Paradigm, No 17 (September, 1995)

Sources for Scots pronunciation in the
Eighteenth Century

Charles Jones

Dept of English Language,
The University of Edinburgh,
David Hume Tower,
George Square,
Edinburgh EH8 9JX


The eighteenth century can be said to be a period of mixed fortune for the Scottish nation. On the one hand, the Scottish Enlightenment evidenced what was perhaps to be the country’s greatest period with respect to achievements in art, architecture, writing, economics and politics, and yet at the same time it was the century during which many saw the loss of the country’s sovereignty and the calamitous end of the sovereign claim of the Jacobite party. At the same time it was the period during which the greatest damage was inflicted upon what had been the native language of a substantial part of the population from the sixth century, a language-death situation hastened by the defeat at Culloden of the Scottish clans and the subsequent Clearances. The almost complete eradication of Gaelic was ensured too by the zeal of institutions such as the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge whose schools in the Highlands although ‘to be supplied with books, viz. Bibles, Gaelic and English, New Testaments, Spelling-books, catechisms, &c’, nevertheless seems primarily to have an English language educational bias:

Thousands of the natives of the remote Highlands have, by means Of these schools, attained to such knowledge of the English language as qualified them for intercourse with the inhabitants of other parts of the British empire, and for deriving all theimprovement which that language affords. 1

Lowland Scotland was not protected from ‘linguistic cleansing’ either. The eighteenth century preference for a linguistic usage which was at once fixed and immutable had a special resonance in Scotland, where Lowland Scots was at best perceived by the English Establishment as vulgar, barbaric and certainly lacking in propriety. There were many in Scotland too who perceived disadvantages in persisting in the ‘auld leid’ in the face of rapidly changing social, economic and political circumstance and who unashamedly advocated its abandonment in favour of some model which, although perhaps not full-blown southern Court English, was certainly deficient in the more ‘broad’ elements of Scotch linguistic usage. Even an Enlightened Scot like James Beattie could claim that: ‘The language . . . . of the most learned and polite persons in London, and the neighbouring Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, ought to be accounted the standard of the English tongue, especially in accent and pronunciation’. 2 Sheridan’s Edinburgh lectures are well known in this context and undoubtedly were undertaken as a fulfilment of his central linguistic reforming aim: ‘The establishment of an uniformity of pronunciation throughout all his Majesty’s British dominions’, a constituency which, for him, all too clearly encompassed ‘North Britain’. One reaction in Scotland was that of the Select Soceity in Edinburgh which published a well-known special set of Regulations ‘for promoting the reading and speaking of the English Language in Scotland’:

As the intercourse between this part of GREAT-BRITAIN and theCapital daily increases, both on account of business and amusement, And must still go on increasing, gentlemen educated in SCOTLAND have long been sensible of the disadvantages under which they labour, from their imperfect knowledge of the ENGLISH TONGUE, And the impropriety with which they speak it.

Experience hath convinced SCOTSMEN, that it is not impossible for persons born and educated in this country, to acquire such knowledge of the ENGLISH TONGUE, as to write it with some tolerable purity.

But, with regard to the other point, that of speaking with propriety, as little has been hitherto attempted, it has generally been taken for granted, that there was no prospect of attempting any thing with a probability of success; though, at the same time, it is allowed to be an accomplishment, more important, and more universally useful, than the former. 3

For the modern historical phonologist at least, there has been a positive outcome of this zeal for linguistic reformation. The sustained attempt throughout the century to replace a ‘debased’ dialect with a model of linguistic propriety led to the production of a great many school books on spelling and pronunciation as well as a set of other specialised guides to pronunciation which provide for the modern observer a ready source for the reconstruction of the speech habits of Scots in the period. The sources we can turn to are as plentiful and varied as those for English language materials and, while many of them may be said to be an imitation of English models, others are unique to a Scottish linguistic descriptive context. It is useful to divide the evidence-providing materials into at least four main types, although within these there are overlaps as well as clear subdivisions: first, short lists and catalogues of Scots pronunciation characteristics, constructed mainly, it has to be admitted, to point to their alleged shortcomings in comparison with some standard, usually the London metropolitan, norm; two, specialised orthographies attempting to capture specifically Scottish pronunciation characteristics; three, spelling books, usually aimed at an audience of schoolchildren; four, pronouncing dictionaries; five, grammar books and treatises; six, general essays on the nature of language.

Short Lists and Catalogues

Under this head we might include those sets of brief, generalised (and on occasion very informative, no matter how stereotypical) lists of Scots pronunciation characteristics, mainly of the kind indicating where Scottish speakers are ‘prone to err’. Although some of these accounts are fairly detailed, others are tantalisingly brief, notably the one provided by the northern Englishman Nares:

Mistakes in quantity are not uncommon, and indeed a very principal error in the pronunciation of our northern neighbours is that of lengthening the vowels which we pronounce short, and of shortening those which we make long: thus for head they say in Scotland heed, for take tak, etc. 4

Perhaps the best known of the more extensive summaries is John Walker’s ‘Rules to be Observed by the Natives of Scotland for attaining a just Pronunciation of English’ in his A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary:

That pronunciation which distinguishes the inhabitants of Scotland is of a very different kind from that of Ireland, and may be divided into the quantity, quality, and accentuation of the vowels. With respect to quantity, it may be observed that the Scotch pronounce almost all their accented vowels long. Thus, if I am not mistaken, they would pronounce habit, hay-bit; tepid, tee-pid; sinner, see-ner; conscious, cone-shus; and subject, soob-ject. 5

Despite the limitations of Walker’s re-spelling system and descriptive terminology, his observations are not without merit and provide much more helpful information than the parallel, but less immediately clear, section in Sheridan’s Appendix to his A General Dictionary of the English Language:

With regard to the natives of SCOTLAND &emdash;as their dialect differs more, and in a greater number of points, from the English, than that of any others who speak that language, it will require a greater number of rules, and more pains to correct it. The most material difference in point of pronunciation, and which pervades their whole speech, is that of always laying the accent on the vowel, in words where it ought to be on the consonant . . . . for it is in this that the chief difference between the Scotch and English pronunciation consist. 6

An extremely helpful list of ‘words in which the Natives of North Britain are most apt to err’ is to be found in the anonymous A Spelling-Book upon a New Plan, 7 whose author proclaims that ‘It may not be improper here to set down a few of those words in which the Natives of North Britain are most apt to err, in order that the teacher may be particularly on his guard to prevent the . . . . children from falling into these common errors’. Some examples of ‘Common’ versus ‘True’ versions are:


 Perhaps the most full and detailed summary of contemporay Scots phonetic characteristics is to be found in the second volume of James Elphinston’s Propriety Ascertained in Her Picture, (or English Speech and Spelling Rendered Mutual Guides, Secure Alike from Distant, and from Domestic, Error) in a section entitled Analysis of the Scottish Dialect. 8 Summarising this section under DHE CONSEQUENT CONFUZION, Elphinston concludes:

Infinite must be dhe confusion from the Scottish interchange (or coincidence) ov different or even opposite vowels; the interchange of pike and pic, titel and tittel, az ov duke and duc; the coincidence of wake and walk; walks, wakesand wax; take, and tac, almost with talk; bade and bad, almoast widh bawed; scarc [sic] with scar, both uttered caur;hope and hop, sope and sop, note, knot, and not; coat and cot, rode, and rod, toad and tod, cloke and cloc, or dhe like; dhe vocal gradacion ov peat, pit, pet, pat; into pit, pet, pat, pot: like dhe Inglish jargonnic sat out for set out; or interchainge ov set and sit, lay and ly. If came and cam be equally distinct from calm; dhe last, prolonging a slender shut, cannot also prolong a broad, more dhan can a slender open be interchainged widh a slender shut prolonged. Calm cannot dhen be caum, psalm cannot chime widh shawm, nor alms and aums dhen be caum, psalm cannot chime widh shawm, nor almsand aums coincide. Salvacion similarly can no more be strained into salvahcion, dhan into salvaucion. 9

Elphinston even attempts to provide ‘A faithfool specimen ov Scottish colloquial iddiom’, 10 or of what he describes as ‘dhe old dialect’ or ‘true (dhat iz, braud) Scotch’:

Ye’r aw wrang: he’s up e’ dhe buckel (or weel at hemsal). But I dread he’I gae af at dhe nail wih hemsal: I wos he mayna faw awstaps, or gan a gray gate. He leves on nae deaf nets: he fists at hac an mainger, ev no on wein an wastels. Aw dhes’l coast hem monny a saut tear, though he let na on, an kens I hev sin hez hairs gret afore noo. its el yoor comon to’ spic sae: ev he be en sec a tacking, he spoails (or speils) good (u French) leikly. Bat deed, he woz ey a spelt bairn: nabody cud tal hwat he wod baut, or thoughthe sud be last at hiz ain haund. 11

This passage, Elphinston asserts, ‘may run into Inglish dhus’:

Yoo ar all in dhe wrong: he iz wel to’ pas, or in good condiscion. But I dred hiz running riot: I wish he may not fall to’ pieces, or go to’pot. He livs on no hollow nuts: he feats at rac and mainger, if not on wine and walnuts. All dhis will cost him manny a briny tear, dho he poots a good face on it, hwile he knows I have seen hiz hart redy to’ burst before now. It il becoms yoo to’ talk so. if he be in such a case (or such a taking), he belies hiz appearance. But indeed, he waz always a spoil’d child: noboddy cood tel hwat he wood be at; or thaught he shood be left at hiz own dipozal.

Given his well attested anti-Scottish bias, Kenrick’s rendering of a passage from Johnson’s Idler, translated by ‘an essayist [who] must be a North-Briton, and not a native of England’ 12 perhaps smarts of parody:

Eezy poeetry iz that in wheetsh nateuril thots air expressed without violins too the langwidsh. Thee diskriminaiting karitir ov eez konsists principally in the dikshun, for awl trew poeetry reequirs that thee sentimints be nateuril. langwidsh suffirs violinss by harsh or by dairing figurs, by unshootibl transpozeeshun, by unecuzyl aksptaishuns ov wurdz, and any lisins wheetsh wood bee avoided by a ritir ov proz.

There is too the summation of ‘The common and striking differences between the Scotch and English accent’ (again containing some of the descriptive confusions of Walker and Sheridan) provided in the anonymous A General View of English Pronunciation: to which are added EASY LESSONS for the use of the English Class &emdash; probably wrongly ascribed by Alston to William Scott:

The difference between the Scotch and English, in the sound of these vowels lies chiefly in this,&endash;that the former confound the a1 with e1, as ba1d for be1d, and back again, as he1 b-it, for ha1b-it; e1 with i1, as fe1t for fi1t; bliss (made a verb) for ble1ss, ri1d for re1d: &emdash; o1 short with o2 long, as lo2ng for lo1ng, and mo2 st for mo2 -st. The common and striking differences between the Scotch and English accent, is in the former generally making short syllable long, as bo2 -nd for bo1 nd, pri2 -vy; pri1 v-y; ta2 lent for ta1 l--ent; te3 -pid for te1 p-id: and long syllables short, as po1st for po2st; no1t-ice for no2-tice; cra1dle for cra2dle; ca1d-ence for ca2 -dence. 13

 In his A Plan for an English Grammer-School Education James Buchanan shares the recurring concern of some of the above commentators for the significance of differences of ‘length’ or ‘quantity’ of vowel segments in distinguishing the idiosyncratic nature of contemporary Scots: ‘Quantity is the measure of sounds, and determines them to be long or short’: [Editor’s note: in the following Buchanan’s long and short vowels are indicated as long ‘a’, etc, and short, ‘e’, etc. ]

I shall adduce but a few examples, out of a multitude, to shew how North-Britons destroy just quantity, by expressing the long sound for the short, and the short for the long; as abhor for abhor, abhorrence for abhorrence, abolish for abolish, thron for throne [sic], munt for mount, muntain for mountain, funtain for fountain, a munt for amount, typ for type, cairy for carry, mary for marry, apostateeze for apostaize, sympatheeze for sympathize, ceevil for civil, civileeze for civilize, comfort for cumfurt, eetem for item, eer for ire, leer for lyre, breer for briar, deemond for diamond, maijesty for majesty, &c, &c. 14

 Brief and usually anecdotal descriptions of Scots usage and the prevalent attitudes towards it are often to be found too in letters addressed to the editors of periodicals such as The Gentleman’s Magazine, The Scots Magazine and The Weekly Magazine, reminiscent of a practice still common in the letters pages of the modern Scotsman and Glasgow Herald. Such eighteenth century materials have never been fully investigated and even a cursory glance at them suggests that they contain a rich collection of interesting data.

Specialised Orthographies

While eighteenth century writers on Scots pronunciation did not develop the innovative phonetic alphabet type of representation manifested in Thomas Spence of Newcastle’s New Alphabetin his The Grand Repository of the English Language (1775), there are at least two sustained attempts at modifications to and manipulations of the existing orthographic set in an attempt to represent the spoken word in a more phonetic form. In addition to the occasional ‘respellings’ and ‘naïve’ spellings which surface in several treatises where an author fails to use specialised phonetic representations (for instance, James Dun’s [1766] manipulation of conventional orthography throughout his The Best Method of Teaching) full-scale attempts at spelling reform are to be found in James Elphinston’s Propriety Ascertained in Her Picture (1786, 1787) as well as in the lesser known (and in some ways more phonetically revealing) orthographic method invented by Alexander Scot and illustrated in his The Contrast of 1779:

Oy haiv bin cradeblay enfoarmed, thaut noat lass auz foartay amenant samenaurays oaf lairnen enstruck cheldren en ainay laungage boot thaut whoch auloanne ez nidful, aund nurter tham en ainay haibet oonlass thaut oaf civeeletay. Oy haiv massalf tnoan dip-lained profassours oaf fowr festengueshed oonavarsetays, caupable oaf coamoonicatten airts aund sheences auss w-al auz laungages auncient oar moadarn, yet endefferent auboot, aund froam thance oonauquant woth thaut sengle laungage whoch ez auboov ainay laungage alz; aund en whoch auloanne thase maisters ware tow empairt tnoalege. Foar moy share, oy moast aunoalege oy caunnoat winder ev Cauladoneaun paurents sand cheldren tow Yoarksheir foar leeberaul adecatione, aund pauteekelarlay foar thaut poalisht lengo, whoch ez noat spoc en Scoatlaund. 15

However, the Scotophobe Kenrick 16 is extremely wary of representations of the ‘respelling’ type, commenting that’

this method of disfiguring the orthography is very prejudicial to the learner; who, in thus being taught to speak and read, will forget, or never learn, how to write: an accurate method of spelling words being attained chiefly by reading books correctly printed; in which the word is literally presented in its due proportion of number and character to the eye . . . . The celebrated Mr Sheridan has avoided falling into this erroneous practice, and very judiciously proposes to distinguish the sound of words by certain typographical marks to be placed over particular syllables.

Spelling Books

There are, of course, several other kinds of evidence for eighteenth-century Scots pronunciation although, in general, they tend to be of a rather less reliable nature and are certainly much more indirect. While the evidence from rhyming poetry, lists of ‘Scotticisms’ and the often apocryphal comments of lay observers can all serve to both verify and constrain the information gleaned from the more direct kinds of evidential materials described above, there can be little doubt that one of our major sources of evidence&endash;in terms of the quantity of surviving materials&endash;for contemporary speech habits (and the attitudes towards them) are to be found in spelling and writing textbooks. There are a great many instances of the Spelling Book genre produced in England, a typical example being Thomas Tuite’s The Oxford Spelling-Book (Being a Complete Introduction to English Orthography) (1726), with sections on the letters of the alphabet, vowel, diphthongal and consonantal sounds; division of syllables; lists of words Alike in Sound but Different in Spelling and Signification; rules for points and abbreviations, the whole illustrated by moral and religious exercises. The tradition of Spelling Books and Spelling Catechism production in Scotland (and particularly in Edinburgh) was a strong one and tailored specifically for the instruction of school children in both private and public educational establishments set up in the period specifically as a consequence of the views of the Select Society, although that the tradition was not entirely recent is evidenced by the sustained popularity in the early part of the eighteenth century of James Porterfield’s Edinburghs English School-Master: (Being the easiest way to Spell and Read either in English or Latine, that ever was publickly known to this Day), first published at Edinburgh in 1695.

Not all of the spelling book authors were Scottish, nor were they always specifically describing Scots usage, but very often it is possible to deduce features of the pronunciation of contemporary Scots from the comments they contain. These Spelling and Writing Guides were produced in considerable quantities and from a range of publishing houses throughout Scotland; their popularity (Lennie’s Principles of English Grammar, first published at the beginning of the nineteenth century, saw an eighty-fifth edition in 1886) and day-to-day use in the classroom is testified by their scarcity today. Some reasons for their great popularity in Scotland itself are proposed by Buchanan who, after criticising teachers of English south of the border&endash;where ‘Great numbers set up for Teachers of English (when they fail in the business they were brought up to) without a preparative education, or being the least qualified for the execution of such an important trust’ 17&endash;proceeds to rhapsodise on the advantages of Scottish education: ‘Let us but travel North of the Tweed, and we will find these grand errors in a very great measure repudiated as scandalous’.

As sources for contemporary pronunciation these Spelling Books vary enormously, since the kinds of information they provide can range from the level of the almost insignificant&endash;for instance, james Gray’s A Concise Spelling book for the Use of Children (1809)&endash;to one where there is detailed description of phonetic segments (sometimes even in a specifically Scots context) notably in A Spelling-Book Upon a New Plan (1796) and A New Spelling-Book: In which the Rules of Spelling and Pronouncing the English Language are exemplified and explained by William Adie, Schoolmaster in Paisley, published there in 1769. Some of these books make little pretence at providing any significant level of linguistic information; notably the Aberdeen published The Child’s Guide (1795)&endash;‘by a Lover of Children’&endash;is replete with religious materials, with prayers and proverbs, a short catechism, graces, psalms, a history of the Bible, Solomon’s Precepts, a young man’s library, examples of the punishments of breaking the Ten Commandments (many, it might seem to a modern reader, quite unsuitable for the minds of very young children), lessons in arithmetic and a Latin glossary. In his A Spelling Book, Warden is unrepentant of this heavy emphasis on Christian materials: ‘The Mohametans carefully preserve every piece, every loose bit of paper of their Alcoran, and why should we be behind hand with these infidels, in shewing a veneration for that book which God himself has penned?’ 18 Quite typical of the contents of the Spelling Book genre is the following from William Scott’s A Short System of English Grammar:


The Little Prat-A-Pace
 Leonora was a little girl of quick parts and vivacity. At only six years old, she could both work and handle her scissars [sic] with much dexterity, and her mamma’s pincushions and huswifes were all of her making. She could read, with ease and readiness, any book that was put into her hand; She could also write very prettily, and she never put large letters in the middle of a word, nor scrawled all awry, from corner to corner of her paper. Neither were her strokes so sprawling, that five or six words would fill a whole sheet from the top to the bottom; as I have known to be the case with some other little girls of the same age. 19

Alexander Barrie’s otherwise useful A Spelling and Pronouncing Catechism published in Edinburgh in 1796 is prefaced by almost thirty pages of religious catechism exercises, containing no less than one hundred and ninety-five questions and answers of the type: ‘Q. What is the chief end of Man?’ ‘A Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.’ Perhaps not unexpectedly&endash;since it was commissioned by the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge&endash;James Gray’s A Concise Spelling Book(1809) is replete with religious materials. Many of the Lessons selected for pronunciation and spelling practice have a strong religious flavour and many pages are devoted to hymns and prayers in this most extensive of all the Scottish Spelling Books.

Instructions to the teacher on the use of the Spelling Book are not, in general, particularly common, a notable exception being Barrie who in his The Tyro’s Guide gives detailed instructions to the school teacher as how best to use the work in a practical situation:

After the scholar is well acquainted with the above key, together with the directions prefixed, the teacher may select a few words out of every lesson, as he goes along, and order the scholar to spell them, to point out the number of syllables, and where the accent is placed; to mention the number of vowels, and their respective sounds, according to the key; to point out the diphthongs, where they occur, whether proper or improper, and to give the reason why they are said to be so. Take, for example, the word Reason. Teacher. Spell reason. Scholar. r, e, a, rea, s, o, n. son. How many syllables are in it? Two, rea, son. Which is the accented syllable? rea. How do you know the accent is upon rea? Because it is most forcibly uttered in pronouncing the word. How many vowels are in it? Three. Point them out; e, a, in rea, and o in son. How do you know there are only two syllables when there are three vowels in it? Because ea is a diphthong, or double vowel. What kind of diphthong is ea? An improper diphthong. How do you know that it is improper? Because only one of the vowels is sounded. Which of them is it? e. What does e in rea sound like? e in these. What does o in son sound like? It is indistinctly sounded, like e in able. 20

In much the same vein, James Dun’s The Best Method of Teaching to Read and Spell English, published in Edinburgh in 1766, provides what, for the genre, is a wealth of information to the prospective teacher on how to instruct the child according to the method proposed by the writer:

The Method I would observe in teaching this little Book is this, I would begin with the Vowels, and teach them by themselves, then the consonants by themselves, that the Child may the sooner know what letters are Vowels, and what Consonants, and understand, when he is told, there can be no Syllable or perfect Sound without a Vowel. 21

The anonymous author of A Spelling-Book Upon a New Plan is typically realistic concerning the role of the teacher:

In teaching the lessons at the end of the spelling columns, much useful and important information may be communicated to the children, by catechising them upon the facts contained in the individual lessons, as they go along; but this must be left to the discretion and good sense of the teacher. 22

The importance of the skill and professionalism of the instructor is very clear from Buchanan’s observation of how:

It is common with the vulgar and illiterate to imagine, that any one who can read tolerably well, is surely a person proper enough to teach little children. But the learned and more judicious part of mankind know better; and that it requires the utmost skill and ability in a teacher, to lay the foundation of a child’s education, as it is then, the dawning genius can be either strengthened, and properly cultivated, or enervated and utterly marred. 23

His pedagogic methodology appears to been rather enlightened:

Children should be taught the alphabet, and the combination of letters into syllables, as it were by way of diversion; and, in all their progress in syllabification, in order to preserve the genuine sweetness and benignity of their dispositions, the teacher will put on the bowels of a parent, and instruct them with the utmost mildness, benevolence, and affability. 24

In general, the intentions of the authors of these Spelling and Writing manuals were centred in the area of the enhancement of the linguistic skills and abilities of schoolchildren which they often perceived as a route to a way of life which was virtuous and God-fearing. Typical are the sentiments of William Scott in the Advertisement to his A New Spelling and Pronouncing Dictionary (1807), describing his work as ‘particularly calculated for the Improvement of Natives and Foreigners in the Proper Speaking and Writing of the English Language’. Against in the Advertisement to his An Introduction to Reading and Spelling (1796), Scott declares:

the compiler hopes it will be found particularly well-adapted to initiate young people in the Knowledge of the English Language, and at the same time to form their minds to the love of learning and virtue.

It is in the prefaceto what is surely the technically best developed of all the Scots Spelling Books&endash;A Spelling-Book Upon a New Plan (1796)&endash;where we find the educational ideal of the genre expressed:

The Design of this Book is, to render the teaching and acquiring of the English Language easy and agreeable, both to teachers and taught; and to introduce an uniformity of pronunciation into the different parts of the country where it may be used, in a manner never before attempted. The importance of such an object will be allowed by all. How far the following Treatise is calculated to accomplish it, time alone can tell; sure it is, however, that the right pronunciation of a word is easily learned by a child, as a wrong one: and upon that principle this book proceeds.

Yet we must bear in mind that although it is tempting to see the intentions of the authors of these Spelling Books as religious and ‘standard’ pronunciation as conformist and prescriptive (recall Perry’s stated intention in the dedication to The Only Sure Guide to the English Tongue (1776) that ‘the following Spelling Book [is] intended to fix a standard for the pronunciation of the English language, conformable to the practice of polite speakers in the city of London’) there was at the same time a strong sense of the practical social and economic benefits of refined linguistic skills. Even Perry composed The man of Business and Gentleman’s Assistant (1774) with advice on book-keeping, accounts and general business management technique, a work heavily subscribed to by the land-holding and business community around Kelso and beyond. Fisher strongly identifies with this utilitarian effect of language improvement:

the most necessary accomplishment of spelling and writing good and proper English, claims the first Notice; for if a Person write ever so good a hand, yet if he be defective in Spelling, he will be ridiculed, and contemptibly smiled at, because he is writing fair will render his Orthographical Faults more conspicuous. 25

It is perhaps Buchanan in his Linguae Britannicae Vera Pronuntiatio (1757) who sees the advantage in rectifying non-standard pronunciation at the earliest possible age:

It ought to be, indispensably, the care of every Teacher of English, not to suffer children to pronounce according to the dialect of that place of the country where they were born or reside, if it happens to be vicious. For, if they are suffered to proceed in it, and be habituated to an uncouth pronunciation in their youth, it will most likely remain with them all their days. And those gentlemen who are so captivated with the prejudice of inveterate custom, as not to teach to read by the powers of the sounds, ought in duty, at least, to make their scholars masters of the various formation of the vowels and diphthongs, and of the natural sounds, or simple contacts of the consonants both single and double, whereby they may form the various configurations of the parts of the mouth, and properly apply the several organs of speech in order to speak with ease and propriety. And as children do not commence scholars so soon as their capacities admit, or often on account of their speaking but badly, if they were taught the mute sounds or simple contacts of the consonants, it would immediately enable them to pronounce with a peculiar distinctness. I had a child lately under my care, of about nine years of age, whose speech from the beginning was unintelligible to all, but those who were acquainted with her manner of expression. After I had taught her the sounds of the consonants, and the proper motions that were formed by these contacts both in her own, and by looking at my mouth, I brought her by a few lessons to pronounce any word whatsoever. And by a short practice, she spoke with perfect elocution. This method effectually cuts stammering or hesitation in speech, either in young or old; especially if a grown person be taught to speak for some time with great deliberation. 26

The general shape of the eighteenth-century Spelling Book genre is fairly standard. There is normally a Preface or Introduction setting out the author’s intentions and any claims for innovation in presentation and methodology. Her too we normally find exemplification of the letters of the alphabet and how they should be pronounced, arguments in favour of and opposing VC and CV alphabet pronunciations often set out at some length and justified on historical, educational and mnemonic criteria. In his discussion of the teaching of the consonantal components of the alphabet, Telfair, in recommending eb, ec, ed, etc., rather than bee, cee, dee, comments:

Others there are who make the Scholars mouth (as they call it) all the consonants, and pronounce them as much as possible without either a vowel before or after them. This is a very trifling bad innovation: it is a method no ways easier for the Scholars than that of putting the vowel before the consonant; and by making children force out the sounds too hard, it becomes sometimes a cause of stammering. 27

The bulk of many Spelling Books is taken up in the section following the Preface dedicated to lists of lexical items (some invented especially as illustrative material) which purport to demonstrate the syllabic, morphophonemic and accentual characteristics of the language. nearly all authors, but notably William Scott’s An Introduction to Reading and Spelling (1796), the anonymous authors of A Spelling-Book Upon a New Plan and The Instructor, and Gray’s A Concise Spelling Book for the use of Children (1809), begin their handbooks with an illustration of the various syllable combinations the language allows in monosyllabic words: VC, CV, VCV, followed by lists of items (and often ingeniously devised prose Lessons) illustrating the same, with the recommendation that these be read aloud by the pupil.

It is perhaps these ‘long and useless table of words’ which Telfair criticises so strongly 28 and which also arouse the concern of Warden who condemns ‘the present spelling books, I mean, the tabular part of them’ as ‘nothing but a confused heap of words’. 29 Perhaps the classic shape of the eighteenth-century Spelling Book can best be seen from a perusal of the Contents lists of James Robertson’s The Ladies Help to Spelling, published in Glasgow in 1722. Robertson, ‘School-Master at Glasgow’, informs us that the ‘Contents are taught to Ladies and Gentlewomen by the Author, in Gibson’s Close in the Salt-Mercat, betwixt the Hours of 4. and 6. at Night’:

Of the Various Sounds of the Letters with their Exceptions; Of Right Dividing of Words by Syllables; The Use of Capital Letters; Abbreviations; Numeral Letters; Of Stops and points; Notes of Direction; A Catalogue of Words, almost equal in Sound, but very much different in sense and Spelling; Of Missive Letters; How to Write to persons of all Ranks; How to begin Letters upon any Subject; How to end Letters upon any Subject; of Folding Letters upon any Subject; Of Directing Letters; Of Sealing Letters; A Catalogue of the Proper Names in the Bible.

 The Ladies Help (perhaps a response to the establishment in Edinburgh in 1720 of the all female Fair Intellectual Club) takes the form of A Dialogue betweixt a Young Lady and her School-Master Concerning Orthography; or the Art of Spelling, &c:

Master: ‘I suppose you can Read well enough’; Lady: ‘It’s but a supposition, for I Read by Chance, or like a parrot&endash;pronouncing words, not knowing, whether the Letters be right or wrong plac’d.’ Master: ‘You ought to know the different sounds of the Letters, Especially the Vowels’. Lady: ‘That’s my great trouble, for sometimes I find the Letters sounding one way, and sometimes I find the Letters sounding one way, and sometimes another, as tion frequently sounds shon: tial as shall, can as kan: These, and many others, are so uncertain in their pronounciation [sic], that in Writing, I know not what to Write.’ 30

Pronouncing Dictionaries

Pronouncing dictionaries proper range from those in which there is a minimal degree of phonetic information provided, with almost none of it showing any direct inference for eighteenth-century Scots pronunciation, to those where not only is the information provided specifically in a Scots context, but it is couched in considerable phonetic detail and descriptive sophistication. In the first category falls the Linguae Britannicae Vera Pronunciatio or An English Pocket Dictionary written by James Buchanan in 1757, while more reliable and systematically presented phonetic description is to be found in William Angus’ A Pronouncing Vocabulary of the English Language [1800] 31 which includes lists of ‘words similar in Orthoepy, but different in Orthography and Signification’, such as adds, adze; burrow, borough; soared, sword, etc. 32 The bulk of the work consists of an alphabetically arranged list of words (‘which frequently occur’) in two columns, one representing ‘Orthography’, the other ‘Orthoepy’, with the phonetic significance of the symbols in the latter explained in the Key to the Sounds, 33 as in:


Orthography Orthoepy

 abstemiousness ab-ste’me-us-ness

shrewdly shrud’le

Barrie’s A Spelling and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language for the use of Schools(1794) follows a very similar pattern, with long lists of words arranged under, o1, o2, and o3 , etc. headings, a representational system he abandoned in favour of superscripted accents, acutes, graves and macrons in the later A Tyro’s Guide and A Spelling and Pronouncing Catechism.

John Burn’s A Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language published in Glasgow in 1796 (the second edition) is set out in a much more conventional dictionary format, heavily influenced by the approach taken by William Johnston, Kenrick and Buchanan. His ‘characteristical figures’ refer to no less than seventeen numerical superscripts denoting vowel quality (set out in his table entitled Of the Vocal or Vowel Sounds in the English Language 34) placed at the end of the word (in the case of monosyllables and disyllabic words), or at the end of syllables in polysyllabic items, thus: ‘Bèat14 n to strike, knock, conquer, rouse, throb’ and ‘Be15lèa14guer1 , v, to besiege, block up’.

James Douglas’ Treatise on English Pronunciation (c.1740) 35 might also be treated as a type of Pronouncing Dictionary to the extent that it is set out in a fashion which enables the reader to find examples of the pronunciation of vowels, diphthongs and consonants arranged in their alphabetical sequence. The entire Treatise is structured on a Question/Answer routine basis. For instance:

How is the Vowel E Sounded in the first Syllable of a Word? I The Vowel E is Sounded Long in the first Syllable of a Word. 1. When E final follows a Single Consonant in Words of one Syllable, as GLEBE, CLEDE, HERE, METE, THESE, SCENE, RERE, THEME, BEDED, VERE. Except WERE which is sounded short. 2. When the Vowel E terminates the first Syllable, as, BESOM, MEDIATE, PETER, FEVER, FREQUENT, RECENT, VENAL.’ 36

By far the most important example of the eighteenth century Scots Pronouncing Dictionaries is to be found in A Treatise on the Provincial Dialect of Scotland(1779) by Sylvester Douglas (Lord Glenbervie). This insightful work has three chapters dealing in turn with the nature of sounds and their orthographic representation; the pronunciation of the sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet and a long discussion on the nature of rhyme. However, the section which has the greatest interest for the student of late eighteenth-century Scots pronunciation is that which lies at the heart of the Treatise: A Table of Words Improperly Pronounced by the Scotch, Showing their True English Pronounciation. 37 [sic] This alphabetical list of items is unique in the eighteenth century for the way in which it reveals specifically Scots pronunciations, albeit to point out how ‘improper’ they are, and for the detail of phonetic description which it incorporates. Consider the following typical entry as an instance of Douglas’ pronunciation reommendations:


In this and similar words, as sought, thought, fought, drought. The ough has the long open sound of the o in corn, or of oa in broad. This sound, if at all, is but just distinguishable from the long broad a in all, malt or auin Paul. Some writers on pronounciation consider them as entirely the same. They are generally made to rhyme with such words as taught, and fraught, but that is no proof that their sound is exactly the same.

If e’er one vision touch’d thy infant thought
Of all the nurse, and all the priest e’er taught.

The Scotch, after they get rid of the more barbarous pronounciation in which the gh is pronouncd as a strong guttural, generally fall into the mistake of using the long close sound of o, and making (for instance) bought, and boat, the same word to the ear. And this they do so generally that in endeavouring to mimic the Scotch pronounciation I have observed that the English are apt to hit upon this particular way of sounding this class of words. Yet this, in truth, is not part of the vernacular pronunciation of Scotland.

Grammar Books and General Essays on Language

There are extant at least three major Grammar Books composed by Scottish writers in the eighteenth century, works whose primary aim it was to provide an analysis and categorisation of the main characteristics of English syntax (and occasionally morphology) primarily based upon Latin stereotypes. 38 Probably the most important of these was James Buchanan’s The British Gramar published anonymously in 1762. 39 written, its advertisement boasts, ‘towards Speaking and Writing the English Language Grammatically, and Inditing Elegantly’. The bulk of this work is a treatise on the syntax of English, with lengthy sections on Noun and Verb structure, including discussions upon case, gender, tense and modality. Rules for concord are set out and the whole is concluded with extensive exercises upon False Syntax. However, the work has some interest for the historical phonologist in that its Introduction contains a discussion of the language’s sound system, in a format very similar to that of Spelling and Writing Books. Buchanan begins with a description of the alphabet symbols, proceeds to examine the various ‘powers’ of these symbols as vowels, diphthongs, triphthong and consonants. There is a discussion of syllabicity and the principles of syllable division, concluded by a section on Prosodic structure. This overall model is followed too by William McIllquam in his A Comprehensive Grammar, published in Glasgow, in 1781 and republished as A Compendious Grammar (1789, 1797, 1802). These grammar books are intended ‘for the Use of Schools’, and attempt to cover much of the ground normally associated with Spelling Books. McIllquam’s work is exceptional, however, for its attention to vowel quantity, emphasis and cadence and for its attempts at a derivational morphology and its detailed examples of the parsing technique.

General treatises on the nature of language are, of course, the hallmark of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment 40, and there were several notable Scottish contributors to the genre. Not all of these have direct interest for the student of contemporary Scots phonology 41; but The Theory of Language (1788) by James Beattie&endash;Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logick in the Marischal College and University, Aberdeen&endash;contains much sophisticated information on matters relating to pronunciation, syllabification, prosody and linguistic standards. While they do not perhaps fit too neatly into the Essay on Languagecategory, the two essays on pronunciation by James Adams: Euphonologia Linguae Anglicanae (1794) and The Pronunciation of the English Language (1799) are not only replete with valuable information concerning general phonetic and phonological description, but contain many observations specific to contemporary Scots phonetic values as well as positive attitudes to the same.

Miscellaneous Sources

Infrequent information concerning matters phonological and phonetic can be found in the pages of ‘near alike’ lists and catalogues of Scotticisms, as well as in other, often anecdotal and indirect contexts. Perhaps the best instance of the last is the anecdote by James Adams (1799) concerning contemporary habits of Latin pronunciation. Commenting upon the pronunciation ankshus for <anxious>, he recounts:

This hissing English contraction extended to Latin words, shews another absurdity in our pronunciation of Latin. In the year 1755, I attended a public Disputation in a foreign University, when at least 400 Frenchmen literally hissed a grave and learned Doctor (Mr Banister) not by way of insult, but irresistibly provoked by the quaintness of the repetition of sh. The Thesis was the concurrence of God in actionibus viciosis: the whole hall resounded with the hissing cry of sh (shi, shi, shi) on its continual occurrence in actio, action, viciosa&endash;ac-shi-o, vi-shi-osa. Strange, that our great Schools will not adopt the laudable precedent of the Scotch; for we render all the vowels, syllables and words absolutely unintelligible, exemplified in this phrase: Amabo, refer mihi quae curatio dari possit huic aegro uti cito sanetur,&endash;emebo, Dâmine reefur meihei quee curaisho heic eegro dairei pawssit yutei ceito saineetur. This pronunciation would make a French Doctor think the address was abusive, Hebrew, or High Dutch; the first hearing would go far to puzzle the ablest Latin scholar in Scotland, the eminent Doctor Gregory. The French may laugh at us, not so much indeed on account of the singularity of native pronunciation, as our want of good sense in not imitating their example of tempering the sounds of their own tongue in speaking Latin; for any Latin phrase, articulated by the strict laws of French nasal sounds, monotonous, and final accent, would be equally unintelligible to Italians, Spaniards, Germans, English and Scotch Literati. 42

A ‘Scotch’ pronunciation of sanetur as what dams’ ‘respelling’ suggests if [senitur] highlights two of the most typical features of Scots eighteenth century vowel phonology, the raising of [a] and [e] to [e] and [i] respectively.

The extremely popular lists of ‘Scotticisms’ in the period 43 seem most often to have been the product of abashment at provinciality, many writers&endash;notably Smollett&endash;systematically expurgating their writings of any trace of what were perceived as Scots characteristics of syntax, morphology or vocabulary. However the lists themselves&endash;notably those of Hume (1760) 44, Sinclair 45, Beattie 46, William Scott 47, William Angus (1814) 48 and Elphinston (1787) 49&endash;do provide us with some phonological information, notably in the areas of the suprasegmental (metathesis phenomena) and at the phonology/morphology interface. Many authors of spelling books include lists of lexical items which are homophonous or near homophonous under general titles such as Words nearly the same in sound; but different in significtion and spelling (A Spelling Book on a New Plan 50 ; Words the same in Sound, or nearly so, but different in Spelling and Signification 51; Words the same in Sound, but different in Spelling and Signification. 52 In particular, Robertson’s The Ladies Help to Spelling 53, with ‘near alikes’ such as <Bruise>/<Bruce>; <Bread>/ <Breed>/ <Bred>;<Brow>/ <Brew>, is particularly insightful in terms of contemporary Scots pronunciation.




1. SPCK State of the Society in Scotland, 1769, p. 56.

2. James Beattie The Theory of Language (1788), p. 92.

3. Regulations of the Select Society for Promoting . . . the English Language in Scotland, 1761.

4. R. Nares Elements of Orthoepy [1784] 1968, p. 212.

5. John Walker A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary [1791] 1968, pp. Xi-xii.

6. T. Sheridan General Dictionary of the English Language (1780), p. 61.

7. Anon. 1796 Preface , p. vii.

8.Propriety Ascertained in Her Picture (1786), pp. 1-35.

9. Ibid., pp. 11-12.

10. Ibid., pp. 119-20.

11. Ibid., p. 80

12. Can anyone identify this person?

13. 1784, pp. 11-12.

14. 1770, p. 44.

15. C. Jones ‘Scottish standard English in the late eighteenth century’ (1993), pp. 95-131.

16. W. Kenrick A Rhetorical Grammar of the English Language (1784), pp. iii-iv.

17. J. Buchanan Linguae Britannicae Vera Pronunciatio [1757], pp. 6-7.

18. J. Warden A Spelling Book(1753), p. xv.

19. 1793, Lesson xvi.

20. A. Barrie The Tyro’s Guide to Wisdom and Wealth(1800), p. 4.

21. Edinburgh 1766, Preface, p. x.

22. p. 6

23. Linguae Britannico Vera Pronuntiatio, p. 7 nt.

24. A Plan for an English Grammar-School education(1770), p. 30.

25. Fisher, G. The Instructor or Young Man’s Best Companion(1789), pp. i-ii

26. Buchanan Linguae Britannicae (1757), p. xii nt.

27. C. Telfair The Town and Country Spelling Book (1775), p. 2

28. Telfair, p. 2.

29. J. Warden A Spelling Book (1753), pp. vii.

30. Robertson, J. The Ladies Help to Spelling(1722), pp. 2-3.

31. Second edition

32. Ibid., pp. 112-114.

33.Ibid., p. 7

34. Introduction, p. v.

35. B. Holmberg ‘James Douglas on English Pronounciation’ (1956).

36. Ibid., p. 141.

37. Jones Treatise, pp. 158-233.

38. Ian Michael English Grammatical Categories and the Tradition to 1800 (1970), pp. 9-23.

39. A. G. Kennedy ‘Authorship of The British Grammar’ (1926).

40. Michael Grammatical Categories. J. Dwyuer Virtuous Discourse: Sensibility and Community in late eighteeth Century Scotland (1987).

41. Lord [J. B.]Monboddo Of the Origin and Progress of Languages (1774).

42. James Adams The Pronounciation of the English Language (1799), pp. 115-6.

43. J. G. Basker ‘Scotticisms and the problem of cultural identity in C.18 Britain’ (1993). P. Rogers ‘Boswell and the Scotticism’ (1991).

44. J. Y. T. Greig The Letters of David Hume(1932).

45. Sir John Sinclair. Observations on the Scottish Dialect (1782)

46. James Beattie The Theory of Language (1787)

47. William Scott A Short System of English Grammar (1793)

48. William Angus An Introduction to Angus Vocabulary (1814)

49. Propriety Ascertained in her Picture.

50. Anon (1796).

51.A. Barrie A Spelling and Pronouncing Dictionary (1794).

52. William Scott (1793)

53. 1722, pp. 41-62.



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Hume, David see Greig, J.Y.T. (1932).

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Jones, C. (ed.) A Treatise on the Provincial Dialect of Scotland by Sylvester Douglas (Edinburgh University Press, 1991).

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Kennedy, A.G. ‘Authorship of The Britsh Grammar’ Modern Language Notes, 41 (1926), pp. 388-391.

Kenrick, W. A Rhetorical Grammar of the English Language (1784) Alston, R.C. ed. English Linguistics 1500-1800. No. 332 (Menston, 1972).

Law, A. Education in Edinburgh in the eighteenth Century Publications of the Scottish Council for Research in Education no. 52. (University of London Press, 1965).

Lennie, William The Principles of English Grammar Second Edition with Large Additions. (Edinburgh, 1823).

McIllquam, William A Comprehensive Grammar (Glasgow, 1781).

Michael, Ian English Grammatical Categories and the Tradition to 1800(Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Monboddo, J.B. (Lord) Of the Origin and Progress of Language (London, 1774).

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Perry, W. The Only Sure Guide to the English Tongue or a New Pronouncing Spelling Book (Edinburgh, 1776).

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Rogers, P. ‘Boswell and the Scotticism’ in Cligham, Greg (ed.) New Light on Boswell (Cambridge University Press, 1991) pp. 56-71.

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Scott, John The School-Boy’s Sure Guide; or, Spelling and Reading Made Agreeable and Easy (Edinburgh, 1774).

Scott, William A Short System of English Grammar (Edinburgh, 1793).

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Sheridan, T. Course of Lectures on Elocution (1762) Alston, R.C. ed. English Linguitics 1500-1800. No. 129 (Menston, 1968).

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Sinclair, Sir John Observations on the Scottish Dialect (London, 1782).

SPCK The State of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge in the Year 1769 SPCK Tract (Edinburgh, 1769).

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