"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Irish culture & folklore
"...stories birling through my mind..."
Last week I read that the spoken language in Larne is urban modified English and not Ulster Scots at all. This led to something of an existentialist crisis because I was under the impression that I could speak and understand Ulster Scots on account of my Larnian credentials.
In the end I did what any good Larne woman would do and armed myself with a book. The late Professor Gregg, it was put to me, was the man I needed to know, and I discovered this excellent resource: https://www.libraryireland.com/gregg/, which is free to access. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in language in Ireland or Scotland. It took me six full days of reading to figure out why my impression of Larne language is so different to that of Gregg’s. The short version for those who don't have ten minutes to delve into the following insights into Larne Language and its relationship with Gaelic, Scots and English, is that the real Ulster Scots is found in certain areas in Larne, and I happen to have been brought up in one of them. Existentialist crisis over! Please do read on...
Professor Gregg was a master of languages and a pioneer of Ulster Scots, collecting material from the 1920s before he even began his formal studies. He studied languages at Larne Grammar School and Queen’s University, Belfast — familiar territory for me — and led a distinguished career as a linguist both here and in Canada. My own ambition is to be a novelist, not a linguist, but I can confirm that I'm a little more familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet today than I was last week and my eyes are now wide open to the possibilities that even a basic knowledge of linguistics can bring. I’m now kicking myself for taking that module on Existentialist French Literature at Queen’s instead of Linguistics.
Robert Gregg and I were both raised in almost the same area of Larne. What separated us was two generations and several rungs of social class. Robert was born in 1912 — sixty-three years before me, and his home was on the Glenarm Road, which happens to be the setting of Dusty Bluebells, my first attempt at a novel with Ulster Scots dialogue. Robert was raised in a Victorian terrace house, a grand home for its time and one that was built for Larne’s burgeoning middle class. I spent my early childhood in a small kitchen house on the Waterloo Road around the corner from his old home before moving to a new estate nearby.
Robert’s childhood was played out in an up-and-coming industrial town and a booming tourist resort. He would have watched hundreds of jaunting cars pass him every day on their way up the coast. My Larne was different. The natural setting was beautiful, but the town centre was haunted by giant, abandoned hotels from its tourism heyday, which have since been replaced with residential accommodation. There wasn’t the same attraction for middle class people with Standard English voices to come to Larne for work in the 1980s as there had been in the early 1900s. This in itself changed the linguistic landscape in a way that would have surprised Robert Gregg.
Gregg attended Larne Grammar School in the early 1920s when only a small elite of people had access to grammar education. I went to the same school in 1987, by which time the Eleven Plus entrance exam had been in place for a couple of generations. While I was not unique in being from a working class background, I was certainly one of a small number with strong accents. My middle class contemporaries, many of whom came from outlying country areas, found my “Larne language” entertaining. In first year, I had attended Larne High School, where dinnae, cannae and wudnae were perfectly normal extracurricular words, but these were not common in Larne Grammar School. I often hear people blaming education for the loss of Ulster Scots, but it could be argued that the opening of both Greenland Secondary School (now Larne High) and St. Comgall's Secondary School contributed to a widening of some common Ulster Scots lexical items among pupils who didn’t speak with an Ulster Scots accent at home. In the 1950s and 1960s, folk from the countryside also came into the town for work and to live in the newly built housing estates of Antiville and Craigyhill. This resulted in another influx of Ulster Scots voices.
Professor Gregg identified an older form of Ulster Scots in Glenoe in the home of his maternal family, the McDowells. If we work our way back to the 1600s, we see a meeting point of languages, with County Antrim Gaelige informing the incoming Lowland Scots voices in sounds, vocabulary and idiom. Ulster Gaelic would have been spoken in Larne, but Gregg used his linguistic expertise to identify that Gaelic words in Glenoe had arrived via Scotland. He also explained that some family names were from the Highlands, a result of prior migrations from the Highlands to Lowlands of Scotland. In addition, Gaelic was spoken in Galloway until the 18th century, introducing the real possibility of bi-lingual individuals migrating to Glenoe. Gregg believed the persistence of /x/, e.g. nicht for night, in Glenoe may have been down to the sound’s frequent occurrence in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. He was also able to establish that Ulster Scots speakers had conserved many features of Middle Scots speech, which have largely been lost in Scotland itself. This, I presume, is part of the reason why academics see Ulster Scots as a language in its own right, rather than a dialect of modern Scots. Like Ulster English, which can be a little Shakespearean, Ulster Scots has some older features that have not survived in the country of origin.
Gregg’s observations have given me an understanding of the language of my female line. My mum’s speech is rich with Ulster Scots idiom, cadence and rhythm and my granny’s was the same. My granny grew up in Browndod, a towland between Glenoe and Ballysnod. As a child, she drew her water from the well, had a dry toilet, ran around barefoot and had limited access to education. Ulster Scots was part of the deal for low-income country residences. She did, however, marry into Standard English by way of my granda Rossborough, who despite having plantation Scottish heritage and a mother from Islandmagee, did not speak Ulster Scots. He would have spoken what Gregg described as “Regional Standard English,” a dialect still beautiful in its own right. Granda’s family, who owned a saddlers had perhaps worked their way up from Ulster Scots.
Professor Gregg’s Phonological study of Larne is a golden record because many of the language patterns that Gregg described as Regional Standard English are fading from the town’s linguistic memory — bek for back, beg for bag and the following identical couplings: kendle for candle, kettle for cattle; neck for knack; wreck for rack; flex for flax. I grew up with cannae, dinnae, and hinnae, and the broader Scots pronunciations like tap for top and aff for off, claith for cloth, hoose for house, mooth for mouth, so I was confused about Gregg’s Larne until I read the following:
"To the north and north-west two or three generations ago workers from the country south-west of Ballymena were settled in the neighbourhood of Brown's Linen Factory. Their dialect, which is in any case closely similar to the other US rural dialects already mentioned, has been well preserved in this district to the present day and as a result of school and other social contacts some of its special phonological features, e.g. the use of the medial glottal stop in place of /t/ in words such as: butter [ˈbʌʔər] Saturday [ˈsɑ:ʔərde] bottom [ˈbɔ:ʔəm] etc. have even spread to the standard speech of other parts of the town."
Here Gregg is describing what is now known as the Factory Community, where I and my dad's maternal family grew up. This is the heartland of Dusty Bluebells. The population in this area more than tripled when adjoining housing estates like Ferris Park and Sallagh Park were built in the 1950s. Greenland estate, where I lived from the age of 7, and Regents Park followed later. Those incredibly strong — some might say hard — accents prevailed and spread, although this has to be counterbalanced by the number of people who left Ulster Scots behind on account of education or social advancement.
Professor Gregg created lists of markers that differentiated Ulster Scots from Ulster English, which, despite its name, contains a great deal of Scots vocabulary. I tested the list on my mum, whose Ulster Scots is typical of that found among thousands of Larne people her generation. On the first list — echt, enuech, fecht, nicht and teuch — we experienced a giant FAIL. We would use the /x/ in words like shuegh and spraghle but not for eight, enough, fight, night and touch.
We didn’t fare much better with list 2, which included abin for above and fit for foot. (We say fut). We passed on door, floor and guid from this list, but none of us say shoon for shoes, although we’re aware of it. By list 3, I was ready to throw the Ulster Scots baby out with the bathwater — under the Inver bridge, which was once pronounced brig. List 4 was easier — epple for apple, femily for family, ferm for farm. List 5 reassured me — aboot for about, hoose for house etc, although Larne folk say wer in place o oor. There is also the list 5 issue of fu for full. Larne folk give it an /l/ and a bit of welly in the middle, particularly when describing someone who is blootered. By list 6, I felt unworthy for not saying twuster for twister and indeed for not knowing what a twuster was. I have heard people say “twunty” but can’t bring myself to say it. List 7 — lang for long sounds like my Larne language. (And no one need ever know that none of us have ever ever said maun for must and wat for wet). List 8 had mixed results — snaw for snow, faa for fall, whaur for where were all recognisable, but we don’t say wha for who. On list 9, we all failed at een for eyes, but excelled at bried for bread. List 10 was written for us — hame, yin, stane, weans. List 11 was alright too — doag for dog, no for not. List 12 was familiar — aye for always, haai for hay. List 13 had some of our favourites like oul and coul. List 14 was a breeze — dae, dinnae, haetae, cannae, gie, gien, tak. These lists were used to map out Ulster Scots across the whole of Ulster.
This was a rudimentary experiment, but I’d say that my mum and dad have around 60% of Professor Gregg’s markers of the traditional form of the Ulster Scots language. We’re also au fait with the late James Fenton’s County Antrim Ulster Scots vocabulary: frae, scrae, hap, oxter, sope, kye, fash, footer, boass, glar, clabbar, boady, bleck, drap, swally, fissle, skinkle, glipe, gype, smit, fleg, mony, loass, claith, luk, sut, gornickle, as weel, forebye, feared, bumble, hannle. (I’ll stop there because he wrote a whole book filled with them, which I’d also recommend).
The thing about Larne is that the migration of Scots folk never really ended. Everyone has family in Scotland. My mum’s sister, Sandra, who passed away last year, married Jack from Stranraer in the 1960s and they lived both here and in Stranraer. My uncle Noel married Elaine from Peterhead after meeting her at the Butlins holiday camp in the same era. University students often bring wives and husbands home to settle in the town, while Larne-Stranraer “ferry romances” continue to blossom. The question is, should Ulster Scots be defined by the markers identified by Professor Gregg, which are even older than some of the current Scots dialects brought over on the ferry? Or could some system be developed that respects Ulster Scots in its older form whilst also acknowledging change? Now that we’ve all had so much fun with the Ulster Scot’s Agency’s A Wheen o Words, could this be taken further — a graded test awarding A1 for the basics and C2 for Glenoe Ulster Scots?
Ulster Scots is primarily an oral language, and this is why so many people in Northern Ireland are frustrated when they see it written down. They think the writing part is fake, but of course, all languages have gone through this process of deciding what is standard or not. Professor Gregg and a colleague, Brendan Adams, set about addressing the spelling of Ulster Scots in the 1960s. (Brendan was a nephew of Larne man and folklorist Richard Hayward). Diacritics (marks to indicate sounds) are sometimes used in Ulster Scots to help readers imagine sounds, and for this, Ulster Scots has been mocked. Reading through the ‘Essays for and by J Gregg’, however, I see why this is so. Let’s take the word butter. When you want to bring the Ballymena out in butter, it is incredibly difficult to do so on paper. Bu—er? Buuher? Buu’er? Butter? Where do you start? This is where the linguists come in with solutions because they have a way of writing down sounds. When I was writing Dusty Bluebells, I muddled through with the Dictionary of Scots Language, Fenton’s Hamely Tongue and my own personal knowledge of Scots' novels, even throwing in some Dutch and German for good measure, but if I’d relied upon a solution that had been created for me by experts, I may have avoided any trouble. (This week I purchased a copy of the Ulster-Scots Language Academy Press's, Ulster-Scots Writers' Guide but predict that my rebellious spelling habit might continue.)
Professor Gregg passed away in 1998, leaving a beautiful legacy behind, but it is a legacy tinged with an element of sadness because of what came after — the politics, the language battle (that brought down a government) and the sniggering in the background from those with little time for the tri-lingual heritage of their country.
Gregg was able to conclude from research right across Ulster that compared with other English dialects, “the Ulster Scots dialects are the most clearly differentiated from every point of view — phonetically, lexically, morphologically and syntactically.” Both Robert Gregg and Richard Hayward might be happy to know that “He got a quare gunk,” “Ye're quare an' saft” and “It wud skunner a pig” are still in use in their childhood hometown, and that those factory folk around Brown’s Irish Linen Factory did more than just spread their medial glottal stop.
Angeline King is a novelist, PhD researcher and Writer in Residence at Ulster University. Dusty Bluebells is available here.
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82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Last Day of Summer Scheme
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
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Language Blog I
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The linguist behind Ulster Scots.
Kailyard & Dusty Bluebells
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl