The Hamely Tongue

Author: Anne Smyth

Date: 1996

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 4 Spring 1996

A Personal Record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim

Several factors have in the past prevented the Ulster-Scots from taking a justifiable pride in their language and culture. Considering it was settlers from Ulster that gave Scotland her very name, attempts to portray the Scots element in the north-east corner of the island of Ireland as some kind of “Johnny-come-lately” offshoot of English imperialism at the time of the Plantation betray a total ignorance of history. There was actually a period during the history of these islands when the whole island of Ireland was viewed as one of the western isles of Scotland. Those academics and others who underplay the importance of the Scots input in Ulster quite simply fly in the face of the facts.

Similarly, there is a prevailing notion purveyed by some who like to think they know about language and history that Ulster-Scots is just “English talked funny”. The vocabulary of Lowland Scots, and therefore ultimately of Ulster-Scots, is in fact largely the English that many centuries ago ceased to be current in England, so to that extent they are correct. However, in the unlikely event of a visit from Chaucer in this closing decade of the twentieth century, it is extremely doubtful that his conversation would be immediately understood.

The educational barriers to Ulster-Scots speech have largely been broken down. Modern obstacles to acceptance of the language are much more subtle. There is a heavy concentration of government funding on the study of Irish. There is even an argument which, boiled down, implies that the Ulster-Scots cannot be viewed as a distinct people because their community is subject to outside influence, which of course is utter twaddle. And, should Ulster-Scots survive all these proofs of its non-existence, it may then be analysed by “specialists” who do not come from the Ulster-Scots community and have no emotional ties to its language.

This is why it is such a delight to welcome Jim Fenton’s book: by inference, his work is a reassertion of the right of the Ulster-Scots community to interpret their own culture for themselves. His roots are deep in the Ulster-Scots community, and his love for the language and people glows from every page. Mr Fenton is to be congratulated on the masterly result of all his years of dedicated effort. To obtain his material, Jim Fenton painstakingly noted examples of the speech of his “ain folk”, “far-oot freens”, and those with whom he was “acquent”, together with the districts from which they came. He is obviously a man with a mission: he feels the urgency of recording the “expressive and often colourful language” associated with the old methods of agriculture and rural crafts that are now dying out. Even on the wider front, he has concluded that the southern boundary of Ulster-Scots mapped out by Gregg in 1964 has in places shifted northwards. It is to be hoped that if a sneaking feeling that Ulster-Scots is not quite “respectable” has been responsible for a conscious anglicisation of speech, the publication of Mr Fenton’s work will renew a pride in the linguistic heritage and encourage a revival of its use.

The book is not strictly a dictionary: it is really a celebration of the language. Dictionaries that strictly follow typical dictionary conventions tend to straight-jacket dialect. It is not that Ulster-Scots does not have a distinctive vocabulary, for it has. But it takes the generous use of whole phrases direct from heard speech to give the true flavour of the dialect, and an idea of the intonation of the voice. Anyone who is at all familiar with the sound of Ulster-Scots can immediately hear the dialect with the “mind’s ear” as the book is read. Despite the stereotype of the Ulster-Scots as a dour, uncommunicative individual, the creature in its natural habitat is never short of a witty rejoinder, and this is certainly reflected in the book’s content. Consultation of, say, the Concise Oxford Dictionary is unlikely to produce even a smile, never mind a laugh, but Mr Fenton’s book manages to do both.

The accuracy of his text bears testimony to Mr Fenton’s meticulous care in proof-reading. In addition to a wealth of examples, and an indication of geographical spread, he also gives information on the origins of many of the words. He has drawn on existing sources to provide these etymologies, and generally he has handled the material with care and understanding. There will always be the borderline ones that are debatable, but they are few.

It would be inadvisable for anyone to purchase this book for his or her maiden aunt, for as Mr Fenton himself says, dialect is “earthy”. However, only the most straight-laced should find it offensive.

In Part Two of the book, which contains lists of Ulster-Scots pronunciations, together with words not used in Ulster-Scots and the local equivalents of proper names, I notice he includes “sin-in-la” as the pronunciation for son-in-law. Admittedly, my knowledge of dialect speech is more comprehensive in regard to Lowland Scots and mid-Ulster English, but guid-son is current, particularly in Ayrshire, for this item, and it has been recorded for the Laggan area, although some years ago. It would be interesting to know if it has survived anywhere in the Ulster-Scots speaking area.

Mr Fenton has done a wonderful job. The only point on which serious issue could be taken with him is not on the content of the book, but on its layout. It really could have been easier on the eye. This stricture, however, does not apply to the cover, which is most attractive.

It was Mr Fenton’s stated intention to provide a record of the whole of Ulster-Scots speech. This is a tall order for one person, and perhaps rather beyond even someone of Mr Fenton’s undoubted capabilities. There are items that have not been included, but this should not be taken as a serious criticism. Even the great 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary is subject to continuing revision, for the language is developing and changing all the time. Otherwise it would not be a living language.

Mr Fenton’s book is a trail-blazing enterprise; all works of this nature are subject to revision and addition. The very fact of its publication will probably stimulate a response in the Ulster-Scots community and bring to the surface more material that could be included. It is to be hoped that there will be subsequent editions, and that this very real achievement for Mr Fenton and the Ulster-Scots Academic Press will be built upon by those who share his love for “The Hamely Tongue”.

Anne Smyth


In the London Review of Books last year, an article appeared by the poet Tom Paulin on Ulster-Scots in the context of a television programme he was making. This triggered a series of letters in the LRB correspondence column, and one particular letter was printed on the 14th December 1995 — in Ulster Scots — by James Fenton, author of The Hamely Tongue (and the subject of some of Tom Paulin’s initial comments). With Jim Fenton’s permission we re-publish his letter in full below as it may well be the first piece of modern Ulster-Scots prose to appear in any national journal this generation:

To the Editor of the London Review of Books: 16.11.95

Dear Sir

Wae a’ the room ye hae gien tae oor owl tongue — an we’re saerious gled o it — A wunther if a boady micht luck tae gie it a wee airin an at the sametim mak adae at stretchtin oot twarthy metthers?

In thon ither scrape A writ ye (Letthers, 5 Uptober) — for the geg, maistly — A wus chakkin Tam Palyin (as iz yins wud ca him) for gan wrang wae burd names. Noo Tam’s harly the soart tae tak snool, but oanyway. Whut happent wuz this: bak at ooris, afore leein for Shillinavogy Moss (tae tak aboot peats — aboot breeshtin, stankin an braidfittin, aboot cassles, fittins an rickles) we gaen through a hale trevalley o burds, baith for Antrim (lake felt, stanechakker an wee blakheid — the yins A went ower agane in the moss) an frae a’ ower, an Tam jaist didnae sinther them richt. (Mine ye, it wuz a quare day for makkin mistaks: baith cowl an drachy — mair rid nebs nor midges — an iz plowterin lake fegogged dreechles in grun that wuz sapplin an nixt tae a gullion eftther the plump. A mine Tam — weerin licht claes, forbye — stannin stairvin at the binkheid an aply ettlin tae get bak tae the Poors, A jalooze. An nae wunther! — sure wuzn’t he jaist eftther stravaigin an crakkin frae the clouds o the moarnin?)

The McDonal boady frae Bristol (or neardher hame) wuz aksin wha should richtly be at the Ulster-Scots. Weel, ye sa whut Philip Roabysin wuz allooin aboot yins ‘failin tae penytrate’ Orr’s lenguage — an that’s the hale thing, ye see. It’s nae guid ava jaist cloddin a gopin o the owl words inty a pome, lake pittin currans in fadge — whather it’s Tam’s fremd evenin or clabbery market, or Michel Langley’s weefla lettin a guldher at his da. A boady micht think the lake o them could aiblins gie iz a hale pome or twa in the day’s Ulster-Scots; but A wunther. It’s a wile peety nether o them had it for their furst wie o takkin (an a peety, tae, Mossbawn wuznae a weethin neardher Buckna). For it haes enuch wee cleeks an thras tae sen even the brichtest ootsider heelsmegairy; nae metther hoo able, he micht weel mak a sore han o it.

Yours aye (Jim Fenton)



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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.


The Ulster-Scots Academy is currently working on the digitisation of Dr Philip Robinson's seminal Ulster-Scots Grammar and the English/Ulster-Scots part (with circa 10,000 entries) of a two-way historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots. These projects are planned to be completed and available on the site in 2016.



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This site is being developed by the Ulster-Scots Language Society (Charity No. XN89678) without external financial assistance. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

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