Learn Ulster-Scots

Lesson 11 A closer look at Dialect (1)

In this lesson, you will learn:

  • what is dialect
  • when to use dialect speech
  • dialects in Ulster?
  • dialect spelling
  • ‘language versus dialect’


What do people mean when they describe speech as ‘dialect’? You can tell roughly where someone comes from by his/her accent - but that's not the same thing as dialect. When someone is speaking in dialect, he or she is using different words from the ones you would hear on the BBC news programmes. Sometimes you can only pick out a few of the words that are different. Sometimes nearly every word is what we call ‘non-standard’. This means that the words cannot be found in a standard English dictionary. ‘Non-standard’ words can be well known throughout the British Isles as ‘slang’ or ‘colloquial’. However, ‘dialect’ words are only known locally.

These are examples of people using dialect:

‘Willie John, yer a-wantin! Yer granny says ye were mitchin school theday. Yer head's a marlie, wee lad’.
[a-: being. Therefore a-wantin means ‘being looked for’.
mitch: play truant
theday: today
marlie: marble]

‘Didn't the oul' bicycle hit the stone a clattèr, an' I lit on tap o the hedge’.
[oul’: old (derogatory)
clattèr: wallop
lit: ‘alighted’, landed
tap: top]

‘The whole clamjamfrey landed in on me last Sunday, an' I had nayther bit nor sup for them’.
[clamjamfrey: crowd
land in on: visit unexpectedly
nayther: neither
bit or sup: something to eat or drink]

Would you have known what these people were saying? Listen to the crack going on around you in a public place and see if you can pick out other examples of dialect. We are so used to hearing this kind of speech we stop considering it to be anything distinctive. And incidentally, crack was originally a Scots word, found in the writings of Robert Burns. It has been ‘borrowed’ into modern Irish in the form ‘craic’ to conform to Irish spelling.

Is it all right to use dialect speech?

Teachers used to try to stop their pupils using dialect words and phrases. This was for a lot of different reasons, but probably it was mainly because it used to be thought that dialect was the language of the poor people. Teachers wanted to make sure their pupils could impress the person who interviewed them when they went for a job, and they were more likely to do that if they did not speak dialect. Now we know that dialect words have a good pedigree. In fact, many of our dialect words used to be ordinary English words, now long out of general use. You can find some of Northern Ireland's dialect words in the works of the great English playwright, William Shakespeare. The word afeard, for instance, is very often used for ‘afraid’ in Ulster dialect. Shakespeare used it more than 30 times in his writings. Other common words from our speech also turn up in his plays. How about a word still often heard locally, the word brave, meaning ‘anything fine or good of its kind’? This pops up in at least two of Shakespeare's works, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing. Here are a few more:

alablaster a form of ‘alabaster’ (in Merchant of Venice);
apricock an apricot (in Richard II);
beseem befit, become (in Lucrece);
hurry a commotion (in Coriolanus).

Nowadays, when most of us have television sets and can watch videos, it is tempting to copy the way the actors speak in ‘Neighbours’ or ‘CSI’. But it would be a dull world if everyone spoke exactly the same. Whatever kind of dialect you speak, it says something about your identity - who you are. Let's take pride in our local speech.

How many dialects are there in Northern Ireland, and where did they come from?

Historians tell us that the island of Ireland first came under English rule early in the 12th century. People who study language think that the English speech that came in then did not survive very long. It's not easy to be certain about this, but it seems that many of these English settlers started to speak Gaelic along with the rest of the population. Dialect was seldom written down, so in the days before tape recorders, there could not be any record of how the people in Ireland spoke then. Today we have the idea that the Irish Sea was a big barrier to movement between the two islands of Great Britain and Ireland. It's much more likely that it was easier to travel on water than on land. Ireland had large forests in those days; also, the island was never totally at peace. So it would be very surprising if people did not travel about the two larger islands and the many smaller ones quite a lot, bringing the way they spoke with them.

Whether English did or did not survive at that stage, we usually think of the history of the English language in Ireland as starting at the Plantation. The Plantation of Ulster occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. The term ‘Plantation’ doesn't have anything to do with growing crops or trees. It means the settlement of large numbers of people in a particular place. Another word for it is ‘colonization’. Modern thinking is out of sympathy with the concept of colonization, but in those days it was far from unusual. Indeed, a country now looked upon as a great world power was ‘planted’ or colonized – this is, of course, America.

The people who came to Ireland from Scotland and England were mainly ordinary people, not very rich or important. Indeed, many of them had got into trouble with the law back in Scotland or England, or were escaping from money problems, and wanted to start afresh in a new country. In the early stages, or ‘waves’, of the Plantation, there were people trying to escape religious persecution. So the speech they brought with them was the speech of the ordinary people. The Scots who came to Ireland were mostly Lowlanders and spoke Lowland Scots, similar to the language that was later preserved in the work of the Scots poet, Robert Burns. English planters arriving in Ireland spoke a variety of English dialects. The third language that helped to make up Ulster dialect was Gaelic. The Irish Gaelic spoken then was not quite the same as modern-day Irish, and also the Ulster dialect of Irish was and is more like Scots Gaelic than were the other dialects of Irish. At that time, too, Scots Gaelic was spoken in Galloway, a part of Scotland from which many of the settlers came. To add to all this, a settlement of Scots who were Gaelic speakers had been living in the Glens of Antrim since pre-Reformation times.

All the Plantation settlers ended up in different parts of the country. Today we think of the Ulster Scots as having occupied the horse-shoe shaped area around the north, north-east, and east coasts of Northern Ireland, as you would expect because of its nearness to Scotland. Professor Robert Gregg used the results of his researches in the early 1960s to plot a map of the Ulster-Scots speaking areas. The basic map appears in such modern publications as The Hamely Tongue and Dr Philip Robinson’s Ulster-Scots grammar. The actual spread of Ulster-Scots is probably slightly larger than this. For instance, have you heard the speech of people from Kilkeel, in south Down? And what about Kilrea, in County Londonderry? Although those localities are not shown on the map as being Ulster-Scots, you might well think that these are Ulster-Scots speakers too. The English dialect speakers tended to settle in the mid-Ulster area. Gaelic could come into the language picture anywhere in the old (nine-county) Province of Ulster where pockets of the pre-Plantation inhabitants remained. Having said all that, Ulster dialect has had about 300 years to develop since the Plantation, and many of our dialect words and phrases can be found right across Northern Ireland.


Do we spell in dialect in the same way as the BBC news announcer we talked about at the beginning? Not always. In County Armagh, for instance, many people say the letter A as if it was the word ‘ah’. Furthermore, in the west of Ulster the letter ‘h’ is often pronounced ‘haitch’. Then in County Donegal the letter ‘j’ is frequently said as ‘jaa’ or ‘jaw’. This last one may originate with Scottish influence. How do you say these three letters in your part of Northern Ireland?

Because dialect is basically spoken language, it is carried over from the days when people were not nearly so ‘hung up’ on the correct spellings as they are today. So usually we try to write dialect words just as they sound. There have traditionally been no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ spellings as such, for words that we don't share with Standard English. There are modern moves to ‘standardise’ spellings of Ulster-Scots, in order to make it more easily taught to school pupils.

‘Language’ versus ‘dialect’

Since the beginning of the revival of interest in Ulster-Scots in the 1990s, there has been a debate in regard to whether Ulster-Scots is ‘a dialect or a language’. This debate is fuelled by a lack of precision in how the words are used.

However, a key quotation on the whole subject is attributed to the linguist Max Weinreich: ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy’, said to have been published in an academic article in 1945. The same point had already been made in 1941, slightly less succinctly, by Mario Pei in his book The Italian Language: ‘There is no essential difference between ‘language’ and ‘dialects’, the language being a dialect which has met with literary or political favor, while the dialect is a language which politically or culturally has not met with the same good fortune’.

Both of these writers were basically saying that politics decide whether a particular tongue will be considered a language or a dialect. It is all down to the political clout of the population of native speakers. We can point to the position of what is now Standard English, but was formerly the dialect speech of the south-east of England, as providing a historical basis for this view.

Closer to home, the following quotation from Padraig Ó Snodaigh’s little book, Hidden Ulster (Clódhanna Teoranta, 1977), sheds some light on the position of Ulster-Scots at the time of its publication:

While within living memory an interpreter had to be invoked to translate the evidence of a witness in a legal case in Donegal, whose ‘Braid Scots’ could not be understood by the court, the pressure towards Southern Standard English from the government in London and the neglect of the churches as regards publishing in Scots (even if individual seceders like Rev. Thomas Clark could ‘harangue God and man in Kilmarnock bonnet and broad Scots’ in Monaghan from 1751 to 17641) have led to the situation where the days have long since gone when Ulster poets like James Orr of Ballycarry could, in his Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial (1817), write a poem more surely and consistently Scots than Burns’s The Cottar’s Saturday Night; when poets like Francis Boyle of Comber could write Scots verse which, in John Hewitt’s words, “seems to be the countryside itself articulate”2. …
Church and State then hindered the separate development of Scots3.

1 J Braidwood, The Ulster Dialect Lexicon, Belfast, 1969, p. 4.
2 ibid., p. 34.
3 For a further comment on Scots as a separate language cf. Robert Burns’ comment “I have not that command of the (English) language that I have of my native tongue” (p. 558, The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns with an Appreciation by Lord Rosebery) and the fact that textbooks were needed which ‘enabled English to be taught to Scots almost as if it were a foreign tongue’ (H J Hanham, Scottish Nationalism, London, 1969, p. 35). Sneers at the London court are said to have impelled James VI to ever more anti-Scots attitudes.

BBC Northern Ireland gratefully acknowledges that this lesson was provided by the Ulster-Scots Language Society - and copyright belongs to Philip Robinson and Anne Smyth.

Other Lessons

Lesson 1

Meeting and Greeting

Meeting and Greeting
  • greet people in Ulster-Scots
  • introduce yourself
  • talk about where you come from
  • count in Ulster-Scots

Go to this lesson: Meeting and Greeting

Lesson 2

Self, Family and Friends

Self, Family and Friends
  • nouns for family members
  • nouns for parts of the body
  • describing appearance
  • describing yourself, family & friends

Go to this lesson: Self, Family and Friends

Lesson 3

Moods, Feelings and Clothes

Moods, Feelings and Clothes
  • moods, feelings & characteristics
  • words for items of clothing
  • talking about appearance
  • traditional Ulster & Scots dress
  • clothing & characteristics in Scots & Ulster-Scots poetry

Go to this lesson: Moods, Feelings and Clothes

Lesson 4

Hobbies, Interests and Work

Hobbies, Interests and Work
  • describing hobbies & interests
  • words for some jobs
  • working life & leisure time
  • traditional Ulster-Scots pastimes
  • traditional pastimes and jobs in Ulster & Scots poetry

Go to this lesson: Hobbies, Interests and Work

Lesson 5

Food and Drink

Food and Drink
  • examples of food and drink
  • ordering food in a restaurant
  • discussing eating habits
  • food and drink in Ulster & Scots poetry
  • finding Ulster-Scots recipes

Go to this lesson: Food and Drink

Lesson 6

Weather and Seasons

Weather and Seasons
  • words for types of weather
  • weather conditions
  • words for different seasons
  • seasonal activities
  • the weather in Scots & Ulster literature

Go to this lesson: Weather and Seasons

Lesson 7

Nouns and Names

Nouns and Names
  • buildings
  • parts of the face and head
  • The Coortin’ o Miss Norris

Go to this lesson: Nouns and Names

Lesson 8

Meeting and Greeting (2)

Meeting and Greeting (2)
  • Meeting and Greeting (2)
  • The Coortin’ o Miss Norris - Practice Reading and Dialogue
  • Markers of Ulster-Scots

Go to this lesson: Meeting and Greeting (2)

Lesson 9

Grammar and Pronunciation

Grammar and Pronunciation
  • the Definite Article before a Noun
  • spelling and pronunciation
  • saying, doing and being

Go to this lesson: Grammar and Pronunciation

Lesson 10

Pronouns - and Linen-Making

Pronouns - and Linen-Making
  • Pronouns
  • A Byre o a Hoose
  • Tha makkin o tha lïnen

Go to this lesson: Pronouns - and Linen-Making

Lesson 12

A closer look at Dialect (2)

A closer look at Dialect (2)
  • what good is it learning about dialect?
  • country matters
  • farming vocabulary
  • farming practices of old

Go to this lesson: A closer look at Dialect (2)

Lesson 13

A closer look at Dialect (3)

A closer look at Dialect (3)
  • words with a story
  • what’s in a name?
  • Ulster ‘crack’
  • scunner, sheugh and black-mouth

Go to this lesson: A closer look at Dialect (3)

Lesson 14

A closer look at Dialect (4)

A closer look at Dialect (4)
  • similes
  • forms of ‘be’ and ‘do’
  • Match the meanings
  • Wordsearch
  • The Minister’s Cat
  • Call my Bluff

Go to this lesson: A closer look at Dialect (4)