Are one man’s breeks another man’s trousers? And is a potato just a tattie by any other name? That’s the puzzle Dundee researchers set out to solve in a study comparing language to dialect.
The Dundee University academics found speakers did not process Scots words in a different way to those found in the standard English dictionary.
The team say the conclusion is an important breakthrough, since the distinction between language and dialect is often controversial and politically charged.
Dr Alissa Melinger from the University’s psychology department wanted to investigate word selection by speakers of two dialects — in this case Scottish and English.
Participants were seated before a screen that displayed objects such as a potato, chimney or a pair of trousers while distracting stimuli were played over headphones.
Previous research into bilingualism has shown that hearing a translation of a picture name speeds up word production.
For example, if a Spanish-English bilingual hears the Spanish word manzana (apple), while trying to say apple in English, they will respond faster than if they heard some unrelated word, like coche (car).
The study aimed to find out if this same effect was found in those who speak two dialects — which would suggest the words were being processed like a separate language.
When the distracting stimulus was the Scottish translation of the object (hearing breeks while trying to say trousers, lum instead of chimney, or tattie instead of potato), participants were slower to name the picture than when they heard an unrelated Scottish word.
This is the opposite to what has been found for bilinguals and suggests the words used do not represent a language distinct to English and are processed much like synonyms or slang words, such as bloke instead of friend.
Dr Melinger said she hopes the study could contribute to further understanding of the difference between dialects and languages.
She said: “The findings from my study suggest there is a difference between selecting words from two dialects of English and selecting words from two languages.
“Depending on the social situation, we can choose Scottish vocabulary items, American vocabulary items, technical vocabulary items, or slang vocabulary items, but we select them from a single lexicon.
“This observation opens the door to subsequent investigations into other dialect pairs and can contribute to the longstanding debate about how to define a language and how to differentiate between a dialect and a language, potentially putting to bed political arguments about language status.”
The study analysed how quickly the brain reacts when asked to switch between standard English and Dundonian as well as standard German and the regional Öcher Platt dialect.