Book Review: Ulster-Scots Grammar


Liz Nevin, Dumfries and Galloway

Philip Robinson, Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language, Ullans Press, ISBN 0-953035 01-8, 229 pp., £10.50.

The author states: “The purpose of this book is not to describe the last remnants of a fast-disappearing tongue, but to attempt some sort of retrospective reconstruction which is based on both the literary record and the modern spoken forms.” The comprehensiveness of this stated aim is welcome, and what emerges is a scholarly, academic book which is not dry and dusty as many lay folk might expect a grammar book to be, but a book which should appeal to anyone interested in the language and grammar of Ulster-Scots. Philip Robinson peppers his book with such lovely anecdotes as the “elderly friend who rarely used more than half a dozen words in ‘conversation’,” to illustrate how a word like “ay” can mean a wheen o things, depending on “pronunciation, intonation, facial expression and emphasis.” Clearly, this is much more than a grammar book recording objective facts.

The book is meticulously researched and classified grammatical entries are thoroughly examined. As the writer points out, a language is made up of more than lexical items and this text will undoubtedly take its rightful place as the standard reference book for scholars of Ulster-Scots.

Particular sections of the book additional to grammatical entries provide further detail. For example, the difficulties of translating transactional prose are concisely dealt with in the concluding section. The tendency to litter formal English with prepositions and conjunctions is not paralleled in written Ulster-Scots. For many people this results in a tone and style of writing which can seem “informal and colloquial, and can appear to treat scientific or serious subjects in an undignified way.” The same situation arises in the writing of Scots functional prose. Indeed, some folk insist it cannot be done! (Provoking debate anent language issues is a welcome and unexpected bonus of any grammar book.)

An important function of a book such as this is recognised by the author when he refers to modern spelling systems. That Ulster-Scots has been a predominantly spoken language means that orthography has had scant attention and we have the sense that this book, alongside James Fenton’s Hamely Tongue will influence future writers of the Ulster-Scots. The book, then, provides more than a grammar system. There is the sense of a written language in the making. A need certainly now exists for a dictionary of English into Ulster-Scots to assist writers as well as learners of the language. While the excellent English-Scots dictionaries are valuable given the strong similarities between Scots and Ulster-Scots, there are enough variations to make it important to provide a discrete version.

Teachers may welcome a classroom-friendly version of this scholarly work. For speakers of the language, especially the young, it is an enormous confidence booster to discover that your oft-stigmatised language has a long pedigree and a well-documented set of rules. Also, if an education system really cares about the home language of its pupils, then such a book should find its way into the libraries of teacher-training colleges.



The Ulster-Scots Academy has been an integral part of the Ulster-Scots Language Society since 1993. The name "Ulster-Scots Academy" is registered to the USLS with the Intellectual Property Office.

Ulster Scots Academy


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.



This site is being developed on a purely voluntary basis by the Ulster-Scots Language Society at no cost to the taxpayer. 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!

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!

(Friends of the Ulster-Scots Academy group)