland tends to refer to it as “Glesgae”, or “Glesga.”  It is therefore extremely important to identify and understand the local version, as in “Ra Glesca buses” (The Glasgow Buses).

Stanley Baxter made a great play on everyday Glasgow speech with his “Parliamo Glasgow” television series, and this little article will make no attempt at trying to do what has been done before in that respect. There is a link to examples of Stanley’s brilliance elsewhere on this site. Glaswegians will realise that Stanley Baxter takes it a bit to the extreme, but his work nevertheless provides some clever examples of how everyday Glasgow speech must sound to outsiders. The essence of Baxter’s observations is that Glaswegians tend to string the words of fairly short sentences together into single incomprehensible words. Whether Glaswegians accept that as fact does not matter as it is true!

Another point, not often considered by non Scots who think we all speak like Billy Connolly, is that various Scottish dialects exist quite separate from Glaswegian, and Glasgow has its own very distinct dialect. Why is the Glasgow dialect so different to the other Scottish dialects? The answer lies in the fact that Glasgow is situated very close to Ireland, and that opens up a whole new can of worms.

Aside from the relatively few Scottish Gaelic speakers, the rest of Scotland tends to use dialects comprised of “Auld Scots” words shared between them, the most universal of which is the Germanic word “ken” for English “know”. The word appears to have crept in to Lowland Scots speech, along with many others, as a result of sea trade with the Netherlands and Scottish historical ties with Scandinavia. In these modern times, in every other area in Scotland except Glasgow, the “ken” word, which is (nowadays) detested by Glasgow people, is used. What is used in Glasgow then? The fact is that the plain English word “know” is used in Glasgow.

In an attempt to research this wee article I came across a website in the USA which purports to be devoted to the study of “Scotch – Irish”?? including the language of “Ullans”, of which more later. I almost fell off my chair when I read “Some examples of Ullans still in use today”.

One example given was “Och aye ye bonnie wee lassie”. Whilst all of those words are in fact used in Glasgow, the sentence is totally meaningless, as whilst it would theoretically be possible to utter such words in the order they have been quoted, it is likely that men in white coats would appear to carry you off to the local lunatic asylum if you were to make such a statement in public.  The least said of that infamous other “Scotch” quotation “Och aye the noo”, the better, as Scottish people simply do not use such a phrase, and nor do they appear to have ever done so. It appears to have been an English, or other, attempt at mimicking the Scots tongue.

Modern Glasgow speech owes its existence to several factors. Glasgow started off as a village in the county of Lanarkshire, and the people would have spoken a dialect known as Lowland Scots or “Lallans”. This language, which was officially recognised as being separate from English, contained loan words that appear to be of Dutch and Scandinavian origin. It was spoken throughout lowland Scotland, including its eastern side, and Glaswegians will no doubt be disgusted to learn that the original inhabitants of Glasgow would have made prolific use of the word “ken”, the same as their fellow Lowland countrymen in Edinburgh and the Lothians.

In the early 17th century a substantial number of Protestant Scots farmers from the west of Scotland, together with a considerable number of  Protestant English, were deliberately “planted” by the British Government in the Irish province of Ulster, when lands formerly occupied by Roman Catholic landowners was offered to them on very attractive terms. The land concerned was often confiscated from the original landowners by various dubious means. The politics and history of this have been adequately documented elsewhere, and are the principal cause of much of the political and sectarian unrest still current in Ireland. The mixture of Lowland Scots, Northern English, and the English spoken by non “Gaeltacht” speaking Irish natives resulted in creation of the language known as “Ullans”. Glasgow readers should please note with shock and horror that the “ken” word was still universally used in Ullans and that phenomenon was to continue for a very long time.

Glasgow began to become industrialised from the late 18th century and a significant part of its workforce emigrated to Glasgow from Ireland, in what almost became a reversal of the circumstances in the century before. The majority of these immigrants tended to come from Ulster, which was geographically closer to Glasgow than southern Ireland, whose immigrants would tend to arrive in Liverpool. The Ulstermen brought to Glasgow with them their “Ullans” dialect, which by that time would have been closer to Standard English than the “Lallans” dialect spoken in Scotland. The Irish potato famine in the late 19th century also ensured that many further Ullans speakers landed on the quays of Glasgow, and there is little doubt that the Ullans language had the effect of “Anglifying” the Glasgow dialect. A study of everyday Scottish speech will reveal that the Glasgow dialect actually contains more pure English words than any other Scottish dialect, with the possible exception of those dialects that occur where the original language would have been Gaelic. It is the manner in which Glaswegians pronounce the English words which causes the difficulty.

So, the “Glesca patter” began as a mixture of Irish witticisms, plain North of England, and dour Lowland Scots speech, and this phenomenon did not exist elsewhere in Scotland. Therefore Glaswegians speak like no other Scots, and in that they take much pride. Incidentally, the best place to hear “ra patter” is at the Glasgow Barrowland market, known locally as “Ra barras”. However, please do not be tempted to join in “ra patter”, as attempts to ape Glasgow speech are usually taken as an insult by its good citizens. 

What about the “ken” word? Well, my father’s aunt was born in Parkhead, Glasgow, about 1890, and she still used the word “ken”, but only in nursery rhymes and songs. Her sister, my grandmother, died before I was born. So I would reckon the “ken” word maybe disappeared from ordinary Glasgow speech in the late 19th Century, or possibly the early 20th. It doesn’t really matter, as these days you’ll never hear a Glaswegian use the word at all.

It was my original intention to list a glossary of words used in the Glasgow dialect, together with their respective English and ordinary Scots translations. However, in typical Glasgow fashion, the Glaswegian “patter” will often steadfastly refuse to adopt the “normal” Scots words, rejecting them as too coarse or “broad” for use in the City of Culture.  The result is that Glaswegians tend to drift in and out of broad Scots and Standard English as the fancy takes Sunday, January 12, 2014 1:01 PM the speaker, and how “Glasgow” he or she wishes to sound. Glaswegians will often “turn oan ra patter” a yard wide when they wish to impress persons of non Glaswegian origin, or simply to bond with each other when they perhaps meet on holiday abroad. Therefore a definitive study of Glasgow speech would be an enormous task. Also, much generalisation and confusion would arise and I did not wish to see any “common Ullans phrases still used in Glasgow” appear on any of the world’s websites. So here is a very brief guide to Glasgow pronunciation:-

Firstly, Glasgow vowels are usually very long, especially in words consisting of only one syllable, and often almost equate to a double vowel. An example of the vowel “a” is found in the English word “want”, which is dealt with in Glasgow as “wa-ant”.

The vowel “e” is similarly treated with “bed”, sounding almost like “be-ed”.

The vowel “i” is also doubled, and this is noticeable in words like “right” being pronounced as “righ-it”. Well, almost, but not qui-ite. The actual sound produced has to be heard to be appreciated.

The vowel “o” can be short as in the now little favoured word “ony”, which means “any”, or long as in “stoap”, which not surprisingly means “stop”.

The vowel “u” can be short as in “durt” (dirt), or long as in “stuupit” (stupid)

 

Now we have to deal with some Glasgow specialities. Words ending in “-and”, are usually pronounced as:-
“hand” = “haun”, “stand”= “staun”. For the benefit of US types we pronounce these  “awn”, as in Goldie Hawn. The final “d” is always silent in Glasgow, but not elsewhere. In Fife, the only other place in Scotland where they pronounce these words similar to Glaswegian, albeit with a much shorter vowel sound, the end “d” is usually retained.

Similarly the word “car” is referred to as a “caur”, and tramcars were referred to as “caurs”.  “Jar” and “Bar” used to be referred to as “jaur” and “baur”, although I doubt whether the present Glasgow generation would favour that pronunciation.

A Glasgow speciality, although used in some other surrounding districts, concerns words like “care”, “bear”, “stare”, “stair”. These are pronounced “cerr”, “berr”, “sterr”, and “sterr” respectively. The Scots word “flair” for “floor” even gets similar treatment as “flerr” in Glasgow. If ever there was proof required that the Glasgow dialect was influenced by non-Gaelic Irish speakers, then here we have it.
A Glasgow bus conductor addressing his passengers could be heard shouting “Zurronymerrferrsuprasterr?” (Are there any more fares upstairs?)

Yet another Glasgow speciality consists of words where the last vowel is “o”:-

Top = tap, drop = drap, off = aff, and so on. Throughout most of the rest of Scotland, these words are pronounced “tope”, “droap”, and “oaff”.

The letter “l” causes the production of another unusual sound, especially when it occurs at the end of a word in its double form. Here we end up with well = weww, bell = beww, swell = sweww, etc. This is not a speech impediment, and occurs in other UK dialects. Unfortunately the final product is difficult to describe, but the “l” tends to sound like a “w”.

The letter “r” is rolled in a trilling manner found more or less throughout Scotland, unlike in most English counties (with the notable exception of Cumbria) where it almost disappears altogether.

Then we have words ending in “-ed”, and these are pronounced e.g. “melted” = “mewteed” (l replaced with w and e vowel doubled), and “sorted” = “sorteed”

We now have to consider the English words like “full”, “pull”, and “bull”, which are pronounced “fool”, “pool”, and “bool” by our “proper English” speakers. The equivalent Glasgow vowel sound for all of these words rhymes with  “hull”, or “cull”.

Two words which are afforded “speshul” treatment are “along” = “alang”, and “wrong” = “wrang”. Please note that “song” and “long” are definitely not “sang” and “lang” in Glasgow. Elsewhere in Scotland, mibbe, bit no in Glesca, nevvur!!

A further barrier to understanding Glaswegians is their tendency to substitute “th” at the beginning of a word with “r”, or to miss it out altogether if the word concerned is not the first word in a phrase. Therefore, “rat” = “that”, “rey” = “those”, “these”, or “them”. 
“Rat perr ‘err”  = “That pair there”. However, yet again our favourite dialect decides that it is possible to use “th” as in the English words “although”, and “thanks”. In fact the substitution of the “th” sound with “r” in either of those two words would be nonsensical, widdin’t it?

And of course we are all “Scotch” and we drink “Scotch”, don’t we?  Nae chance!! We are Scottish, or Scots.  A “scotch” is a wedge shaped piece of wood designed to be placed under a wheel to brake it, and the word is also used in England, and elsewhere, to describe a measure of whisky (not whiskey, which is the Irish version). A Glaswegian will ask for a “hauf a’ whisky” and, never, ever, will the “scotch” word pass over his lips, but the whisky might!!  A “hauf” refers to the old measure of “half a gill”, and is pronounced “hoff”, or “hawf”.

Yes, we do say “Och aye!”, on occasion, but it is generally only heard as an exclamation made by persons who find themselves over exerted, or temporarily incapacitated by too minny haufs, or an elderly person attempting to rise from a low chair. It may also be used to affirm in the positive, but never accompanied by “the noo”, or any other superlatives assumed by international “experts” to be part of our everyday speech.

One must not forget the glottal stop, which is extensively used in Scotland, and indeed also in many English dialects. Not surprisingly, it is also a feature of  “proper” Danish speech, and Danes will make no attempt at correcting it, as it is part of their official pronunciation. However, here in the UK our “educated” types try to ensure that it is only for the use of common louts (like me), even going so far as to end up with the involuntary  pronunciation of the word “Scottish” as “Scoddish”, as referred to elsewhere. The glottal stop, for those who are not familiar with it, has the effect of softening consonants at the end of mono-syllabic words, or in the penultimate syllable of a word. It is impossible to describe, but consists of a sound made deep in the throat, like a faint click.

I racked my brains to find a list of Glasgow slang words unique to the city, but, considering that I moved away from the area in 1973, I  failed to find more than a handful that have survived to the present day. As indicated elsewhere, the Glasgow dialect tends to reject Broad Scots nouns and  relies more heavily on their standard  English equivalents (pronounced a la Glasgow), than other Scottish dialects. I now live in a town in the Scottish Borders which has its own local Scots dialect, but which is also rich with the influence of  the speech of  Northern England. To hear a Scots person use the Northern English word “Tarra” for “Cheerio” would be incredulous to a Glasgow man, but not here in Hawick or in nearby Langholm. We are only 15 miles from the English border, so we have the unfortunate benefit of  listening to our English neighbours also struggling with “Standard English”. The neighbouring English counties of Cumbria and Northumbria share with us more than a few words and phrases that appear to be neither Scots or English, but a fusion of both. On both sides of the border there is mutual understanding of our dialects regardless of  any perceived nationality, so perhaps that is why we Scots have to be content with being referred to as Englishmen in kilts by the rest of the world.

For the benefit of any Scots who have a problem with “The English”, our currency is accepted willingly by shopkeepers in Carlisle and Berwick-upon-Tweed, who also understand our speech, as they hear it spoken regularly, and do not mock us for it. Yet the citizens of both towns do not feel disadvantaged by being in the far flung corners of England. They are just glad that they aren’t disadvantaged by being Scots!

I apologize for the spelling of some Broad Scots words, but in the absence of an “Offishul Glesca – Inglish” dictionary, I have tried to do my best so that the Glasgow pronunciation is given some justice.

EPILOGUE

So, noo thit yez ‘uv been telt  aboot the wye thit Glesca punters yaze ra patter don’t yooz bloks try in’ make iz look luk eejits thit cannae talk right oan yer fancy high falutin’ American websites, awright!! 

 

Copyright © 2005 John Walker

John Walker Who would love to hear from other GCT platform staff.