Despite the problems it faces Ulster-Scots endures…

Thoughts on Ulster-Scots

Certain things come with the territory if you publicly admit to an interest in Ulster-Scots.

It’s likely that people nearby will suddenly become linguistic experts, with strong opinions on what is a “proper language” and what isn’t. You may be told that Ulster-Scots is a recent invention, possibly concocted by Unionists in the 1990s. You might be expected to laugh at a recycled joke about a Ballymena accent, or talking like a farmer. You might have to endure a dubious anecdote about an outlandish coinage that somebody down the pub said is Ulster-Scots for “telephone”.

It’s a serious failure of public discourse that a couple of decades after Ulster-Scots was included in The Belfast Agreement, there is still so much public confusion and misinformation over the basics.

The main Belfast newspapers have not always been helpful on this front. They tend to find it difficult to resist the temptation occasionally to wheel out Ulster-Scots for target practice. In November last year, for example, “The Newsletter” served its readers a re-heated stew of cliches, sneers, myths and old jokes. Last week it was the turn of “The Belfast Telegraph” to publish an article crammed full of shortcomings and dodgy takes.It’s regrettable that editors seem reluctant to seek out one of the many people who could offer something of value on the topic.

Ulster-Scots has been spoken in parts of Ulster for centuries and has been used by Ulster writers since the 1700s. You no longer need to ransack dusty libraries to find these older Ulster-Scots texts as many are freely available online through the efforts of the University of Ulster’s Ulster Scots Poetry Project and the Ulster-Scots Academy website.

A good way to get a handle on Ulster-Scots is to start with the “Scots” element. Ulster-Scots is the product of millennia of cultural interactions between Ulster and Scotland. It is important, therefore, to consider Ulster-Scots in relation to the Scots Language from which it developed. Some activists maintain that over the centuries Ulster-Scots has deviated enough from Scots to be considered a language in its own right, though many others see Ulster-Scots as a variety of Scots. Whichever of these you favour, it is important to realise that the Scots Language does exist. It has a long and rich literary tradition, a fulsome range of grammars and dictionaries and it has been the subject of extensive academic research. It also features on school and university curricula.

Familiarity with the Scots Language shows that Ulster-Scots is not mispronounced, degraded English as some commentators stubbornly believe. Its words and forms have historical provenance. The chances are that those old words that you’ve heard or said, but never written, are safely catalogued in Scots dictionaries. Those pronunciations that some imagine to be corrupt forms of English are probably standard Scots. Thinking about Ulster-Scots, invariably wider linguistic frame alongside Scots, should bust some of the persistent myths.

For example, it is absurd to accuse the school of Renaissance poets, which King James IV of Scotland gathered to his court, of writing their ornate verses in a language invented in the 1990s. Robert Burns would be understandably bewildered to discover that he wrote in a Ballymena accent and presumably Scotland’s current national poet, or Makar, Kathleen Jamie, who uses Scots in her work, would be disappointed to learn from a recent article that it is a form of communication used only by old men who don’t have anything to say.

It’s also important to understand that occasionally saying “quare” or “wee” does not automatically make someone an Ulster-Scots speaker. Ulster-Scots has influenced the language of almost everyone in Ulster, but most people speak a variety of Ulster English. Ulster English and Ulster-Scots have been in close contact for centuries and influence one another as languages in close contact naturally do. When the pioneering linguist, Robert J. Gregg, mapped Ulster-Scots in the 1960s he quickly realised that staple pieces of Scots vocabulary, words like wee, aye, skelp, scunner, dander, thran, thole, wean and many others, had spread well beyond the Ulster-Scots speaking areas. Instead, he used a series of more specific markers to map the Ulster-Scots heartlands.

As a legally recognised minority language, Ulster-Scots doesn’t have its problems to seek. Its speech community is geographically fragmented: it is spread in several pockets over a number of counties and two jurisdictions. Its speakers, in many cases, are ageing and often unused to seeing the written form of their language. Since it was mapped in the 1960s it has declined in geographical scope and some of its distinctive features have eroded to the point of near extinction. Furthermore, many commentators remain dismissive or even openly hostile.

Even the arrival of Ulster-Scots onto the political landscape of Northern Ireland after The Belfast Agreement has been double edged. It has meant increased funding and visibility, but also provoked a backlash. In fact it seems at times that Ulster-Scots is one of the few things that commentators can be spiteful about without consequences. In a way it is a pity that Ulster-Scots has been co-opted, for political expediency, into the binaries of Northern Ireland’s politics. In many ways these binaries don’t suit it, as it represents a third, complicating, dimension. It has the potential to enrich the pervasive “two tribes” narrative.

Despite the problems it faces Ulster-Scots endures. It persists at the margins. In the last few years a number of writers have discovered their voices in Ulster-Scots: encouragingly, there are too many to mention here. This is in addition to those long-standing grassroots enthusiasts who have worked to advocate for and preserve it for decades. These days it also has a presence in broadcasting and on social media. These are foundations on which to build and in some quarters there is talk of a growing confidence, even a revival.

It’s ill tae thole tha blethers o folk that dinnae know ocht aboot Ulster-Scotch. We cud dae wi takin a wee bit mair care whan colloguin publicly aboot it. I doot we cud dae that richtly, for guid manners disnae cost onybody ocht.

Steve Dornan has written extensively on Ulster-Scots literature and his collection of poems, “Tha Jaa Banes“, was published in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter.

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