Ulster-Scots in the Twenty-First Century

James Fenton

The Ulster-Scots tongue described here (and also recorded in The Hamely Tongue (1)) is the everyday spoken language of the great majority of the people living in much of the central, eastern and northern areas of rural county Antrim. (It is also, with very little variation, spoken in parts of east Down, north Derry, north Tyrone and north-east Donegal.) Its use throughout the area, formal contexts apart, rarely depends on the social or material circumstances of speakers, and never at all on their religious or political convictions. Details of the area will be considered more fully shortly. First, however, it is necessary to look briefly, and of necessity somewhat sketchily, at its nature and immediate origins.(2) This is important since, while the Scots influence on much of Ulster vernacular speech is pervasive, features of its vocabulary and especially phonology give this tongue a quite distinct identity. (Many grammatical, particularly syntactic, features are also peculiar to Ulster-Scots; Robinson’s 1997 study has a detailed formal analysis of these.(3)

The Tongue

The essence of a language cannot be encapsulated in a simple definition, but in describing Ulster-Scots as ‘an offshoot of the Central Scots dialect as spoken in Galloway, Ayrshire and Renfrewshire’ the late Brendan Adams at least identified that Scots character which remains its dominant and distinguishing feature.(4) Its source is well known, even if the distinctive rolling ‘r’ of Scots is totally absent from Ulster-Scots. The extent and make-up of the influx of Scottish and English immigrants into Ulster, mainly during the 17th century, have been thoroughly described and analysed, and they cannot be covered here. But it is clear that in the designated areas there was such a preponderance of Scots speakers that their language became dominant and, whatever the subsequent modifications or developments resulting from contact with varieties of English and local Irish speech, the Scottish element is still today the core of Ulster-Scots. It is unmistakable. When we hear speakers use hoose and roon for ‘house’ and ‘round’, hame and stane for ‘home’ and ‘stone’, heid and deed for ‘head’ and ‘dead’, het for ‘hot’, fit for ‘foot’, ocht and strecht for ‘aught’ and ‘straight’ and daenae and cannae for ‘don’t’ and ‘can’t’, we recognise a profound Scots influence that is quite peculiar to the speech of those areas. It is true, of course, that Ulster-Scots and Lallans (Lowland Scots) have diverged considerably over the years, yet the relationship remains sufficiently close for the former to be described as a variant of Scots in the Scottish National Dictionary and to be included (though hardly adequately) in its coverage.(5)

There are, as we shall see, other important elements, and we may describe contemporary Ulster-Scots as a blend of that strong and dominant Scots core, dialectal influences from other parts of Ulster and elsewhere, a considerable input from local Irish speech, and locally-coloured but ever-encroaching Standard English. This is not the place, nor is the writer the person, to trace the history of these constituents and their relationships back along the Germanic and other twigs and branches of the Indo-European language tree. However, some insight into that will be gained when we look below at representative groups of words from the Ulster-Scots vocabulary and their etymologies.

The Area

The key linguistic ‘markers’ noted above are taken from a long checklist used to determine as accurately as possible the speech boundaries of Ulster-Scots in county Antrim. Such boundaries are usually fuzzy linguistic zones, and this is especially true of the fringe regions in the south and west of the county. R. J. Gregg had that part of county Antrim ‘where broad rural Scotch-Irish dialect’ is spoken bounded in the south by a line running from Antrim to Whitehead.(6) Today such a line would mark the path of such a zone at best roughly, shading into Ulster-Scots to the north and local Standard English to the south. This line has since, in many places, clearly shifted northwards with, for example, increased linguistic mixing occurring especially in such expanding villages as Parkgate, Doagh, Burnside, Ballynure and Ballycarry. In any case, the broad Ulster-Scots described here is indeed found only to the north of that line. The larger urban areas — again, expanding steadily — have long had a mixed speech, ranging from a mostly diminishing broad tongue to locally-accented or consciously-cultivated Standard English. This is patently no longer the situation in Antrim town and is increasingly less so in Whitehead, where large-scale development and population shift have radically altered the speech balance to the detriment and indeed virtual extinction of Ulster-Scots. On the other hand, extensive housing development in Ballymoney has drawn many people from surrounding rural areas into the town, adding to the already marked incidence of the tongue in that part of Antrim.

As Adams and Gregg have noted, both the Glens of Antrim area lying between (but not including) Carnlough and Ballycastle and the mid-western to south-western part of the designated area cannot be included. The first of these clearly does not belong. However, part of the second — and personal findings have required some widening, so that not only Portglenone and Rasharkin but also the Dunloy/Tullaghans area are excluded — presents particular difficulties too complex to be considered here. They are fully discussed in the introduction to The Hamely Tongue. Here we may note that while much speech, especially in the northern part, is coloured by a strong Ulster-Scots accent and clear elements of Scots in the vocabulary — and markedly so in Dunloy/Tullaghans — it is not Ulster-Scots as defined.

The districts included were selected to provide a comprehensive coverage of the relevant area, which is genuinely representative of Ulster-Scots speech, its geographical distribution and the absence, on the whole, of fundamental social change during the period. They range from Drumdo (a few miles from the north coast) through The Ganaby and Leaney in the Ballymoney area, my home district Drumadarragh/Ballinaloob, and mid-Antrim (Broughshane and Buckna/Teenies) to Carnearney and Kilbride in the south and a large part of east Antrim (including Loughmourne, Magheramorne, Ralloo, and Kilwaughter). Informants from these districts, born in the 1930s or (the majority) earlier, contributed crucially to this study by a) checking for their area the core material collected by this writer over many years in Ballinaloob and surrounding townlands and supplemented by other collections published and unpublished;(7) and b) making their own contributions, either in the form of ‘new’ material or of variations in that listed, indicating usage level for items identified. Each informant’s contribution was cross-checked with all other informants to give a complete picture of incidence and distribution, a similar procedure being followed for additional material received from other sources. This was continued over several years, and repeated for material added to the second edition of the dictionary (2000). Rigorous adherence to this methodology has ensured a record of 20th-century Ulster-Scots which is certainly authentic and, the author believes, now comprehensive.


The vocabulary has five broad elements: 1) ‘pure’ (i.e. non-standard) Ulster-Scots (US) words; 2) dual-status US words; 3) dual-status Standard English (SE) words; 4) single-status US words; and 5) locally-accented SE words.

1) Pure Ulster-Scots Words

These are words not found in any form in Standard English. Most are shared with Scots, albeit sometimes in slightly altered form, while some — especially those of Irish Gaelic derivation — are shared with other varieties of Ulster speech or in a few cases are found only locally. A few of unknown or uncertain origin are peculiar to the area. The principal origins are illustrated here by small, representative groupings, and two points must be stressed. The examples are presented merely to indicate the diversity and richness of the tongue’s origins, and established etymologies are simply listed without historical or other comment. The label ‘Gaelic’ refers to words described in the sources as derived from Scottish and/or Irish Gaelic. ‘Local Irish’ refers to words assimilated or derived from local Irish speech.

From Old Norse (ON)
frae ‘from’ [Scots frae, ON frá]
gar ‘force to’ [Scots gar, ON gera]
lair ‘to sink in mud’ [Scots lair, ON leir ‘mud’]
loof ‘palm’ [Scots luif, ON lófe]
scrae ‘brat, runt’ [Scots scrae, ON skrā ‘piece of dried skin’]
From Middle English (ME) or Old English (OE)
aizle ‘cinder’ [Scots aizle, ME isyel/OE ysel ‘ashes’]
kye ‘cows’ [Scots kye, OE cÿ]
hap ‘swaddle’ [Scots hap, ME happe]
oxter ‘armpit’ [Scots oxter, OE ōxta]
sope ‘sip, etc.’ [Northern English sope, OE sopa]
From Scottish Gaelic/Irish Gaelic
carry ‘weir’ [Scots carry, Gaelic caraidh]
donsie ‘sick’ [Scots donsie, Gaelic donas ‘bad luck’]
dyoochry ‘gruel’ [Scots deochray, Gaelic deochrèith]
errak ‘pullet’ [Scots earock, Gaelic eirog]
sonsie ‘buxom, pretty’ [Scots sonsie, Gaelic sonas ‘good luck’]
From Scots
boass ‘hollow’ (adj.) [origin unknown]
glar ‘mud’ [origin unknown]
heth ‘indeed’ [probably from faith]
nyirps ‘fretful mood’ [probably imitative]
tove ‘to boast, praise extravagantly’ [apparently from stove (verb)]
From French (F) or Old French (OF)
fash ‘to upset, disgust’ [Scots fash, OF fascher]
footer ‘to fiddle about, etc.’ [Scots fouter, OF foutre ‘to copulate’]
jalooze ‘to suspect’ [Scots jalouse, F jalouser]
sang! (in a vow or oath) [Scots sang, F sang ‘blood’]
stoor ‘dust’ [Scots stour, OF estour ‘tumult’]
From Local Irish Gaelic
clabber ‘soft mud’ [Irish clábar ‘mud’]
doran ‘doleful person’ [perhaps Irish dobhran, dorán]
dourag ‘cleg’s proboscis’ [perhaps Irish duirc ‘dirk’]
dull ‘noose, snare’ [Irish dul]
prakis ‘botch, wreck’ [Irish prácás ‘hotch-potch’]

Other sources include especially German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages of different periods and levels. Words of unknown origin peculiar to various parts of the area include dyach ‘brat’, eelyatter ‘hairworm’, grobach ‘dwarf’, grunt ‘the stone loach’, and scravery ‘a scrubby area’.

2) Dual-Status Ulster-Scots Words

These are words which differ in form from their SE counterparts and which have, in addition to the conventional meanings and/or usages, others peculiar to the tongue. Two are fully illustrated here.

alloo ‘to allow’

‘to remark’: He allooed it wuz a quare day

‘to suggest, imply’: A’m now allooin ye’ll naw pie

‘to grant, concede’: A hae tae alloo ye that

‘to reckon’: They alloo thon’s what happent

‘to intend’: A wuz allooin tae cal the morra

mine ‘mind’

‘recollection’: A hae nae mine o that

‘to remember’: She can mine naethin; Mine an sen it back

‘to note, observe’: Mine the cut o thon!

(with on) ‘to remind (one) of’: He mines me on someboady A met somewhur

(with on) ‘to strike (one) as’: He mines me on a boy’s worth a-watchin

‘to remind’: Mine me tae sen it the morra

(with tae) ‘to remember (one) to’: Mine me tae a’ at hame

‘to be obedient to’: Mine what the mester tells ye

Others are chairge (English charge) ‘an uncouth man, a large meal’; cliver (English clever) ‘generous, handsome, rather large for the wearer’; en (English end) ‘a room, an added room’; and jowlt (English jolt) ‘a large piece’.

3) Dual-Status Standard English Words

These are words which retain their standard forms and meanings, but which have additional meanings and/or usages long obsolete and lost from modern English. Many are found in Shakespeare. Some examples are:

answer ‘to fit, suit’: That kep daesnae answer ye

colour ‘a small amount’: a wee colour o money

even ‘to suspect, guess’: A wud niver ’a evened he wuz the yin

lucky ‘rather more than’: lucky a hunther

sermon ‘a sorry sight’: the sermon o hir shootherin him hame

Others in this group are canker ‘to fester’, learn ‘to teach’, poem ‘to spread gossip’, thing ‘some, sort’, tight ‘strong, capable at fighting’.

4) Single-Status Ulster-Scots Words

These are words which differ in form but not in meaning from their standard counterparts. Since they exemplify most clearly those identifying phonological features peculiar to US speech, as defined, they are examined in some detail in the next section.

5) Standard English words

These words, which usually show typical lengthening and/or ‘broadening’ of the vowel-sounds and often the retention of the consonantal features discussed below, make up an increasing proportion of Ulster-Scots speech, but it remains true that many words common in standard speech are still excluded from Ulster-Scots. Words in this category include (local equivalents in italics): feared, scarred ‘afraid’, as weel, forby ‘also’, sleepin ‘asleep’, come ‘came’, big ‘large’, lachin ‘laughter’, maybe, aiblins ‘perhaps’, the mair ‘though, although’.


The consonantal and vocalic features of Ulster-Scots speech are presented here with minimal recourse to the phonetic alphabet and largely avoiding the technical language of formal phonological analysis. (This form of presentation, especially in the examples given, may perhaps make some contribution to the development of a standardised Ulster-Scots spelling system.) The story of the evolution and survival of these features and the extent of any subsequent local modification cannot be covered here.


Several of the consonantal features described here are shared with colloquial speech elsewhere in Ulster and in some cases farther afield. These features apart, the pronunciation of consonants is conventional. Distinctive features include

1) final d usually dropped following l or n: fiel ‘field’, sen ‘send’, soon ‘sound’

2) the glottal stop often substituted for medial or final t and other stops: weh ‘wet’, wa ’er ‘water’

3) t usually omitted from mpt and final pt: empy ‘empty’, slep ‘slept’

4) final l or ll omitted in SE words having -all: fa/fal ‘fall’, wa/wal ‘wall’

5) l usually omitted from the suffix -ful. airmfu ‘armful’, affa ‘awful’: the vowel becoming the neutral vowel schwa

6) medial ng always a single sound: fing’r ‘finger’ (rhymes with ‘singer’), tang’l ‘tangle’

7) medial nd usually nth before er. tenther ‘tender’, wanther ‘wander’; otherwise usually nn: bunnle ‘bundle’, hannle ‘handle’

8) d and t always interdental when followed by r. dhrive ‘drive’, atthrect ‘attract’; this occurs often when followed by a vowel and r (as in ordher ‘order’, tthurn (8) ‘turn’), but with many exceptions, especially in words denoting agency, and never in comparatives

9) l and n sometimes palatalised blyue: ‘blue’, nyuck ‘nook’

10) ch or gh (the voiceless velar fricative), common in ‘pure’ Ulster-Scots words (as in bachle ‘an old shoe’, cloicher ‘wet cough’), is retained where standard pronunciation has f (as in coch ‘cough’, rugh ‘rough’, with draught(s) being normally the sole exception) and often where standard gh is silent (as in bocht ‘bought’, strecht ‘straight’) but with the standard forms now also common

11) s sometimes pronounced sh: breesht ‘breast’, shoo ‘sew’

12) hw, for wh, never standard w

Vowels (9)

Vowels are examined here mainly as they feature in those Ulster-Scots words which differ from their Standard-English counterparts in form only, having a different vowel sound sometimes combined with one or more of the consonantal features identified above. (These vowel sounds feature also, of course, in ‘pure’ US words and in the local pronunciation of many of those SE words which make up an integral element of Ulster-Scots speech.) This approach allows a demonstration of the entire range of the varied but often systematic ways in which such substitutions occur, our main concern here. Some occur in numerous cases, some in only a few. But together with the ‘pure’ words, they form the strong distinctive core of the tongue. Most are constant features of everyday speech, while some have varying degrees of interchangeability with standard forms (e.g. weel ‘well’, wecht ‘weight’). As stated, vowel sounds are represented using both conventional lettering (the single modification in this section being the added umlaut to distinguish the main Ulster-Scots version of short, stressed i) and phonetic symbols, with vowel-length usually the only feature referred to. Finally, the written forms used in the examples given here attempt to indicate pronunciation directly, and thus they occasionally differ from those used in The Hamely Tongue, which has a simple system of supplementary guidance, and in some cases are not offered as possible standardised forms.

1) i /ï/ is close to standard ‘short i’; it occurs in bis ‘bes’ (i.e. the third-person-singular form of be) and in gin ‘by’ (as in gin Setterday) and local forms abin ‘above’, agin ‘against’, giss ‘goose’, nithin ‘nothing’, schill ‘school’ and shin ‘shoon’ (modern English shoes).

2) ï /æ̈/ is equal or close to standard short a (as in bat) and normally substitutes for short stressed i (bït, arïthmetic), but not always (see also aa, ee, eh, o, u). Examples of other substitutions, grouped here (as in the following sections) in order of frequency, are (a) mïsure ‘measure’, pïllet ‘pellet’, trïmmle ‘tremble’, bïnch ‘bench’, hïrd ‘herd’, kïst ‘chest’, yït ‘yet’, clïver ‘clever’; (b) ïther ‘other’, blïd ‘blood’, stïbble ‘stubble’, tïft ‘tuft’, sïmmer ‘summer’, sïn ‘son’, tïp ‘tup, ram’, plïver ‘plover’, bïzz ‘buzz’; (c) guïd ‘good’, fït ‘foot’, pït ‘put’; (d) rïd ‘rode’, wrït ‘wrote’, rïz ‘rose’; (e) nïcht ‘night’, blïn ‘blind’, smït ‘to smite (i.e. infect)’; and (f) bïnk (peat-) ‘bank’, ïr ‘are’.

3) aa /ɑ/ is always long and is usually substituted for the vowel in both standard bat and calf (see also ay, aw, eh, ï, u). The other substitutions are (a) aalways ‘always’, staak ‘stalk’, wal ‘wall’, hant ‘haunt’, ja ‘jaw’, hab ‘hob’, laft ‘loft’, fand ‘fond’, crap ‘crop’, warm ‘worm’, haavel ‘hovel’; (b) dar ‘dare’, wab ‘web’, hard ‘heard’, swal ‘swell’, wat ‘wet’; (c) awa ‘away’, vaary ‘vary’, wad ‘wade’, wav ‘wave’; (d) had ‘hold’, appen ‘open’, cra ‘crow’; and (e) twa ‘two’, wha ‘who’.

4) aw /ɔ/ is always long. It is sometimes retained as the local form of the standard vowel sound in some words (bocht ‘bought’) but, as noted in the preceding section, aa /ɑ/ is often substituted here (see also ay, eh, o, ow). Other substitutions are few: (a) sporra ‘sparrow’, borra ‘barrow’; (b) naw ‘no/not’, yawk ‘yoke, yolk’; and (c) plorisy ‘pleurisy’.

5) ay /e/ is usually long and is the local form in fail, day, etc. (see also aa, ee, eh). Substitutions are (a) flay ‘flea’, shaif ‘sheaf’, dail ‘deal’, saison ‘season’, chait ‘cheat’, saicret ‘secret’, faiver ‘fever’; (b) nae ‘no’, laid ‘load’, hale ‘whole’, hame ‘home’, alane ‘alone’, graip ‘grope’, maist ‘most’; (c) phaisan ‘pheasant’, daith ‘death’, aidge ‘edge’, waild ‘weld’, laisure ‘leisure’; (d) blae ‘blue’, tae ‘to, too’; (e) saidle ‘saddle’, raivel ‘ravel’; (f) claith ‘cloth’, stray ‘straw’; (g) daen ‘done’, jaist ‘just’; and (h) lake ‘like’, chainy ‘china’, dake ‘dyke’. A short form, usually written as y or ye, substitutes for some weakly-stressed vowels: mïnyster ‘minister’, folly ‘follow’, valye ‘value’. It also occurs in local before, beside, babby ‘baby’, etc. and in weakly-stressed he (as in gin he comes), we (as in whun we dae) and ye ‘you’ (as in but ye might).

6) ee /i/ is usually long in final syllables and in the past-tense form of verbs (as in dee ‘die’, deed ‘died’) and before r (weer ‘wear’), voiced th (wreathe ‘wreath’), v (deave ‘deafen’) and z (bleeze ‘blaze’). Otherwise the vowel sound is usually shorter (as in deed ‘dead’, heid ‘head’). The substitutions are (a) breek ‘brick’, geegle ‘giggle’, conteenye ‘continue’, poseetion ‘position’, leeve ‘live’; (b) breed ‘bread’, deef ‘deaf’, meent ‘meant’, freen ‘friend’, meer ‘mare’, weel ‘well’; (c) dee ‘die’, heech ‘high’, steepin ‘stipends’, ee ‘eye’; and (d) mainteen ‘maintain’, bleeze ‘blaze’. (See also ay, eh.)

7) eh /ɛ/ is usually long, but length can depend on stress (e.g. the vowel is usually long in Is the grun set? but certainly shorter in He set it yisterday). The substitutions are (a) gebble ‘gabble’, jeck ‘jack’, peddle ‘paddle’, efter ‘after’, fleg ‘flag’, shella ‘shallow’, gemmle ‘gamble’, flennen ‘flannel’, epple ‘apple’, yern ‘yarn’, mester ‘master’, flet ‘flat’, gether ‘gather’, trevel ‘travel’, tex ‘tax’; (b) bled ‘blade’, feth ‘faith’, brek ‘break’, echt ‘eight’; (c) kennle ‘kindle’, quet ‘quit’, revet ‘rivet’; (d) ether ‘either’, fecht ‘fight’, strek ‘strike’; (e) helter ‘halter’, jendies ‘jaundice’, het ‘hot’; (f) mair ‘more’, air ‘over’; and (g) baird ‘beard’, ïnterfair ‘interfere’. (See also aa, ay, ee, o, u.)

8) oa /o/ is usually long, but shorter where there is reduced stress (e.g. long in Gie it a poke but shorter in Poke it oot). Apart from exceptional oany ‘any’, loass ‘lose’, oagly ‘ugly’, the only and frequent substitution is for the standard aw sound (as in ‘cost’, ‘short’): roabin ‘robin’, poaket ‘pocket’, boady ‘body’, doag ‘dog’, coalie ‘collie’, boany ‘bonny’, shoart ‘short’, loass ‘loss’, coast ‘cost’. (See also aa, aw, ay, eh, ï, oo, ow, u.)

9) oo, ue /ü/ is mainly long, in three slightly varying forms: (a) as in coo /kü:/ ‘cow’; (b) when followed by r, as in poor /pø:r/; and (c) as in the rare blyue /bljü/ ‘blue’, pue /pjü/ ‘plough’; with a short form, as hoose /hüs/ ‘house’. The substitutions are (a) hoo ‘how’, soar ‘sour’, poor ‘power’, croon ‘crown’, oot ‘out’; and (b) dooble ‘double’, sook ‘suck’, goom ‘gum’, roost ‘rust’; boord ‘board’, shoo ‘sew’, goold ‘gold’, poor ‘pour’, pootch ‘poach’. (See also aa, aw, ay, ï, aw, u.)

10) u /ʌ / is always short. The substitutions are (a) bush, full, put as in hush, hull, hut; wud ‘wood, would’, luck ‘look’; (b) squub ‘squib’, swunnle ‘swindle’, whup ‘whip’, wun ‘wind’ (noun); (c) hur ‘her’; (d) mony ‘many’, twunty ‘twenty’, whan ‘when’; (e) spulpin ‘spalpeen’, sut ‘sat’, wuz ‘was’; (f) fun ‘found’, grun ‘ground’; (g) ruz ‘rose’; (h) grun ‘to grind’, wun ‘to wind’; (i) ludge ‘lodge’; and (j) puzhin ‘poison’. (See also aa, ay, ï, o, oo, ow.)

11) ie /əi/ is close to the standard diphthong (as in line), but ‘narrower’, for which it is often substituted; also for ay in hie ‘hay’, pie ‘pay’, wie ‘way’, and oi in bile ‘boil’ (noun only). (See also aai, ay, ee, ï, u.)

12) aai /ɑe/ is always long; it substitutes for the standard diphthong (a) in ‘hiatus’ (i.e. when followed by another vowel, as in denial and hire, pronounced haai-er), but not following w or its equivalent (as in enquire and wire); (b) in open syllables (those ending in a vowel, as in pie and by, pronounced paai and baai), but with many monosyllabic exceptions (as die, why); and (c) before voiced fricatives such as th, s, v, z: as saaithe ‘scythe’, surpraaise ‘surprise’, alaaive ‘alive’, saize ‘size’, but again with exceptions. Most exceptions have ie.

13) oi /ɔ/, as in boy, is always long, but otherwise usually as in standard English pronunciation, the only exceptions being the noun form of boil, producing bile (see also ie) and poison, producing puzhin (see also u).

14) ow /əü/, as in how, is always long. The only substitutions are (a) cowl ‘cold’, powny ‘pony’, sowl ‘soul’; (b) knowe ‘knoll’, thow ‘thaw’; and (c) chow ‘chew’, lowce ‘loose’. (See also oo, u.)

Several other phonological features must be noted:

(1) substitution of eh /ɛ/ for standard a /æ/ or /ɑ:/ is found throughout the area, but is especially common in parts of mid-Antrim in words in which aa /ɑ/ is usual elsewhere, so that we have, for example, bleck for the more common blaak ‘black’.

(2) substitution of the same vowel sound for ay /e/ is also common throughout, but is almost total in northern parts of the county, so that we have, for example, becon and plen for the more common bacon and plain.

(3) substitution of ï /æ/ for u in many words occurs throughout, as noted earlier, but is especially common in parts of the far north of the county (e.g. Ballinlea), so that we have, for example, kim and ip for the usual come and up.

(4) some speakers add a glide to several of the vowel sounds described, especially aw /ɔ/, ee /i/, oa /o/ and oo /ø:/, so that these vowels become diphthongal, giving, for example, pawit /pɔ:ət/ ‘pot’, fee-er /fi:ər/ ‘fear’, road /ro:əd/ ‘road’, poo-er /pø:ər/ ‘pour’. Again, the diphthongs aai /ɑe/ and oi /ɔe/ can have the first elements lengthened so that they become, in effect, two syllables, as in ka-ay /kɑ:e/ for kye ‘cows’ and baw-ay /bɔ:e/ ‘boy’. These are often family or individual, rather than regional, features.

(5) Finally, the final vowel ow usually becomes a neutral vowel /ə/ (schwa) as in holla ‘hollow’, sporra ‘sparrow’, with the only exceptions being folly ‘to follow’, swally ‘to swallow’ (see also ay), and fur ‘furrow’.

Ulster-Scots Today

Several factors have contributed and continue to contribute in varying degrees to some diminution and dilution of the broad Ulster-Scots discussed here. The development of ‘fringe’ villages and the rapid growth of the larger urban areas with, in both cases, sometimes considerable influx of linguistic ‘outsiders’, have inevitably changed the speech pattern in several areas. Again, the post-war development of universal secondary education has meant that many rural children are spending several more years than formerly in an environment where Standard English, in its local form at least, is usually spoken, often indeed in large urban schools. This and the marked increase in the numbers going on to higher education have clearly created something of a generational contrast in speech, so that the speech of many of even those reverting to their native tongue in their home environment shows a degree of dilution. This generation is also, of course, largely computer-literate and often highly articulate in the language of internet and website, while television markedly influences the content and vocabulary of their conversation.

More marked, and certainly more quantifiable, are the inevitable losses of ‘pure’ Ulster-Scots resulting from postwar changes in the rural way of life. The mechanisation of agriculture, the disappearance of flax-growing and the scutch-mill, the vast reduction in the growing of oats (with the corn-mill a fading memory), the virtual disappearance of traditional methods of peat-cutting and hay-making: these and many similar forms of ‘progress’ will surely see the eventual loss of much of the rich stock of associated words and expressions. Nor are such losses confined to the countryside: it is unlikely that many of the younger generation will have warmed their feet at the greeshoch, supped sowans (or even brochan or sturaboot) or drunk the stribbins. Such changes and losses occur, of course, in all languages. The difference here, however, is that while Ulster-Scots words are being lost, acquisitions are at best modified forms of standard words (tellyveesion, computther, etc.).

However, the overall effect of these factors must not be exaggerated. Seen in the context of the broad linguistic picture, they are often marginal. As in Standard English, words which have lost original or literal use often survive figuratively (many who have never seen a rickle o peats will be perfectly familiar with an owl rickle o a hoose). More importantly, the great majority of ‘pure’ words are rooted in everyday life and are not similarly affected by changes in particular activities. The broad core discussed in the section on phonology remains strong and largely unchanged throughout the area. There is, moreover, an increasingly significant factor. Most speakers have an abiding affection for their native tongue; to this is now added a growing awareness of, and pride in, both its historical pedigree and its lexical and idiomatic richness.(10)


(1) Fenton, James, The Hamely Tongue: A Personal Record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim (Newtownards, 1995); 2nd. edition (Belfast, 2000). Some material in this essay is taken from the introduction to that book.

(2) For a wide-ranging academic survey — historical, literary, phonological, etc. — of Ulster-Scots, see Montgomery, Michael B. and Robert J. Gregg, ‘The Scots Language in Ulster’ in Jones, Charles (ed.), The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language (Edinburgh, 1997), 569-622.

(3) Robinson, Philip, Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language (Belfast, 1997). This volume also has a detailed list of Ulster-Scots poets and their published works for the period 1720-1920.

(4) Adams, G. B., ‘Ulster Dialects’ in Adams, G. B. (ed.), Ulster Dialects: an Introductory Symposium (Holywood, 1964), 1-4.

(5) Grant, William (ed.), ‘Introduction’, The Scottish National Dictionary. Vol.1. Edinburgh. Scottish National Dictionary Association, xli.

(6) Gregg, R. J., ‘Scotch-Irish Urban Speech in Ulster’, in Adams, G. B. op. cit., 163-192.

(7) These are listed and discussed in Fenton, James, ‘The Hamely Tongue: The Making of an Ulster-Scots Dictionary’, Ullans 3 (1995): 25-29.

(8) This spelling is employed to indicate that the consonant t is pronounced interdentally; it is not a suggested spelling.

(9) The vowel sounds (vocalic phonemes) discussed here are those identified by Gregg in his studies of speech in Glenoe, which, allowing for minor local variations, can be taken as representative of Ulster-Scots speech generally. The writer is indebted to Professor Montgomery’s technical but clear account of this work in the essay referred to in note 2 (pp. 612-615), and any shortcomings in presentation are his own.

(10) This development is at least partly due to the enthusiastic and persistent efforts of the Ulster-Scots Language Society and associated bodies to have Ulster-Scots given general and, especially, official recognition and to encourage and promote its use as both a spoken and written medium. That, above all, warrants a very optimistic prognosis for its future.


The Ulster-Scots Academy has been an integral part of the Ulster-Scots Language Society since 1993. The name "Ulster-Scots Academy" is registered to the USLS with the Intellectual Property Office.

Ulster Scots Academy


A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


The Ulster-Scots Academy is currently working on the digitisation of Dr Philip Robinson's seminal Ulster-Scots Grammar and the English/Ulster-Scots part (with circa 10,000 entries) of a two-way historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots. These projects are planned to be completed and available on the site in 2016.



This site is being developed on a purely voluntary basis by the Ulster-Scots Language Society at no cost to the taxpayer. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

This site is being developed by the Ulster-Scots Language Society (Charity No. XN89678) without external financial assistance. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

(Friends of the Ulster-Scots Academy group)