Glasgow Air Traffic Control

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My experience in Glasgow has one thing in common with this sketch, namely that I often found two people in the same job in the same place with very different levels of intelligibility — for example, two security guards at a university gate, or two clerks in a store, one of whom was relatively easy to understand while the other one's speech was more or less impenetrable.

Another notable aspect of my Glasgow experience has been that after a couple of days, I can suddenly understand everybody. For some reason, this adaptation — which seems to be partly a matter of undoing (aspects of) the Great Vowel Shift, and partly adding a few words to my language model — doesn't seem to carry over to the next visit, at least across a gap of several years.

I'm not able to judge the authenticity of the accent in this sketch — any opinions?


  1. Jim Breen said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 6:33 pm

    Video unavailable
    The uploader has not made this video available in your country.

    [(myl) VPN? or try downloading from this link…]

  2. Harry Campbell said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 8:32 pm

    Well it was pretty authentic until the Russian-style gibberish at the very end which I suppose was supposed to be Welsh (as imitated by someone who had never actually heard any). But most of the unintelligibility here is surely to do with obscure idioms and jocular turns of phrase rather than accent. Much as in this sketch, which just possibly the entry of the black guy was a subtle reference to?

  3. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 8:37 pm

    @Harry Campbell

    Could sb please add subtitles for the script?

  4. AntC said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 8:42 pm

    I think the male ATC actor is one of the two in the voice-activated lift in Scotland (that Geoff Pullum posted many years ago).

    [(myl) "ASR elevator", 11/14/2010 — the difference there is that the speech is entirely comprehensible to Americans and also to 2010-era automatic speech recognition…]

  5. Duncan said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 8:50 pm

    That link did it for me. (The original didn't even show up as a blank player in the web page here, likely due to strict security settings that don't allow unrelated sites or content by default, umatrix says there's a youtube iframe on the LL page that's not allowed, but a straight link works.)

    Or here's a link to a reaction video, hopefully available where the original isn't. (And you can try again a direct youtube link to the original as found in the reaction video description, if you like.)

    FWIW, I've little experience with Scottish accents, but some exposure to various international accents from a few years in Kenya some 40+ years ago (then about 10 years out from being a crown colony). I could make out about 1/3-1/2 at normal speed, and 2/3-3/4, definitely enough to get the gist altho I'd hate to be trying to /follow/ the directions under that sort of pressure, at .75 speed.

    Hints… He /does/ say "cookie"(I got that at normal speed, but I couldn't figure out what that had to do with the context), and they're debating whether the US term is an Oreo or a Keebler cookie (had to go to .75 speed to figure that bit out). I guess the reference is to the artificial horizon indicator looking like a brown cookie.

    Cookie doesn't strike me as authentic, tho, unless they're trying to use the US term, which does fit the sketch-plot.

    But I'm with the guy doing the reaction, I've no clue when it cuts to Wales.

  6. Don Monroe said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 9:23 pm

    The man is guest host James McAvoy, who seems to have grown up entirely in the Glasgow area.

  7. Robert Ayers said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 11:28 pm

    "Another notable aspect of my Glasgow experience has been that after a couple of days, I can suddenly understand everybody."

    I (USA) noticed that the first few times I visited New Zealand. At first, I kept asking people to repeat ("hunh?") and then understood on the second (slower) try. Then maybe on day three the problem would go away.

  8. Chris C. said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 11:42 pm

    Incomprehensibility of Scots is kind of a standard joke. Craig Ferguson interviewing his sister: (starts at 0:45)

  9. Rick Rubenstein said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 3:11 am

    One of my freshman year roommates was from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and at first I found it extremely difficult to understand his Engllish. Gradually I got much better at it — or so I thought. Then I heard him on the phone with his mom back home. It was utterly incomprehensible. Turns out nearly all the adjustment had been on his end, not mine.

  10. Sawney said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 4:31 am

    The actor playing the ATC (the excellent James McAvoy, Glasgow born and bred) is no doubt aware of how his natural accent might sound to Americans, but he seems to be doing his damnedest to be as incomprehensible as possible. Not only does he throw a generic east coast (Edinburgh, Fife etc) accent into the west coast dialect/slang mix occasionally (as Glaswegians are wont to do when required to be 'Scottish' rather than yer everyday Weegie), but appears also to be paying some sort of tongue-in-cheek homage to Groundskeeper Willie, especially with his pronunciation of ‘breath’ as ‘breeth’* – which no Scot I know would ever use.

    *‘breeth’ does exist in Scots, but only as a variant of ‘breedth’ (breadth), as far as I’m aware 

  11. Stefan said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:52 am

    The section about the cookie is I assume him describing the altimeter and trying to direct the guy to read it, although its not clear as a broon doodaa is simply a brown thing. He also asks him to "Hae a wee shiftae oot the windae" or have a quick look out the window. As said elsewhere there are a lot of colloquisms and Breeth sounds strange but did remind me a litttle of my Gran from Fife.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 6:15 am

    Well, to this home-counties Briton (who has admittedly been invited to address the haggis on the odd occasion), the Glaswegians were completely clear but I had great trouble understanding the Americans ☺

  13. richardelguru said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 8:07 am

    I'm an Anglo-Scottish half-breed¹ who has lived in Texas for nearly twenty years² and had no difficulty with the Scots and it seemed quite authentic (for a Glaswegian who didn't want to make comprehension easy). I have relatives who sound like that, indeed I once had to translate for a visiting uncle (who actually was trying to be understood) in a restaurant!

    ¹ or more accurately 'Sesqui-Scot'.
    I am clearly either a Scot and a half or an Englishman and a half, the logic being as follows:—
    Each of my parents insists, following ancient tradition, that one of their race is equal to any two of the other.
    Thus my composition is either:
    one half English plus one half Scottish times two, totalling 1.5
    one half Scottish plus one half English times two, totalling 1.5
    Hence a Sesqui-Scot since that flows so much better than *Sesqui-Englishman.

    ² My God how time flies!

  14. Shawn Maeder said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 8:53 am

    James McAvoy does a great Philadelphia accent here, in a recent SNL skit.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 10:50 am

    Many decades ago, I visited Edinburgh (a few times, actually) and took a couple of countryside coach tours. On one of them, the driver/guide's accent was so thick that I couldn't understand a word of it; on the other one, the driver was perfectly intelligible as he described what we would be seeing if it weren't completely wrapped in fog.

  16. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 3:22 pm

    Too funny! This reminds me of when I was in Paris in August 2004. I was visiting London and my friend — who grew up in Edinburgh, but lived in London and had almost no discernible Scottish accent — took me to Paris for my birthday.

    Anyway, we were waiting for a “bateau-bus” by the Seine and there was a group of people next to us, also waiting. They were talking amongst themselves and I kept hearing a word here or there that sounded like it might be English or Dutch, but I couldn’t tell what language they were speaking.

    I asked my friend, “what language is that?”’ He looked quite surprised and said, “English!” I said, “that is NOT English!” He said, “oh, that’s Glaswegian.”

    Completely incomprehensible! Lol!

  17. Martin Reszat said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 4:37 pm

    Being a non-native speaker: the "brown thing/Oreo" business clearly was about getting him to read a flight instrument, and then there was the "look out the window" part I had no trouble with…

    My theory would be twofold: First, dealing with the "Germanic Vowel Shift" comes along naturally while learning English – for me as a German!, and, secondly, occasional non-native speakers are in a "filling the gaps" mode right away, while Mark as a native speaker reports that it always takes him a couple of days to adjust.

    Anecdotal proof: about 25 years ago, on the first day of an international business meeting, I ended up interpreting between Americans, Australians, people from Scotland and South Africa and, to a lesser extent, for my German collegues. Far from exactly understanding everything that was said, my help was nevertheless much appreciated.

  18. John Kozak said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 4:58 pm

    There's a website listing translations of "my hovercraft is full of eels" into many languages. Most are very predictable, but the Glaswegian is magnificient: "See me? See eels? Mah hovercraft's pure hoachin'".

  19. Robot Therapist said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 7:18 pm

    I'm from Glasgow originally. "Breeth" was the only bit that sounded wrong.

  20. boynamedsue said,

    February 8, 2019 @ 5:40 am

    Second everybody who found [bri:θ] weird, even though I'm not Scottish myself. Perhaps the writers came up with a joke that didn't quite work so McAvoy was forced into doing an unnatural pronunciation to stop comprehension?

    @John Kozack

    See me? See eels?

    Classic :)

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