"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
"...stories birling through my mind..."
In Primary one, in the midst of those fat, yummy pencils referred to here, a linguistic journey began for me that ended in a love for languages. It’s not unusual for a child to be exposed to two languages in the early years. The problem for children who speak Ulster-Scots is that the dialect is often mistaken for poor English, and the education system swiftly stems its progress as children adapt to Standard English. Those who started school with me in 1980 may well have been the last generation to be told to redd up the house, to get up at the skraik o' dawn, or to pay heed to the teacher. My mum and dad’s generation is likewise the last to sincerely belong to an ancient, poetic language that allows women who are gey and fond of a wee drap o' tay to be skunnered about the brave and long day at work.
It wasn’t until I read Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride that I actually learned to spell any of the words I was weaned on. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw the word blirt written down for the first time. I had always assumed it was a word that my mum and dad had made up.
Here are some wee things you might like to know about Ulster-Scots:
Ulster Scots can help you learn Chaucer and Shakespeare
Middle English may look like a foreign language, but I discovered during my A levels that the words I heard at home were a great advantage in progressing through The Canterbury Tales. Take this sentence: ‘And certeinly he was a good felawe. Fur many a draughte of wyn had he ydrawe.’ You might hear a fella in a pub in Glenarm saying something along the same lines. Although Shakespeare scribed his work in Early Modern English, if you try reading it with an Ulster-Scots accent, it starts to sound like ordinary colloquial speech, instead of the hoity toity talking that puts most children off the Bard.
Ulster-Scots is not just a Protestant thing
Ulster-Scots has appeared on the political agenda in recent years as a particularly Unionist area of interest, whilst Irish Gaelic has been long been adopted as a cause by those of Nationalist persuasion. Although the vast majority of Gaelic speakers in Ireland are Catholic and the majority of settlers from the Ulster plantation and subsequent Scottish famines were Protestant, Ulster Scots is spoken by both Catholics and Protestants in east Donegal, north Londonderry, north and east Antrim and north east Down. Likewise, the Celtic languages, Irish, Scottish, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton, encompass both Protestant and Catholic regions. Before and during the Plantation of Ulster, Scottish people drifted back and forth across the narrow slip of water, bringing with them both the Scots and Gaelic languages.
Ulster-Scots was once spoken by most people in Belfast
Belfast people love to have a wee bit of banter with the country folk around them about the way they speak, but Belfast was once a heartland of the Scots language. By the end of the seventeenth century, Belfast had become dominated by Scottish settlers and a century later, an observer noted that the people spoke ‘broad Scotch.’ As Belfast grew, the Scots patter was gradually diluted. By the last half of the twentieth century, the influence of the media, and in particular, TV and radio, reduced the Scots language words and phrases peppered throughout speech.
Ulster-Scots and Gaelic were both at the mercy of English
The national education system from the 1830s onwards marginalised any language other than English, including Scots. The decline of the Gaelic language began well before this time due to the increased power of the English state. (The subsequent population crisis after the Great Famine also had an impact on numbers of Gaelic speakers.) Ulster-Scots was discouraged in schools, leaving generations of children in complete confusion as they grappled through the spelling of words that made no phonetic sense.
Ulster Scots has become entangled in a dialect/language debate.
Ulster-Scots became recognised as a regional language by the European Bureau of Lesser-Used Languages in 1992, yet linguistic experts are divided on whether Ulster-Scots is a language, a dialect, or indeed a half language. If it is a dialect and not a language, then it’s a dialect of Scots, a sister language of English belonging to the West Germanic family of languages that include English, Dutch and Flemish. Even when scholars insist that Scots is a dialect, they acknowledge its special status. So, dialect or language, whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t actually matter. It’s special and it should be maintained, revived and celebrated. This is how it was celebrated in the 1980s.
Pupil: ‘Miss, I cannae spell that.’
Teacher: ‘You mean you can’t spell that.’
Teacher: ‘You mean yes.’
Ulster Scots is not just about pronunciation
Three important criteria make a language: Pronunciation, Grammar and Vocabulary.
If we look at the pronunciation patterns in Ulster-Scots, we find that the vowel shift that occurred in Old English with words like hoose and doon, didn’t take place. My dad still paints the hoose and goes doon the toon. When I learned Dutch, another West Germanic language, I recognised many of these vowel sounds, so that when my dad asked a Dutch man to ‘howl the deur,’ in a lift outside my flat in Leiden, the man knew well what noun was to be held.
There are verb changes, and these are found among the most common verbs that we use in speech. Gae me means Give to me. The subject also changes from you to ye. There is the presence of and in certain verbs. ‘I’m right and sorry.’ ‘He was gey and happy.’ The most noticeable thing is that the particle not becomes no. ‘You’re no goin’ oot wi’ thon skirt on,’ I heard many times at the age of eighteen! The not is contracted when next to a verb. ‘I cannae,’ ‘You didnae.’ The preposition frae looks that wee bit older and wiser than from.
Auxiliary verbs are also dropped, so that I could never get my head around being told to say, ‘May I go to the toilet,’ in school. It was confusing. We tend to say will instead of shall and want for ought. The pronoun variation is the part that most people can relate to as we subconsciously retain ye in spoken English. The definite article is used in a unique way. ‘He’s a great han’ at the google.’ Many changes only happen in the past tense: brung (brought) is very common in East Antrim.
The most frequently used verbs and vocabulary in our speech are closer to Old and Middle English than Modern English. During the Middle English period, 10,000 French words entered the English language, and most of them are still used today. People is one of the most common, and most of us would write the word people on paper before we would write the word folk. In our spoken language we prefer seat to chair, we say lovely more than beautiful, and we take heed instead of paying attention. The brunt of our spoken language has pre-French Germanic roots. There is likewise an Old English feel to many of the constructions in Ulster-Scots. Fur fear o’ is a phrase I must have heard thousands of times. It means in case. And many children of 1980s Northern Ireland will remember being to told or tawl to raise their arms to clean under their oxters. A wheen of weans would be what you call children today. Aye replaces always. ‘He’s aye playing on thon computer,’ was my brother’s crime.
Ulster Scots is not the only dialect in Ireland
Ulster-Scots or Scotch-Irish, as it was once called, is found mainly in the North-East of Ireland and derived from immigrants from the Scottish lowlands. Mid-Ulster, also known as Ulster Anglo-Irish, is spoken to a lesser degree throughout the rest of Ulster, and it was brought to these shores by immigrants from the west of England and the north-west Midlands. Hiberno-English is the dialect that sweeps from North to South of the map of Ireland, and it is characterised by phonetic changes (tay for tea), differences in stress (the stress falls on the second syllable of educate), and a unique use of the second person plural, Youse. Many of the Hiberno-English constructions can be found in Ulster Scots.
And finally, Sarah Gomartin
All in all, Ulster-Scots is a treasure-trove of language. It’s the smiles on the faces of old aunts, the humming in the corner of a pub, the breath of a farmer walking through the Glens, and it was once the the life of many people before they wrapped their fingers around fat, yummy pencils at school. Reading December Bride has come as a relief to me. It’s a truly compelling tale that has taught me so much about characterisation, language and dialogue, and I will leave you with a glimpse of Sarah Gomartin, a woman who sums up the gumption of a brave and thran protagonist in the world of Ulster-Scots.
She moved round the table from him, watching him wide-eyed. Her elbow knocked over the flour mug, which starred out with a little explosion on the floor. In the silence that followed they heard the steps of Martha in the upper room. ‘Hae ye broke the bowl, Sarah? she called. The girl laughed silently in his face. ‘No, mother, I knocked over the wee mug.’
Angeline King is novelist and language enthusiast from Northern Ireland. Her first novel, Snugville Street, is a hopeful and heart-warming tale set in Belfast.
Scene from Snugville Street
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