Modified consonants in modern Ulster-Scots

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

a) ch in Ulster-Scots for English ‘gh’

The Germanic ‘ch’ sound, as in ‘loch’, or ‘lough’, is one of the most characteristic sounds in Scots and Ulster-Scots. English spellings of words like ‘light’, ‘bright’, and ‘night’ were used by Ulster-Scots poets of the early 19th century, but their rhyming systems made it clear that the reader should understand that a guttural ‘-ch’ pronunciation was intended. During the mid 1800s some of our writers such as Robert Huddleston of Moneyreagh began to introduce apostrophes as an indication of the correct pronunciation. Thus we find in some poems of the 1850s spellings such as li’ght, bri’ght and ni’ght. In Older Scots, and from the late 19th century on in Ulster-Scots, this feature has been consistently represented by a ‘-ch’ spelling.

night- nicht
right- richt
tight- ticht
light- licht
eight- echt
bright- bricht
brought- brocht
fight- fecht
fought- focht
bought- bocht
rough- ruch
daughter- dochtèr
high- heich
height- heicht
enough- eneuch
laugh- lach
sight- sicht
wrought- wrocht
aught- ocht
weight- wecht
tough- teuch
straight- strecht

b) English ‘s’ → Ulster-Scots sh

The behaviour of the consonant ‘s’ in combination with ‘h’ and ‘ch’ in Ulster-Scots has already been examined in the light of the documentary and historical record. English words with an ‘s’ spelling are frequently spelt with ‘sh’ in Ulster-Scots if they are modified to this sound in Ulster-Scots. For example, ‘sew’ can be written shoo in Ulster-Scots, although the surname ‘Shaw’ is sometimes written in a revived form as Schaw, reflecting its 17th century spelling, and ‘sugar’ as shüggar to reflect the vowel sound change.

sew- shoo
suit- shuit (of clothes)
harness- harnish
breast- breesht
least- leasht
nervous- nervish
feast- feasht
priest- preesht
soon- shane

c) Older Scots quh- for ‘wh-’ in modern Ulster-Scots

In Ulster-Scots, as is the case generally in Scotland and Ireland, words beginning with ‘wh-’ such as ‘white’, ‘whales’, ‘when’, etc. are pronounced with an initial ‘hw’ sound as in Old English, (and not as [wite], [wales] and [wen] as in modern English). As outlined above, the Older Scots spelling for this feature was ‘quh-’, and this spelling is used as an alternative literary form or in formal register in a limited number of words only.

who - wha (lit: quha)
what - whut (lit: quhat)
where- whar, whaur (lit: quhar)
when - whan (lit: quhan)
why - why (lit: quhy)

Noteable exceptions (spelling and pronunciation):

whore- hoor
whole- hale (‘whole’ cannot be pronounced with the [hw] sound, and in Ulster-Scots the form hale is used — “Tha hale wide worl is ill divid”).

Note that the other ‘wh’ words, like ‘while’, ‘white’ and ‘whole’ in English and wheen in Ulster-Scots are not found with quh spellings in modern writings. While is often used instead of ‘time’ — ‘Ye’r a lang while gettin doon thaim stairs’. Whiles is used in place of ‘sometimes’ — ‘A’m late gettin oot o ma bed, whiles’.

d) Interdental pronunciation of ‘t’, ‘d’ and ‘nn’ when followed by an ‘r’

The consonants ‘t’, ‘d’ and ‘nn’ are modified in Ulster-Scots pronunciation when they are followed by an ‘r’. In English, these consonants are pronounced by touching the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth as they are sounded. In Ulster-Scots the same consonants are pronounced as ‘tth’, ‘dth’ and ‘nnth’ by touching the tip of the tongue on the back of the top teeth as they are sounded. This feature has been represented in spelling either by adding a ‘th’ after the consonant (eg watther for ‘water’), or by the use of a grave accent over the following vowel (eg wattèr for ‘water’). In this way ‘Ulster-Scots’ becomes Ulstèr-Scotch or Ulsther-Scotch.

water - wattèr or watther
shoulder - shoodèr or shoother
ladder - leddèr or lether
after - eftèr or efther
wonder - wunnèr or wunther
general - genèral or gentheral
winter - wuntèr or wuntther

Representation of this feature has been one of the most difficult issues in the spelling standardisation process. It is therefore worth outlining the recent history of how this problem has been tackled by orthographers and language users.

In some cases the use of a ‘th’ or ‘dh’ is sufficient to represent the sound of ‘t’ and ‘d’, so giving us butther, sthrae (straw), dhrap (drop), shoodher (shoulder), but in some cases it is impractical. ‘Tractor’, for example, would become tthraycther, and ‘tree’ would become tthree. The Ulster-Scots pronunciation of ‘tree’ should not be confused with the numeral ‘three’, because in ‘tree’ the ‘tr’ sounds are modified to [ttrh-]. In fact, the difference between interdental ‘t’, ‘d’ and interdental ‘th’, ‘dh’ is that the first are stop consonants (sounded by a firm closure of the tongue between the teeth), while the second are spirants (sounded so that the passage of breath does not wholly cease).

In the 1960s Professor Gregg and Brendan Adams addressed this orthographic problem, and advocated capitalising the letters ‘T’ and ‘D’ (even in the middle of words) when they were affected along with a following ‘r’ sound. Thus we find spellings in their transcriptions such as:

  • DReekh
  • DReer
  • DRawin
  • guTTers
  • claaTTer
  • TRue
  • beTTer
  • DRänk
  • TRäcks

However, no other writers or language users have adopted this convention. Instead some have turned to the use of an accent over the vowel immediately following the modified consonants to achieve the same result: drèech, drèer, guttèrs, bettèr, etc. Of course, the traditional alternative of inserting an ‘h’ is often found also: dhreech, gutthers, betther, etc.

In James Fenton’s dictionary, The Hamely Tongue, this feature is described, but no orthographic device is necessary in his work where a particular word such as butter can have a pronunciation guide inserted after: eg butter (-tth-).

Certain words with ‘-nn-’ and ‘-nd-’ spelling in English such as ‘wonder’ can be represented as wunner or wundher in Ulster-Scots literature. However, the most common pronunciation is not [wunner] (with the ‘n’ sounded by touching the tongue on the roof of the mouth) or [wun-dher] (with a distinct ‘d’ audible). Rather, the ‘-nn-’ is sounded by touching the tongue on the back of the teeth, and is represented now as wunnèr. This pronunciation is found with many words which — like danner/dander- can be spelt either with ‘-nn-’ or ‘-nd-’. In the Gregg/Adams spelling system described above (where the letters ‘t’ and ‘d’ were capitalised to represent their ‘interdental’ — ie tongue between the teeth -pronunciation), they also advocated capitalising the letters ‘-nn-’ for the same reason: eg daNNer and wuNNer.

In The Hamely Tongue words like ‘under’ are represented as unther, rather than the more conventional unner, to indicate the correct pronunciation. The word ‘winner’ using this spelling system, becomes wunther, while ‘winter’ is wunter, with a pronunciation reminder (tth-) after the headword in the dictionary entry. The ‘interdental’ sounding of ‘-nn-’ does produce a barely perceptible, soft ‘t’ or ‘th’ sound, but without allowing a full ‘t’ or ‘tth’ sound as in wunter or wunter [wuntther]. The following words with ‘-nd-’ spellings in their English equivalents are provided in The Hamely Tongue:

under - unther (here spelt unnèr)
underground - unthergrun (here spelt unnèrgrun)
thunder - thunther (here spelt thunnèr)
wander - wanther (here spelt wanner)
Anderson - Antherson (here spelt Andèrson)
render - renther (here spelt rennèr)

The following words with ‘-n-’ or ‘-nn-’ spellings in their English equivalent are also provided in The Hamely Tongue:

banner- banther (here spelt bannèr)
dinner - dinther (here spelt dennèr)
general- gentheral (here spelt genèral)
mineral- mintheral (here spelt minèral)

In all these examples the ‘-nn-’ and ‘-nd-’ modification only occurs when these consonants are followed by an ‘r’. Like dannèr, other Ulster-Scots words with no English equivalents can sometimes be spelt ‘-nd-’ or ‘-nn-’, but usually the ‘-nn-’ forms dominate in the literature. Rander, or more commonly ranner (‘to ramble on without meaning’), is given as ranther by Fenton, raNNer by Gregg/Adams, and now standardized as rannèr. The use of the diacritic is, however, optional and its omission does not otherwise alter the spelling.

It is now recommended that diacritics are only used to represent this feature when the consonants ‘t’, ‘d’ and ‘nn’ are followed by ‘-er’ (and not when an alternative spelling with additional ‘-h’ or ‘-th’ is traditional), as follows:

better- bettèr
butter- buttèr
after- eftèr
water- wattèr
counter- coontèr
canister- kenystèr
dinner- dennèr
under- unnèr
daughter- dochtèr
letter- lettèr
wonder- wunnèr
wander- wanner
winter- wuntèr
hundred- hunnèr

Notable exceptions (traditional spellings):

shoulder- shoother
ladder - lether
cinders- shunthers

This spelling ‘rule’ may also be used with the following Ulster-Scots words which have no English equivalents:

  • dannèr
  • foondèrt
  • dumfoondèrt
  • rannèr
  • scunnèr

e) ‘the’ and ‘they’ as tha and the’ in modern Ulster-Scots

In Ulster-Scots today, the definite article ‘the’ is spelt tha when the English spelling is not used, not just because it sounds different, but to avoid confusion with the following:

  • ‘tonight’, ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’, and ‘together’, is thenicht, theday, themorra, and thegither. Here the- is an abbreviation of ‘this’, eg ‘this night’, and so ‘this year’ also becomes theyeir and ‘this morning’ becomes themoarn.
  • ‘they’, the personal pronoun, is the, or the’ in Ulster-Scots. Most writers include an apostrophe (the’), to avoid confusion with the definite article.

So, a sentence like: “They were all at the dance tonight”, becomes: “The’ wur aa at tha daunce thenicht”.

f) The glottal stop for ‘tt’ when followed by an ‘l’

One of the most characteristic features in rural Ulster-Scots speech is the glottal stop. The glottal ‘t’ is sounded by a ‘coughing’ or catching action which closes the top of the throat, rather than by the action of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth. There are no orthographic conventions to indicate its presence in earlier Scots or in English, so its history cannot be traced from the documentary record. In Danish an apostrophe is used to indicate the glottal stop, but given the conventions adopted elsewhere this would be liable to confuse in Ulster-Scots.

The consonant ‘t’ is often modified in this way when it is preceded by a vowel and followed by the letter ‘l’. The ‘t’ is not sounded by an action of the tongue but by a coughing or catching action which closes the top of the throat. This feature is represented by ‘ttl’ (eg ‘metal’ to mettle):

metal - mettle
bottle - bottle
nettle - nettle
rattle - rattle
petal - pettle

g) English initial ‘c-’ → Ulster-Scots k-

There are characteristic vowel changes in some Ulster-Scots words where the English equivalent begins with a ‘c-’. This is particularly common with the ‘a’ to e vowel change, and is represented by a spelling change from ‘ca-’ → ke-. Otherwise, the vowel change would suggest a sibilant c. Note, however, that when the same vowel sound change occurs before an ‘-r’, (which is represented in Ulster-Scots by ai), the k- spelling should not be used (eg cairt for ‘cart’, not ‘kert’).

Similarly, when the vowel change after an initial ‘c’ is from [uh] to [eh], the spelling change is from ‘cou-’ or ‘cu-’ → ki-.

cap- kep
cat- ket
catch- ketch
comb- kame
cackle- keckle (loc. keechle)
country- kintrie
couple- kipple
cup- kip

h) English ‘-ing’ → Ulster-Scots -in (without apostrophe)

The present participle ending (‘-ing’ in English) is always pronounced [-in], and is written -in in modern Ulster-Scots (eg sleepin ‘sleeping’, waakin ‘walking’, footèrin ‘fidgeting’ etc).

This feature is so well-known that it barely requires comment, other than noting that the usual 19th century practice of using apostrophes to indicate all missing letters (from the English equivalent words) is no longer considered appropriate in modern Scots or Ulster-Scots.

i) English ‘-ngth’ endings → Ulster-Scots nth

When ‘ng’ is not in a final position, but is following by ‘th’ in English words such as ‘length’, ‘strength’ etc, it becomes nth in Ulster-Scots:

length- lenth
strength- strenth.

j) English medial ‘-ng-’ → Ulster-Scots soft g sound

The consonants ‘ng’ are modified in Ulster-Scots pronunciation when followed by the letters ‘l’ or ‘r’. So the ‘g’ in a word like ‘anger’ is not sounded with a hard ‘g’ sound as in English, but with a similar pronunciation to the ‘ng’ sound as in English ‘singer’. This is represented by dropping the following vowel and replacing it with an apostrophe, (eg langle and angle in Ulster-Scots are sometimes spelt lang’l and ang’l).

anger- ang’r
hunger- hung’r
finger- fing’r
angle- eng’l
tangle - teng’l
dangle - dang’l
ingle - ing’l
single - sing’l
strangle - streng’l
stronger- strang’r

Note: ‘Danger’ does not follow this rule as the pronunciation in Ulster-Scots is the same as in English.

k) English medial ‘-mbl-’ → Ulster-Scots -mml-

fumble - fummle
humble - hummle
crumble - crummle
gamble - gemmle

l) English medial ‘-mb-’ → Ulster-Scots -mm-

number- nummer
member- memmer
Comber- Cummer

Note that September, November and December may change to Septemmer, Novemmer and Decemmer, but these variants are only local.

m) English ‘-old’ → Ulster-Scots -oul (rhyming with ‘howl’)

Final ‘-d’ is lost in words such as ‘old’, ‘cold’, and ‘hold’ to give oul, coul, and houl. These spellings and pronunciations are now shared between vernacular Ulster-English and Ulster-Scots, with the Scots (and Ulster-Scots literary) forms of auld and haud being rarely heard in speech in Ulster today. Typical of the earlier usage by many of the Ulster-Scots poets are the following lines:

‘Laigh in a vale there hauds a fair’ (Thomson)

‘But haud ye, a jiffey’ (Sloan)

hold - houl
cold - coul
old - oul (loc: aul)
sold - soul
told - toul

n) Loss of final ‘-d’ in ‘-nd’ words

The loss of the final ‘-d’ in ‘and’, ‘hand’ and ‘land’ (to give an, han or haun, and lan or lann) is a characteristic feature of all Ulster vernacular speech, both Ulster-English and Ulster-Scots. ‘And’ is usually spelt an (historically with an apostrophe: an’, although some writers have used aun).

The ‘-d’ is elided in final position in English (becoming a final -n or -l in Ulster-Scots). However, in positions other than final, it takes a double n as its reflex (e.g. handling -hannlin).

hand- han
and- an
blind- blin
pound- pun, or poon
round- roon
land- lan
found- fun
find- fin
ground- grun
cold- coul
field- fiel

Notable exceptions (in spelling and pronunciation):

kind- kine
mind- mine

o) Loss of final ‘-t’ in ‘-pt’ words

kept- kep
slept- slep
tempt- temp (but p.t. temptit)
swept- swep

p) Loss of ‘l’ before ‘t’ and ‘d’

salt- saut
malt- maut
multure- mootèr
shoulder- shoother

q) Final ‘-ic’ → Ulster-Scots -ick

music - musick
physic - physick
paralytic - paralytick
mathematic - mathmatick
gaelic - gaelick
arithmetic - rithmetick

r) Final ‘-all’ → Ulster-Scots -aa

Perhaps no feature of Scots pronunciation and spelling is better known than the loss of ‘-ll’ from the ending of words such as ‘all’ and ‘fall’ giving a’ andfa’ in traditional writings. These are characteristic of Ulster-Scots too, although the forms al, cal, hal, etc. are also common:

all- aa
call- caa
ball- baa
fall- faa
wall- waa

Notable exception (spelling only)

hall- how (traditional spelling in place-names)

Notable exception (spelling and pronunciation)

knoll- knowe (rhymes with [cow])

When these words are used to form compound words, such as ‘altogether’, the ‘l’ or ‘ll’ element can still be omitted even though it is not in a final position (aathegither).

s) English final ‘-ful’ → Ulster-Scots -fu

There are numerous compound words formed with ‘-ful’ which in Ulster-Scots become ‘-fu’. fistful — nievefu

powerful- pooerfu
pityful- peetyfu
wonderful- wunnerfu

Note that this is a traditional spelling, but that the pronunciation is always [-fa].

t) English final ‘-ull’ Ulster-Scots -u

full - fu
pull - pu

u) Ulster-Scots final ‘-it’ for English ‘-ed’ in past tense verb forms

The Scots past tense verb ending in ‘-it’ or ‘-t’ (rather than ‘-ed’ or ‘-d’) is a well-established historical form which also reflects a pronunciation difference with English.

baked - baket
laughed - lacht
walked - waakt, dannèrt
tipped - coupt
wrestled - wrasseltt
opened - apen’t

Noteable exceptions:

knew - knowed
caught - ketched

The following tables set out in summary how verb forms change differently in English and Ulster-Scots to indicate the past.

PLAIN VERBS: Past Tense forms with a ‘-d’ ending in Ulster-Scots and English

English verbEnglish past tenseUlster-Scots verbUlster-Scots past tense

PLAIN VERBS: Past Tense forms with a “-t” ending in Ulster-Scots

English verb

English past tense

Ulster-Scots verb

Ulster-Scots past tense

(cry)greetgreetit, gret
(tip over)coupcoupt
askaskedax, astaxt, ast
stretchstretchedstreetchstreetcht, streekit
talktalkedtaaktaakt, taakit
walkwalkedwaakwaakt, waakit

ENGLISH STRONG VERBS: Past Tense forms with a vowel sound change in English

English verbEnglish past tenseEnglish past participleUlster-Scots verbUlster-Scots past tenseUlster-Scots past participle
comecamehave comecumcumhae cum
drinkdrankhave drunkdrinkdrunkhae drunk
hanghangedhave hunghinghunghae hung
runranhave runrinrunhae run
singsanghave sungsïngsunghae sung
swimswamhave swumsweemswumhae swum


English verbEnglish past tenseEnglish past participleUlster-Scots verbUlster-Scots past tenseUlster-Scots past participle
catchcaughthave caughtketchketchedhae ketched
telltoldhave toldtelltoul (telt)hae toul, (hae telt)

ENGLISH STRONG VERBS: Past Tense forms with a vowel sound change in English, and a Past Participle form with “-n” ending in English also

English verbEnglish past tenseEnglish past participleUlster-Scots verbUlster-Scots past tenseUlster-Scots past participle
beatbeathave beatenbatebatehae bate
breakbrokehave brokenbrekbroke, (loc.) brokhae broke
eatatehave eateneatethae et
fallfellhave fallenfaafellhae fell
givegavehave givengiegien (gied)hae gien, (hae gied)
growgrewhave growngrowegrew (growed)hae grew (hae growed)
knowknewhave knownknowknowedhae knowed
lielayhave lainlielayedhae layed
riderodehave riddenrideridhae rid
seesawhave seenseeseenhae seen
swearsworehave swornsweersweeredhae sweered
taketookhave takentaktuk (taen)hae tuk (taen)
writewrotehave writtenwritewrithae writ

ENGLISH STRONG VERBS: Verb forms which do not change in English for Past Tense or Past Participle

English verbEnglish past tenseEnglish past participleUlster-Scots verbUlster-Scots past tenseUlster-Scots past participle
hithithave hithithuthae hut
letlethave letletlut (let)hae lut (let)
putputhave putpitpüthae püt

v) English final “-n’t” in negated auxiliary verbs → Ulster-Scots -nae

isn’t- isnae
aren’t- irnae
wasn’t- wusnae
don’t- dinnae
doesn’t- disnae
didn’t- didnae
hasn’t- haesnae
haven’t- hinnae
hadn’t- hadnae
won’t- winnae
wouldn’t- wudnae
can’t- cannae
couldn’t- cudnae
weren’t- wudnae
shouldn’t- shudnae
mustn’t- maunnae
daren’t- darnae, durstnae
mightn’t- michtnae

w) The loss of the consonant ‘r’

In speech, fae is often preferred to the traditional written Scots frae (‘from’). Indeed, so widespread is the fae usage in some dialects of Scots that frae is regarded as a ‘literary’ form, despite the fact that fae also occurs frequently in modern Scots writing. In some Ulster-Scots areas, particularly the marginal ones, the situation is much the same, except that a similar dropping of the ‘r’ can extend to those words which begin ‘thr-’. So ‘throw’, ‘through’, ‘three’ and ‘throat’ can be th’ow (rhymes with ‘so’), th’oo, th’ie and th’oat in some local Ulster-Scots dialects. This feature is also common in Belfast speech, and in urban Ulster-Scots. Similarly, throughither (‘untidy’) is sometimes pronounced [thoo-orr]. The ‘r’ can even be lost, albeit rarely, after initial ‘b’, for example, ‘brigade’ is sometimes b’igade, and ‘British’ B’itisch.

x) Reversal of ‘r’ and adjacent vowel (metathesis)

In words such as ‘children’, ‘brethren’, ‘apron’, ‘modern’, ‘pretty’, ‘grass’ and ‘western’, the Ulster-Scots forms often involve a reversal of the position of the letter ‘r’ and the adjacent vowel:

apron- apern
modern- modren
pretty- purtie
grass- girse
western- wastren
NextRepresentation of the [yih] sound in Ulster-Scots (palatisation)
PreviousSpelling guide to Ulster-Scots vowel sounds


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