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An introduction to the Ulster-Scots Language

Where does Ulster-Scots come from?
 
The Scots language came to Ulster with the Scottish settlers of the Plantation in the early seventeenth century.  Its presence was sustained and reinforced by later migrations and by the strong social and economic ties across the narrow North Channel.
 
Ulster-Scots (or ‘Ullans’ or even the ‘Braid Scotch’) is a variant of Scots, the language used by Robert Burns in many of his poems. 
 
Scots is still spoken in the Lowlands of Scotland today and is often called Lallans, the Scots word for ‘lowlands’.
 
Scots is part of the West Germanic family of languages.  Other West Germanic languages include English, Dutch, Flemish, German, Afrikaans, Frisian and Yiddish.  The Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) are North Germanic languages. The East Germanic languages, including Gothic, one of the earliest Germanic languages, are all now extinct.
 
Scots (and Ulster-Scots) is descended from the Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon which was brought to the British Isles approximately 1,500 years ago. Modern English is derived from the Mercian dialect of Anglo-Saxon.
 
Scots is distinct from Scottish Gaelic which is a Celtic language.  Other Celtic languages are Irish, Welsh, Manx, Breton or Cornish.
 
Does Ulster-Scots have any affinity with other languages?
 
Ulster-Scots has a very obvious affinity with Scots and also with English. Because they are both Germanic languages Scots and English often sound similar. In just the same way Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are mutually intelligible.
 
Why have Scots and Ulster-Scots been widely displaced by English?
 
With the appearance of the Geneva Bible in 1560 (and the Authorized Version of the Bible or King James Bible in 1611) and the Union of the Crowns in 1603 (when James VI of Scots also became James I of England) the prestige and status of Scots declined. John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, was extremely hostile to Scots. Knox viewed Scots as ‘the language of Popery’ because the most formal writing (or the highest register, as a sociolinguist might observe) in Scots was religious and Roman Catholic in content. It was increasingly displaced as the language of government, commerce and writing in both Ulster and Scotland by English because it lacked status and prestige. Scots and Ulster-Scots continued as the language of the home and the countryside but encountered serious prejudice.  This may be evidenced by observations in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs describing Ulster-Scots as ‘disagreeable’ and ‘coarse’. William Carleton, the 19th-century writer from the Clogher Valley in Co. Tyrone, proudly boasted that he had ‘studiously avoided that intolerable Scoto-Hibernic jargon’.
 
The educational system also frowned on Ulster-Scots. As Dr Ivan Herbison of Queen’s University, Belfast, has noted: ‘The new education policy of the 1830s was an additional pressure on Ulster-Scots.  State control of education through the National School system enabled the Anglo-Irish establishment to frame a curriculum which privileged English language, literature and cultural values, and marginalised Ulster’s Scottish cultural heritage’. Marginalization and even denigration of Ulster-Scots was the inevitable result. Other minority languages (for example, Occitan in France) have suffered a similar fate in continental Europe
 
Is Ulster-Scots a language or a dialect?
 
There are no objective criteria to distinguish a language from a dialect. Mario A. Pei, the Italian-American linguist, made this very point in his  first book, The Italian Language (1941): ‘There is no essential difference between “language” and “dialect”, a language being a dialect which has met with literary or political favour, while dialect is a language which politically or culturally has not met with the same good fortune’.
 
Max Weinreich, one of the leading figures in modern Yiddish linguistics, makes essentially the same point: ‘A language is a dialect with an army and navy’.
 
Norwegian provides an excellent example of this. In the 1840s Norwegian was regarded as a collection of peasant dialects. In 1905 Norway secured its independence from Sweden. What 60 years previously was a collection of peasant dialects suddenly was transformed into a national language.
 
Political recognition that Ulster-Scots is a language, and not simply a dialect of English, flows from the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
 
This question really ought to be regarded as completely redundant.
 
What does the Belfast Agreement say about Ulster Scots?
 
‘All participants recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.’
 
What does the European Charter say about Ulster Scots?
 
The United Kingdom government formally accepted Ulster-Scots as a language in January 2000 when it signed the Council of Europe Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. The Charter states:  ‘The Parties undertake to promote, by appropriate measures, mutual understanding between all the linguistic groups of the country and in particular the inclusion of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to the Ulster-Scots language among the objectives of education and training provided within its country and encouragement of the mass media to pursue the same objective (Article 7, part 3)’.
 
How many people speak Ulster Scots?
 
In the early 1960s there were an estimated 100,000 native speakers of Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland and Co Donegal. In the absence of census data no one knows for certain how many people speak Ulster-Scots today. The 2011 Census in Northern Ireland will include a question to ascertain the number of Ulster Scots speakers.
 
No figures are available for the number of Ulster-Scots speakers outside Ulster but there are Ulster-Scots language groups in the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe.
 
Where is Ulster-Scots spoken?
 
The language is spoken principally in the Ards peninsula, north Down, Co. Antrim, and north Co. Londonderry and in east Donegal (the Laggan).  However, Ulster-Scots vocabulary is heard in other areas too.
 
Is Ulster-Scots sectarian?
 
Ulster-Scots is most emphatically not sectarian. In his autobiography Steps on My Pilgrim Journey, Cardinal Cahal Daly, the former Cardinal-Archbishop of Armagh,  recalled that Scots was spoken in his native Loughguile, near Ballymoney, during the 1920s: ‘In school, one had to talk “polite” to the teacher; but in the playgound one talked the local “patois” which in North Antrim was close to Lowland Scots’. This demonstrates that the Ulster-Scots language was and is spoken by both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.
 
Do I know any Ulster-Scots?
 
Without realising it you probably know a number of Ulster-Scots words already.  For example some common ones in everyday usage are:
 
Thon……. that
 
Danner ……. walk
 
Wee ……. small
 
You may even be familiar with these ones:
 
Nicht ……. night
 
Cannae ……. can’t
 
Gye …….very
 
Here are a few more examples:
 
Bumfly ……bulging out untidily
 
Cowp ……tip over, unbalance
 
Fornenst ……opposite, directly in front of
 
Hirple …… limp
 
Oxter … armpit
 
Sleekit ……devious, cunning
 
Stour ……dust, especially in motion
 
Has anything been written in Ulster-Scots?
 
There is the eighteenth- and the nineteenth-century poetry of the Weaver Poets, such as Hugh Porter, the Bard of Moneyslane; James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry; Samuel Thompson [Thomson], the Bard of Carngranny; or the Kailyard novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, such as Archibald McIlroy’s When Lint was in the Bell. In more recent times Philip Robinson has written a trilogy of Ulster-Scots novels and James Fenton is the finest contemporary poet writing in the language.
 
Does Ulster Scots have its own grammar and structure?
 
Philip Robinson has studied the language’s grammar and structure and produced Ulster Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language which first appeared in 1997.
 
Is there an Ulster-Scots Dictionary?
 
Not as yet, but James Fenton has produced The Hamely Tongue: A Personal Record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim, the third edition of which was published in 2006. The Hamely Tongue fulfils many of the functions of a dictionary. The Scottish National Dictionary, which was published in ten volumes between 1951 and 1976, provides a complete coverage of the Scots language, including Ulster-Scots. So, in effect, there is also an Ulster-Scots dictionary buried or concealed within this larger work.
 
Has the Bible been translated into Ulster-Scots?
 
This is an important question: the vernacular Bible is an important milestone in the history of any language because it sets standards for both the written and spoken language. W. L. Lorimer (1885-1967), the Scottish academic and Greek scholar, translated the New Testament from Greek into Scots. His manuscripts were revised after his death by R. L. C. Lorimer and published in 1983 and 1985. Translating the Bible into Ulster-Scots is work in progress.  Luke’s Gospel has been translated into Ulster-Scots and publication is believed to be imminent.
 
What is the Ulster-Scots Agency’s role with respect to the language?
 
The purpose of the Agency is to promote the study, conservation and development of Ulster-Scots as a living language; to encourage and develop the full range of its attendant culture; and to promote an understanding of the history of the Ulster-Scots.
 
Are there any other organisations promoting Ulster-Scots?
 
The Ulster-Scots language revival began in 1992 in Greba (Greyabbey) with the formation of the Ulstèr-Scotch Leid Societie (Ulster-Scots Language Society) by five Ulster-Scots language enthusiasts. Thus, the Ulster-Scots Language Society predates the existence of the Agency. The Ulster-Scots Language Society’s purpose is the protection and promotion of the Ulster-Scots language. It encourages the use of Ulster-Scots in both speech and writing in all areas of life. The Society aims to restore the status of the language after generations of neglect and disparagement, and actively lobbies for it to be given proper recognition by government, both in education and more generally. It also views the language as inextricably linked to its attendant culture and believes the Ulster-Scots language and culture to be interdependent. The Ulster-Scots Language Society is by constitution non-political and non-sectarian, and is a registered charity.
 
More recently, the Ullans Speakers’ Association, a local language group, was formed by a number of native Ulster-Scots speakers in north Antrim in June 2008. The Association wishes to promote, record and preserve the language.
 
What is the future of Ulster-Scots?
 
The future of all minority languages is precarious. At the beginning of this decade Anthony Sattin observed that: ‘There are some 6,500 languages in the world and apparently as many as half of them may be about to disappear’. The future of Ulster-Scots, and indeed all minority languages, heavily depends on the willingness of those who speak the language to continue to do so and hand on the language to their children and grandchildren. It also rests on the willingness of those who do not speak it to take up the language.
 
The Ulster-Scots Agency is currently engaged in promoting activity and programmes to support both the language and the people who wish to use it.