The spelling system of The Hamely Tongue

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

James Fenton’s The Hamely Tongue: a personal record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim requires a special mention here. Not only is it an authoritative record of contemporary Ulster-Scots as a living tongue in the archetypal core area of County Antrim, but the book itself carries the imprimatur of the Ulster-Scots Academy and the Ulster-Scots Language Society. This section is included here as it provides a meticulous and accurate guide to the pronunciation of the living language in county Antrim.

James Fenton’s objective was to present the vocabulary and illustrative examples of speech he collected over a lifetime (and authenticated by a representative group of native speakers distributed throughout the county). This he accomplished by using his own spelling system which was “... designed to give, as far as practically possible, a direct guide to pronunciation, avoiding the use of the phonetic alphabet and the technical language of the phonologist.”

The Fenton spelling system is ‘user friendly’, and not markedly different from the spellings adopted by some early 20th century Ulster-Scots writers. It avoids awkward orthographic structures, making pronunciation self-evident to the reader who may not be familiar with spoken Ulster-Scots. Because the work is a dictionary, with an alphabetical list of head-words, aids to pronunciation can be inserted after the main word entry in a way that is not possible in creative writing. For example, the interdental ‘d’ and ‘t’ forms (giving dh and tth pronunciations) are explained in the introduction, but in the text of the dictionary itself, only occasional ‘reminders’ are given, such as efter (-tth-).

Inevitably, some pronunciation spellings tend to differ from traditional Scots spelling conventions, or, more properly, they can contrast with etymologically ‘correct’ alternatives that survive as historical spelling forms. This problem, of course, has always been present with Scots writers who have frequently had to invent spellings to represent what (to them) was known only as an oral language. The Hamely Tongue, to give one example, employs the letter ‘z’ in words such as wuz (‘was’) and iz (‘us’). This particular spelling form has also been adopted by some modern Scots writers in South-West Scotland, but has been criticised by modern Lallans ‘purists’ as a move away from standardisation for Scots spellings because it has no historical precedent in Scots literature. This is not the case for Ulster-Scots, however, since our late 19th century writers such as W G Lyttle, and others following him, regularly employed this particular device. This book employs some such spellings. Indeed, as far as the word sez (‘says’) is concerned, this form is almost universal in modern Ulster-Scots (and Ulster-English dialect) prose, James Fenton does, however, extend the use of ‘z’ in his spelling system to words such as hoozes (‘houses’) and jalooze (‘suspect, imagine’; Std Scots jalouse).

Given the universal popularity of The Hamely Tongue even those spellings which are unique to this dictionary do require compelling reasons not to endure as the accepted new standard spellings.

It is important, therefore, that a description of the spelling system and pronunciation guide used in The Hamely Tongue be included in this chapter. Undoubtedly The Hamely Tongue will prove to have had enormous influence on future creative writing in Ulster-Scots, and readers of this description of the Ulster-Scots language should refer to Fenton’s work for accurate contemporary pronunciation of particular words. A unique characteristic of this dictionary is a supplementary list of words which differ from Standard English in form and pronunciation only, but not in meaning. Standard spellings for modern Ulster-Scots are inevitably based on the dominant Antrim dialect he describes.

Contained in the introductory chapter of The Hamely Tongue is an important spelling and pronunciation section (pp. ix-xi) which explains not only the word forms and pronunciation common to the whole study area, but also some of the variations and exceptions found in County Antrim. This is reproduced below:

a) The representation of consonants in The Hamely Tongue

  • d and t have the widespread ‘interdental’ pronunciation when followed by r (dhrive for drive, destthroy for destroy). Since this is always so, no special indication is given in the text when they occur. However, they are often, but not always, similarly pronounced when followed by a vowel and an r, in these cases this is indicated as in batter (-tth-). Pronunciation is often conventional for comparatives, such as whiter and broader, and always so for words denoting agency, such as reader and writer.
  • ch, when preceded by a vowel (or vowel-sound, as in yowch), is, unless otherwise indicated, pronounced as in loch; following u only, and only where indicated, gh is used instead to represent this guttural sound.
  • th in ther is always pronounced as in the.

(b) The representation of vowels and vowel sounds in The Hamely Tongue

  • Short, stressed i (as in bit) is equivalent, or very close, to Standard English short, stressed a (as in bat); thus niver (never) is pronounced as (or close to) navver. Again, since this is always so, no special modification is made to spelling in dialect words or in Standard English words where this is retained. (This short i sometimes replaces and is replaced by other vowel-sounds — eg shilter for shelter, twust for twist — but these substitutions are made directly in the spelling used.)
  • i and y in certain words are pronounced as broad aai (most commonly cited example being maaine for the pronoun mine, as distinct from mine for the noun or verb). This variation is not confined to Ulster-Scots, but the aai form is so strong there as to be treated in the text as a distinct vowel-sound. (The vowel-sound in the second mine also differs from Standard English in being somewhat ‘narrower’, but the variation is much less marked and is ignored in the text.)
  • a when stressed (whether conventionally short as in cat or long as in harm) is always long; where necessary, it is shown as ah, whether in the headword itself, as in cahse for cause, or as in wrang (-ah) for wrong. (Note: always ah in wa-, wha-, etc.)
  • ow in dialect words is, unless otherwise indicated, pronounced as in how; In words which retain their standard form but which have additional dialectal meanings, pronunciation is, again unless otherwise indicated, conventional. Where there is any possibility of confusion, further guidance is given.
  • Other vowel-sounds — notably eh as in net, au as in pot and ae as in case — are usually long (and often markedly so in mid Antrim and locally elsewhere), but this has no special indication in the text.
  • The pronoun I presents particular difficulties. Unstressed, its pronunciation ranges from a short a to a muted or quite neutral sound; stressed, it is a broad ah in some districts (especially in the central and southern parts of the area) and an equally broad aai elsewhere (especially in the east and north). Here, A is used for the unstressed form and I for the stressed.
  • o’ is used for of throughout, again to avoid confusion, even though the unstressed form is usually completely neutral.
  • r (= ‘rhymes with’) is sometimes used as the simplest guide to the pronunciation of vowel-sounds, as in: pull (r.hull).

c) Variations of pronunciation within County Antrim

  • The substitution of vowel-sound eh for a (whether short or long) in certain groups of words — in particular, those having ack, ag, ang, ank, ap, ar — is common throughout the county (tex for tax, fairm for farm). With many such words however, there is a divergence of practice from district to district, and especially from urban/suburban to rural districts. In the eastern, central and northern rural areas especially, the change often takes the form of a marked lengthening and ‘broadening’ of the ah sound — as in blak (-ah) for black but seck for sack; bag (-ah) for bag but fleg for flag; wart (-ah) for wart but smairt for smart. (The urban/rural divergence is noted by Gregg in the paper cited. However, while it is most marked with words having ang or ank — urban benk/rural bank (-ah), urban tengle/rural tangle (tahng’l) — his long list of ‘urban’ forms contains many common in Ballinaloob and other rural districts: eg kep for cap, dreg for drag, ect for act.)
  • Where two forms of such words occur in the area, both are given, one usually being a minority form and labelled ‘local’ (loc.).
  • The substitution of vowel-sound eh for ae in certain words (eg becon for bacon, plen got plain) is found in many districts in the northern part of the county, from (roughly) Ballyweaney through Ballyknock to Armoy, and over a widening area that includes Topp, The Ganaby, Drumdo, etc. These are given as local variants in the text.
  • Four minor variations are noted here but ignored in the text, (a) The substitution of short i for short u in some words (eg pliver for plover, rin for run) is widespread, but is more common in the extreme north of the county (ip for up, kim for come, stiff for stuff, etc), (b) Here, and in some eastern districts, short i is also sometimes substituted for vowel-sounds u and oo (bill for bull, schill for school, giss for goose). (c) The glottal stop (as in wa’er for water) is particularly noticeable in mid-Antrim but detectable to some degree over a much wider area, (d) The occasional addition of an extra (‘glide’) vowel (as in pawit for pot) is found very locally, sometimes confined to individual families.
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