Representation of vowel sounds 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

Since the vernacular revival of Scots and Ulster-Scots literature in the early 1700s, ‘English’ vowel sounds (both as individual letters and in combinations) have been used to convey an approximate Scots pronunciation. However, several distinctive vowel sounds have proved to be difficult to represent, and such problems have given rise to a host of spelling variations for these words in Ulster-Scots. During the present century, some innovative devices have been borrowed from languages other than English in an attempt to resolve these questions.

a) The short ‘i’ represented by ï

For English words spelt with ‘i’ such as ‘pig’, ‘hit’, ‘big’ and ‘pin’, a vowel sound is used in Ulster-Scots speech for which there is no appropriate vowel letter. This pronunciation of English short ‘i’ is distinctively ‘back’ and nasal in Ulster-Scots. Such words are sometimes written as pag, hat, bag, etc, or even pug, hut and bug, although Ulster-Scots u is used for English ‘i’ more frequently when following ‘w-’ or ‘wh-’, such as for whun, ‘whin’ or wun ‘win’. (The long-defunct Presbyterian paper The Witness was often derisively referred to as the ‘Wutness’). However, the potential for confusion with English words is obvious when spellings such as ‘hit’, ‘hat’ and ‘hut’ were used for the same pronunciation. One revised spelling system developed in the early 1960s by Professor Robert Gregg and Brendan Adams used a diaeresis (‘umlaut’) over the letter ‘a’, (ä), giving päg, bäg, hät. While the only earlier use of the diaeresis in Ulster-Scots literature was with owër (‘over’), this device has proved useful to modern Ulster-Scots writers. One alternative also used was to avoid the ä in favour of ai in words like käng/kaing (‘king’), thäng/ thaing (‘thing’), räng/raing (‘ring’), etc. In a recent academic paper, James Fenton suggested a diaeresis over the ‘i’, giving ï for this feature, and spellings such as kïng, thïng and rïng are now the recommended spellings under this agreed convention.

b) The short ‘u’ represented by ü

For English words spelt with ‘u’ such as ‘push’, ‘bush’, ‘pull’ and ‘bull’, a vowel sound is used with their (shared) equivalent words in Ulster-Scots for which there is no appropriate vowel letter. Such words are sometimes written as ‘puhsh’ and ‘puhl’, but this is particularly unsatisfactory. In James Fenton’s The Hamely Tongue, the dictionary context can be used to explain that ‘push’ rhymes with ‘rush’, or ‘pull’ rhymes with ‘hull’: (eg bull (r. hull)). The use of a diaeresis over the letter ‘u’ does provide one way of indicating the distinctive pronunciation, (eg büsh). However, this should not be used in the case of shared words such as ‘gull’, ‘hut’, ‘dull’, ‘rush’, ‘thrush’, etc. where the vowel sound is the same in both English and Ulster-Scots.

c) Loss of initial vowel before ‘l’ and ‘p’ (aphæresis)

Several words such as ‘elastic’ and ‘electric’ (which begin with a vowel, followed by ‘l’ or ‘ll’, and then another vowel), can lose the initial vowel sound to become lastic and lectric. Although this does not happen with all words with a ‘vowel-l-vowel’ beginning, the following list represents those where this feature occurs most commonly in Ulster-Scots:

lastic- elastic
lectric- electric, electricity
lapse- elapse (“a lang time’s lapsed frae ye wur hame”)
leven- eleven
legiance- allegiance
lotment- allotment
luminate- illuminate
lympics- Olympics
ledge- allege, declare

In the opening line of James Orr’s poem ‘To the Potatoe’ (written in Ballycarry 200 years ago), we find ledge used: “I ledge we’d fen gif fairly quat o” (“I declare we’d survive if completely rid of”).

The same feature occurs with some words which begin with a vowel, followed by the letter ‘p’. Two examples of this are possle (‘apostle’) and prentice (‘apprentice’).

In one instance this also occurs where the vowel is followed by ‘g’: greeance (‘agreement’ in formal documents), and once when followed by ‘r’: rithmatick (arithmetic).

d) Shared English and Ulster-Scots words with different spelling systems

Many pairs of words in English, for example, ‘meat’ and ‘meet’, sound the same even if they have different meanings and different spellings. A common (and historical) pronunciation of ‘meat’ in Scotland and Ulster is [mate]. Similarly, ‘eat’, ‘cheat’, ‘seat’, ‘beat’, ‘clean’ and ‘cheap’ can be pronounced [ate], [chate], [sate], [bate], [clane] and [chape] in many parts of Ulster and Scotland.

The most consistent Scots spelling for this feature is -ai-. The Concise Scots Dictionary records the following equivalents, all of which have some currency in Ulster-Scots:

beard- baird
cheat- chait (or - chate)
feasible- faisible
cheap- chaip (or - chape)
measles- maisles
seat- sait (or - sate)
sheaf- shaif
treason- traison
treat- trait
weak- waik
beast- baist/baste
beat- bait/bate

Of course, not all words with an ‘ea’ spelling in English have this [ee] vowel sound in their Standard English pronunciation (like ‘heart’). Other words with an ‘ea’ spelling in English — which do have the [ee] vowel sound, (like ‘fear’ and ‘hear’) — retain the same vowel sound and spelling in their Scots equivalents.

As a general rule, words such as ‘meet’ which have the same [ee] vowel sound in English, but have an ‘ee’ rather than an ‘ea’ spelling, do not have either a vowel sound or a spelling change in their Ulster-Scots equivalents. This means that words such as ‘green’, ‘teen’, ‘meet’, ‘beef’ and ‘week’ are spelt the same in Scots as in English, apart from several exceptions. ‘Queer’ is pronounced and spelt quare throughout Ulster.

It should be stressed that while mate for ‘meat’ is quite common in Scots (and in Mid-Ulster English), the ‘-ee-’ to [ai] vowel sound change in maet for ‘meet’ is not regular. The latter represents a localised feature in Belfast and Mid-Ulster English, although now also heard occasionally in north Down. Meat, incidentally, refers to any type of food in Ulster-Scots, and not just flesch, while any form of butcher’s meat is beef, eg Mawhunnyie’s beef-cairt (‘Mawhinney’s butchers van’).

NextSpelling guide to Ulster-Scots vowel sounds
PreviousOlder Scots spelling and its legacy in modern Ulster-Scots


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