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16 October 2014
A State Apart

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Language, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland

by Aodan Mac Poilin

The maximally differentiated Ulster-Scots we have seen to date reflects a number of contradictory strategies, whose only common denominator is to be as different to English, and occasionally Scots, as possible. In vocabulary, this has involved the use of a disproportionate quota of obsolete words and of neologisms invented in Northern Ireland (e.g., 'langblether' for telephone; 'stour-sucker', a direct translation from German, for 'vacuum cleaner'). Germanic forms are particularly favoured, although there is a ready acceptance of French and Latin-derived vocabulary which was either never used or has become obsolete in English. Spelling sometimes draws on redundant 16th and 17th century spelling conventions ('qoho' for 'who' etc.), now rarely if ever used in Scotland. This alternates with an erratic spelling which sometimes reflects everyday Ulster-Scots speech rather than the conventions of either modern or historic Scots, and sometimes does not (terminal 't' in 'it' and 'at', is pronounced in Ulster-Scots with a full glottal stop, but is usually spelt according to the English convention). Unstressed vowels, which often merge into a neutral vowel sound, are often changed in Ulster-Scots writing; where Scots writers are content to write 'the', some Ulster-Scots writers use 'tha'.

In style, the approach appears to favour a form of folksy nativist purism, manifesting itself as a pastiche of rural speech, and based apparently on the assumption that the native speaker of Ulster Scots can aspire to neither abstract thought nor the passive voice. The result is a jumble of clashing registers far removed indeed from the grace of modern Synthetic Scots, and a very distant cousin to Hugh McDiarmaid's interrogation of eternity or William Lorimer's wonderfully earthy version of the New Testament.

It is also often incomprehensible to the native speaker. This is one of the most acute problems facing the Ulster-Scots movement. Enthusiasts rightly point out that Ulster-Scots has been marginalised and stigmatised, and that its speakers have been imbued with a false sense of inferiority. However, if the movement were to concentrate on linguistic maintenance, through restoring a sense of pride in their speech to these communities, it would have to endorse a high proportion of standard English speech-forms. The drive to establish its linguistic status has resulted in forms of maximally differentiated Ulster-Scots, which, if accepted as being the 'correct' form, could reinforce the sense of inferiority among native speakers the enthusiasts are trying to combat.

The following is an example from an Ulster-Scots version of a government advertisement published in the press on February 9, 1999. The original English of the first sentence of the advert is as follows:

Applications are invited for the post of Sub-Editor (English and Ulster-Scots) in the office of the Official Report (Hansard) of the New Northern Ireland Assembly, which is located at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast.

In the maximally differentiated Ulster-Scots version we have:

It's noo apen fur tae pit in jab foarms fur tha ontake o Unner-Editor (Inglis an Ulster-Scotch) wi tha Chammur o tha Scrievit Accoont (Hansard) o tha New Ulster Semmlie sittin at tha Tolsel Biggins, Stormont, Bilfawst.

Of the thirty-five lexical items here, only five common words (it's, in, editor, new, at) and less than half of the proper nouns (Ulster, Hansard and Stormont) correspond to their Standard English equivalent. A word-by-word rendering of this into standardised English spelling, but leaving in their original form the terms 'Scrievit' and 'Tolsel Biggins' would read as follows:

It's now open for to put in job forms for the ontake of Under-Editor (English and Ulster-Scots) with the Chamber of the Scrievit Account (Hansard) of the New Ulster Assembly, sitting at Tolsel Biggins, Stormont, Belfast.

An analysis of some of the elements of this sentence may be useful. 'It's noo apen fur tae pit in jab foarms fur tha ontake o' as an equivalent for 'Applications are invited for the post of' requires no comment. 'Biggin' (= building) is a word of Norse origin, and is still in use in Ulster-Scots in the much more restricted sense of 'outhouse'. 'Chaummer' {= chamber} is a French-derived word, now referring only to an upper room in a house or outbuilding, according to the Concise Ulster Dictionary. It appears to be used here only because it is not the word 'office'. 'Scrievit', one of the permitted words of Latin origin, means 'written'. It was once common north of the Humber, but survived into modern times only in the north-east of Scotland, according to the Concise Scots Dictionary. 'Scrievit Accoont' (written account) is an adequate if not quite accurate and totally unnecessary translation of 'Official Report'.

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