When I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, the locals could understand me just fine, but I was flummoxed by their accent, which did not remotely sound like English to me. Necessity forced me to request that the Scottish locals I encountered write out their responses to my questions. Embarrassing! How is this one-way communication misunderstanding possible, given Scotland's proximity to England and Ireland, whose accents are far easier to understand?


Scottish people encounter many people from the UK with different English accents. I suspect that they have become more accustomed to the variety of accents than you have.

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    This may be the right answer. I remember when a visiting Italian had a medical emergency. We found somebody who had grown up bilingual in French and Spanish. He could understand everything she said, but he couldn't figure out how to say anything that she could understand. Similarly, I've been told that Norwegians can generally understand Swedish, but not the other way around. I was told that this is because most Norwegians learn three Scandinavian dialects: their local dialect, the official dialect Nynorsk, and Bokmål, a literary dialect. But many Swedes only know one. – Peter Shor May 1 '12 at 18:45
  • With the Italian, Spanish, French example, which one was he and which she? (to get the listener/speaker thing sorted out) – Mitch May 1 '12 at 20:35
  • @Mitch: Oops. I see I was rather vague. The woman was the Italian having the medical emergency, and the guy was bilingual French/Spanish. If anybody is interested in the outcome, the EMTs came and took her to the emergency room, and it turned out not to be anything serious. – Peter Shor May 1 '12 at 23:12
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    @Peter Shor. Being Italian, I find the episode you mention a bit strange. Italian and Spanish are mutually understandable (when travelling to Spanish speaking countries, my husband finds it easier to speak Italian instead of English, the official language of his company, when if wants to avoid misunderstandings, and people speak Spanish to him). This is not true with French, though. As for Scandinavian languages, I can bear witness to the fact that Swedes and Danes can understand each other when each speaks their mother tongue – Paola May 1 '12 at 23:38
  • I find this all very interesting. Isn't it part of the definition of a language that it is mutually unintelligable with different languages? If they can understand each other, aren't they technically dialects of the same language? – T.E.D. May 2 '12 at 14:58

I think a full answer to this question would be rather elaborate, taking in history, geography and politics.

I suspect you were talking to working class Scots. Working class accents are often more localised and have greater variation.

In sort, they can understand you but you can't understand them because you are from a more privileged socio-economic group.

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