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A Narrow Sea - Episode 59

A Narrow Sea - Episode 59

The Hamely Tongue
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon

In 1860 David Patterson, a teacher at the Industrial Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind, published a book with the title The Provincialisms of Belfast and the Surrounding Districts Pointed Out and Corrected.

His purpose was to persuade his pupils to drop local speech and pronunciation and use Standard English. He wrote:

It must be evident to any intelligent and unprejudiced observer, that the pronunciation given to the English words used in ordinary conversation by the people of Belfast and the surrounding districts, is, in general, very different from that recommended by English orthoepedists, and taught in our common school dictionaries…

Mistakes are made in the use of almost every elementary sound in the language. In Belfast and the surrounding districts, the uneducated, and sometimes even the educated, err in the pronunciation of the following sounds and letters…

Patterson then made long lists showing how words were pronounced locally, including:

  • Besom, Bizzim;
  • Gold, Goold;
  • Idiot, Eedyet;
  • Whip, Whup;
  • America, Americay;
  • Soft, Saft;
  • Turpentine, Torpentine; and
  • Canal, Canaul.

He also included a list with translations entitled Words not to be met with in our Ordinary English Dictionaries. They included:

  • Wheen, a quantity;
  • Sleekit, sly;
  • Skelly, to squint;
  • Skelf, a small splinter;
  • Farl, a cake of bread;
  • Curnaptious, crabbed;
  • Boke, to make an offer to vomit;
  • Thole, to endure or suffer pain or annoyance;
  • Hoke, to make holes;
  • Scundther, to disgust;
  • Sheugh, a ditch;
  • Stoor, dust; and
  • Cowp, to upset.

With the exception of sheugh, which comes from the Irish, all of these words are of Lowland Scots origin.

Lowland Scots or Lallands is derived from Old Northumbrian or northern forms of Anglo-Saxon. Originally it was spoken only in the south-east of Scotland from the Tweed River to the Firth of Forth.

Scots Gaelic was the language over most of the rest of Scotland. Then, from the time that King David I was crowned at Scone in 1124, Lowland Scots became the language at court and rapidly spread up the east coast as far as Caithness (where it became known as Doric) and throughout the Lowlands.

The great majority of Scots who colonised Ulster from the early 1600s onwards came from the Lowlands and they brought their Lallands with them.

At this time Lowland Scots was the language of commerce, taught as a written language and used in legal and other official documents printed in Edinburgh.

The official standing of Lallands, however, was slowly undermined after the Union of Crowns in 1603 and the publication of the King James Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611.

But, apart from the Highlands and Islands, it remained the everyday speech of Scots from the humblest labourer to the highest ranks of the nobility.

This speech was planted most securely in Ulster where Scots settled in the greatest numbers. Its strongholds were, and remain: north, mid and south-east Antrim; north-east Londonderry, north-east Down; north-west Tyrone; and north-east Donegal.

Elsewhere in Ulster the vernacular tongue is also strongly influenced by Scots, but it is arguably closer to the dialects of English colonists, and is known to scholars as ‘Hiberno-English’. For example, ‘crack’, meaning fun, was brought over from England.

Gaelic, the language of the native Irish, was still spoken in every Ulster County, but by the beginning of the twentieth century it was the language of only six per cent of the province’s population.

Over time, the speech imported from Scotland to Ulster developed its own characteristics. Speakers referred to it as ‘Scotch’ or ‘Braid Scotch’.

In 1777 the Hibernian Magazine said of Newtownards: ‘The language spoken here is a broad Scotch hardly to be understood by strangers’.

Elsewhere it appeared in verse written by handloom weavers by their looms, and in correspondence, including a bill in Ulster Scots attached to two parcels sent by Friend Thomas Stott of Dromore to his fellow-Quaker, Friend James Gilmour of Garvagh. It concludes:

On baith to this bit paper joined
The bill o’ parcels ye will find.
An’ we hae placed the fair amount
Right cannily to your account,
Which, if we cast the figures straight,
Is just of pounds four score and eight,
Five Irish siller shillins smug
And six bawbees – to buy a mug.

Just like Gaelic, Ulster Scots retreated under pressure from formal education and modern communications.

It survived, however, cherished in newspaper articles and novels in the 1800s and by the poet and broadcaster W F Marshall in the 1900s. It’s most admired exponent today is James Fenton - who celebrates the vernacular speech of his native County Antrim as ‘The Hamely Tongue’.

The influence of Ulster Scots on the speech of people in America’s Appalachian Mountains is strong. This has been a lifetime study of Professor Michael Montgomery of South Carolina whose dictionary includes words such as hap, nebby, scunner, bannock, blatherskite, clart, coggly, drewth, foutery, forenenst, hove up, hunker, jeuk, kist, piggin, red up, skitter and unbeknownst.


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