The Scots Syntactic Atlas

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Critical Studies


While traditional dialect atlas work has concentrated on phonological and lexical variation, recent years have seen a surge in work on dialect syntax, particularly in Europe. In the context of Scotland, there are a few studies on the morphosyntax of a small number of specific Scots dialects, but there has been no systematic coverage of the type proposed here, and indeed no such project has been conducted on any English dialect region to date. This is not only a substantial gap in the descriptive record, but also a gap in the analytical landscape: previous syntactic atlas projects have shown that the geographically sophisticated microcomparative method is a powerful tool for testing theoretical accounts of syntactic properties that vary across dialects, and since Scots dialects show substantial variation with respect a number of theoretically significant syntactic phenomena (e.g. subject-verb agreement, negation and relativization), it presents the analyst with a major opportunity to reassess many key issues in English syntax and indeed theoretical linguistics more widely.

The primary goal of SCOSYA is to begin to fill this gap by providing a systematic and theoretically informed description of the non-standard syntactic properties of contemporary dialects of Scots and representing the results visually in an online atlas. We will gather data from four speakers in 122 locations distributed across Scotland and Northern Ireland; the main source of data will be grammaticality judgements, gathered using the interview method employed successfully in other projects, but this will be supplemented by recordings of conversational discourse between dialect speakers, which will be transcribed and made available through the website. The judgement data will be entered into a database which will form the basis for the online atlas; this will be fully interactive, allowing users to generate their own maps plotting the distribution of individual syntactic phenomena or combinations of phenomena, with various visualisation options. The atlas will have two interfaces, one for non-experts and one for experts; the former will be supplemented by commentary and instructions to ensure that it is user-friendly for the general public, while the latter will link to transcripts and full sound files for research purposes. In addition to the atlas data, we will also gather judgement data on locale-specific phenomena of interest that have remained understudied until now, thus extending the description of the grammar of Scots dialects substantially.

We will then use this substantial descriptive resource to pursue a number of analytical and theoretical goals. The key analytical questions are: (i) to what extent do dialectally variable syntactic phenomena co-occur (in a manner not directly attributable to geographic/sociohistoric factors)? (ii) to what extent does the range of variation with syntactic phenomena realise full paradigms, and if not, are there significant gaps in the paradigms, and what would account for those gaps? (iii) what differences are there between the dialects of older and younger speakers, and do any differences between dialects co-occur with others across dialect regions? The answers to these analytical questions will give us new insight into the nature of the syntactic phenomena. The central theoretical goal of the project is to use the empirical picture provided by the atlas to reassess just which aspects of syntactic variation are to be accounted for by parameters, and which are the result of rules that negotiate how syntactic representations are realized morphophonologically (by fundamentally post-syntactic rules); that is, how much syntactic variation is post-syntactic, and what kind of theory of syntax does this require?

Planned Impact

Outside of the academic community, the research will benefit the general public, educational policy makers, teachers and pupils.

The general public:
There are currently a number of excellent online resources on Scots for the non-expert user (e.g. but none which provide a systematic overview of the type proposed here. The Grammatical Atlas of Scots offers the user a 'one-stop shop' for the description of the structure of Scots in an accessible way. This will allow dialect speakers to make discoveries about their own dialects as well as those of others. For instance, users will be able to click on their location and see what the distinctive dialect features of their region are, with links to sound files of the form in use, and they will also be able to select dialect features to see their geographic distribution, allowing dialect speakers to see how their own dialects compare with those spoken in other parts of the country. The online questionnaire provides the general public with an opportunity to contribute their own linguistic knowledge on use of dialect features.
The project's general audience blog will provide a further space for engagement on language issue. This blog will report on a variety of issues relating to Scots dialects, including stories from the field, informants' own views on Scots dialects and the fieldworker's encounters with the local linguistic cultures. Comments on each of the posts will be enabled. The atlas and blog together will thus allow for dissemination of the linguistics of Scots in a systematic way, while at the same time allowing the non-expert to contribute to the wider debates through the interactive elements available in both. This interaction-based content should attract a high number of users in both Scotland and beyond.

Scots plays an increasingly important role in Education Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence both at local and national level (e.g., as it does in Northern Ireland (e.g. While cultural aspects are quite well covered in the curriculum, teaching of the linguistics of Scots is less so. This is in part due to the lack of easily accessible information on the actual use of Scots in the 21st century, so the Grammatical Atlas of Scots will contribute to this knowledge base. The proposed visit to ten schools in Scotland and Northern Ireland, in tandem with the prepared task-based materials based around the atlas, will encourage use of the resource. To further disseminate the resources described here, we will conduct a one-day workshop at the University of Glasgow as part of the Continuing Professional Development activities held there. This will be open to all primary and high school teachers in Scotland. This will provide a further platform for showcasing a much-needed resource on Scots.

Policy makers:
Scots has been at the forefront of the debate on Independence in Scotland. Much of the debate surrounds how distinctive Scots is when compared to English in England (e.g. The same debate has been ongoing in Northern Ireland for some years. The Grammatical Atlas of Scots Dialects provides a baseline resource for an informed debate on what Scots exactly is - how is it similar or different both within Scotland and compared to other varieties of English English and indeed varieties worldwide.


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Description The Scots Syntax Atlas maps grammatical variation across 140 locations and over 500 speakers in Scotland in order to address questions about the nature of syntactic variation across time and space. We have found that while Scots shares a number of syntactic forms, many other forms are specific to particular geographic regions. At the same time, we find language change in progress - what is grammatical in older speakers may not be so in younger speakers, and vice versa.
Exploitation Route Our online atlas will have two interfaces: one for syntacticians and one for the general public. For syntacticians, this will provide one of the largest databases of grammaticality judgement data available, thus providing the opportunity to probe questions relating to syntactic theory across multiple levels. For the general public, the atlas will be both archival and educational: the website will contain a crowdsourcing interface, in addition to a number of online tasks associated with the results of the data.
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Title The Scots Syntax Atlas Corpus 
Description This database consists of over 500 completed questionnaires on the syntax of Scots and around 150 hours of recorded and fully transcribed speech from 130 locations throughout Scotland. The data will be made fully available at the end of the project (July 2019) 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact We have submitted an article to Language on results from the above data. We have a number of invited plenaries. Once the data are fully available, we expect to see significant international use. 
Description School visit 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Three workshops at Buckie High School with 25 pupils to pilot dialect data collection and analysis based on methods used in the Scots Syntax Atlas. The pupils will required to conduct data collection with four different age groups in their community using an online survey. The school reported increased interest in dialect data, and the processes involved in conducting research. This was a pilot for a larger rollout throughout Scotland.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018