The FITS Project


Officially entitled From Inglis to Scots: Mapping sounds to spellings, FITS is a four-year AHRC-funded research project (grant number AH/L004542/1) looking into the evolution of the distinct variety of language known today as Scots.

There is no contemporaneous linguistic evidence for the emergence of the northern variety of English known first as ‘Inglis’, and only later as Scots. This gap in the evidential record is frustrating as it is during this period (i.e. between c.1100 and c.1375) that the full Scottish state was established and the regional variety known today as Scots began to flourish as its national language.

We know that Inglis was first spoken (and later written) in the context of multilingual burghs that functioned as the economic, religious and political centres of feudal Scotland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These burghs brought together speakers of several dialects of English, some strongly influenced by the language of England’s Scandinavian settlers, and people of Norman French, Latin, Middle Dutch and Gaelic backgrounds. It was in the context of this feudal-age, linguistic melting pot that Inglis emerged.

One of the most striking aspects of materials written in Scots between 1375 and 1500 is the sheer number of spelling variants for what are single words with fixed spellings in present day standard written English: the word ‘town’, for example, is spelled more than twenty different ways in pre-1500 Scots (e.g. town, thone, thoun, thowne, toin, toune, tovn, ton). Such diversity of spelling is unsurprising: only when a national written standard began to emerge in the 16th century did spellings become fixed. Studies of other, non-standard, medieval varieties of English have found that spelling variation is almost always the result of regional and/or temporal differences in the diffusion of linguistic change, and there is every reason to believe that the spelling variation present in pre-1500 Scots texts has a similar explanation. The FITS project will produce a set of mapping and dating tools in order to test this hypothesis.

Our overarching goal is to investigate systematically the basis of spelling variation evident in a large corpus of local documents written in Scots between 1380 and 1500. Taking as our starting point the probable phonetic shape of each word at c.1100, we will trace its development through to its set of attested spellings in our corpus. This will involve: (i) determining the likely pronunciations behind each early Scots spelling; and (ii) mapping a path across the evidential gap, i.e. specifying how each early Scots spelling and its (reconstructed) pronunciation evolved. From this we will catalogue, in a Corpus of Changes, all the linguistic developments presumed by our analyses. Our microscopic study of pre-1500 Scots spellings will thus help us to re-write the phonological history of early Scots.

At a time of widespread interest in questions of national identity in the UK, research concerned with questions of national and linguistic origins is especially timely. Our project will contribute a deeper understanding of the linguistic history of Inglis, Scots and English and of the relationship between them.