Hoo’s Things, Bilfawst?

Author: John McIntyre

Date: 1998

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 6 Simmer 1998


John McIntyre

“I’ve lived in Belfast all my life and I have never heard anyone speak Ulster-Scots. I don’t think it has any relevance to Belfast people.”

So said a Belfast City Councillor to three members of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council at a meeting in February 1998. He may have voiced what is the common perception of most people if they think about the issue at all. For many people, both native and outsider, Belfast is just another English-speaking city sharing an international language. It begs obvious questions. Is the Ulster-Scots language relevant to Belfast, and if so, how is it relevant?

“Tha mair ye hinnae heerd ocht ava o tha Ulster-Scotch leid taakit afore tha noo, that disnae faa oot tha guidfowks o Bilfawst maunnae tak tent o it.”

(“Although you haven’t heard anything at all about the Ulster-Scots language before, it doesn’t follow that Belfast people must ignore it.”)

Such might be an Ulster-Scots speaker’s answer to the opening quote. But it is also true that everyday Belfast speech is relevant to the Ulster-Scots language.

There is no doubt that much of contemporary Belfast speech shows a heavy Ulster-Scots influence in vocabulary, grammar and syntax. This influence is derived from the large numbers of Ulster-Scots speakers, mainly from Down and Antrim, who settled in Belfast in the 19th and early 20th century. They settled for the most part in north, east and parts of west Belfast. Their culture and traditions are an important part of the city’s heritage and a large proportion of the city’s population are of Ulster-Scots descent. Benn’s History of Belfast refers specifically to the importance of the Ulster-Scots tradition in the development of Belfast especially in the north of the city where the adjacent parishes of Shankill and Carnmoney were still Ulster-Scots speaking right until the end of the 19th century. People from the predominantly English-speaking areas of Armagh, Fermanagh, west Down and south Tyrone travelled along the Lagan Valley to settle in the south of the city.

The number of distinctive Ulster-Scots words in everyday use in Belfast runs to several hundred, from common ones like scallion, weans, mebbe, jouk, keek, skelf, duncher, polis, Wennsday, crack and farl (as in soda farl), to the less common words like thole, thran, wheeker, oxter, neb, crib, footer, scunner, foundert, fornenst, foreby, childer, sheugh, jaw box, stoor, wheen, coof, redd (as in redd up), clart and skitter.

Ay, for example, is almost always used in preference to the English “yes”.

Most of the Ulster-Scots pronouns are still in use — and can be found in Belfast “dialect” writings, ie A or Ah (“I”, first person singular), ye (“you”, second person singular), yous, yiz and yous ’uns (“you”, second person plural) and thaimuns (“they”, third person plural), as well as the three reflexive pronouns worsels, yersels and thairsels.

The strongest Ulster-Scots influence on the city’s speech is on grammar and syntax. It is a feature of language that vocabulary will change more quickly than the underlying grammar and syntax. Many of the grammatical features described in Philip Robinson’s Ulster-Scots grammar book are still present in Belfast’s spoken English, four to five generations after the loss of a large part of the vocabulary. One example is the hae tag. It is used as an interjection at the end of sentences, eg Pick up thon piece of paper, hae and also when the auxiliary verb is omitted in a sentence, eg:

Ye for the match, hae? (Are you going to the match?)

Ye done wi thon hammer, hae? (Have you finished with that hammer?)

Ye seen my football boots, hae? (Did you see my football boots?)

Ye got the milk from the shop, hae? (Did you get the milk from the shop?)

The Ulster-Scots influence is evident in word order in, for example, putting the indicated object at the start of the sentence, eg:

See thon car, our Jim crashed into it.

See that coat, m’ ma’s for buying it.

The Ulster-Scots preference for making nouns out of verbs is strong in Belfast speech, eg:

She’s away for the shopping — She has gone shopping.

He’s very fond of the running — He likes to run.

A give ma bake a wash — I washed my face.

The use of the Scots infinitive, which prefixes the verb with for to or for til, rather than the English “to”, is often preferred, eg A’m waiting on ye for til wash the dishes (I’m waiting for you to wash the dishes) or She’s cum owre for to see the video (She has come over to see the video).

The use of “why” in Belfast is often replaced by the Ulster-Scots equivalents of whit for and hoo cum (how come), eg

Whit for wud A go there? (Why would I go there?)

Whit wud A go there for? (The whit for compound can be split with the sentence).

How cum A wus’n picked for the team?

Some of the Ulster-Scots secondary auxiliary verbs are often used in preference to their English equivalents such as wull (will), wud (would), shud (should) and cud (could). The English auxiliary verb ought is not used in Ulster-Scots and this is reflected in its infrequent use in Belfast speech. The preferred idiom of “owe it to”, which is derived from Ulster-Scots, is more often used, eg I owe it til him to let him use the car (I ought to let him use the car).

The English auxiliary verb “may”, denoting permission or possibility, is not used in Ulster-Scots. The Ulster-Scots use can or cud to denote permission, eg: Please Sir, can (cud) A leave the room? This usage is common in Belfast speech. In denoting possibility, a phrase such as “he may run” is more likely to be expressed as he'll mebbe run, he cud run or he might run, which is consistent with Ulster-Scots usage. However, “may” is used in a peculiarly Ulster-Scots way in Belfast speech: to mean “had better”, eg A may pit ma coat on for its gonna rain.

The Ulster-Scots use of a question sometimes in the negative form to indicate politeness is often heard in Belfast as in Ye cudnae (wud’n) ha the time on ye? Clearly in Standard English, politeness would be indicated by the use of please.

In pronunciation, the Ulster-Scots sounds are evident in words such as fluir (floor), duir (door), tay (tea), flooer (flower), mebbe (maybe), hoor (hour), coorse (course or coarse), wi (with), aff (off), futba (football), lenth (length), strenth (strength), cannle (candle), tummle (tumble), tummler (tumbler), fing’r (finger), hung’r (hunger), coortin (courting), and many others.

The Ulster-Scots influence is seen not only in the Scots words used but also in the English words which are avoided by many people. English and Ulster-Scots, as sibling languages with a common root in 7th century Saxon dialects, share words common to both. However, there are also many words which are not shared. Many English words are not used in Ulster-Scots. The same words are not used by many Belfast people although they are known to them from school or reading. For example, “perhaps” is a word that is not used in Ulster-Scots, and it is noticeable that Belfast people are more likely to use mebbe (maybe) in conversation rather than perhaps. The use of perhaps can sometimes sound pretentious or posh. The use of quite to indicate agreement or really to indicate both agreement and interest or mild surprise is a feature of English speech. It is seldom used by Belfast people and would be perceived by many as being particularly English or pretentious-sounding. Belfast folk are more likely to use the Ulster-Scots A cum up tae or A went up til in preference to the Standard English “I approached”.

A small number of Ulster-Scots placenames still survive, despite the work of the Irish Ordnance Survey in the 1830s. Due to prejudice and hostility towards Ulster-Scots, the surveyors omitted many Ulster-Scots placenames, which have now been lost, preferring to use English or Anglicised versions of Irish place-names. Even up to the 1960s, officialdom refused to use existing Ulster-Scots placenames when signposting roads. They preferred to use new names which were English or Anglicised Irish names, in north Belfast, the Butthermilk Loanie disappeared in the early 1960s when the road was signposted with an Anglicised Irish name. In east Belfast, Gilnahirk Road is the preferred official name used to replace the old name Stye Brae. Most of the old Ulster-Scots place names have been lost in Belfast, although a small number are still retained in local memory.

There is a rich array of idioms of Ulster-Scots origin still in daily use. The Ulster-Scots word Dear for God gives rise to phrases such as Dear love ye, Dear me and Dear knows. Other idioms include How’s things? and Whit aboot ye? (How are you?), Sure luk at the polis (Take, for example, the police), ownin til (according to), and scores of others.

Two of the most important “rules” of Ulster-Scots grammar are used in everyday Belfast speech: the first of these is the use of a verb form ending in -s, when the subject is plural, eg The streets is (rather than “are”) hivin wi people. This includes almost all verbs, such as in:

Yer man an me is — (not “are”)

Him an me haes — (not “have”)

Him an me eats everything — (not “eat”)

Him an me wus — (not “were”), etc.

The second “rule” is that Ulster-Scots tend to move the verb towards the end of the sentence. This is done in a whole host of different ways, but one of them is the “tag” (eg, — so he does), added after a statement:

aits everthing, so he does

late agane, so he was

give ye a sore head, so it wud

foundert, so I am (pronounced [so-ee-yam]), etc.

This is not a comprehensive coverage of the subject. It only scratches the surface, but a book or thesis is waiting to be written on this whole area. The Ulster-Scots influence on contemporary Belfast speech is still remarkably strong, despite its exclusion from both education and the media, and the extent to which it is stigmatised. Most people hear bits of Ulster-Scots spoken every day but fail to recognise it. They are more likely to hear it and dismiss it as slang or bad English. They are unaware that what they are hearing are Scots words with a long pedigree going back hundreds of years. This is the influence in Belfast of a language that has its own distinct literature going back to before the 14th century, a language that became the language of government in Scotland from the 11th century up until 1700 and had one of the best-developed literary traditions in Europe.

Belfast is not just another English-speaking city. Now that Scots/Ulster-Scots is recognised alongside Gaelic as a “traditional, regional language of Europe”, and now that Ulster-Scots is also recognised by both the Irish and British governments as part of the cultural wealth of the island, Belfast should be proud of its own Ulster-Scots linguistic heritage. This heritage can give us access to a rich literature and enrich our city’s identity. As a Belfast man with some connections to the rural, Ulster-Scots speaking community, I am sure I’m not alone in this aspiration for the “Citie o Bilfawst”.



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