A Threap in tha Semmlie

Author: Anne Smyth

Date: 2001

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 8 Hairst 2001

Anne Smyth


The uproar about employing an Ulster-Scots transcriber for the Assembly, while a similar exercise to provide a corresponding one for Irish has proceeded without comment, smacks of gross hypocrisy. No one seriously contests the impossibility of finding monoglot Ulster-Scots speakers and monoglot Irish speakers in Northern Ireland. English “will do nicely, thank you”, if all we are trying to do is communicate meaning. However, the language question goes much much deeper than that.

Language is a potent means by which disparate elements of society may be moulded into a unified whole. A common language creates a sense of community and of singleness of purpose. The catch-phrase “we talk the same language” is redolent with a spirit of “hail fellow, well-met” buddy-buddiness. For those intent on social engineering and the imposition of their own political credo, language is a heaven-sent tool. Thus we see in modern Israel a state in which people have settled from practically every country on earth, bringing their native languages with them, overlaid in the case of central Europeans with Yiddish. Yet in a generation we see Hebrew taking over as the common language, even for ordering takeaway pizzas!

Proponents of Ulster-Scots now find themselves embroiled in a sterile debate on whether it is a dialect or a language. Most academic linguists agree that a language is only a dialect that has gained the upper hand politically. For instance, what was originally the dialect of the south of England is now looked upon as Standard English. Currently in Northern Ireland this question only has relevance to whether the government should have signed up to the European Charter on Lesser-Used Languages. However, in pursuit of this chimera, an Anglophile Scotsman is now being wheeled in as a pawn in the political game of rubbishing Ulster-Scots, its formal recognition in the Assembly, and indeed its status as a language. An example was his repeated statement on the BBC’s “Hearts and Minds” debate on the Assembly post that the Scottish National Dictionary did not claim Scots as a language. In fact, the one-page Preface alone calls it a language no less than six times!

Those writing in Ulster-Scots are accused of “inventing a language”. Have they never heard of “Radio Telefis Eireann”? Yes, of course there are concepts in modern language that are unknown to traditional Ulster-Scots! It is one of the marks of a living language that it develops nuances and extensions of meaning to accommodate new modes of life. There is a considerable body of Ulster-Scots literature in the libraries and other repositories of our province that testifies to the existence of the historical language. This material remains largely unread. The average monoglot English speaker would not presume to comment on the authenticity of Irish; yet everyone seems to feel himself qualified to pontificate on Ulster-Scots! Can we please cut out the hypocrisy and accept pluralist linguistic traditions as a reflection of a pluralist society?



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.

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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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