Belfast English and Ulster Scots

Today at our Beakfast meeting of the famous Ullans Academy promoting Common Identity, our chair Helen Brooker introduced Prof Alison Henry, School of Linguistics, University of Ulster, and Fearghal McKinney MLA, invited by myself, and Dr Ofrit Leviatan, Lecturer, Department of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts, USA, invited by Sammy Douglas MLA. Prof Henry wished to talk about some ideas she had about using study of local Belfast English to improve educational performance in deprived areas in Belfast, particularly among Working Class Protestants. 

In the eighteenth century Belfast was a small town on the West Bank of the River Lagan; on the East Bank lay the neighbouring small town of Ballymacarret.  By 1821, the population of Belfast was still only 37,000, but by 1861 it had more than trebled to 121,000.  By the end of the century the population was 350,000 and in 1951 it had risen to 443,000.  After that, the city population began to decline and that of adjacent areas began to rise. 

The rapid rise in population in the second half of the nineteenth century was due firstly to the influx of rural people after the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, but chiefly to the rise of the linen and shipbuilding industries.  The growth of Belfast as an industrial city seems to have been rather later than the growth of similar cities on the British mainland and its relatively recent growth is evident in its language.

Academics distinguish three language areas in Ulster – the Ulster-Scots area (which is mainly along the northern and eastern coastal areas but which also extends into central areas of County Donegal), the Ulster-English area( which consists of central, southern and south-western Ulster) and the Ulster-Gaelic area of Donegal and scattered areas of Northern Ireland including Belfast.  In the Ulster-Scots areas there are a great many rural speakers who speak a variety of Scots rather than of English, and in its strongest forms it is almost indistinguishable from the Scottish language of western and central Scotland.  The Scots character of these Ulster language varieties is most apparent in the pronunciation of common words such as night, stone, soft, die, down, as nicht, stane, saft, dee, doon, and so forth.  Ulster-Scots is a stigmatised language of low status.  The development of a literary form “Ullans” has been hampered by an academic indifference or outright hostility and by anti-Unionist prejudice.

The areas to the north and south-east of Belfast are Scots and it can therefore be suggested that the Scots area in east-Ulster was at one time continuous, running from south-east Down, northward through the Belfast area and linking up with Antrim Scots.  Academics usually argue that the growth of Belfast has brought about an intrusion of Ulster English into what was formally a Scots area.  It is true, of course, that Belfast does not have the broad Scots word forms we have discussed above (nicht, saft, doon, etc) and that immigration to Belfast has been largely from the Ulster-English area.  However, it would be a mistake to believe that Belfast speech has no Scots features, for it is very much a mixed language form.  It is also true that there is a strong similarity between Belfast English and that of the several towns of the Lagan Valley to the southwest of Belfast.  But within the city there is some difference between east and west Belfast and the Lagan Valley speech is similar to west Belfast rather than the east.  The east of the city has a language that has something in common with the rural varieties of north Down which are, of course, Ulster-Scots in type, while the Lagan Valley is more English.

In 1860, Belfast was quite a small city with its population of 121,000.  We know to some extent what the language was like then as a result of a small book by David Patterson, The Provincialism’s of Belfast Pointed Out and Corrected.  Patterson’s aim was to correct some of the broader pronunciations of the city as well as some of the word forms and uses of grammar, but in order to do this he had to describe these usages.  Thus the main value of the book is not its recommendations to correct the English but the information it gives us about Belfast speech in 1860.  Patterson describes pronunciation very clearly and it is apparent that there have been changes since 1860.  Words he wished to correct such as ‘deef’, (deaf) and ‘rideekilis, (ridiculous) were actually of Ulster-Scots origin.  One of the first features that outsiders notice about Belfast speech is the use of ‘aw’ for the ‘a’ sound as in ‘haun’, ‘maun’, ‘bawd’, for hand, man and bad.  This occurred with the spread of Ulster-Scots from north Down into east Belfast and then into the west of the city, through the Shankill.

Language is a living thing.  Patterson’s attempt to “correct” the Belfast speech towards the standard were not successful.  The people of Belfast, particularly of the Shankill Road did not want to correct their speech and those who go to elocutionists for social reasons today are still in a small minority.  Belfast English is, in fact, a distinctive form of English, which should be promoted, rather than changed. One of its distinctive features is the use of the double negative, such as ‘I didn’t do nothing’ instead of ‘I didn’t do anything’.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, since the same features occur in Spanish.  Belfast English should indeed be cherished and conserved.

There is, of course, also in Belfast a revival of interest in the Gaelic language.  The variety used in Irish Medium schools is essentially Donegal Gaelic, which is a variety of Ulster Gaelic.  The original Gaelic spoken in the Belfast area would have been east Ulster Gaelic which is now obsolete but had characteristics similar to that of the island of Islay, north of Rathlin in the southern Hebrides.  Belfast Gaelic is presently developing independently of Donegal Gaelic itself.  Originating in language classes held in Her Majesty’s Prisons it is presently known by its detractors as Jailic rather that Gaelic.  Belfast Gaelic is heavily influenced by English. Ulster Gaelic as a whole shows many differences with that of the standard Irish developed by de Valera in Dublin, which was based on the Gaelic of Munster and Connaught and largely ignored that of Ulster .

Many people often ask if the communities of Belfast can be defined by their language.  For the moment we must draw the conclusion that there is as yet no persuasive evidence to show that they can.  The differences that do exist are mainly regional.  There is of course the difference between east and west Belfast, east Belfast having more Ulster-Scots words and phrases.  There may be some difference in the pronunciation of the names of the letters of the alphabet, especially ‘h’.  It is true that in Belfast most Catholics pronounce this letter name as ‘haitch’ and most Protestants as  ‘aitch’.  This, however, has absolutely nothing to do with language as such, the preferences are a result of two separate school systems.  Most Catholic school children are taught to pronounce the names of letters in a traditional way that is probably influenced by the letter names in the Gaelic language; Protestant children and any Catholic children who attend State schools learn the normal British pronunciations, however, as the schools become more and more integrated such differences are fast disappearing.

Acknowledgements: This article is based on the work of James Milroy, former Senior Lecturer in English at the Queen’s University of Belfast, 1981

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