Notes on the Phonology of a County Antrim Ulster-Scots Dialect
Part II: Diachronic Study i.e. the Historical Origins of the Dialect*

Historical Phonology

Robert J. Gregg


Whereas an investigation of the synchronic phonology of any living form of speech always involves the same elements, viz., a phonetic and a phonemic analysis, it must be emphasised at the beginning of the present diachronic study that historical phonology does not have the same meaning for every dialect.

There are dialects of English, for example, which are spoken by homogeneous ethnic groups who have been in continuous occupation of a given area for over fifteen hundred years. The changes in their speech are reflected in a long sequence of documents which go back to the earliest Old English records. This situation is well illustrated by the Durham dialect, whose diachronic developments have been so ably described by Professor Harold Orton of Leeds University.(1) On the other hand there are areas such as the one dealt with in this paper — the Glenoe district in county Antrim, Northern Ireland — to which English is a comparative new-comer, as the population was mostly Gaelic-speaking until the arrival of planters speaking Lowland Scots dialects who settled there in the course of the 17th century. The relatively recent establishment of English, coupled with the complete absence of historical documents in this county Antrim rural region, creates an entirely different situation for the investigator and necessarily precludes the approach and emphasis of a work such as Professor Orton's.

It is clear that we must regard Ireland in general and the province of Ulster in particular as a Kolonisationsgebiet where English is a 'transplanted' language brought over by settlers but later acquired and now used almost universally by the originally Gaelic-speaking population. In these circumstances we must constantly bear in mind that the linking of modern speech-forms with Old English or even Middle English and Middle Scots is at best a somewhat theoretical relationship, as there has obviously been no continuous development in situ from these older forms to those of the present day.

At the same time, although it is fashionable in some circles to disparage the concept of language substrata, those who are familiar with linguistic realities in Ireland (2) cannot fail to recognise the powerful and omnipresent force exerted by the submerged Gaelic (and sometimes, we may presume, even pre-Gaelic) dialects. It may thus be more accurate to say that, from the viewpoint of diachronic phonology, what we are faced with is often a sound-substitution from the substratum Gaelic rather than an internal phonetic change in the English. Such substitution might account for the difference, for example, between the ME in hil 'hill' and the Glenoe vowel No 3 [aë] in [hæ̈l] 'hill', so that it would generally be more prudent to read the sign > as 'is represented by' rather than 'becomes'.

It could also be argued that, in the 17th century, there must have been an interregnum lasting for a generation or two during which the indigenous Gaelic and the intrusive Lallans existed side by side, a situation which would favour the emergence of some degree of bilingualism and finally lead to a mutual interpenetration at all linguistic levels. In such a symbiotic state of affairs phonetic change in a given sound in one language might equally affect a corresponding sound in the other and it might eventually be difficult to determine the starting point. Thus, an extremely open vowel like the Glenoe [æ̈] mentioned above, which has come to replace ME in Glenoe, is also recorded for county Antrim Gaelic by Nils Holmer(3) as the representative of earlier Irish ǐ both on Rathlin Island (off North Antrim) and in the Glens of Antrim, which lie about twenty miles north of Glenoe. The sound-change which led to the drastic downward drift in this vowel could according to this view have started in either language and through the agency of the bilingual group — even if it were a small minority — could have been passed on to the other. On the whole, however, the dominant impression is that the actual sounds in Glenoe are for the most part Gaelic but that they have been chosen as near equivalents or substitutes for the various items in a Lowland Scots phonological system. In other words, in Glenoe we are dealing with Lallans dialect words pronounced with a decided Antrim Gaelic accent.

A similar situation is, of course, to be found in certain areas of Great Britain itself, and especially relevant to this paper is the case of the south-western parts of Scotland, where various Celtic languages and dialects were formerly spoken. In these areas also the change from Celtic to English probably involved substitutions of the type described above, substitutions which would in that case have been already present in the Lowland Scots speech of the planters who crossed over from South-West Scotland. The fact is that the English language has, without interruption, been extending its domain westward through Scotland from the earliest period of Anglian settlement on the coast, and as it spread, it must have suffered a succession of modifications, the result of 'interference' from Celtic speech.(4) This westward movement eventually brought the Lallans to Ulster, not only to county Antrim across the thirty-five mile wide North Channel from Ayrshire and Wigtownshire, but as far as county Donegal, where, in the present-day Gaeltacht, the Celtic speech of Ulster is putting up a last ditch linguistic struggle-for-survival against English.

Only if we bear these circumstances in mind can we without risk of misunderstanding set up a system showing the historical relationship between mediaeval recorded forms of English and the present Hiberno-English or Ulster-Scots dialects. In discussing such diachronic relationships for the Glenoe dialect it also seems advisable to make the present-day word-forms our starting point rather than begin, for example, with Old or Middle English forms, which has been the general practice of English dialectologists following Joseph Wright's pioneer work on rural Yorkshire speech,(5) although the late Eugen Dieth departed from this tradition in his Aberdeenshire dialect monograph,(6) where his historical treatment starts from contemporary forms. This procedure is preferable in any case as, from the dialectologist's point of view, the focus of interest should always be on the dialect itself rather than on Old or Middle English, the hypothetical ancestors. Dialectology should, in other words, be 'dialect-centred'.

Concentration of attention on the contemporary dialect does not, however, invalidate or minimise the importance of the historical approach.(7) The juxtaposition of modern forms and traditional ME forms leads us to the conclusion that Glenoe, like the other Ulster-Scots dialects, has conserved features of Middle Scots speech, some of which have largely been lost in Scotland itself. It also helps us to clarify the relations between Glenoe and the West Central or South-West Lowlands dialects of Scotland in general.(8) For example, consider the diphthong in Glenoe words like [bəül] 'bold', [əül] 'old', etc. In Scotland such diphthongal pronunciations remain only in marginal areas like Campbelltown (Kintyre), Caithness, Black Isle and Easter Ross.

In the notes that follow, only the principal relationships between the sound-system of the Glenoe dialect as spoken today and that of ME are dealt with in a series of diachronic comparisons. It will be easily understood that in a short article space would not permit of any detailed discussion of exceptional cases.(9)

Introduction | Diachronic Aspect | Diphthongs | Consonants | Notes