The Things They Say

Anne Smyth

Speech bubble

These days, all sorts of minority groups have ombudsmen and commissioners to look after their interests. The amount of nonsense to which Ulster-Scots is subjected in the media and elsewhere would suggest that it’s about time one was appointed to protect our long-suffering language. Of course, it could be that the chief offenders need to follow the advice of Alf Garnett (remember him?), when he said ‘lissen an you might learn someink’. Maybe this short article will be a start on learning ‘someink’ for the more receptive.

The BBC’s ‘Voices’ season

This BBC initiative actually did some good work on Ulster-Scots, although it was short-lived. During the project, short recordings were made of a number of our better native speakers, and these now form part of the BBC’s sound archives at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum. However, the BBC, as part of the ‘Voices’ enterprise, engaged the services of an academic who really did not have the necessary background in study and research into Ulster-Scots (or Ulster dialect generally), as her primary field of research is sociolinguistics.

In one programme, hosted by Gerry Anderson, viewers had contacted the BBC to ask the origin of words, and among them were the words stookie and scraw. The academic, there to provide the answers, was clearly stumped. In fact, she just stood there like a stookie. Of course, a stookie is a statue, from the word ‘stucco’ — the plaster-like material from which statues are made. This one has caused trouble in the past. A member of the public once telephoned me to ask the origin of the word, and when I explained it to her, she proceeded to argue with me that this could not possibly be right, because she had telephoned the Ulster Museum and someone there had told her it came from the word stook, for a bundle of flax or grain standing in a field. In vain I tried to tell her that, whoever she was speaking to, the Ulster Museum did not have, and never had had, any language specialists on its staff. She just preferred the spurious etymology and was sticking to it.

The other word, scraw, simply means ‘throat’ and is thought to be a strengthened form of craw. Having sent an email to Gerry Anderson giving the definitions of these words, I received the reply ‘Thank you, sir’. This would have been understandable if I had had one of those names that could belong to either male or female, like ‘Lesley’ or ‘Noel’, but ‘Anne’??? I can only conclude that the strain of being bombarded with a dialect overload had been too much for him.

The jaw-box

Good old BBC — what would we do without its gaffes to brighten our lives? This time it was national, and not local, television that stuck its foot in it. In an otherwise excellent report on the prominent Belfast footballer Danny Blanchflower, The One Show was trying to provide a bit of local colour. The Belfast houses, we were told in the course of this scene-setting, were each possessed of a ‘jaw-box’, so called because the women used to stand round it gossiping (or ‘jawing’).

Now, Winston Churchill did not, so far as I’m aware, come from Belfast, but did he not say, ‘Jaw, jaw, not war, war’ (or something similar)? Churchill might have been a powerful man in his day, but there isn’t much evidence of his influence over Ulster vernacular speech, of any description. In fact, you do not find the word jaw used to mean ‘gossip’ anywhere in Northern Ireland. We would use words like clake, clash, crack, clype, sough, whid etc. when talking of gossip. In Northern Ireland, jaw as a noun means a small amount of liquid (implying that it is dashed carelessly into a container) and as a verb it means to pour or dash out liquid. Jawings are, of course, slops. The jaw-box is therefore the container into which you throw liquid. William Patterson’s A Glossary of Words in Use in the Counties of Antrim and Down (1880) defined the compound jaw-box as a scullery sink.

The surviving sense of jaw in Northern Ireland is more restricted than the meaning of the word in former days. In 1721, Alan Ramsay, the Scottish poet, used the word to mean a wave, billow or breaker, and this sense was still in use in Ulster in 1929. So the big splash has over time been reduced to what you would get at the bottom of a teacup. Maybe there is no longer the urgency to jouk an let the jaw flee.

What, then, do we do with the tide of jawings that issue from the BBC? Well, again Mrs Canute tried to stem the flow, and contacted The One Show. Not even an acknowledgement. Ah, weel, the wee laddie wi his fing’r in the dyke might have been a hero, but as a long-term strategy it wasn’t working.

Mair jawins frae hereaboots

A more recent piece of nonsense issuing from the local BBC was another example of folk etymology. This time we were told by the presenter that chuffed to bits is an Ulster-Scots expression. Now I have heard the younger generation using the word chuff to mean what you do when you contribute to the methane in the atmosphere, and hence global warming. However, I’m pretty sure this is unconnected.

In fact, on the very good authority of Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, we can say with confidence that chuffed to bits comes from the north of England, and is found in English dialects as far south as Berkshire. Chuff is an adjective meaning ‘proud, conceited, pleased or elated’ — what we would call croose.

An mair yit

The comprehension gap often takes a bit of bridging. Last year some of us who are clearly on a list somewhere in the bowels of the BBC were contacted by a media firm to whom the job of producing a programme had been contracted out. They had been handed the title ‘Ware Hamecomin’ for the programme, which was to feature Americans of Ulster extraction returning to the land of their forebears. Somewhere down the line, the light suddenly dawned on those involved on the periphery of this project that, whether by misinformation from the BBC or otherwise, the media firm had interpreted ‘Ware Hamecomin’ as ‘We’re Coming Home’.

Now, even in Ulster-Scots there is more than one meaning for ware. As a verb, it can mean ‘spend, lay out (money, time or labour)’. In Standard English it means articles of merchandise. In Scots, we find the word in Rabbie’s ‘Address to the Haggis’ that is mangled every Burns Night: ‘Auld Scotland needs nae skinkin ware/That jaups in luggies’ (Old Scotland needs no watery stuff/That splashes in two-handled vessels). We’re spoilt for choice; but one thing we can say with certainty is that, no matter what language we’re speaking in, never, ever, does it mean ‘we’re’.

Eventually, due to the good offices of a friend in the BBC who does understand Ulster-Scots, the word got through that the mistake had been spotted and that ware in this context means ‘spring’ (the season). And there was us educating everyone to that effect by putting the Ulster-Scots names for the seasons on the front cover of Ullans, so yeeze aa got Ullans 11 marked as Ware 2010.

The serious bit

Aye, it can be gye funny, A’ll gie ye that. There’s a serious side to it, though. The BBC has an Irish Language Unit. This is an implicit acknowledgment that, when making a programme, the best way of doing it is by using specialists in the language in which the programme is broadcast. Moreover, the non-specialist administrative staff do not try to impose on that Unit their interpretation of what any of the linguistic content means.

When we look at Ulster-Scots, however, what is the situation? Well, the making of the ‘Kist’ programme is farmed out to freelance firms which are non-specialist in the Ulster-Scots language. The oversight of this provision is in the hands of BBC administrative staff who have no skills in the language. Suddenly everyone is an expert, and no one has the authority to exert quality control. While no Ulster-Scots speaker would ever attempt to pass comment on any piece in the Irish language, yet monoglot English speakers seem to consider themselves qualified to pontificate on what is good Ulster-Scots. I have worked with the language for 21 years, full-time — what’s your excuse?



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A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


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