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Scottish newspapers - language and identity

Scotland's newspapers have dramatically changed their use of Scots words since devolution in 1998, according to research at the University of Leeds.

Words such as 'bairn' or 'wean' (child), 'bonnie' (pretty/attractive) and 'wee' (small) have long been used by the media north of the Border, reflecting their widespread use in Scottish society and culture and their significance in the country's language and identity.

A book by Dr Fiona Douglas of Leeds' School of English examined the use of a selection of 440 Scots words and shows that the tabloid Daily Record has become 'more Scottish', having substantially upped use of these words between 1995 and 2005.

In contrast, indigenous broadsheet titles The Herald and The Scotsman are becoming 'less Scottish', having slashed the number of Scots words they use in the same period.

Meanwhile, Scottish editions of two UK papers - The Scottish Sun and The Times - have dramatically increased the number of Scots words they use, amid suggestions that they are emphasising their 'Scottishness' to appeal to readers.

Dr Douglas said: "Over a ten year period there has been a clear shift in terms of which newspapers use Scots words. It appears that the UK newspaper titles are increasingly realising that in order to appeal to a Scottish readership, they have to market themselves as Scottish.

 "These results are interesting because they suggest non-indigenous newspapers such as The Scottish Sun are now using Scots language as part of their strategy to appeal to Scottish readers. They have adopted the one thing that previously made the indigenous Scottish newspapers stand out and, given the close link between language and identity, there is a good chance that this tactic will help them be accepted as genuinely Scottish newspapers.

"These increases in their use of Scots words coincide with a thorough-going process of Scotticisation with such newspapers exploiting changing methods in newspaper production to tailor editions to the local market, setting up satellite operations in Scotland, and having more Scottish journalists on the ground. And in the case of The Scottish Sun, this increased Scotticisation has coincided with an increased market share - in 2006 its sales overtook those of the indigenous Daily Record for the first time."

Dr Douglas selected 440 Scots words and monitored their use in Monday to Saturday editions of indigenous titles The Daily Record, The Herald and The Scotsman. Scottish editions of two UK papers, The Scottish Sun and The Times, were also examined. The study was repeated in 2005 and results compared.

The total number of Scots words used rose marginally from 15,517 in 1995 to 16,229 in 2005, but use in individual newspapers changed dramatically. In 1995, The Herald used 8,985 words but by 2005 that fell to 3,626, while The Scotsman used 3,492 in 1995 and 2,625 in 2005. In The Daily Record, numbers went from 2,617 to 5,428 in the same period.

Dr Douglas said: "Post-devolution, with increased national confidence, we might have expected to see a huge upsurge in the use of Scots words by Scotland's indigenous national press but clearly this has not happened. Perhaps post-devolution, with increased political autonomy, some Scots now feel less need to rely on Scots words as a way of marking their distinctive Scottish identity."

But the Scottish editions of UK newspapers have upped their use of Scots words post-devolution with The Scottish Sun in 2005 using 3,326 Scots words (rivalling usage in the indigenous broadsheets), and The Times showing a more modest but nevertheless significant presence of 1224 words.

The study found that Scots words are most-used in humorous diaries, sports sections and feature articles.

Dr Douglas also suggests there is scope for media to use more Scottish words to appeal to readers. She said: "Given the powerful relationship that exists between identity and language and the potential for Scots lexis to evoke a sense of shared Scottishness, one cannot help wondering if some of the indigenous newspapers are rather missing a trick by not being more deliberate in their exploitation of such a useful emblem of Scottish identity."

'Scottish Newspapers, Language and Identity' by Dr Fiona Douglas, lecturer in English Language at the University is published by Edinburgh University Press.

For further information:

Please contact the University of Leeds Press Office on +44 (0)113 343 4031 or email

Notes to editors

The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015.

The School of English at the University of Leeds is one of the top-rated departments in the country. Judged 'excellent' in its teaching, and amongst the top 10 English departments in the country for research (RAE2008, GPA 2.95; RAE2001, 5*A). It has a distinguished history. G. Wilson Knight, A. Norman Jeffares and Geoffrey Hill were professors here, and J.R.R. Tolkien was a Reader. Alumni include world-renowned writers Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

In the 1940s Leeds was a pioneer in the university study of Dialectology, setting up the Survey of English Dialects, and it continues as a major centre for the study of linguistic variation with the Survey of Regional English (SuRE) initiative, closely linked to the BBC Voices project. Other current staff interests embrace many diverse areas of English Language study, including pidgins and creoles, contact varieties such as Singapore English, the history of English, stylistics, and corpus linguistics.


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