Older Scots spelling and its legacy 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

In the early 1600s, most Ulster-Scots were writing according to the ‘rules’ of Scots literacy in which they had been schooled. In other words, the great majority of Scottish settlers in Ulster, at the time of the Ulster plantation, spoke — and if literate wrote — Scots. In 1624, an extra Clerk of the Council was appointed in Dublin to deal with official correspondence which “being written in the Scotch hand are either not read or understood”. Until the early 1630s even the titled Plantation landlords were writing in Scots, as this was the way in which they too had been schooled. At that time (and of course, before then), Scots had some very distinctive spellings that were to give way almost completely to English ‘rules’ later in the 17th century. However, traces of the Older Scots system were still being used through the 18th century. For almost a century, between 1650 and 1750, the educated settlers learned only English spelling rules, and Ulster-Scots had to survive as a spoken language. Because of the nature of their schooling, second generation Ulster-Scots landlords and their better educated tenants wrote their letters and reports in English after about 1640, even if they continued to speak Scots. At the same time, old session books of Presbyterian churches in Antrim and Down did contain entries that reveal that some old spellings and some Scots grammatical constructions were still being used many years later.

18th and 19th century Ulster-Scots writers did not use many of the Older Scots spellings. Robert Burns and the ‘Scotch poets’ who preceded him in Ulster and Scotland were deliberately reviving a written form for what was to them only a spoken language. For this they almost always used English grammar and spelling rules. They were largely unaware of, or had lost contact with, the earlier spelling conventions of the 17th century and before.

The following sentence from an early 17th century Ulster document illustrates many of the Older Scots spelling features:

“Ye quhilk soume of monies ye umquhile Claude Hamiltonne grantit ye zeir of god 1615” (“The which sum of money the late Claude Hamilton granted the year of God 1615”).

a) Consonants in Older Scots: quh- for ‘wh-’

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Older Scots spelling is the quh- used in place of ‘wh-’. We find in Ulster-Scots documents between 1550 and 1650 such spellings as the following:

quha- wha (who)
quhairto- whairto (whereto)
quhais- whais (whose)
quhar/quhair- whar/whair (where)
quhat- what
quhatever- whatever
quhan- whan (when)
quhilk- whilk (which)
quhyt- white

and quhairof, quhairin, quhairfoir, quharas, quhorbz (‘whereby’), etc.

This feature was so widely used then that Ulster-Scots scribes even took English words (like ‘which’ rather than whilk, ‘who’ rather than wha, and so on) and used the quh- spelling to give: quhich, quho, quhoum (‘whom’) etc. Even some place-names fell victim to this Scots spelling form, for example Belliquhoskin (Ballywhiskin) in county Down and Glenquhirrie (Glenwhirry) in county Antrim.

Sometimes the spelling was slightly different: (qh- or qu-), and abbreviations such as qlk. (‘which’), qo. (‘who’), qn. (‘when’) and qrof. (‘whereof’) are often found in old Antrim and Down kirk session books into the 18th century. Sometimes this feature occurred in the middle of words as well as the beginning: umquhille, as in “the umquhille Mr Crawford”, means ‘the late’ or ‘former’, and is probably from ‘some while’ or ‘some time’. In earlier times, this quh- spelling reflected a [kwa] pronunciation, and this is suggested by the apostrophe in the spelling used by Samuel Thomson, Bard of Carngranny (Antrim) in a poem of 1793: “Had umqu’hile Spence a listener been”.

b) tw and qw in Ulster-Scots

The [kwa] sound appears to have been very extensively used in Older Scots. Indeed, it appears that the quh- orthographic convention in Scots (for ‘wh-’) originally indicated a [kwa] pronunciation. The ‘q’ [kwa] sound also emerges in other unexpected circumstances — for example the name ‘Hugh’ can be rendered [queue] or [queuey].

Historically, not only was the ‘tw’ consonant combination represented as ‘qw’ in Older Scots, but it was pronounced as [kwa] as well. The best known examples of this are in the aqween and aqweesh forms for ‘between’. In South-West Scotland and parts of County Antrim, this also survives in the (now rare) forms of quice, quarthy, quunty and qual (‘twice’, ‘two or three’, ‘twenty’ and ‘twelve’). The Hamely Tongue also records in current Antrim speech quust for ‘twist’ and quuster for a straw-rope ‘twister’.

c) The letter ‘yogh’ in Older Scots → Ulster-Scots y (sounding as [yih])

One individual letter that was common to Older Scots and Middle English in the medieval period was called ‘yogh’, and was generally written: 3. However, in Early and Middle Scots manuscripts, from the 14th century, the letters ȝ and z were indistinguishable as z, for example in zouth and zele (‘youth’ and ‘zeal’). 16th century Scots printers took to printing z for both, because there was no separate ȝ font. By 1600, most Scots writers were using the z form of the letter as equivalent to ‘y’ in English. This rule was most frequently at the beginning of words such as ze (‘you’) and zeir (‘year’). In both English and Scots at that time the letter ‘y’ could be understood to represent the old letter þ (called ‘thorn’ and which became ‘th’). By the late 14th century, ‘thorn’ survived only as a letter indistinguishable from ‘y’. As both languages, therefore, had ye for ‘the’ and yat for ‘that’, confusion is possible for the modern reader:

the (or, you)- ye
ye/you- ze/zou
their- yair
year- zeir
your- zour

A number of surnames retain the traces of ‘yogh’ letter and sound. Dalzell, although not normally pronounced ‘Da-yell’ in Ulster today, would often be so pronounced in Scotland. The Antrim name MacFadzean is of course pronounced [macfadge-yin], and the surnames Bailey and Taylor are pronounced [bail-ye] and [tail-yer] in Ulster-Scots, and The Hamely Tongue gives the spelling bailye for ‘bailiff’. The early spellings of these names were Bailze and Tailzer. Occasionally, a name like ‘William’ was written Wilzame. Mawhinney is pronounced [mawhun-ye] in Co Down, and McFarlane as [macfarlyane] in parts of County Antrim.

d) Final post-consonantal -ie for ‘-y’ in historical and modern Ulster-Scots

Where ‘y’ is found at the end of a word in English spelling, this was historically (and is) avoided in Ulster-Scots in favour of -ie. So, aunty becomes auntie, Willy becomes Willie or Wullie, and granny becomes grannie. Of course, Scots words with no English equivalents such as dominie (teacher) also follow this pattern. In the 17th century, surnames such as Montgomery were usually spelt Montgomerie or Montgommrie, and this feature is characteristic of both Older Scots and modern usage.

many- monie
very- verie
any- onie
mostly- maistlie

In words ending in ‘-ary’, ‘-ory’ or ‘-ery’ in English, the ‘a’, ‘o’ or ‘e’ is often elided to produce -rie in Ulster-Scots.

history- hïstrie
victory- vïctrie
mystery- mïstrie
memory- memrie
library- librie

e) Final -ye for English final ‘-ay’ in modern Ulster-Scots

hay- hye
way- wye
pay- pye

The word gye (very) also has this traditional spelling to avoid confusion with gie (‘give’). One exception to this rule is the month ‘May’ which does not follow the same vowel sound change:

May- Mey

Note that the auxiliary verb ‘may’ is not used in Ulster-Scots, except where it has the meaning of ‘had better’ (eg ‘A may get on home fur it’s late gettin’). In this case the pronunciation is an unstressed [meh]. Similarly, ‘day’ does not change in spelling or pronunciation except for an unstressed pronunciation [deh] in compounds like Münday and Settèrday.

f) sh for ‘s’, and sch for ‘-sh-’

Some Ulster-Scots speakers have a tendency to pronounce the letter ‘s’ as [sh]. ‘Vessel’, however, was written veshel in some of the early Ulster-Scots documents, ‘sugar’ was written as shugger, ‘sew’ as shew, and ‘soon’ as shune. According to the Concise Scots Dictionary, the modern Scots word sheuch (“a drain, or open ditch with water lying in it”) is derived from an Early Middle English word sogh, meaning a “wet, swampy place”. In each of these cases, the sh- spelling in modern Ulster-Scots contrasts with an ‘s-’ spelling in the English or Older Scots/Middle English equivalent.

On the other hand, where ‘sh’ is used in the English spelling of a word to represent the same sound, for example with ‘she’, ‘ship’, ‘bishop’ etc, sch was used regularly in Older Scots (scho, schippe, bischop, etc), as in other Germanic languages.

The development of the Older Scots forms suld ‘should’ and sall ‘shall’ is not parallel to that from sogh to sheuch. However, it should be noted that shud is current Ulster-Scots for ‘should’. Although the forms sall and I’se (‘I shall’) appear in the Ulster-Scots literary record, ‘shall’ or sall is not used today in Ulster-Scots at all.

g) Interchangeable ‘v’, ‘u’ and ‘w

In Older Scots, the letters ‘w’, ‘v’ and ‘u’ were used interchangeably, but on occasion, the substitution of ‘w’ for ‘v’ in words like giwe and hawe for ‘give’ and ‘have’ reflected an actual contrast with English pronunciation.

Occasionally, ‘f’ was substituted for ‘v’: serf (‘serve’), giffen (‘given’), etc. The v in gavel (‘gable’) and ville (‘bally’, ‘town’) is original, and not an alteration of the ‘b’ in the English and Gaelic equivalents.

The Ulster-Scots poets used words like lo’ed for ‘loved’, and co’erd for ‘covered’. In Ulster during the 1600s, ‘w’ was often substituted for ‘v’ in words such as adwise, craew (‘crave’), Dawid, Gawan (‘Gavin’), lewie (‘levy’), wozd (‘void’) and elewint (‘eleventh’). Sometimes, ‘u’ was also found in place of ‘w’ in words such as ansuer, auin (‘own’), duell, neuis, puer (‘power’), sourd (‘sword’), toune, tua and tuell. ‘W’ was substituted for ‘u’ in perswade, trew, zow (‘you’), dowble and grows (‘grouse’). ‘V’ was used in place of ‘w’ for avay, vitt, vas, vater, ve and varrent, etc. The Ulster-Scots adjective brave (‘good’ or ‘pleasing’) is synonymous with some meanings of the Scots adjective braw.

h) Loss of English ‘v’ (and occasional substitution of w in modern Ulster-Scots)

In modern Ulster-Scots, the substitution of ‘w’ for ‘v’ still reflects a contrast of pronunciation with English, but the spelling usually involves dropping the ‘v’.

over- ower
give- gie
given- gien
have- hae
dove- doo
swivel- sweet
devil- deil
leave- lea, (loc.) lee
silver- siller
NextRepresentation of vowel sounds in modern Ulster-Scots
PreviousHow to use the Ulster-Scots Spelling and Pronunciation Guide


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