The Phonology of an East Antrim Dialect

Robert J. Gregg

2 Introduction

The dialect under consideration in these studies is that of Glenoe and the neighbouring district, an area which has a clearly defined geographical unity and whose population constitutes a reasonably homogeneous ethnic and social group, conditions both highly favourable to the fixing of dialect norms.

2.1 Topographical

To-day a village of some hundred inhabitants, Glenoe is situated near the centre of an L-shaped valley(5) whose elbow faces west, with the short arm running north-east to Glynn (population 216), two miles south of Larne, and the long arm south-east towards Beltoy and Ballycarry (population 444 [as of 1951]). This wide, flat-bottomed valley lying about 200 feet above sea-level is bounded by a rim of low hills and owes its structural unity to the fact that it was formerly a large glacier lake,(6) dammed up by a re-advance of Scottish ice during the last phases of the most recent Glacial Period.(7) The hilly rim marking the ancient lake shores is only broken to the north-east where the glacial melt-waters, pouring out, eroded the deep, steep-sided gorge through which the Glynn River now flows towards Larne Lough.

Access to the valley from the nearest urban centres, Larne and Carrickfergus, has always been difficult. Leading in from Larne four miles away is the old hill-top Inver Road as well as the road via Glynn which winds steeply up the gorge from the coast. The approach from Carrickfergus some seven miles away is up over the hilly Commons and down precipitous braes into the valley.(8) Up till three generations ago Carrickfergus exercised a strong pull, but it has now been eclipsed by Larne as a marketing and educational centre. Through their schools and other institutions both towns have acted as centres of diffusion for closely similar types of Local Modified Standard English, whose influence must be looked for in the Glenoe neighbourhood.

It must be stressed, however, that Glenoe is not on the direct way to anywhere and its relative isolation is undoubtedly a prime factor contributing to the conservatism of the local dialect in comparison with that of other near-by rural areas which lie athwart the principal coastal and inland routes.

It should not be imagined, however, that the Glenoe dialect is sharply differentiated from the speech of contiguous areas. On the contrary it forms a link in an arc-shaped chain of closely related dialects stretching from the Ards Peninsula in East Down, through East, Mid and North-West Antrim to North Derry and beyond.(9) These are all dialects which have largely been established in the first instance by the thousands of immigrants(10) from Central and South-West Scotland just across the North Channel during the course of the 17th century.

In contrast with these Scottish influences it is noteworthy that the place names of the Glenoe area are, as in Ulster generally, of Irish Gaelic origin.(11) Glenoe stands for Gleann Eó, 'the valley of the Yews', Glynn, known locally as 'the Glen', is shortened from Gleann Finneachta, and Ballycarry is for Baile Caradh, the 'Town of the Weir'.(12)

The ubiquity of these names indicates that Irish must have been the language of the valley(13) at one time, but it is difficult to establish any direct local Gaelic influence on the present-day English dialect. Many obviously Celtic words such as: greeshugh [griʃəx], 'the glowing embers of a fire', and gelluck [gɛlək], 'an earwig', prove on closer inspection to be importations from Scottish Gaelic probably via Lowland Scots or else recent borrowings from Southern Irish literary sources, e.g. smithereens (fragments).

2.2 Ethnographical and social

The village of Glenoe is in the parish of Raloo and the valley lies partly in the same parish and partly in that of Glynn, both in the barony of Lower Belfast.(14) The Census figures show the following population for these two areas:

Glynn18921798162113911369 (1497)17051535
Raloo2179137412521063987 (1212)11191151

Note 1: The 1841 figures are for the two parishes; all others relate to the District Electoral Divisions of the same names.

Note 2: The figures in brackets for 1911 are those given in retrospect in the 1926 Census and probably represent a slightly modified area under the new Northern Ireland government.

By discounting the 216 people who live in Glynn village and striking a rough average for the two remaining totals we may arrive at an approximate figure of one thousand as the population whose speech is the subject of these studies.

The majority of the valley's people are concerned with farming, and in contrast with the place-names, which are predominantly Irish Gaelic, the family-names are almost exclusively of Scottish origin and, although many suggest ultimately a Highland (i.e. Celtic) background, it is most likely that the ancestors of those who bear such Highland names had, before migrating here, settled in the Central or Western Lowlands and were thus not Gaelic- but Lallans-speaking on arriving in county Antrim. It is worth noting, however, that some Gaelic was spoken in Galloway till the 18th century,(15) so that the possibility of bi-lingual individuals among the immigrants must not be overlooked.

In Glenoe, as often happens in a relatively isolated community, one particular family name has become predominant, viz. McDowell [məˈdo:l], my mother's maiden name. In origin a Highland name, it is found commonly in many parts of South-West Scotland.(16) Out of a list of 45 families from the village and its immediate neighbourhood, 10 bear the name of McDowell and a generation ago the proportion was even greater. The remaining families have surnames which are also typical of South-West Scotland and Ayrshire in particular (e.g. Graham, Robinson, McWilliam, Crawford, Hamilton, McWhirter, McAlister, Hall, Blair, Cameron, Elliott, Baird, Craig, Burns, etc.), with the exception of about half a dozen who prove to be new-comers to the district, or interlowpers [ˈæ̈ntərˌləüpərz], to use the local word. In religion the overwhelming majority are Presbyterian or Unitarian, although the village church is Church of Ireland. To it only some half-dozen families belong, and even three of these have Scottish names. There are nowadays no Roman Catholics in the district although there are a few surnames of Irish type: McGoukin, McConkey, McNeilly.

In the village there are only a few tradesmen: a miller, a carpenter and a shopkeeper of the general store. The Glenoe Creamery about a mile below the village at the clachan of houses known as Crooked Row [krʌ̶kət rɔ:] is a thriving concern. The parson whose Rectory is near Glynn has always been a stranger to the valley, as has the teacher in the village school which nowadays only caters for children up to the age of 11 years. The older ones must go elsewhere to school. For secondary education the nearest centre is Larne, where the Glenoe folk must also go for medical treatment, legal advice and other such services. A few itinerant merchants visit the district — butcher, baker, oil-man and a general dealer known as the packman [ˈpɑ:kmən]. The baker usually distributes the local newspaper — the Larne Times — in addition to his own wares, and further information is peddled by the postman along with the letters. Another more serious source of enlightenment and the spread of Standard English was the Carneal Book Club, an early type of lending library founded at his home just above the village by my great-greatgrandfather Craig and still functioning in the same place till the old homestead was burnt to the ground in 1946. I still have two very bulky volumes on Geography dating from about the early 1800s.

All these factors have a direct bearing on the current speech of the district, especially those involving contacts with the Local Modified Standard English of Larne, which is phonetically similar but phonologically very different, and those determining whether a particular word has been preserved from the earliest (17th-century) horizon or has been recently borrowed into the dialect from outside.

Some negative environmental features are of importance. There is no bog-land, which means the virtual absence of a whole highly-developed vocabulary group found in most Irish dialects. Oats is the common cereal crop locally called corn /ko:rn/. The word oats is never heard. Few sheep are reared, little flax or wheat is grown and among the local fauna certain creatures are missing. These factors mean that in certain phonological series some items are completely absent (e.g. toad, adder, viper) or perhaps borrowed from Received Speech (R.S.), usually through the medium of Local Modified Standard English. For example, /fle̹:ks/ is the only pronunciation for flax. Compare the proper dialect form /wa:ks/ wax.

The general attitude to Standard English is bound up with the social structure of the valley's population, which is not complicated, for although there are degrees of prestige varying largely with the size of the farms, snobbishness is at a discount. The farmer and his family sit at the same table with the farm labourer and all speak much the same language. The general philosophy is that 'a man's a man for a' that', and Anglo-Norman feudal ideas of a hierarchical social pyramid have not penetrated here. The well-to-do, however, are virtually bi-lingual, having had, in most cases, Grammar School and even University education. In the outside world they use a Local Modified Standard English with reasonably high proficiency, but generally speak the dialect when at home.

It is an invidious task to generalise on the character of a community of people one has known intimately for a lifetime, but it might safely be said that the Glenoe folk share in large measure the qualities of the Ulsterman generally. According to W. R. Rodgers, the Ulster Protestant is a 'cautious, logical and far-seeing person in speech and action, and he distrusts eloquence'.(17) To Hugh Shearman the Ulsterman seems 'pushful, sceptical, unceremonious and individualistic' and has 'a mild disillusioned sense of humour'.(18) For Glenoe we might add these qualities: hospitality, thrift, tenacity, pride in work well-done, an occasional 'dourness', a tendency to pessimism relieved by a capacity for hilarious enjoyment when the occasion arises, and a positive genius for hard-hitting invective.

Foreword | Introduction | Phonetics | Vowels | Long Vowels | Consonants | Conclusion | Notes