The Hamely Tongue

Author: James Fenton

Date: 1995

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 3 Spring 1995

The Making of an Ulster-Scots Dictionary

This article, which provides a background to our forthcoming publication ‘The Hamely Tongue: A personal record of Ulster-Scots in Co Antrim’ by James Fenton, was first published in Ulster Local Studies, Vol 16 No 2, Winter 1994.

This account of my work on the Antrim dialect, which will soon culminate in its publication by the Ulster-Scots Language Society, should be regarded to some extent as a cautionary one by anyone contemplating a similar undertaking. Many years of alert listening, incidental recalling and of more or less immediate recording and, to date, some two years of fairly hectic fieldwork and research have preceded the fulfilment of this project. There is no other way. Let me quote from the introductory notes to the work-in-progress: ‘The aim, therefore, has been to compile an authentic, comprehensive record of a living language: its vocabulary and idiom, its characteristic turns of phrase and modes of expression, its aphorisms and its humour’. I trust this objective is neither overly ambitious nor idealistic. Academic commentaries (and some formal dictionary coverage) apart, to my knowledge the only published work done on the Ulster-Scots dialect of Antrim consists of various word-lists and one glossary. (Ulster-Scots will, of course, be one element in Dr Macafee’s forthcoming A Concise Ulster Dictionary.)

Word-lists, however useful (and I have made use of several, as we shall see), are no more than that; however extensive, however accurate their definitions, they cannot convey any real notion of the essence or soul of a living tongue. (I believe this to be largely true also of W H Patterson’s Glossary of Words in Use in the Counties of Antrim and Down — which, in any case, places items only rarely and then quite inadequately — even though it is certainly more elaborate, thorough and useful as a prototype than any word-list.) But thon’s a poultaice an a half, dear knows, an hir wae hir nerves, the cretther is a distinctive expression of sentiment no conventional lexicon will reflect; and the same is clearly true of the semantic precision of the observation that thon mouth niver knows whun tae keep his mooth shut. The only lists appearing in the book (in its second part) are those of words and names which differ in form and pronunciation only from their Standard English equivalents.

It follows, I believe, from what has been said, that a project of this nature can be undertaken only by someone for whom the dialect is or has been the native tongue. The first eighteen years of my life were spent in the Ballinaloob/Drumadarragh district a few miles south of Ballymoney, where broad Ulster-Scots was and is the everyday language, and I have remained in close contact with relatives and neighbours there since. (The speaking of the local version of Standard English in certain contexts was, of course, customary or, indeed, obligatory.) Two excerpts from The Hamely Tongue (the proposed title of the book) will, I think, both demonstrate the fundamental importance of this qualification and reinforce what has been said earlier.

The first is the entry for the word alloo, which would probably appear in a word-list, if at all, as a single entry.

alloo allow; remark (He allooed it wuz a richt day); suggest, imply (A’m naw allooin ye’re naw gan tae pie me); grant, concede in debate (A hae tae alloo ye that); reckon (They alloo that’s whut happened); intend, plan (We wur allooin tae cal wae ye sometim shoartly).

alloo in permit (a person) to enter; grant admission or membership to.

alloo oot allow to leave the house (She alloos him oot the odd time); free from confinement or restraint (eg of one preaching an unacceptable message or one behaving in an absurd or outrageous manner: It’s a wunther thon boy’s allooed oot).

if it’s sae allooed God willing.

whutiver’s allooed as God permits or grants.

In the senses of ‘state’, ‘remark’, etc allow is, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, in use in current speech in the United States, while the Ulster-Scots use of alloo as ‘grant’, ‘concede’ is fairly close to one in Standard English. The other uses, however, are now surely peculiar to dialectal speech, and one wonders about the likelihood of their being picked up by even the most assiduous outsider. This is probably even more true of local usages of otherwise standard words, such as at.

at doing (Whut ir ye at these days?); up to (Thon spulpin daesnae know whut tae be at); residing or employed (Whur’s he at noo?); with (I wuz rail engry at him); on, away (Ay, mock at — but yin day ye’ll rue it); (as) persistently (He haes been coortin at her this years) or vigorously (He’s ootby rippin at lake a mad-boady).

at a pitch in a state of extreme confusion, disorder, etc. (The wie they’re learnin them at the school nooadays it’s little wunther the worl’s at a pitch).

at ither quarrelling, fighting, at each other’s throat, at maesel in my normal health (A haenae been at maesel a’ week). at peace not moving, not being restive (Stan at peace, wull ye!).

at the heels o’ the hunt when all is said and done (But at the heels o’ the hunt they’ll vote the wie they aye dae).

at the time at a time, in one go.

at yersel in one’s right mind (Ir ye atyersel, wumman?).

at yer work up to one’s tricks, ‘working’ a dodge, etc. (Canny, here — A hae a notion these merchants is at their work).

be at berate, attack verbally (She’s at him afore he’s richt in the dorr); refer to, bring up the subject of (He wuz at it last nicht agane); approach, tackle (A hae been at him aboot it mair nor yince). Also come at (Did ye come at hir aboot thon yit?).

weel at yersel prospering in business; in sound financial circumstances.

As noted, such material figures vary little — in many cases not at all — in word-lists or glossaries (Patterson has at himself only, and one use of allow not recorded by myself), and sometimes even in specialised dictionaries (The Concise Scots Dictionary has a few of our uses of at but none of those listed for alloo). Yet such uses and expressions lie at the very heart of Ulster-Scots. ‘Pure’ dialect words (ie those not, or no longer, included in Standard English) are, of course, of great interest and importance and form a major part of The Hamely Tongue; but these examples — and there are many more — illustrate how much that is wholly dialectal is found in such uses of Standard English words or their local equivalents.

While it must be said that the early years’ recording was made without any thought of publishing, the motivation for making that record no doubt contained the seeds of such a development: the awareness that some local speech which had recently been current was becoming less common, some was already regarded as archaic by the younger generation and much indeed was being made redundant by social and economic changes. (We will look at this last factor more fully in a moment.) The idea of developing and expanding this material in a detailed and intensive survey, within specific geographical and temporal limits, really arose from discussions with the late Brendan Adams, then (c. 1974) dialectal archivist at Cultra, when I was researching some etymologies. (Largely unaware of existing work on Ulster dialects, I was given further stimulus via the Folk Museum’s 1964 publication, Ulster Dialects: An Introductory Symposium and a copy of the late Professor Braidwood’s 1969 inaugural lecture at Queen’s, The Ulster Dialect Lexicon.) The final stages in the realisation of that idea were to lie some seventeen years in the future; but the recording of core material continued — albeit sometimes fitfully — and included a growing population of items from other parts of the county, with sources simultaneously recorded.

When, about the beginning of 1991, the projected production of a detailed record for publication was finally embarked on, the aim was clear. The opening sentence of the book’s introduction states; ‘This is a personal record of Ulster-Scots as spoken in the greater part of rural Antrim during the period since 1930’. The period is that of my own lifetime (I was born in 1931); the area is that where ‘broad’ Ulster-Scots is the everyday language of the people living there; the informants those of my generation who live or have lived in fairly widely separated parts of that area.

Given the central criterion for inclusion of personally attested current use (and no item lacking such authentication by at least one participant is included, however prominently or frequently listed elsewhere), the period, so to speak, chose itself. But it is in any case a significant one so far as local speech is concerned. Again I quote from the Introduction: ‘Many aspects of life in the earlier decades of that period have since changed radically or vanished … Gone or going is much of the expressive and often colourful language associated with these; it has become obsolete; and that fact has been foremost in the considerations which have led to the compilation of this record, since obsolescence tends to be followed quickly by oblivion’. Such change is, of course, inherent in the very nature of a living language; with dialect, however, it entails a continuing process of shrinkage and dilution of the purely dialectal vocabulary. Urgency, no less than authentication, is of the essence.

The relevant area lies to the north of the linguistically-mixed band running roughly from Antrim to Whitehead (a band which has clearly shifted and, in places at least, continues to shift, in a northerly direction); excluded are the larger urban districts (where speech is patently mixed, ranging from dialect to various levels of Standard English) and two rural regions. The two regions in question are the north-eastern part of the Glens of Antrim and that part of the county lying roughly to the west of a line running from Antrim town through Ahoghill to Rasharkin, but including the Dunloy/Tullaghans area to the south-west of Ballymoney. A personal check was carried out in three districts of the first and six of the second, using a long check-list of key pairs and groups of words. The list included, for example, abain/above, airm/arm, brust/burst, cannae/can’t, daenae/don’t, doon/down, fit/foot, frae/from, guid/good, hame/home, hoose/house, mair/ more, rin/run, wecht/weight, and while some districts in the more northerly part of the western region showed strong elements of Ulster-Scots and other dialectal speech, it was clear that these two regions could not be included. (A more detailed account and analysis of the findings are given in the aforementioned Introduction.) The districts included (to quote again) ‘have been selected to provide a comprehensive coverage of the relevant area which is truly representative in terms of authentic Ulster-Scots speech, geographical distribution and the absence, on the whole, of fundamental social change during the period’. They range from Drumdo (a few miles from the north coast) through townlands in the Ballymoney area (The Ganaby and Leaney), my own home district of Ballinaloob/Drumadarragh and adjacent townlands, Artnacrea (between Cloughmills and Ballymena), Mid-Antrim (The Broughshane area and Teenies/Buckna) to Carnearney and Kilbride in the south and a large area in East Antrim (including Loughmourne, Magheramorne, Raloo and Kilwaughter).

The informants were all born in the nineteen-thirties or (the majority) earlier. In addition to vetting the core material accumulated over the years (and still growing), their role has been (a) to check lists of items abstracted by myself from other sources, published and unpublished, and (b) to make their own contributions, either in the form of new material or of variations of material listed. Each informant’s contribution has, of course, to be crosschecked with all other informants to give a complete picture of incidence and distribution, and the draft record revised accordingly.

The first point to be made about sources consulted is that their overall contribution — in the form of items known to one or more of the participants but hitherto overlooked — represents a very small part of the book’s content; and in terms of the material illustrated earlier (under alloo and at), even less. Given the time already spent recording, this is scarcely surprising; rather more significant, perhaps, is the amount of material not known to us, considering that the earliest record consulted — Patterson’s Glossary — was published only fifty years before our own starting-point. (However, in the light of what has been said earlier about the lack of ‘placing’ in Patterson, this statement has to be a rather qualified one in his case.) The English Dialect Dictionary yielded quite a few items known to some of us; but it is noteworthy that many words reproduced from the Ballymena Observer of 1892 were unknown to Mid-Antrim informants born within forty years of that date. (This surely highlights the importance of checking for current use.) Of recently published lists, Rae McIntyre’s Some Handlin’ (for Ballyrashane, just over the border in County Derry) and the Montgomery family’s Barnish both provided several ‘reminders’ (and quite a few items unknown to any of us); while W O’Kane’s You Don’t Say?, a Tyrone publication, unsurprisingly provided very few. More fruitful sources of words new to myself but known to some informants were collections made by Edith Dempsey (Larne area) and Samuel Cross (Glynn: also East Antrim informant), while shorter lists from Jim Wright (Ballycarry) and Margaret McCurdy (Rocavan, near Broughshane) were also useful.

The personal contributions of informants, of paramount importance, have come by way of written lists and/or been elicited during conversations with individuals or small groups. The second method has been more fruitful, being usually centred on a particular topic (‘cold’, unfocused recalling is always a poor yielder). The heavy horse and his work, the local flora and fauna (using an illustrated guide), the scutch-mill, the moss, the hayfield, the weather: subjects such as these yielded a wealth of vernacular terms, expressions and sayings. Let us look at half-a-dozen items selected from each of three such yields (only the briefest of definitions being added here).

the heavy horse


a bone-growth causing lameness




a big, ungainly horse


debris brushed from a horse’s coat


a nervous horse


a hook attached to the end of the back-band

flora and fauna


the creeping buttercup


ivy-leaved toadflax


the sun spurge

blue felt

the fieldfare


the hairworm


the reed bunting

the moss


fibrous material found in peat


a poor, spongy peat


a small draining-channel


(rhymes how) a flow-bog


a small clamp of peats


a form of peat-cutting.

In each of these examples, many more items could be given. However, it will, I think be clear that only a systematic, detailed, topic-by-topic approach will produce such results.

Two more points in conclusion. So far I have said nothing of variant forms and variations in pronunciation; I thought it best to refer to these briefly in conjunction with my final remarks on presentation — ie, devising a reasonably consistent spelling system, with further guidance to pronunciation where necessary. Variant forms — with the possible exception of very local forms — must, of course, be recorded; but the extent to which account is taken of other than broad or general speech variations is a matter for the recorder. For my own part, I have prudently eschewed consideration of the elusive phonic subtleties beloved of the professional phonologist, covering broad categories only. The extent of my success in all this may be judged by the interested reader of the book.

James Fenton



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