SourceUlster-Scots Language Guides: Spelling and Pronunciation Guide
AuthorIvan Herbison, Philip Robinson and Anne Smyth (editors)
PublisherUllans Press
EditionFirst Edition
DownloadsMOBI (Kindle) → EPUBPDF

This publication demonstrates that agreement on standard spellings for modern Ulster-Scots can be, and indeed has been, achieved. As a result, the traditional spoken language is made more accessible in written form to public and academic bodies, and to the community at large. The agreed spelling rules outlined in this booklet represent the first outcome of the work of the Spelling Standardisation Committee of the USAIG Partnership Board. For those not familiar with the sound of Ulster-Scots, the spellings should provide a fairly consistent guide to pronunciation.

Delivering an agreed standard spelling system was one of the highest development priorities for the language. In the classroom, the introduction of these standards for modern Ulster-Scots remains an urgent need. Educationalists have long insisted that it is an essential prerequisite to the teaching of the language in schools — it certainly is as far as examinations and tests of the language in formal education are concerned — and it is also a first step in the urgent task of providing standards and quality assurance for translations and modern documentation.

The process for agreeing new and historical conventions for spelling is a complex one, but the most important aspect is the need to involve native speakers and writers. Without the consent of the users of the language, no consensus on spellings can be achieved. However, the process must involve agreement between academics and everyday users of the language. It is an ongoing process and one which will be subject to regular revision.


In the early 1600s, when Scots settlers brought their written and spoken language to Ulster, their writings included a host of distinctively Scots words and spellings. For the next 400 years, however, these Scots speakers were schooled to write only in English, and so Scots spellings were progressively lost in favour of modern English conventions.

When Ulster-Scots began to write in their own tongue again in the 1700s, they largely had to re-invent a Scots spelling system outside of academia. More often than not they used English spelling and sound rules to represent how words from the spoken Ulster-Scots language should be pronounced. The rich 18th century literary tradition was a largely unknown inheritance to the speaking community in the 19th century (and remains so to the majority of today's native speakers).

Whatever new spelling conventions had been evolving in the 1700s and early 1800s, they are still unfamiliar to modern writers because of the continued exclusion of Ulster-Scots from schools. Nowadays, most native speakers of Ulster-Scots have never seen their own language in written form at all, and when attempting to write often adopt phonetic spellings based on English vowel sounds.

This apparent anarchy in modern Ulster-Scots spellings has been unwittingly fostered, to a certain extent, by the Ulster-Scots Language Society because of its desire not to impose any editorial 'correction' on native-speaking contributors to any of its publications. The reason for this was to allow a period of experimentation, but all concerned now acknowledge that the current educational and language development situation demands a new process to establish agreed new standards. It is also acknowledged that the process must involve agreement between academics and everyday users of the language.

The need for a spelling standardisation process

Spelling standardisation is an essential element in the language planning process for the development of any European Regional or Minority language. The process, in the European context, is often fraught with difficulties and controversies. It is crucial that any spelling standardisation process fully involves the language users. Conflicts have arisen where academic orthographers have recommended spelling reforms and innovations to the language-user community without involving them in the process. Other controversies can arise with competing dialects of the language and when there is a failure to inform the process by historical precedents within the traditional literature.

The Frisian Academy has introduced spelling standardisation and spelling reforms for Frisian on the basis of maximal differentiation from Dutch. This approach was driven by a desire to eradicate Dutch influence in the language, but an equivalent 'top-down' approach for Ulster-Scots would not meet with acceptance by native speakers nor be consistent with the USAIG's vision for community involvement in the Academy.

The need for a spelling standardisation process for Ulster-Scots has been accepted as part of the language development programme by all concerned for the following reasons:—

  • Educational requirements — as with any other language, for Ulster-Scots to be taught to examination standard it is essential that the modern language be standardised. It is also important that educational resources to support the teaching of Ulster-Scots are consistent with these standards.
  • Within the dictionary programme, headwords for each Ulster-Scots entry will be based on historical spellings including those found in contemporary creative writings. However, in the English-to-Ulster-Scots part of the dictionary project it is essential that the given Ulster-Scots form in this dictionary is consistent with agreed standards. The dictionary project therefore informs, and is informed by, the spelling standardisation process.
  • The transcription element of the tape recorded survey requires a spelling guide to ensure consistency and conformity with the spellings used in the other projects.
  • Although new terminologies (particularly those being introduced for formal and official documentation) are a separate issue from spelling standardisation, it is important that spellings in the general translation text are consistent. This is essential for quality assurance and benchmarking of translation standards.
  • Bible translation must be progressed using the same agreed spelling standards as the dictionary and education resources. It is likely that the usage of the Ulster-Scots Bible will be an important vehicle for establishing and promoting agreed standards in the native speaking community.

Clearly it is essential that the most visible aspects of the written modern language in public use have consistent spellings (such as in teaching materials, dictionaries, translations of official documents and the Ulster-Scots Bible). As it is also essential that each of the language development projects conform to these standards, the spelling standardisation process itself is therefore inter-dependent with the other projects in the Education and Language Development Programme.

The criteria used

In agreeing new standard spellings, the Spelling Standardisation Committee of the USAIG has attempted to balance the following precedents:

  • spelling conventions that have emerged by consensus among modern writers and activists in the current revival period (since 1990);
  • spelling forms that are used in published Ulster-Scots dictionaries and glossaries already in use (such as The Hamely Tongue);
  • spelling conventions that have been agreed by any parallel process in Scotland for Scottish-Scots. A 'standard' Scots spelling does not exist as an absolute precedent. However, a report was published by a Committee established in Scotland to consider and agree the standard spelling of Scots;
  • historical spelling conventions and options that are contained in the literary corpus of past writings — this means a systematic search of the electronic text-base to establish the range of spelling options used, their chronology and their frequency;
  • new spelling systems that have been suggested by academic orthographers and language activists; and
  • spellings that best allow for an accurate representation of local differences in pronunciation.

The Committee

A 'spelling standardisation committee' was established in May 2006, under the chairmanship of Dr Ivan Herbison, to adjudicate the above criteria. The Committee was constituted as a Committee of the Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group (USAIG), facilitated by the USAIG Secretariat and the Language Development Programme teams (operating though the USAIG/USLS partnership agreements, and directly reporting to the USAIG Partnership Board). All outputs of the USAIG Partnership Board, including this current publication, have been ratified by the USAIG whose ministerial remit included the 'resourcing without delay of a number of language and educational development projects'. These specified projects include 'spelling standardisation', and it has been the responsibility of the USAIG to ensure that this project is facilitated and integrated with the partnership arrangements for the entire Ulster-Scots Language Development Programme.

The 14-member Spelling Standards Committee was chaired by Dr Ivan Herbison and the various groups and areas of interest were represented on the committee by nominees as follows:

Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group (USAIG):

Dr Ivan Herbison (Chair of Spelling Standardisation Committee), Queen's University of Belfast; Dr Philip Robinson (Chair of USAIG); Dr Ian Adamson (Vice-Chair of USAIG); Professor Alison Henry, University of Ulster

Ulster-Scots Agency:

Jim Millar, Director of Language and Education

Ulster-Scots Language Society (Nominated representatives of the Ulster-Scots speaking and writing communities):

Jack Thompson, Fiona McDonald, Philip Robinson

Ulster-Scots Academy Ltd:

Dr Roy Hewitt (deceased)

Academy of Ulster-Scots (Ullans) Ltd:

Dr Ian Adamson

Key personnel involved in the associated Language Development Partnership programmes:

Anne Smyth (Chair of Ulster-Scots Language Society), lexicographer, Dictionary Project; John Erskine, Librarian and Archivist; John Mclntyre, Project Manager, Electronic text-base and Tape-Recorded Survey; Philip Saunders, Bible Translation consultant

Academic specialists/advisers:

Professor Michael Montgomery, University of South Carolina; Dr Heather Saunders, University of Ulster

The method

The process for agreeing spelling standards for Ulster-Scots involved an interdependent partnership between native speakers and academia. The USAIG also agreed that the spelling standardisation process and the workings of the Committee must be transparent and open to a continuous consultation process, beyond the individuals concerned in the Committee. A detailed record has therefore been established on each stage of the decision-making process, so that the reasons for each decision can be reviewed and/or accounted for at a later stage.

The Committee first of all considered tables of cross-referenced data on approximately 60 different spelling 'rules'. This matrix of spelling rules and verb tables (as set out systematically in Philip Robinson's Ulster-Scots Grammar) had been made available to the project in electronic form. The associated word lists for each 'rule' were then supplemented and tabulated by USAIG Secretariat staff and those working in the Partnership Board Language Development project teams so that the various alternative spellings of each word in each table could be checked (electronically) in the traditional literature and contemporary writers text-base; the published Dictionaries and dictionary data-base; the published list of recommended Scots spellings; and in the electronic version of James Fenton's The Hamely Tongue. This represented an enormous amount of preparatory work for each committee meeting, but it enabled members to make informed decisions and focus on problematic issues, particularly when this required consultation with speakers and writers from different dialect areas and the Bible translation teams.

Some sections of this Spelling and Pronunciation Guide deal with historical and archaic spellings, and a final section provides the spelling guide from James Fenton's The Hamely Tongue. This is because the spelling rules considered by the Committee related primarily to homonyms or cognate words between Ulster-Scots and English (eg. heid, deid and breid for English 'head', 'dead' and 'bread'). Distinctive Ulster-Scots words such as nudyin (a bunion) as found in The Hamely Tongue have not been respelt, and indeed the Fenton spelling system was one of the criteria considered.

The Committee also worked through the Dictionary Programme's booklet 'English/Ulster-Scots Glossary: A core vocabulary wordlist with verb tables', checking for consistency with the agreed spellings. This glossary had been compiled by Philip Robinson to be made available primarily as a much-needed classroom tool pending the production of a complete English/Ulster-Scots Dictionary. However, given the nature of the format of the Spelling and Pronunciation Guide, it was recognised that the information would not be readily accessible or usable without an English/Ulster-Scots Glossary that was consistent with these rules. Indeed, in working through the glossary, the Committee also agreed the application of these spelling rules to those words not specifically listed in the tables of examples provided. For these reasons, the Committee agreed that the glossary should be made available simultaneously with the Spelling and Pronuciation Guide, in order that the 'English/Ulster-Scots Glossary: A core vocabulary wordlist with verb tables' may function as a working index to the Spelling and Pronuciation Guide.

Finally, the editors (Ivan Herbison, Chair of Spelling Standardisation Committee; Philip Robinson, Chair of Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group; and Anne Smyth, Chair of Ulster-Scots Language Society) would like to re-emphasise that these Spelling Standards represent a necessary — if perhaps imperfect — first step in formalising the orthography of modern, written Ulster-Scots. We recognise that these rules will, and must, be subject to future revisions as has been the experience with other European Regional and Minority Languages such as Frisian in the Netherlands.

NextHow to use the Ulster-Scots Spelling and Pronunciation Guide
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