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"...stories birling through my mind..."
"There's no such thing as Ulster Scots."
These are words I see often on social media. The rationale is that Ulster Scots can’t possibly be a real thing because languages are all supposed to be different and exotic and mysterious, and Ulster Scots is too close to English to be different and exotic and mysterious.
A short lesson on the history of the English language, therefore, seems like a good place to begin an introduction to Ulster Scots.
The word English is derived from Angles, the name of Germanic tribe, and the languages and dialects that all the various Anglo-Saxon tribes brought with them during invasions of Britain around the 5th century A.D. provided the foundations for the English Language.
We refer to that collection of words, sounds and expressions as Old English, but the people of The Netherlands and Germany called it Dutch or Deutsche: both terms of are variations of one another, meaning "belonging to the people."
Languages are porous and change over time, sometimes dramatically. English changed when Christianity spread and Latin was incorporated. There were then some Norse additions when the Vikings invaded Britain in the 700s. During the 12th century, the arrival of the Normans, whose language was a mix of French and Scandinavian, resulted in further changes.
Click on this link and you’ll see my attempt at reading the lyrics of a 1225 song in English to my daughter.
A short history of Scots
The Angles tribe also came to occupy the north-east of England and south-east of Scotland in the fifth century, and Angles gradually spread throughout the Lowlands of Scotland.
By the end of the thirteenth century, this language had developed its own distinct pronunciation and vocabulary.
Even spelling was different with ‘qu’ in place of ‘wh’, e.g. quile for while.
French, Dutch and Gaelic influences all pervaded the Scottish Lowlands, and by 1424, the Scottish parliament wrote its statutes in the form of Angles now described as Middle Scots. I have endeavoured to imitate Middle Scots in this video.
The Middle Scots period from 1450-1700 was a golden age for the Scots language, but after the crowns of England and Scotland were united in 1603, the English from south of the border crept up on Scotland’s ruling elite.
Scots, also sometimes known as Lallans (Lowlands), remained a strong folk language. When I was a little girl, our annual family holiday to Butlins in Ayr was interrupted every year with a trip to Burns Cottage, as four children reluctantly turned their backs on big dippers, tilt-o-whirls and red coat theatrics to be packed off on a bus in search of the Bard. Perhaps my love of writing in Scots was inspired by the importance accorded to Burns in my home. My dad's most treasured possession is a little book of Burns' poetry his mother gave to him a few years before she died. I had a flick through the book to write this blog and the first stanzas to jump out at me were the following from the poem The Vision:
All in this mottie, misty clime,
I backward mus'd on wasted time:
How I had spent my youthfu' prime,
An' done naething,
But stringing blethers up in rhyme,
For fools to sing
Had I to guid advice but harkit
I might, by this, hae led a market,
Or strutted in a bank and clarkit
While here, half-mad, half-fed, half-sarkit,
Is a' the amount
Burns' investment in rhyme has made dividends for generations of ordinary people, giving them hope that their own upbringing and language /dialect can be accepted not only as something real, but also something inspirational.
Aodán Mac Póilin points out that Scots did not receive legal status as a minority language until after Ulster Scots received its status in 1998. He suggests it was a political rather than linguistic decision, but part of the reason that Scots is recognised as a language, beyond its unique socio-political circumstances, is that there are more dialect expressions used in Scots than in any dialect of England. This video offers a useful insight into Scots.
A short history of Ulster Scots
Scots became important in parts of Ulster during the seventeenth century, when it came into contact with Gaelic and Elizabethan English, and it soon developed its own character. An Ulster-Scots speaker can easily communicate with a Scots speaker, just as a Scots speaker can communicate with an English speaker, but there are strong variations in accent and differences in expression. If I said “Dae ye ken what I mean, hen?” in Northern Ireland, the reply might be, “Catch yersel on, ye eejit!”
Regardless of whether Ulster Scots is deemed to be a language, semi-language or dialect, those involved in any language debate should acknowledge that differences between languages are not always as marked as they are between Irish and English. Acquiring Portuguese after learning Spanish is relatively straight-forward, whilst Danish and Swedish are mutually comprehensible.
Sometimes critics see a sentence comprised of English vocabulary with Scots or Ulster Scots spelling, and ridicule it on the spot. However, Scots and English have Germanic roots and many of the words that we learn in German and Dutch look similar and sound similar to their English counterparts. With a little bit of imagination, any Belfast traveller in the Netherlands should be able to work out that goed, deur, koe, appel, boek, lach, lang, blauw mean good, door, cow, apple, book, laugh, long and blue.
I generally retain the English spelling when writing Ulster Scots dialogue. This is due primarily to my own lack of literacy in Ulster Scots: even though I was born into Ulster Scots, I still struggle to read and write it.
Ulster Scots is so like English that few people ever stop to think about the inter-linguistic toing and froing that takes place every single day in Northern Ireland, or the advantages of code switching between English and Ulster Scots on brain development.
As a child, I knew instinctively not to speak like my mum and dad in most social situations. There was a time and a place for Ulster Scots, or "Broad Scotch," and whilst it may have been a quaint fireside language for storytelling and yarning among old aunts and uncles, it was also the lingua franca of school bullies: I don’t recall ever getting terrorised on the way home from school in Standard English. Teenagers from more educated families at my grammar school would even dip into Ulster-Scots as part of their teenage rebellion against posh parents. My dad said to me the other day. “Dinnae worry for we hinnae time tae go tae the chemist nu.” He then shouted up the bus at a friend. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to make it to the chemist now.” Standard English, it seems, is the best option for guldering in polite society.
There are subtle diversities in Ulster Scots within one household. Last year, I interviewed my paternal great uncle for Dusty Bluebells, which contains some dialogue in Ulster Scots. We were all yarning away when it suddenly occurred to me that my dad was speaking in his usual "Broad Scotch" and my great uncle was responding in Standard English with an Ulster accent. I stopped and asked him, “Did your parents say things like cannae, dinnae, hidnae?” “No,” he said, smiling. “They spoke proper English.” My dad's Ulster Scots, therefore, is not from the King side, which makes sense because the Kings were from England and the Dummigans on the King maternal line were from Armagh. The Ulster Scots came from the Ross side, Granny Jemima's side — Covenanters with good strong voices.
I first dabbled in Ulster Scots in my children's book, Children of Latharna. It's not different, exotic or mysterious, but hundreds of people found it interesting and fun and nostalgically familiar. Ulster Scots has its place, and even if you believe it's a language and not a dialect, it's alright to say it's like English.
The third part of this blog is called 'Ulster Scots: The politics' and is available here.
About Angeline King
Dusty Bluebells is a musical, hearty and spiritual family mystery set in an Irish seaside town.
"The dialect infuses her work with an easy-to-digest, melodious pitch.”
"A powerhouse of accomplishment..."
Mary McCarthy, Books Ireland
"The book is not without a darker side as the author explores loss, suffering and memory, but some very funny characters and great writing carry it along. The stand out treat is the dialogue. Natural, lively and terse, it is largely in “Larne language” (an easy form of Ulster Scots): you can just hear your Granda and a wheen o freens yarning."
Cllr Andrew Clarke
Children of Latharna is available free online, but if you would like to have a copy of the book as a keepsake, please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Last Day of Summer Scheme
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
God Created Butlins
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
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