'Religious Language' as a Register of Ulster-Scots: A Consideration of the Case for an Ulster-Scots Bible

Philip S. Robinson

All written language has nature, meaning and purpose that can be interpreted from its text. These features can manifest in different levels of formality and style within the same standardised language such as English in different 'registers' which are appropriate to particular contexts. Socio-linguists acknowledge that the language used in official documents (such as in job advertisements and tax forms) is not the same as that used in, for example, a love letter. Formal and informal registers apply to both spoken and written language. In the spoken form, speakers of a stigmatised or low-prestige language such as Ulster-Scots are notoriously reluctant to use their 'hamely tongue' in public or formal situations. Its use in church or in the religious context is widely regarded as even more inappropriate. 'Talking polite', i.e. using the telephone voice, is invariable when talking to outsiders or 'professional' people. This switch is an involuntary one, and occurs even when a native-speaking field collector produces a tape-recorder! The development of a formal, written register for Ulster-Scots is a somewhat risible, if not controversial, aspect of current language planning. However, anyone contemplating an Ulster-Scots Bible translation must engage positively in this process while at the same time retaining the confidence of the language-user community.

The Language Development Case

The language development programme of the Ulster-Scots Academy has included the provision of an Ulster-Scots translation of the Bible as an integral feature since the earliest years, when Professor R. J. Gregg was the first and founding Rector of the Academy.(1) The reason for this was not 'religious' per se, but rather an early understanding that, for all European lesser-used languages, there were certain significant landmarks required for status building, which included the availability of a Bible in the language. Other requirements include a comprehensive, two-way dictionary and some measure of 'standardisation' for its teaching and modern official use. Only when the language development programme was being planned in detail did another dimension become clear: the interdependent nature of the various elements within the larger development programme.

In 2003, ten years after the genesis of the Ulster-Scots language development programme, Bob Gregg's successor as Rector of the Ulster-Scots Academy (Professor M. Montgomery) produced two progress reports on behalf of the Academy.(2) Five programmes were separately described: the Tape-Recorded Survey of Ulster-Scots; the Electronic Text Base; the Dictionary Programme; the Translation Service; and the Bible Translation. One of these papers describes the current situation relating to Bible Translation as follows:

'A fifth project of the Ulster-Scots Academy on which recent progress has been made is a collective translation exercise by native speakers themselves. With the support of the Ulster-Scots Agency, the Academy has initiated a series of workshops chaired by professional translators to begin the process of Bible translation into authentic Ulster-Scots. While this project has great status-building potential for Ulster-Scots, it has merit on many other accounts as well. As community representatives take part in an extended translation exercise, they and those they represent will find an increasing sense of ownership of the language and will create bonds with and within the native speaking community. The dynamics of the process will suggest alternative ways of expressing ideas or points and thus provide further raw material and insights for the dictionary programme. Development of more authoritative translation and spelling standards or guidelines will be a natural outcome as well. Substantial progress on the related programmes of spelling standardisation and the dictionary will be made even in the early stages of, say, translation of a single gospel. This process of translation is not simply an end in itself, but will be harmonised with the process of developing spelling standards and the requirement for a comprehensive two-way dictionary. The great virtue of the Academy's Bible-translation programme lies not only in its native-speaker involvement, but also in the fact that it is led by translators with twenty years experience in Bible translation who have knowledge of Greek and Hebrew'.

Every Bible translation programme undertaken by established Bible translators (such as at Wycliffe Bible Translators) builds up a working glossary as part of the process. Because of the nature of the exercise, a glossary compiled during the production of an Ulster-Scots Bible would be 'comprehensive' (i.e. covering the whole language, including words and usages shared with English and not just those non-standard English features which are featured in our existing dictionaries). It would also deliver a glossary in the (currently missing) English-to-Ulster-Scots mode (existing dictionaries are only in the Ulster-Scots-to-English mode).

The need for an English-to-Ulster-Scots dictionary is critical for teaching the language to non-speakers. At present, one has to already know or have encountered a particular Ulster-Scots word in order to look it up!

Another important element in the language development programme is the delivery of agreed standard spellings for the modern register of the language. The process of standardising spelling must involve the practitioners of the language if it is to carry 'street credibility'. It is envisaged that this process (and the process is almost as important as the product) would also be integrated with the Bible translation project. Providing that the completed Ulster-Scots Bible used the same spellings as were agreed in the standardisation process, and as 'recommended' in the two-way Ulster-Scots dictionary, the final product would be the best possible agent to promote these new agreed standards.

The text of the Bible has been used for language learning in many parts of the world. Indeed, it was used for the teaching of Irish in Ulster schools 150 years ago. It made sense to use a text whose meaning in the reader's first language of literacy would be already known, especially if religious motivations could be satisfied at the same time. In the Ulster Presbyterian tradition, the high priority given to universal education over the past 300+ years was largely due to the desire to ensure that all could read the Bible and 'search the Scriptures' for themselves.

For any European regional language, the possession of a Bible translation in that tongue is an important symbol of its status. It is unfortunate that a full translation of the complete Bible into Scots was not completed at the time of the Reformation in the mid-16th century. The New Testament was translated from the original Greek into Scots by W. L. Lorimer relatively recently and was published by his son in 1983.(3) Ulster-Scots readers can have some difficulty with the Scottish-Scots of Lorimer's work, but it is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of Scots literary translation, and has had enormous influence in improving the status of Scots.

Because Ulster-Scots is a highly stigmatised language which survives mostly as a spoken tongue among 'insiders', there is widespread internal prejudice against its use in a formal register, and in formal situations. This reserve applies even more strongly to its use in the special formality of church.

With all translation projects in underdeveloped languages, international standards of methodology must be applied. 'Search and Replace', or 'word-for word' translations are simply doomed to rejection by native speakers and linguists alike. There is, however, one potential area of tension between Ulster-Scots academics and the language enthusiasts on the one hand, and the potential Bible users on the other. This is the choice of linguistic style or register. The case for the use of archaic words and spellings rests mainly on the language development motivation — creating as big a difference as possible with English and thereby justifying (or reinstating) the language's historic status. From a religious and Bible-user perspective, such a register might also have the advantage of appearing more dignified and 'appropriate'. The downside is, of course, that the use of a formal or archaic register of Ulster-Scots can defeat the purpose of providing an accurate translation in the 'living tongue' of the native speaker.

The Philosophical and Religious Case

Philosophers have taken a slightly different slant on the language 'register' model with regard to religious language.(4) Some philosophers, in considering the philosophy of religion, have developed a concept of an autonomous religious 'language' which doesn't need justification in terms of other types of language. According to this school, a particular linguistic system arises out of a particular 'form of life', and the insider's perspective is the only acceptable starting point for an analysis of religious language.(5)

According to Ramsey,(6) God is revealed via disclosure models which provide moments of insight. Disclosure models are the means by which the universe reveals itself to man. They are to be judged primarily on their ability to point to mystery, not on their ability to picture it. Language about God is evocative rather than declarative in this view, so that Ramsey holds that by the use of non-descriptive, evocative language, one can avoid being literalistic or purely anthropomorphic about God.(7)

Wittgenstein agrees that 'language games' are particular linguistic systems that arise out of particular 'forms of life'. These language games are meaningful to the persons in the form of life under consideration, and external criteria are neither possible nor useful. Thus, a person who is not religious cannot pass judgement on the meaningfulness of the religious language game.(8) Evans comments that, after Wittgenstein, the insider's perspective is the only acceptable starting point for an analysis of religious language.(9)

To this philosophical school, religious language is the language of the believer and is primarily metaphorical and evocative. Gill regarded it as an imperative that religious language be grounded in the concrete expressions actually used by those who speak religiously and theologically.(10) Each language game has rules or social understanding within its sphere. These rules for language games are not written, but are followed somewhat unconsciously by members of the linguistic communities involved and are 'there for philosophers to uncover'.(11) If this is so, any Bible translation must be more than a linguistic exercise.

If religious language is a recognisable and distinctive formal register, in the local (Ulster-Scots/Presbyterian) context this linguistic register has been virtually synonymous with the religious language of the King James I (Authorised) Version since the early 1600s. This English translation was completed in 1611, contemporaneously with the first plantation settlements in Ulster. The impact of the KJV on the Scots-speaking Calvinists of north Britain cannot be overestimated. Indeed, the erosive impact of the KJV on the Scots language itself over four centuries (a process that began with John Knox's use of the Geneva Bible a half-century earlier) cannot be overestimated either. Without a Scots Bible (or more properly, a Bible in Scots), 'religious language' for all Scots-speaking Protestants has been closely identified with the otherwise archaic English of the KJV for four centuries. The extent to which this phenomenon is true is perhaps reflected in the usage of the same archaic language register in contemporary rituals, creeds, sacraments, worship and prayer.

Resistance to modernised language and modern English translations might be dismissed as 'verbal idolatry' — a 'Thou-and-Thee' God created and worshipped in an image of words (rather than in the conventional form of a wood or stone idol). Religious texts painted in this language on countryside barns are suggestive, at least to an outsider, of an anachronistic linguistic (as much as religious) sub-culture. Does such an Ulster-Scots sub-culture cling to words and neglect the reality they represent? If the Bible were translated into Ulster-Scots, such a 'dismissal' of the KJV could also be a denial of the scholarship, tradition, beauty, accuracy, inspiration, historical impact and (most importantly) spiritual impact of those who translated this version of the Holy Bible 'out of the original tongues and with the former translations diligently compared and revised', as stated in the dedicatory preface to the King James Version. The purpose of the translators as set out there could not be faulted. Indeed, some would argue today that their divinely-inspired work could not be equalled.(12) The objective of the translators was

that there should be one more exact Translation of the Holy Scriptures into the English Tongue... out of the Original Sacred Tongues, together with comparing of the labours, both in our own, and in other foreign languages, of many worthy men who went before us.

Their purpose was religious rather than linguistic, reflecting a concern to express and communicate the meaning of God. By such a measure the religious language of any translation can be judged adequate, but only if it is an accurate expression of faith using symbolic language to convey meaning and truth about God. The proof of the KJV 'pudding' has been in its avid spiritual consumption and consummation over four centuries.

The Bible, from a Christian perspective, is the 'Word of God', a statement which can itself be interpreted in a number of ways. To some it is the infallible, literal, univocal message of God to mankind; to others it is the mystical 'Word' of John 1 that existed with God as the pre-incarnate Christ since creation. Yet again for others it is the divinely inspired (i.e. Holy Spirit generated) revelation of God; or perhaps simply an account or 'word' of mankind's unfolding experiences, understandings and encounters with God. In this context the meaning of 'Word' is at once a philosophical, a theological and a linguistic question.

Religious language (as a sub-set of English) is used in our culture beyond the Bible, in ritual, worship and prayer. However, these texts frequently derive their distinctive vocabularies and interpretations of meaning from the narrower context of the Bible itself. There is not necessarily any inconsistency in deriving an 'infallible' Holy Bible from a particular English translation of 'original' Greek or Hebrew texts, if one accepts the premise that the translation process was itself divinely governed. Indeed, one cannot argue that even the Greek or Hebrew texts on which translations are based are the 'original' word of God, for no such original(s) have survived. While Jesus could read, interpret and quote the scriptures and he considered them authoritative, he is recorded as writing only once — in the dust of the ground when the woman was taken in adultery. What God wrote 'in his own hand', then, we do not know. It would appear that his plan for the dissemination of his Word involved leaving the writing of scriptures to a chosen few human agents. At least some of the various transcriptions and translations of God's Word should therefore be included as part and parcel of the divine revelation. Linguistically, theologically and philosophically the nature and meaning of the religious language of an English translation of the Bible is 'true' only so far as the translation is 'true' to the nature, meaning and purpose of the 'received' previous text.

What purpose then is there in an Ulster-Scots translation from a religious perspective? As discussed above, there are some justifications that are secular, having to do with status-building for the language itself. In the context of the contemporary peace process (the pluralism and the equality agenda) and the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, these agendas have a considerable political dynamic in Northern Ireland. In one similar European context, the Frisian Academy in the Netherlands published the first Frisian Bible in the 1970s as part of its language development programme.(13) The use of Dutch in church in Calvinist Friesland almost exactly parallels the use of English in Scottish church life. Frisian is not regarded as 'respectful', and is stigmatised as 'uneducated', 'dialect' or 'slang'. So a Bible translation was undertaken by secular linguists in an overtly status-building exercise. Although the Frisian Bible was given a sort of inter-church (including Roman Catholic) 'committee' blessing, this approval was given to the translation project itself, rather than to the detail of the translation. The resultant Frisian Bible also contains the Apocryphal books, and perhaps has had little success beyond the context of its secular purpose. It has been argued, however, that in an increasingly secular Europe, the alienation between traditional regional identities and the 'official' or dominant languages of the nation-state can be part of the increasing alienation felt by such groups to the 'church'. Wycliffe Bible Translators have an obvious priority in providing translations to non-European communities with no previous access to the Scriptures. In the modern 'Europe of the Regions' and its 'Lesser-Used Languages' context, there is an increasing recognition of a need for new and effective communication of the Gospel to these minority constituencies. Wycliffe consultants are currently examining this 'European question', and in this context are advising the Ulster-Scots Academy on translation principles and practices towards an Ulster-Scots Bible.

Of course, the primary religious purpose in Bible translation work is that of reaching out to those who are beyond the existing linguistic Pale (and providing them meaningful access to the message of Scripture). Is there such a need in the Ulster-Scots community? Certainly among the broader sections of society such terms as 'justification', 'redemption', 'grace' etc. (the peculiar vocabulary items of our religious language) are without meaning to many, if not most. Modern English translations still employ such terms, although Eugene Peterson's The Message is a notable exception in idiomatic American English. For example, in Romans 3:24 the KJV refers to 'being justified freely by his grace'. In the New International Version this is 'and are justified freely by his grace', but Peterson has 'God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself'. Arguably, this is more understandable to the great unwashed among the Ulster-Scots than Rev. Lorimer's Scottish-Scots version: 'But belíevers is justifíed bi his grace'.(14)

Any translation in the everyday language of the people can be a mechanism for more effective communication, and this is certainly true of those who are 'native speakers' of European Minority languages. So, if a phrase like 'justified through grace' is translated into Ulster-Scots as something like 'noo pit in the richt, oot o the guidness o God's hairt', we can consider its validity in linguistic, theological or philosophical terms. Such a translation might be effective linguistically, or even as a means of fresh outreach in religious terms. But is it an 'accurate' translation? If religious language is not univocal, but rather uses analogy, metaphor and symbolism to point beyond the finite limitations of our understanding towards the infinite reality, how do we measure accuracy of translation? Even the English language is 'finite', and therefore incapable of describing the infinite adequately, so how much more 'finite' and inappropriate is an underdeveloped language like Ulster-Scots? And would a vernacular translation de-sanctify the text by avoiding specifically 'religious language'?

The close linguistic relationship of Ulster-Scots to English (like that of Frisian to Dutch) gives rise to particular problems for the translator. While there is a distinctive Ulster-Scots vocabulary and grammar, much is also shared with English. Those English idioms and lexical items which are not shared with Ulster-Scots represent the greatest unknown to the outsider (non-speaker) linguist. A word like perhaps is not used in Ulster-Scots, while maybe or mebbe is (along with the rarer but distinctive aiblins). When religious language is considered, the 'shared' vocabulary may prove to be more extensive than in other registers.

The distinctive grammar of Ulster-Scots may prove an asset in some translation situations involving religious language. For example, there is a 'habitual' or 'continuous' present tense in Ulster-Scots (as in Irish) that is absent in English. This manifests in variants of I am as A'm (not habitual) or A be, A bes, A dae be, A wud (aye) be (habitual). If the Greek and Hebrew senses of the biblical I am pronouncements of God have a continuous present tense meaning, perhaps the Ulster-Scots rendering of John 8:58, when Jesus said 'I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!', could make better grammatical sense than the English.

Of course, the art of translation is more than a simplistic 'search and replace' exercise on vocabulary and grammar items. Good translation involves a holistic approach to the contextual meaning as well. Philosophers have been concerned to explore the meaning behind religious language as well as its nature. Since the medieval period, much debate has flowed from the groundwork of Thomas Aquinas in articulating the concept of religious language being analogous when using finite concepts to express the infinite. Literal, especially univocal, interpretations of meaning from Scripture have long given way in philosophical circles to increasingly sophisticated theories about the meaning of religious language. Beyond the Thomasian 'analogy' concept, philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Jaspers, Gill, Ramsey and Tillich have introduced metaphorical concepts of symbolism, qualified and disclosure 'models' evocative of religious insight, 'true' myths, codes and ciphers'.(15) According to Wittgenstein, religious language does not define reality, but declares it. It can point without picturing. Tillich sees religious language as symbolic: 'nothing less than symbols and myths can express our ultimate concern'.(16) He even goes further, declaring that the only literal (non-symbolic) statement that can be made about God is that 'He is being itself'. But even the I am statements of the Bible require careful philosophical and theological consideration (in translation and otherwise).

In the New Testament, there is a marked contrast between the obviously non-literal 'parable' teaching style of Jesus (where the truth is in the 'moral' of the story and the descriptions of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are overtly analogous) and the complex expository style of the Apostle Paul. Throughout the Bible, some passages are dominantly narrative, and therefore the question of metaphor may be generalised. On the other hand, other passages appear to be largely symbolic, and so the meaning of the religious language employed is not necessarily the same from one book of the Bible to the next. Because the three synoptic Gospels are mostly 'narrative' in style, the starting point for many Bible translation projects undertaken by the Wycliffe Bible Translators is the Gospel of Luke (or one of the other synoptic Gospels), Luke being in the 'best' (or most standard) Greek. In contrast, the Gospel of John is highly symbolic and presumably presents more problems for translation.

In the absence of an existing standardised, formal, written register for Ulster-Scots, or of any specifically Ulster-Scots 'religious language' idiom other than that of the KJV, an Ulster-Scots Bible translation will inevitably be at the cutting edge of the current dynamic of Ulster-Scots language development. This is reminiscent of the 19th century Irish language revival, and the leading role of the Protestant churches in using a new Irish Bible 150 years ago to teach and preserve Irish in some of their schools. There are certainly translation strategies for an Ulster-Scots Bible which are undesirable from a linguistic and religious perspective. Only if the approach is informed by a thorough understanding of the theological and philosophical issues surrounding the religious language question will the exercise be justified linguistically.

Indeed, from a practical point of view, only if the purpose is religious will the secular objective of 'promoting the language's use in public life' be achieved.


(1) A multi-dimensional but integrated Ulster-Scots language development programme was first proposed in 'The Ulster-Scots Academy: A Development Plan' prepared by the Ulster-Scots Language Society for the Central Community Relations Unit of the Northern Ireland Office in 1993. This 27-page report has formed the basis for every subsequent Ulster-Scots language development proposal by the Ulster-Scots language movement, including (1) a consultant's report (the 'Edmund Report') titled 'The Development of the Ulster-Scots Language', commissioned by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure of the Northern Ireland Government for the Ulster-Scots Language Society in 1998-89; (2) the Ulster-Scots Agency Corporate Plan, 2000-2003, published by the North/South Language Body in 2000; and (3) the 'Ulster-Scots Academy / Ullans Academie: A Draft Proposal and Development Plan for Start-up Funding', submitted to Government in April 2003 as an outcome of the 'Joint Declaration' Agreement between the British and Irish Governments, when the Academy's submission to the Weston Park talks was accepted.

(2) Montgomery, Michael, 'The Ulster-Scots Academy: In the Ulster-Scots Community, For the Ulster-Scots Community', and 'An Academy Established and the Task Begun: A Report on Work in Progress', unpublished reports of the Ulster-Scots Academy, 2003.

(3) Lorimer, W. L. (trans.) The New Testament in Scots (Edinburgh, 1983).

(4) Geisler, Norman L., and Winfried Corduan, Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988).

(5) Wittgenstein, Ludwig, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1967).

(6) Ramsey, Ian T., Models and Mystery (London, 1964).

(7) Ibid., 7, 12-13, 19-20, 60-71.

(8) Wittgenstein, op. cit., 5.

(9) Evans, C. Stewart, Philosophical Religions: Thinking about Faith (Downers Grove, 1985), 152.

(10) Gill, Jerry H., On Knowing God: New Directions for the Future of Theology (Philadelphia, 1981), 31.

(11) Peterson, Michael, et al., Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford, 1998), 177.

(12) For example, Riplinger, Gail, The Language of the King James Bible: An Introduction (Ararat, 1998).

(13) Bibel (Bible in Frisian), (Haarlem, 1977).

(14) Lorimer, op. cit.

(15) Wittgenstein, op. cit.; Jaspers, Karl, and Rudolf Bultmann, Myths and Christianity (Amherst, N.Y., 1958); Gill, op. cit.; Ramsey, op. cit.; Tillich, Paul, The Dynamics of Faith (New York, 1957).

(16) Tillich, Paul, Ultimate Concern, D. McKenzie Brown (ed.), (London, 1965), 53, 96.


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.



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