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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

From: Ulster Folk Life Vol. 45, 1999. (Published by Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, Cultra)

The political attractiveness of Ulster-Scots for Unionists is fairly easy to explain. There is a long-standing sense of affinity between the north of Ireland and Scotland based on geographical proximity and millennia of contact and interaction. The Northern Ireland accent is heavily influenced by Scots, and there is a high proportion of Scottish surnames in Ulster. Although this sense of affinity is not confined to unionists, they can gain particular political benefits from emphasising the Scottish connection. Scotland, for instance, can offer a version of a British political identity which is not English, and therefore not associated with the sense of betrayal which many unionists feel towards Westminster. Presbyterianism, which originated in Scotland, is the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland. All in all, the combination of a sense of origin in Scotland combined with a sense of common religious allegiance and a shared cultural heritage makes for a very attractive package.

Language, dialect, variant?: The linguistic status of Ulster-Scots

As spoken in its traditional communities, Ulster-Scots is wonderfully vivid: 'Snickit and cauld and far atween like a stepmother's kiss to her foreganger's wean'.22 'Whun A sa the owl clat that had made wer meat A wuz ready tae boak mae guts up'; 'Stannin there wae a boo in yer bak lake a pishin coo'.23 It is comparatively accessible, and even at its most intense can be understood fairly easily with the help of a glossary. Ulster-Scots also has a slender but fascinating literary tradition.

The linguistic status of Ulster-Scots, indeed of Scots itself, has been a matter of some dispute. While Scots and English descend from the same root, most authorities accept that sixteenth century Scots can be described as a distinct language. The Concise Scots Dictionary (which curiously describes standard English as a dialect; it actually derives from a sociolect based on an amalgam of dialects) summarises the historic relationship between Scots and English as follows:

... in the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there were two national languages in use in Britain, metropolitan Tudor English in the kingdom of England, and metropolitan Older Scots in the kingdom of Scotland. Though these languages were politically or socially separate, linguistically they were distinct but quite closely related dialects, much as is the case with the Scandinavian languages today. 24

What is implicit here is that although Scots and English came from the same root they developed in parallel and on a basis of equality. However, the argument for the distinctiveness of Scots and English as 'politically and socially separate languages' changed rapidly in the following centuries.

With the Union of the Scottish and English Crowns in 1603, Scots ceased to be a politically separate language. Even under an independent Parliament until 1707 the language of administration in Scotland switched quickly from Scots to English. That Scots lost its social prestige after 1603 is clear from the complete abandonment of Scots as a literary medium for over a hundred years. Its claim to be a socially separate language has also been weakened by the fact that for almost four hundred years it has been in a subordinate position to a standard English norm and has been in a continuous process of converging towards English.

However, there is a strong lobby made up mainly of Scottish nationalists which argues either that Scots continues to be a distinct language, or that, as Derrick McClure puts it 'Unquestionably Scots was once a language; unquestionably it has the potential to become one again'.25 Their arguments have been taken up by Ulster-Scots enthusiasts, with one interesting variation. While most argue that Ulster-Scots is a dialect or variant of Scots, some have argued or implied that Ulster-Scots is a separate language from Scots. The case for Ulster-Scots being a distinct language, made at a time when the status of Scots itself was insecure, is so bizarre that it is unlikely to have been a linguistic argument. It may reflect, in emblematic cultural terms, an ideological division within unionism between a British political identity (within the UK) and an 'Ulster' political identity, the latter finding its most extreme form in a movement for an independent Northern Ireland, or, as its advocates put it, an independent Ulster.

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