Despite the problems they face, Ulster-Scots endure… – Slugger O’Toole
Thoughts on the Ulster Scots
Certain things come with the territory if you publicly admit an interest in Ulster-Scots.
It is likely that people nearby will suddenly become language experts, with strong opinions about what is “appropriate language” and what is not. You might be told Ulster-Scots is a recent invention, perhaps concocted by Unionists in the 1990s. You might be expected to laugh at a recycled joke in a Ballymena accent or that you talk like a farmer. You may have to endure a dubious anecdote about a bizarre coin that someone at the pub said was Ulster-Scots for “telephone”.
It is a serious failure of public discourse that a few decades after Ulster-Scots were included in the Belfast Agreement, there is still so much public confusion and misinformation about the basics.
The main Belfast newspapers have not always been helpful on this front. They tend to find it hard to resist the temptation to occasionally step out of the Ulster-Scots for target practice. In November of last year, for example, “The Newsletter” served its readers a warmed up stew of cliches, sneers, myths and old jokes. Last week, it was the turn of “The Belfast Telegraph” to publish an article full of loopholes and shady catches.
Ulster Scots has been spoken in parts of Ulster for centuries and has been used by Ulster writers since the 1700s. Ulster-Scots, as many are freely available online through the efforts of the Ulster Scots Poetry Project at Ulster University and the Ulster-Scots Academy website.
A good way to get familiar with 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 therefore important to consider Ulster-Scots in relation to the Scots language from which it developed. Some activists argue that over the centuries Ulster-Scots has drifted far enough away from Scots to be considered a language in its own right, although many others consider Ulster-Scots to be a variety of ‘Scottish. Whichever you prefer, it is important to realize that the Scots language exists. It has a long and rich literary tradition, a full range of grammars and dictionaries, and it has been the subject of extensive scholarly research. It is also included in school and university curricula.
Familiarity with the Scots language shows that Ulster-Scots is not degraded, mispronounced English as some commentators stubbornly believe. Its words and forms have a historical provenance. Chances are those old words you’ve heard or spoken but never written down are safely cataloged in Scottish dictionaries. Those pronunciations that some imagine to be corrupted forms of English are probably Standard Scots. Thinking about Ulster Scots, an invariably broader linguistic framework alongside Scots, should break some of the lingering myths.
For example, it is absurd to accuse the school of Renaissance poets, whom King James IV of Scotland brought together at his court, of writing their ornate verses in a language invented in the 1990s. Robert Burns would naturally disconcerted to find that he wrote with a Ballymena accent and presumably the current Scottish 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 people who have nothing to say.
It is 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 each other as languages in close contact naturally do. When pioneering linguist Robert J. Gregg mapped Ulster-Scots in the 1960s, he quickly realized that essential elements of Scottish vocabulary, words like wee, aye, skelp, scunner, dander, thran, thole, wean and many others had spread. far beyond the Ulster-Scots speaking areas. Instead, he used a series of more specific markers to map the heartland of Ulster-Scots.
As a legally recognized minority language, Ulster Scots has no problems researching. Its linguistic community is geographically fragmented: it is distributed in several pockets over a number of counties and two jurisdictions. Its speakers, in many cases, are aging and often unaccustomed to seeing the written form of their language. Since it was mapped in the 1960s, its geographical scope has diminished and some of its distinctive features have eroded to near extinction. Moreover, many commentators remain dismissive or even openly hostile.
Even the arrival of the Ulster Scots on the political landscape of Northern Ireland after the Belfast Agreement was a double-edged sword. This resulted in increased funding and visibility, but also caused a backlash. In fact, it sometimes seems like Ulster-Scots is one of the few things whose commentators can be mean without consequences. In a way, it is a shame that Ulster-Scots has been co-opted, out of political expediency, into the binaries of Northern Irish politics. In many ways, these binaries don’t suit him, because they represent a complicated third dimension. It has the potential to enrich the pervasive “two tribes” narrative.
Despite the problems they face, Ulster-Scots endures. It persists at the margins. In recent years a number of writers have found their voices in Ulster-Scots: it is heartening to see that there are too many to mention here. This is in addition to those lifelong enthusiasts who have worked to defend and preserve it for decades. These days it is also present in broadcasting and on social networks. These are the foundations on which to build and in some circles we speak of growing confidence, even renewal.
It’s bad for everyone who knows Ulster-Scotch. We cud dae wi take a wee bit of care when a colleague started it publicly. I don’t think we’re rich, because good manners don’t cost anyone anything.
This is a guest slot to give new writers a platform, either as a one-off or as a prelude to joining the regular Slugger team.