The Orthography of Ulster-Scots

II. Orthography

G. Brendan Adams

The existing printed glossaries of Ulster words often show a great variety of spelling for one and the same word, and this was true to an even greater extent of the lists of words sent in to us.(32) One object of this Dictionary has therefore been to establish some standard of orthography. Apart from variations in local pronunciation this is rendered somewhat difficult both by the varied origins of the words and by the notorious inconsistency of English spelling conventions. It might be thought that the Scottish origin of many forms would justify the use of spellings familiar in the literary use of Scots, but Scottish spelling conventions are no more consistent than those of standard literary English and are sometimes at variance with them, so that to follow them too strictly would only add to the confusion. The same is even more true of loanwords from Irish, for although the Gaelic system of orthography is basically superior to and more consistent than the English, especially for representing fine distinctions of sound which English lacks but which have largely been carried over into the Ulster dialects, it is so much at variance with the English system in many ways that to retain it would complicate even more our dialect orthography.

At first sight it might seem that some simplified system of spelling based on the most common English values of the letters and letter groups might be chosen and applied systematically to the whole dialect vocabulary. This was done by Sir James Wilson in his grammars of the dialects of Perthshire and Ayrshire in which he used an orthography not very different from the Nu Speling proposed some years ago as a system of spelling reform for English.(33) Our use of the international phonetic alphabet, however, for recording exactly local pronunciations wherever possible makes a very strict system of orthography for ordinary purposes less necessary, and there are some objections to adopting spellings which would disguise too much the connection between dialect and general vocabulary where such a connection exists. We are not after all seeking to create a new language which will look as different as possible from standard English just for the sake of doing so, but rather to provide a consistent means of representing local speech when the occasion to do so arises and of giving local words a written form which will allow them to pass easily into general use if they can usefully add to the store of English vocabulary as a whole.

The problem of devising a satisfactory orthography for any dialect of English is largely bound up with that of devising a satisfactory reform of English spelling. No ordinary orthography can hope to represent the minutiae of every type of local pronunciation; that belongs to the domain of a strictly applied phonetic alphabet. Neither can a reformed spelling of the standard language allow for the variations of every local dialect, but whatever is necessary to represent the main features common to a group of dialects on which a well-defined regional modified standard of pronunciation rests, is an indication of what it is essential to retain or introduce in any system of reformed standard orthography which may in future be devised for English. Where general words have special dialect senses and therefore appear in this Dictionary we have not attempted to reform the spelling unless the local pronunciation requires it. We have, however, indicated in this section some reforms which the nature of our task has prompted us to suggest, and as recorders of a regional form of speech — including many examples of a regional modified standard of pronunciation as well as of pure dialect — we hope that this Dictionary may serve as a regional contribution to the problem of English spelling reform, as well as a storehouse of local dialect material.


There are some shades of pronunciation which cannot conveniently be represented in an orthography for ordinary purposes.

(1) We see no reason for distinguishing certain Ulster consonants where they differ consistently in quality from the corresponding sounds in other forms of English, e.g. the 'clear' sound of l after, as well as before, vowels; the more palatalized sound of SH, CH, J, without the lip-rounding of standard southern English; the NSH sound of NCH (not NTSH as commonly in England); the voiceless quality of WH distinguishing it from W; and the full sound of R where it has dropped out of English speech. (On the other hand, the rolled sound of R before a consonant in some Ulster dialects could be distinguished from the fricative sound in others by inserting a vowel after the R or doubling it).

(2) We do not think it necessary to distinguish the single sound of NG (as in singer) from its double sound (as in finger) by writing NGG for the latter. It so happens that those dialects which substitute the single for the double sound before and following L or R also reduce ND to NN and MB to MM in the same position, so that the use of the latter in any dialect text may be taken as implying the single sound of NG in the same dialect. For dictionary purposes of course the exact sound is here recorded in phonetic script as well.

(3) There is no convenient way of indicating the various articulations of P, T, K between vowels in different parts of Ulster. The long voiceless sound of the west could be indicated by doubling these consonants where they are normally single, implying also the long sound where they are written double according to the ordinary spelling rules (see below); the partly voiced sound of the Belfast region and other parts of east Ulster could be indicated by writing PB, TD, CG, or even simply B, D, G; and the glottalized sound of parts of the north [will be indicated] by an apostrophe before the consonant or the replacement of T by ' in those districts where this occurs. These, however, are localisms of which no account need be taken when considering Ulster dialects together as a regional form of language for which a standard form of orthography has to be devised, and no notice is taken of them in the spelling adopted in this dictionary.

(4) The case of the dental pronunciation of the alveolar consonants T, D, and sometimes N and L is, however, rather different and more complicated:

(a) In the representation of southern Irish dialects it is quite feasible to write TH or T for both T and voiceless TH and D or DH for both D and voiced TH, because the alveolar stops [t, d] and interdental fricatives [θ, ð] fall together as interdental stops [T, D]. In Ulster not only are the original sounds kept apart but in certain cases the interdental stops exist as well, so that there are three sets of sounds and we are faced with the problem of a shortage of convenient spellings for so many sounds.

(b) In ordinary English spelling TH represents both a voiceless [θ] and a voiced [ð] sound. The Ulster dialects agree with the standard language in the distribution of the two sounds except that TH is voiceless in with and remains voiceless, contrary to standard usage in a few nouns when the plural -s is added. Consequently we write TH for both, following the ordinary spelling rule and notwithstanding the example of Wilson's orthography for the Scottish dialects and of Nu Speling, in both of which TH is restricted to the voiceless sound and DH used for the voiced.

(c) This leaves DH free to represent the voiced interdental stop when necessary. For types of Ulster pronunciation in which D has always the ordinary English sound it is not needed; for types in which D is always interdental it is also not needed, though DH might be substituted for D to indicate this type of speech provided it is done in every case. The proper function of DH, and the only one recognised in this dictionary, is to distinguish the two stops D [d] and DH [D] where both are used, as is widely the case in Ulster dialects, DH generally occurring when R follows and sometimes in loanwords from Irish in other positions, while D is used in other cases.

(d) Two values of T likewise exist, under similar conditions, but as the spelling TH is required to make the ordinary distinction between T and the two TH sounds described above, there is no way of distinguishing these unless we resort to TTH for the interdental stop. While this is permissible when the consonant is doubled between vowels, it is perhaps liable to be misinterpreted as meaning [tθ] rather than [T], and in any case is a clumsy spelling initially and after another consonant, so we have preferred in almost all cases to leave the distinction unmarked and simply write T. Similarly no special means has been adopted of writing interdental N or L (though analogy suggests NH and LH). In the orthographical representation of Ulster dialect for ordinary purposes the presence of spellings with DH, according to the above rule, must be taken as implying that the related sounds are of the same type when occurring in similar phonetic contexts.

(e) The above may be summarised as follows:—

T= [t]T= [T]TH= [θ]
D= [d]DH= [D]TH= [ð]

(5) Palatalized K, G, T, D, N, L, which occur partly by sound-change in English words and partly by survival from Irish, can most easily be represented initially before any vowel and medially before a long vowel by KY, GY, TY, DY, NY, LY; medially before a short back vowel, however, I might be used instead of Y on the model of English words ending in -ION, -IAN, -IAL, and where the following vowel can be represented by EW, EU or 'long' (diphthongal) U, the Y might be omitted and the ordinary English spelling convention followed. It is, however, advisable to write TY, DY, where the palatal nature of these sounds has to be emphasized, as we have not thought it necessary, before U/EU/EW, to replace T by CH and D by J, though this is the common pronunciation in most parts of Ulster; on the other hand, the more localised change of T to K (i.e. KY) and of D to G (i.e. GY) in such cases is recorded, as giving rise to distinctive dialect word-forms. Neither have we thought it necessary to write NY, LY in place of every N or L before U/EU/EW or every NI or LI plus unstressed A or O, in order to emphasize the very palatal quality which many speakers give these sounds rather than pronounce them as ordinary N or L plus Y. When these palatal sounds occur finally we have had to leave them undifferentiated from ordinary K, G, T, D, N, L, as it is not feasible to distinguish them either by writing Y after them, which would normally be read as another syllable, or by writing I before them as in Irish, as this would cut across our ordinary spelling conventions and produce unusual or ambiguous vowel groups before the final consonant. The pronunciation given in phonetic script must be used to interpret the ordinary spelling in such cases, but it may be noted that final K and G after A, E, I, are more commonly palatalized in south than in north Ulster.

(6) For the voiceless open velar sound [x] the problem is to decide between CH as in loch and GH as in lough. This sound occurs partly in loanwords from Irish which have CH in the original spelling (the Gaelic GH being a different sound which rarely if ever survives in loanwords), and partly in the Scots forms of English words where CH is more commonly written than the GH of standard English spelling because in English the sound has either become F or silent. On the other hand, from the time when the English GH was still pronounced in this manner, the tradition has arisen of using GH for this sound in Irish place-names and personal names, despite the proper Irish spelling and the subsequent English loss of GH. The objection to using CH is that it clashes with ordinary English CH [tʃ], and the spelling of too many words with the latter sound would have to be changed from CH to TCH to avoid confusion. Against this the use of GH is open to the objection that many words with GH have their ordinary English pronunciation and have not preserved the Scots sound in many parts of Ulster, so that the consistent use of GH for [x] would mean changing the spelling of ordinary words where the GH has become silent. In the case of the group IGH we might set a good example in spelling reform by writing myht, ryht, nyht, knyht, playwryht, reserving the present spelling of these words for the dialect pronunciation in which the old GH is preserved, but other GH words might not be so easily dealt with, while as it happens this particular group of words is better written with AGH to indicate the lower vowel which accompanies the GH in the dialects which preserve it, so that no confusion with the normal form arises in any case. This last point provides the clue to our decision to adopt GH in preference to CH, and also in preference to the KH of Wilson's Scottish dialect orthography and of Nu Speling, which, though unambiguous, has not the traditional connection with this sound which GH has acquired in Ulster. It so happens that in ordinary English spelling GH is always preceded by I or U either as the sole vowel of the syllable or as the second part of one of the digraphs AI, EI, AU, OU. As the sole vowel of the syllable U alone occurs only in the proper names Hugh, Pugh, so that short U can be used before GH = [x] where necessary without much risk of ambiguity. For the rest the GH sound only occurs after vowels which can be written with A, O, E, or some digraph other than those occurring in normal English spelling, so that GH can be used with the convention that it follows the standard English rule after I, EI, AI, AU, OU, but represents the Ulster dialect sound after all other vowels. The word lough, however, in which an Irish pronunciation is already associated with an English spelling, is perhaps too well established to be changed to logh. Though retaining GH on account of its widespread present use in Ulster we think there is a good case for writing this sound with KH in any general reform of spelling.

(7) The bilabial broad F of some loanwords from Irish may conveniently be written FW before vowels. In most cases where the use of such words becomes widespread they acquire the ordinary English labio-dental F or labio-velar WH and are so written, but we have found it convenient to use FW in a few cases where a word was noted only in a district where the original sound survives or as an orthographical compromise where some speakers use F and others WH.

(8) We write the silent initial consonant in words beginning with GN, KN, WR, where they are connected with standard forms beginning with these groups, even where other changes in the spelling are made. We retain the ambiguous use of S as either [s] or [z] only in [noun] plural and verbal endings or where the dialect word does not otherwise deviate in form from the standard spelling, but where there is any other change in the word S is replaced by SS (sometimes -CE) or Z, as the case may be. We follow the ordinary spelling conventions in writing J, G, or DG for the J sound, extending the use of J, however, at the beginning of a syllable wherever necessary or possible; also in writing C or S for the S sound except where a dialect back vowel in place of a standard front vowel makes the use of C impossible; also generally in writing the K sound with K (before front vowels and finally) or C (before back vowels and consonants) or Q (before consonantal or silent U) or X for KS (where the S is not a suffix), but K is retained even before a back vowel in some cases of dialect vowel change to indicate a connection with standard forms (for example, kaay because of Scots kye and literary kine). Dialect change from a back to a front vowel makes it necessary to change C to K, and palatalization before A changes C to KY.

(9) We retain the usual English spelling convention of doubling consonants after short stressed vowels when another syllable is added (also finally in the case of CK, FF, LL, TCH), and this is extended to English words which form exceptions to the rule in those cases where the Ulster pronunciation makes some other change in the spelling necessary and to loanwords from Irish (even though this rule does not apply in the original spelling). We also make use of doubled consonants not only medially, but also finally to indicate in certain cases that the stress falls on a different syllable from standard English, also to help out the writing of the vowel sounds where a digraph normally used for a long vowel has to represent a short sound, or where a single vowel letter has to represent a different short sound from that normally implied by the spelling. In the case of finals such as CK and LL, which are always doubled after single vowel letters, the latter object is secured by reversing the usual convention and writing them single. For example, if A is used for the lowered north Ulster sound of I, hamm is written for him since ham implies a lengthened vowel in most parts of Ulster and the vowel differs slightly in quality, while hal would have to be written for hill to avoid confusion with the standard word-form hall. The dialect GH representing an open consonant, like the standard TH and SH, does not lend itself to doubling, but the first part of DH, DY and the other similar digraphs may be doubled.

(10) We have used the apostrophe only where it is used in standard spelling, viz. to make the genitive case of nouns and the elision of an auxiliary verb with a pronoun or the negative particle -n't, in o' for of in stereotyped phrases, and where the verbal inflections -ing and -ed are added to words with unusual final vowels. We cannot see that any useful purpose is served by cluttering up the spelling of certain words with apostrophes to mark the dialect change of -ing to -in (there being hardly any words with this ending in normal spelling, ambiguity is not likely to arise in such cases anyway), or the loss of a consonant such as final L in some words and D after N or L in others, or the loss of a consonant already silent when some other change in the spelling allows us to omit it. Only where a consonant such as T is replaced by the glottal stop, a sound for which our ordinary alphabet has no letter, is the use of the apostrophe necessary. (See 3 above).

The following classified summary of consonant spellings (with alternatives arising from the usual English spelling rules in brackets) should be compared with the table of consonant sounds in the section of the Introduction dealing with Phonology.

StopPTTTY (T)KY(K)K (C, Q)
AffricateCH (T)
J (G, D)
LiquidLL; RLY (L)

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