Yer da sells Avon: how the Scots language found a new home on Twitter

Young Scots have spoken in their own languages for decades. Now they’re finding an authentic voice online, thanks to social media. And blowing yersel up tae fuck in a microwave.

Ye ever wanty just wrap yersel up in tin foil nice and cosy and then just fucking get right inty the microwave and blow yersel up tae fuck”

Much like fellow Scots wordsmiths Robert Burns and Irvine Welsh before him, Twitter user @cannyswim inducted himself into the Scottish culture hall of fame when he posted the above on 22nd June 2015. With 65.5k retweets since then, the tweet has earned its place amongst the best of Scottish Twitter, alongside other classic contributions including Kingsley the Partick Thistle mascot; yer maw’ jokes; yer da sells Avon’ jokes; anything Lewis Capaldi tweets, and maw bought aldi shower gel that smells like fairy liquid so I’ve been cutting about all day smelling like a fucking plate” (@adamfraser14, August 2015).

For many people both outside Scotland and within, Twitter has provided a brand new view into the Scots language and its varieties in all their sweary, hysterical, sometimes incomprehensible glory. Has the platform spearheaded a resurgence amongst its young users or is this something more profound altogether?

The Scots language has been spoken in Scotland for centuries and still exists across the country today. It’s comprised of numerous different dialects – which can differ from each other quite dramatically – and is one of three official languages in Scotland, alongside English and Gaelic. In 2001 it was officially recognised under the European Charter for Minority Languages.

Scots was the national language of a country that doesn’t exist anymore,” explains writer and presenter Alistair Heather, who writes a Scots column in Scotland’s The National newspaper. As Scotland was amalgamated into Great Britain, Scots fell away from being a national language because it didn’t have a nation anymore.

And until relatively recently Scottish opinion-formers in news and media were [mostly] based in England and not plugged into working-class or rural Scotland at all, so didn’t see Scots language as a contemporary issue in Scotland,” he continues. “[But] it’s gaining a lot of legitimacy and validity through social media as a private expression [while] finding a public sphere.”

The unique status of Scots means that generations of Scottish children have been brought up to use formal English in school and public life, even though it might not be their first language, or the one spoken at home. The result is a disconnect between spoken and written language, and a diminished record of written Scots as it is spoken informally, rather than in literature or poetry. For many young Scots, social media might be a new and unique opportunity to write in the same way as they speak.

It’s the first time ever where there’s been an informal public-facing writing platform. So it’s not for education, or a letter to your doctor,” points out Dr. E Jamieson, who specialises in Scots syntax at the University of Glasgow. There’s something important about having the freedom and space to be able to use your native variety and spoken language in a written form without anyone correcting you.”

This was also part of the appeal for 25-year-old Glaswegian @Butsay, who boasts 20.9k followers and regularly finds himself going viral as part of Scottish Twitter.

It’s how I talk in real life and Twitter is a pretty casual site, so I guess that’s how it came about so naturally for most people,” he says. It gives it more of a personal feel, as if other Scottish folk can read it and relate, or hear the accent, which usually makes it funnier. Plus, the overall brief, conversational tone just adds more emphasis. It’s as if you’re just talking loads of shite with your pals.”

As with other social media, the role Twitter can play in constructing and communicating identity might also be central to Scottish Twitter, particularly for a country with a strong sense of collective culture but a complex and somewhat unique position as a nation within a nation – and one still grappling with existential questions about its own place and identity.

Twitter’s all about identity and building a persona, a public face,” points out Dr. Sadie Ryan, an English Language and Linguistics academic at the University of Glasgow and presenter of the Accentricity podcast. When we’re writing on Twitter we’re thinking quite a lot about how we present ourselves and how people see us. People want to be able to say: this is who I am and where I am, and this is my identity”.

Her colleague Dr. Jamieson agrees, pointing out that the majority of viral Scottish tweets tend to use Scots from the Central Belt (encompassing the cities of Glasgow, Stirling, and Edinburgh and their surrounding areas). You can look for features in tweets and pinpoint where they’re from, so we know that people tend to use their own local varieties. There’s definitely an identity aspect to that.”

And if Scots language allows people to communicate their local or regional identity, Twitter also allows for the construction of a general Scottishness” in which humour is a key component. This, says Michael Dempster, Scots Scriever and Director of the Scots Language Centre, is a radical shift from older humour in which Scottish people and their languages were the butt of jokes rather than their architects – something which has had an impact far beyond Twitter.

There’s a sort of coolness to it now, and the humour is internationalising,” he continues. Previous humour was laughing at how stupidly Scottish people speak; now we’re making the jokes and people are laughing with us and taking a moment to figure out what it means”.

I do think it’s great how Scottish people carved out their own niche and quickly pushed it to being one of the most prominent, albeit infamous, collectives on the platform,” agrees Twitter user Butsay. It’s a highly efficient place for creators to get their work out to a lot of people. So in that respect it’s done a fair bit to spread a wide variety of Scottish comedy around the world.”

While Butsay regularly finds himself amongst lists of Scottish Twitter’s funniest tweets, he and others also use the platform to discuss serious and sometimes contentious issues in the Scots language, exactly as they might over a drink or in a casual conversation. The phenomenon of Scottish Twitter highlights what might be a particularly Scottish brand of humour: observational, self-deprecating, playful with language. But away from the viral hits, Scots is also being used much more widely on the platform.

For those involved in language activism, for example, Twitter has been an important tool in elevating the status of Scots and bringing it to new audiences. Michael Dempster tweets exclusively in Scots and sees the self-publishing nature of Twitter as key to widening its usage and increasing its accessibility.

If you’re being brief you don’t have to have a great literacy in Scots,” he points out. And a lot of jokes that you’ll find on Scottish Twitter wouldn’t function in standard English – rhymes and puns and things like that. So it’s a necessity. There’s an absolute need for it.”

It may also be that Scots has allowed Twitter users to also find a political voice. It was around 2015 that Scottish Twitter” began being recognised as a particular community and named in Buzzfeed-style roundups around the world. Its growth and recognition echoes the development of meme culture in general, but also a resurgence in nationalism and discussion of Scotland’s history and culture in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum.

An Edinburgh University study conducted in 2017 used computer programmes to analyse whether tweeters in favour of Scottish independence were more likely to use Scots words such as oor”, yersel” or bairns”, and found that they were – but not necessarily in tweets relating to the independence discussion. Their findings suggested this was because tweets with hashtags were intended to be seen by a broader audience, pointing again to the informal and familial nature of Scots usage.

When an image of Merrida from the Disney film Brave went viral in 2018, with Twitter users all over the world writing their own Scottish” captions, it wasn’t long before battles over authenticity began to emerge.

The phenomenon of Scots Twitter is largely an expression of urban working class Scots culture, and has layers of celebration, anger and self-parody largely invisible to people who aren’t close to it,” tweeted @HarryJosieGiles as part of a thread which used the meme to examine the Scots language within the context of colonialism.

If the self-publishing and informal nature of Twitter has allowed people to find an authentic written expression of their spoken voice, the identity-forming nature of it may also have allowed others to find an inauthentic one. It’s actually annoying when you see people typing Scottish’ online and then meet them and they sound completely different,” says 22-year-old Phoebe from Bellshill in North Lanarkshire.

You’ve got people tweeting a certain way to get retweets and then you meet them and, to be frank, they’re posh,” she continues. It’s the same kind of thing as posh people pretending to be working class to be more liked or whatever, and then returning back to their normal lives at the end of their phase.”

It’s an authenticity that brands have also attempted to capitalise on to limited success. While Scotland-based companies like Tennent’s and Irn-Bru have been able to tap into the community, those outside have struggled. Alistair Heather recalls a London-based marketing agency asking him for consultation on marketing a particular product in the style of Scottish Twitter. It just wouldn’t work,” he explains. There’s way too much depth and knowledge you need to make it funny.”

Where Twitter has provided a space for everyday young Scots to express themselves more freely, it’s also provided an invaluable platform for the language itself to develop and evolve – and for linguists and other experts to track it as it does so.

There’s a really rich and long poetry tradition in Scots dating back 600 years,” Heather points out. But there’s not a huge prose tradition. There aren’t that many articles or letters just talking about normal things. In a way social media is helping to establish a whole new Scots prose tradition.”

Dr. Ryan has studied the use of Scots on Facebook by pre-teen girls and sees parallels with its usage on Twitter. What was really striking is the creativity in how these kids were using Scots,” she notes. They weren’t using Scots dictionaries, they didn’t know about Scots spelling conventions. They were just looking for ways to represent their speech.”

She points to the recurring use of meanty” rather than meant to” – a word which has no basis in traditional written Scots but which entirely reflected the Scots spoken by those who used it. Similarly, the use of wanty” for want to” is widespread across Scottish Twitter, suggesting a shared standard of written Scots that had no home before the advent of social media.

And Twitter is increasingly a tool for linguists and other experts to draw on when mapping language and its evolution. You can see really fine grain change happening amongst younger people,” explains Dr Jamieson. You can just look on Twitter and see new [language] features innovating in the Central Belt and spreading out across the country.”

Sometimes a funny tweet is just a funny tweet. But more often in the case of Scottish Twitter it seems part of something much bigger, whether its creators are aware of it or not. Complex issues of class, identity, nation and belonging find themselves playing out through language on Twitter as they have done in Edinburgh pub corners or round Glaswegian dinner tables in generations before. It’s a uniquely Scottish phenomenon, but one which is proudly exported to the rest of the world.

And if language is a way for Scottish people to express their identities, its manifestations seem to be a way for others to express their feelings. Much like pan-language phrases Schadenfreude and déjà vu before it, something about the Scots language seems to resonate beyond its borders, allowing for expression of sentiments that are relatable but incommunicable in other languages.

In other (Scots) words: perhaps the true takeaway from Scottish Twitter’s unique success is that sometimes we all just wanty wrap oursels up in tin foil nice and cosy and then just fucking get right inty the microwave and blow oursels up tae fuck. Ye ken?

The 10 best Scottish tweets according to Actual Scottish Person Eve Livingston

I deh trust the dentist when they start talking in code about your teeth to their wee pal, you got suhin to say say it to ma face prick –– @matthewlenniex

In McDonald’s and the girl shouted to the back need a spicy legend’ and a wee guy shouted back I’m right here doll’ 😂 – – @plouise16

A boy at avicii telt me his dad died cos of MDMA and when the beat dropped he was proper crying his eyes out shoutin ma dad died for this” ––@nathanhend_97

Mad how yer tastebuds change as ye get older. Would never have even thought aboot touching a mushroom when a was younger n noo am basically oot foraging in the woods tae find the elusive scarlet elfcap tae fling in ma carbonara for a more earthy flavour –– @sdel6795

Just got 4 drinks at the drive thru n that guy asked do ye want a cupholder’. Obviously a do ya fucking reprobate am no a fucking octopus –– @CallumMcNab93

My maw gets so jel when I do anything fun like no my fault I’m oot snorting lines n shaggin nines and you have to stay home n bake a lasagne –– @sal28_

Just realised that my club stamp says yer da sells avon, ffs scotland –– @srahelizabth

burd in the pub kept tellin everycunt her cat had thumbs n then we ended up in her gaff and shit u not that wee hing could beat u at Fifa –– @Bethanyreid__

Just seen a bird shoutin at her bairn to put his pants on then pointed at me sayin look the mans gonna steal ur willy’. Wtf no am no –– @ryankingg

baby coughin on a bus right as a needed tae cough so a nearly exploded hawdin it in cos a didny wanty look like the guy who copies babies –– @butsay_

More like this

The best of THE FACE. Straight to your inbox. 

00:00 / 00:00