The Orthography of Ulster-Scots

I. Editorial Preface

Michael Montgomery

The modification of spelling to approximate pronunciation has a long tradition in the British Isles, by literary artists, lexicographers and linguists alike. In Scotland the literary revival of the early eighteenth century, which arose after the orthography of written Scots had almost completely converged with English c1700, was fostered by Allan Ramsay, who introduced into popular verse numerous forms from that nation's literature of the fifteenth and sixteenth century.

In Ulster, although the revival of Scots took place on a smaller scale it was a genuine local upsurge in interest not simply imported from Scotland. In many ways the revival and the practices that emerged from within the ranks of practitioners and audience were shared broadly on both sides of the Irish Sea.(1) Distinctively Scots spelling conventions used in the early 1600s by Scots planters in Ulster disappeared from their correspondence within a few decades, but these leave no doubt about the rooting of the language in parts of the province or that its use in speech was uninterrupted and was later to bear fruit in popular literature in succeeding generations.(2)

The migration of Scots speakers to Ulster in the 17th century also provided precedents (e.g. sic, richt, frae, auld, stane, sae, and others) for 18th-century verse. Such forms showed up as early as 1722 in a poem by William Starratt, a 'Teacher of Mathematicks at Straban[e]' in county Tyrone.(3) Many of Starratt's usages (wud, auld, sae, sang, frae, sic) also featured in seven 'Scotch Poems', by an anonymous Donegal poet three decades later.(4) In addition to this tradition of writing Ulster-Scots (or Scots in Ulster), which was exemplified most prominently in the Rhyming Weaver poets beginning in the late-eighteenth century,(5) a different tradition was to emerge for writing Ulster English (or Northern Hiberno English). The nineteenth century is replete with writers of both schools who portrayed aspects of pronunciation by manipulating spelling in poetry and prose, the best known of whom was William Carleton of west Tyrone, an exemplar of the second tradition.(6)

Recent writing and thinking on the orthography of Ulster-Scots and Ulster English by linguists and language planners, albeit built on a more thorough and objective consideration of speech patterns, was foreshadowed by and has been grounded in well over a century of practice by the creative writers who often had already explored the orthographic options available. Linguists have, after all, the same limited set of symbols at their disposal, with only the addition perhaps of diacritical marks or an occasional symbol borrowed from a phonetic alphabet. The aims of literary artists often differ, of course, from those of linguists. Their interest in developing characters by representing speech sometimes leads them to convey comedy, folksiness, or lack of education through 'eye dialect', phonetic spellings (e.g. cum for come, sez for says) that indicate the general pronunciations of words, rather than pronunciations limited to a given language variety.(7) However, such writers faced, or face, the same struggle to capture speech as the more systematic efforts undertaken by linguists and thus offer many precedents for solving the same problems.

The history of such orthographic conventions deserves detailed treatment and is beyond the scope of this chapter, which seeks to comment only briefly on the work of two linguists, G. Brendan Adams and Robert J. Gregg, and to present previously unpublished work of theirs pertinent to the subject. These men gave much thought and attention to formulating speech-based systems of orthography from many years of observation, experimentation, and in Gregg's case, extensive fieldwork in the province. Their ideas have been known and discussed informally within the sphere of the Ulster-Scots revival movement in recent years and have thus been considered by native-speaking writers in the movement, the primary drivers of the on-going debate about spelling practices in Ulster-Scots. Their ideas have in one way or another formed input to the collective thinking on the subject of Ulster-Scots orthography for forty years. Though they have often been rejected as too radical, usually because of the resistance of practitioners to unfamiliar spellings not having historical precedent, these ideas nonetheless have not been as widely disseminated as they deserve to be and so are published here.(8)

Adams and Gregg were not working in a vacuum. Among other things, they were aware of proposals to give Lowland Scots a more consistent system, as in the work of James A. H. Murray,(9) James Wilson,(10) and other prestigious models. The documents below show their interest in an accurate and practical orthography for Ulster-Scots, one that drew from Scottish practice but that logically and effectively handled speech patterns not found in Scotland.

Adams' essay 'Orthography' was a mid-1960s working document that proposed orthographic conventions to serve as a practical, consistent pronunciation guide for headwords for the Ulster Dialect Dictionary,(11) sited at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. It did not intend explicitly to provide a model for writers. The project had accumulated large amounts of oral material (mainly from a Belfast Naturalists' Field Club survey of the 1950s)(12) having either no conventional written form or in many cases no single dominant form from which to choose. Adams sought to devise a phonemically-based system to bring order to the extensive variation in a principled way. Whether because the dictionary, under the editorship of John Braidwood, soon went into abeyance or for some other reason, Adams' essay was never known beyond a small circle. It was subsequently filed in the Museum's records, a typescript unknown to all but one or two staff members.

While the text is certainly Adams' own, other unpublished documents suggest that his ideas grew in part from discussions with John Braidwood, Robert Gregg, and others around the time. It presents a carefully reasoned, systematic way to spell both consonants and vowels, following a nuanced approach that gives due allowance to historical precedent and transparency as countervailing factors to phonemic consistency. The introductory paragraphs indicate that Adams' goal was to codify a system that could encompass both Ulster-Scots and Ulster English under the broad rubric of 'Ulster dialect'. As shown by both Gregg's and Adams' linguistic work, the phonology of the two overlapped in some particulars, but far from all, especially in the incidence of phonemes. However, the reader who concludes that Adams does not thoroughly recognize geographically-based differences and incorporate these into his design and that thus he only partially realized his goal would be greatly mistaken. In the document he does not employ the term 'Ulster-Scots',(13) but he refers to features of 'north Ulster' dialect (which he says 'is derived from Scots', §28) no fewer than 28 times. Even when the pronunciation of 'north Ulster' dialect is identical to that of Lowland Scots, Adams does not always defer to common spellings in the latter, like Gregg preferring staen to stane, for instance (§11). Nor was Adams unalterably wedded to his views. For example, recognizing the distinctiveness of the lowered and retracted pronunciation of the front vowel in big and hill in parts of the province, he later proposed the character a for this sound (see below).(14)

As a life-long student of Ulster-Scots, Robert Gregg over the course of many years turned his energies not only to linguistic analysis, but also to the practical application of his research. He was devising an orthography for Ulster-Scots, based on his fieldwork, as early as the 1960s. In this process he produced transcriptions of local Ulster-Scots texts, or in some cases Ulster-Scots versions of English texts, to test and demonstrate various conventions. Presented here are seven of those he prepared (five poems, one anecdote, and one duologue). Since the texts are undated, their sequence is unknown. Each is internally consistent, but in the intriguing minor variation across the seven documents one can sense a degree of experimentation (e.g. he has ruim in 'The Rhymers', but ruïm in 'A Ballymena Legend'). While Gregg apparently never prepared a document comparable to Adams' essay that formally codified his system, much of one can be inferred from his carefully crafted transcriptions.

Toward the end of his life Gregg became increasingly interested in sharing his work and in seeing that his scholarship on Ulster-Scots contributed to the work of others. He provided copies of hundreds of citation slips to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum's Concise Ulster Dictionary project (1989-96) and had his personal papers relating to Ulster-Scots deposited in the Museum's archives. Gregg was especially keen that his transcriptions assist the language development work of the nascent Ulster-Scots Language Society and Ulster-Scots Academy(15) by demonstrating suitable spelling conventions that sometimes drew from ones for Lowland Scots, but differed from the latter in being more phonetic in a number of respects. A thorough study of Gregg's spelling conventions and their precedents would be valuable, but space forbids discussion of Adams' and Gregg's proposed practices except for three sample features of interest because of the diverse practices that writers have advocated for them and because of the attention they have received from Adams and Gregg.

In Ulster the orthographic issue that has been the most conspicuous and also the most frequently addressed (rivaled perhaps only by the spelling of ea, as in tay for tea) is the respelling in both Ulster-Scots and Ulster English of the alveolar stops t and d dentalized before vowels colored by /r/ (as in water) or before consonantal /r/ (as in truth). The two sounds remain stops and therefore distinct from interdental /ð/ and /θ/ (although, according to Adams §4, a third set of consonants, viz. interdental stops, exists for some speakers). The same process of dentalization variably affects the continuants /n/ and /l/, but these are rarely respelled. (Gregg is apparently the only one to do so, and only for /n/.) Although the dentalized variants are predictable phonologically, writers in Ulster have respelled t and d, especially as th and dh (more often before vowels than before consonants). At least one instance occurs in the verse of a Rhyming Weaver poet more than two centuries ago (thortur'd),(16) but in general dentalized consonants are not represented in Ulster-Scots writers of the 19th century.(17) By contrast, this feature is virtually universal in Ulster-English writings from Carleton forward, and a brief register of sample forms from Ulster-English writers includes the following:

Carleton (1843): betther, afther, thruth, counthry, tindher, dhrownded (18)

Hume (1861): winther, watther, counthry, sthride, undther, dhrank, dhirt (19)

McFadyen and Hepburn (1884): craythur, polthroon, insthructions, stharted (20)

O'Neill (1921): betther, deludhered, thry, dhrink (21)

McCallin (1938): winther, Satthurday, squandtherin (22)

Mulcaghey (1950): stharted, wondherful, thruth, dhrap (23)

While this list indicates that the most common practice has been to respell t and d simply as th and dh, many others have been followed. Hume and McCallin sometimes use tth and dth, for example. Adams argues for t (§4d) and dh (§4c), while Gregg's practice is the radical one of using capital letters, which he states is borrowed from Celticists.(24) He first used these symbols in phonetically transcribing Ulster-Scots and subsequently imported them into his orthography, writing forms such as the following:

beTTer, yungsTers, ecTers, UlsTer, waaTer, TRies, TRevled,

STReem DReekh, DResst, faarDer

wuNNered, eNTRance, oNDer (showing that more than one consonant may be affected simultaneously)

Other writers have proposed alternatives: 1) underlining the consonant (advocated but later rejected by James Fenton); 2) doubling t when between vowels and using th for d in similar contexts (now advocated by Fenton: thus watter, wunther, shoother, but efter, trak);(25) and 3) placing a grave accent over the following vowel, a practice devised in workshops held by the Ulster-Scots Language Society in the early 1990s and exemplified especially in Philip Robinson's work (thus watèr, Ulstèr, trèe, dandèr, etc.)(26)

A second issue concerns the vowel in big and hill. One of fourteen features on which Gregg concentrated in his doctoral fieldwork, this feature included 'items of diverse origin which characteristically exhibit a short, half open (or lower), somewhat retracted vowel [ɛ̹] or [æ̹] ... the usual equivalent for the vowel in [Standard Southern British] bit' (Gregg found that the latter pronunciation usually characterized Ulster English).(27) In his orthographic transcriptions of Ulster-Scots Gregg represents this sound by ä, thus producing yänst, näkht, thäs, näck, Chräsmas, chälly, whunävver, etc. This practice was followed by Robinson,(28) but not by Fenton (who uses i, the conventional English spelling). Adams recognized the vowel pronunciation as distinctive to 'north Ulster' speech and grappled extensively with its spelling in his essay on orthography (§9, §3, §7, §28), stating in summary that

The pit-vowel is written I in south Ulster and general word-forms, and is always short. In genuine north Ulster dialect forms the vowel which most commonly corresponds to this phonemically differs from it to such an extent phonetically that we prefer to write A. (§13)

In his essay Adams thus recommends bag for big and hal for hill. Although he does not espouse, or even mention, it in his essay on orthography, it was he who apparently first introduced ä:

When transcribing the mid-Antrim dialect for literary purposes one slight problem of orthography arises. There is a clear short i but this occurs in shortening and unrounding in some, but not all, of the words in which Scots has the front rounded ui for English oo, whereas the original short i, when not rounded to u by a preceding w, has a much lower sound that approaches the English short a, though it is not lengthened by certain consonants as the latter now is in certain parts of Ulster. The original short a, in turn, is broadened and usually lengthened. One might, of course, continue to write the historical ui, i, a, but this offers no guidance to the general reader to what their shifted sounds have become.

I have sought to meet this problem by using i for the first, by borrowing the umlaut letter ä from Swedish and German orthography for the second, and by doubling the a for the third of these phonetically shifted phonemes. Thus loom, limb, lamb would appear in the mid-Antrim dialect as lim, läm, laam. In a few monosyllables, however, that are usually unstressed in the sentence, such as and, is, his, the historical spelling is retained.(29)

Contrary to the belief in some quarters, the adoption of ä is thus not simply a practice followed by modern enthusiasts.(30)

Among creative writers there is more consensus on how to spell the consonant sound /x/. Like the previous feature, this is primarily an issue for Ulster-Scots rather than for Ulster English. The spelling ch defers to long-standing Scottish practice and has been all but universal in the writing of Ulster-Scots for two centuries. For practising writers of Ulster-Scots today the issue may be settled (they write ch in nicht, wecht, etc.),(31) but Adams and Gregg have other preferences. In contrast to Scotland, Adams (§6) argues that ch is less suited for Ulster (where, for example, lough traditionally corresponds to Scottish loch); Adams considers the possibility of h before deciding on gh. He then adds the provocative postscript that: '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'. As seen in Gregg's transcriptions, Gregg in fact adopts this last practice (thus näkht, laukh, STRekhten) and presumably opposed using ch because of its possible ambiguity with the sounds it represents in church and chemist. The practice of kh has found few, if any, advocates beyond Gregg himself, however.

The documents published here show that Adams and Gregg invested much labor and thought into a linguistically valid spelling system for Ulster-Scots. Far more than a linguistic salvage operation, this publication of their original work shows how thoroughly they laid the groundwork for those who would come after to consider and indicates how vigorous the debate has been on the orthography of Ulster-Scots for four decades.

Editorial Preface | Orthography | Transcriptions | Notes