Dialect Detective*

Robert J. Gregg

Readers of 'Franc's' column during the last month or two must have been struck by the keenness of the controversy over a few good old Ulster words such as whammel, whuttrick and stiaghy.

Nobody has been more delighted to see such enthusiasm for the niceties of our local forms of speech than the recently-formed Dialect Section of the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club. In this Section we have been collecting Ulster dialect words for nearly two years and in another few we hope to be able to publish a book such as has never been attempted before — an Ulster Dialect Dictionary.

What would such a dictionary contain? We aim to give in it the fullest possible list of all the Ulsterisms we can gather: that is to say, all the special local dialect words which are still to be found in our towns and countryside, but which do not exist in normal or (as some people prefer to call it) 'standard' English.

Is it really worth while going to a lot of bother to compile such a dictionary at all? Some folk may be dubious. One teacher was very doubtful about the whole business when he saw our first list of questions asking for information about local words. He protested that he had already enough trouble getting his pupils to master 'proper' English and he had no wish to encourage the use or study of dialect in any way.

But surely it is interesting to find that in Ulster we use about 20 or 30 different words for 'earwig'? First there's eariwig (used very widely), then dozens of variations of the word gellick, lovely words like gullion-eel, geelybug, gullyglean, deeal, deelog and many others.

The kitchen sink is, of course, generally known as the jaw-box or occasionally jaw-tub, but jaw here has nothing to do with any friendly gossip that may take place over the washing-up. It comes from an old Scandinavian word meaning 'to pour out a liquid'. In some parts of Ulster they still talk about a wee jaw of water or buttermilk. Most Ulster folk pronounce trough to rhyme with ough (with a good throaty gh) and not to rhyme with cough, as it does in 'proper' English. There is a clear division between the people who say 'I'm going "up" to Belfast' and those who say 'I'm going "down" to Belfast', and the same for going 'up' to Dublin and going 'down' to Dublin. It seems to depend on where you start from!

It seems to me then that the attitude of this teacher who had no interest in our inquiries is a mistaken one. We have really no reason to be ashamed of genuine Ulster dialect speech, which any fair observer would admit to be rich, varied, and, above all, expressive. Try to translate into ordinary English phrases like He got a quare gunk or She's a desperate cowlrife crater or Ye're quare an' saft or It wud skunner a pig.

Queen Anne and Queen Elizabeth I probably pronounced tea as tay and Queen Anne would certainly have referred to her servants as sarvants and to the clergy as clargy. So our dialects have an honourable ancestry, going back to Elizabethan English and the Lowland Scots of the Stuart period.

Compiling a dialect dictionary on the lines described is a heavy task and naturally enough the success of the whole project will depend on the amount of co-operation which is forthcoming from the people who really know or who have accurately observed the many hundreds of dialect words peculiar to different parts of Ulster.

So, what about it, all you experts who have written to 'Franc', and all you others who so far have remained silent? Could we encourage you to take up a new hobby — word-collecting?

Get a few sheets of paper and a pencil and start writing down a list of all the real old Ulster words you can remember (with their meaning of course!). As soon as you have a good collection send them on to me so that I can hand them over to the editors. Then when the Dictionary appears you will be proud to know that you have made your contribution to its success.

* Originally published in Ireland's Saturday Night, 13 June 1953.