Rude, crude and extremely funny, Scottish Twitter has garnered much attention in recent years for its uniquely Celtic wit – and for the specific ways in which it uses language.

Journalist Eve Livingston’s recent article for The Face examines the many social and cultural features of Scottish Twitter. But the fact it has provided a medium for written Scots language to evolve in a way that wasn’t possible before the advent of social media is equally fascinating.

Scots is officially recognised as one of the minority languages of Scotland. It has existed and thrived for centuries in writing as well as speech. From poets Robert Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid and Sheena Blackhall to novelist Irvine Welsh, the language has a rich literary tradition and even has its own dictionary. More recently, it has moved into the digital world, finding itself unexpectedly and enthusiastically embraced on social media.


Private, public voice

The internet has changed the way people write. While we still use formal writing for many purposes, most of us now have a second, informal way of writing which linguists call computer-mediated communication.

Some computer-mediated communication users creatively manipulate the formal written system to make it more representative of who they are and how they talk. As a result, regional computer-mediated communications have sprung up across the globe. Scots computer-mediated communication is just one of these.

Texts and Facebook messages are – or at least can be – private, informal forms of communication and so we might expect more Scots to be used here. What Twitter gives us is a medium that sits somewhere between the private and the public.

Research shows that people are more likely to write in a minority language such as Scots in posts directed at a specific user for semi-private conversations than they do in posts that are hashtagged for a wider audience for public conversations.

In Gretchen McCulloch’s recent book Because Internet, she writes that, on Twitter, “regardless of who technically has access to their information, people tend to have a mental model of who they expect to read their posts”. That is to say, a user’s intended audience may be just their own followers, often their friends – as we see from this tweet which went viral.

However, the public aspect of Twitter makes it possible for a user’s content to be seen by anyone around the world. A tweet which is liked and retweeted enough can move from the semi-private sphere to the public sphere – bringing Scots to an entirely new audience.

Spoken writing

And Scots on Twitter is a fascinating source of evidence about how aware people are of the subtle ways their speech differs from other people’s and the creative ways they find to represent this.

Depending on exactly where someone comes from, their spoken Scots will include different sounds, words and sentence structures. We see this represented in Scots computer-mediated communication. In Scots dictionaries, the word equivalent to English can’t is generally spelt in one of two ways, reflecting a traditional pronunciation difference: canna in the North, and cannae in the South. Indeed, a search for canna on Twitter finds tweets from the North East.

However, the spelling cannae appears to be quite rare in the southern Scots computer-mediated communications. Instead, spellings like canny appear to be more common.

In Sadie Ryan’s research on the computer-mediated communication of Glaswegian pre-teens, other spellings used included cany, canni, cani and kani. So we see traditional Scots words represented in Scots computer-mediated communication in new ways. We also see new words popping up.

This tweet uses the word deh, a shortened version of dinnae, equivalent to English don’t. This is a relatively new Scots word, more common in the speech of young people and not yet recorded in Scots dictionaries. With words like deh, we see developments in spoken Scots playing out in Scots computer-mediated communication, providing us with a new lens for understanding linguistic change.

Looking at Scots computer-mediated communication, we see people thinking about how their language sounds and experimenting with how it’s represented visually and we can do so with remarkable clarity. Viewing Scottish Twitter through a linguist’s eyes, you can get caught up in these amazing details. So caught up that if we’re not careful, we might almost miss the point: that tweets like these are also very, very funny.

E Jamieson is a research assistant and Sadie Ryan a lecturer at the Department of English Language & Linguistics at the University of Glasgow.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.