The Life and Work of Professor Robert J. Gregg

Anne Smyth and Michael Montgomery

Robert John Gregg was the founder of Ulster-Scots studies. His scholarship, grounded as it was in the historical landscape of the province of Ulster and a lifetime of research, laid the foundation for all who have come afterward — linguists, geographers, historians, anthropologists, and many others. The very conception of Ulster-Scots as a linguistic and cultural phenomenon on the modern scene is inconceivable without his scholarship and rests firmly upon it. His research was as fundamental to Ulster-Scots as any linguist's to a language in western Europe, and it remains the touchstone in the field today. It is due mainly to Gregg that scholars elsewhere learned of the existence of Ulster-Scots and that research on it was put on a sound academic footing. However, time and the specialised venues in which his original writing was published have now rendered it largely inaccessible, so the present volume was conceived to make it available to a new generation of scholars.

Robert Gregg, the second child of Tom and Margaret Gregg, was born in Larne, County Antrim, on 2 July 1912. Brought up in the town and going on to attend Larne Grammar School, his ear was first attuned to the patterns of the urban modified English heard around him. However, from early childhood he and his brother habitually returned at holiday times to the rural setting in which his mother's family lived, the district around Glenoe, four miles up the Glenoe Valley from Larne. There and in nearby villages the young Gregg encountered and imbibed the dense Ulster-Scots language of his grandparents and other country kinfolk and residents. As he later stated in his M.A. dissertation, his 'linguistic curiosity was early aroused by the sharp contrasts' between the two language varieties, and 'these bilingual comparisons have always been discussed with interest in my own family, and with the help in particular of my mother and my brother'.

Building on those early observations, Gregg first began collecting linguistic material as a teenager during his years at Larne Grammar School, where his keen intelligence constantly remarked the speech of students (one of whom was a cousin) from the school's rural hinterland. By 1930 he was compiling a notebook and had embarked on research and scholarship that would span seven decades.

Gregg's endowments of natural curiosity and a gift for languages, aroused by the contrasting speech of the spheres in which he moved for the first two decades of his life, led to a highly successful career as a teacher of languages and later of linguistics. It has been said that language was a passion for him, and he was fluent in several. He graduated from Queen's University, Belfast, with a B.A. (Honours) degree in French and German with Spanish subsidiary in 1933, but his interests and expertise were to range much more widely. For example, he passed Intermediate Latin examinations in the University of London in 1948, which foreshadowed his appointment in 1966 as Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Classics at the University of British Columbia, and he also passed Advanced Level Royal Society examinations in Russian (including the oral section). This latter subject formed part of the course he taught as Head of the Modern Languages Department and Senior Master at Belfast Mercantile College from 1939 to 1954. During these years he also studied Latin and took a B.A. in Spanish from the University of London. It was, however, as Senior Modern Languages Master at Regent House School, Newtownards, that he began his teaching career in 1934.

Gregg's M.A. dissertation at Queen's, on the historical phonology of the East Antrim Ulster-Scots he knew so well, was presented in May 1953. In it, we see the kernel of the themes and methodologies that were to inform his later work, particularly his immensely important doctoral thesis, 'The Boundaries of the Scotch-Irish Dialects in Ulster'. It is to this doctoral research that we must look for the only proper mapping of the Ulster-Scots speech areas that has ever been done.

In 1951, meanwhile, the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club's Dialect Section had commenced a collection of Ulster vernacular speech using the questionnaires devised for the Linguistic Survey of Scotland. In assisting with this endeavour, Bob Gregg worked with a number of other distinguished linguists, but it was his collaboration with two of their number that was to have lasting effect. The first of these was Professor Angus McIntosh, of the University of Edinburgh, who was in charge of the Scots section of the survey, which had included the six counties of Northern Ireland in its coverage. McIntosh was to become the main supervisor for Gregg's Ph.D. thesis. The second was Brendan Adams, who went on to become the first Curator of Language at the Ulster Folk Museum (as it was then). For many years, especially in the 1960s, Gregg and Adams wrestled together with the knotty problem of the orthographic representation of Ulster-Scots.

In 1954, having determined to pursue an academic career abroad, Bob Gregg emigrated to Canada with his wife Millicent and young family, and after a short period teaching in a secondary school in Vancouver was appointed Assistant Professor of French at the University of British Columbia in January 1955. He taught there for the next twenty-five years, becoming Professor in the Department of Linguistics in 1969, and Head of that Department from 1972 to 1980, when he retired after a distinguished career. The courses he taught not only reflected his continuing interest in phonetics, dialectology and French, but also included many other areas of study such as the teaching of English as a second language. He continued to 'trail-blaze' by setting up a language laboratory at UBC, the first in any Canadian university. While on staff there, he directed two major surveys, of Vancouver and British Columbia speech respectively, and edited the prestigious Gage Dictionary of Canadian English. He sat on the committees and boards of many professional organisations.

Throughout his years in Canada Gregg kept in close touch and collaborated with colleagues back in Ulster. He participated in the conference inaugurating the Ulster Dialect Archive at the Ulster Folk Museum in 1960. For a time he was co-editor with John Braidwood of the Ulster Dialect Dictionary project inherited from the BNFC. When the Department of Education in Northern Ireland commissioned the Concise Ulster Dictionary in 1989, he was pleased to be enlisted as a consultant and in succeeding years donated much of his own material to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, where the volume was being edited. To several issues of Ullans, the new annual magazine of the Ulster-Scots Language Society, he also contributed transcriptions using his orthography for Ulster-Scots.

Among Gregg's achievements two were particularly noteworthy: 1) a comprehensive structural description of Ulster-Scots pronunciation, including many of its distinctive patterns, and how these differed from 'Ulster Anglo-Irish', a variety deriving primarily from the speech of 17th-century settlers from the English Northwest Midlands; and 2) a detailed documentation and mapping of where Ulster-Scots was spoken in parts of four counties (Down, Antrim, Londonderry and Donegal).

Making these achievements possible was his doctoral fieldwork, which was undertaken primarily during a year's leave of absence from UBC in 1960-61 and which culminated three decades of informal observation and collection. He travelled the Ulster countryside, tirelessly interviewing older, traditional speakers in order to ascertain the geographical boundaries of Ulster-Scots as precisely as possible. The result was a study unprecedented and unsurpassed in detail and intensity of coverage by any other linguistic project in the British Isles and rivalled by few in continental Europe. Having long pondered the matter of speech areas and studied the Plantation settlement landscape of Ulster, and finding some in Edinburgh to be sceptical of the vitality of the Scots language in Ulster, he was determined to outline the Ulster-Scots territory meticulously and to provide extensive data on its speech. His summary map that resulted became a classic and continues to be cited and reproduced by scholars as the standard point of reference on the geography of Ulster-Scots.

Ethnologists and historians (beginning with Abraham Hume in the 1850s) had by the mid-twentieth century surmised a rough outline of the Scottish zone of Ulster in Counties Antrim, Down, and Londonderry. Long before he sought the professional training that would give him the analytical tools necessary to pinpoint this zone, Gregg had begun to plot out in his own mind where its boundaries might lie. But what he had to do was find the hard data to support his intuitions and the preliminary work done by others — to establish the empirical reality for the matter, in other words. For this he interviewed 125 mainly older speakers using a 683-item questionnaire that covered a constellation of fourteen broad features: one group of 30 morphological items and thirteen groups of phonological features (the consonant /x/, two diphthongs, and ten vowels). His aim was not to survey an even dispersal of speakers throughout the area, but to 'collect the data that will polarise the systematic differences between the dialects' and enable him to identify the boundaries of Ulster-Scots with all possible precision. In the process of mapping the core areas, he was the first to demonstrate that Ulster-Scots was spoken in east Donegal in the Republic of Ireland and was thus international.

In addition to providing such knowledge he made many other contributions. The editor of the Concise Ulster Dictionary, based at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, was most fortunate to have Bob Gregg's assistance on the dictionary's editorial board from 1989 to 1994. It has been remarked how generous he was in making available the fruits of his research to others in the field, and this was amply confirmed by his dealings with dictionary staff. Despite daunting health problems that would immediately have discouraged anyone less determined, Gregg continued to photocopy his material and forward it by 'snail-mail' to the Museum, to augment the resources from which the dictionary drew.

In his later years, he delighted in the revival of interest in the Ulster-Scots language and particularly to be named Honorary President of the Ulster-Scots Language Society. He took a keen interest in the academic debate surrounding modern Ulster-Scots, but did not suffer fools gladly. In a letter to the then Chairman of the Language Society, Dr. Ian Adamson, in 1994, he expressed himself in no uncertain terms regarding a view commonly held in some circles that Ulster-Scots is simply a dialect of English: 'To put it bluntly, I find it incredible that any specialist in language and dialect (I am one myself and have hundreds of others among my colleagues and acquaintances) — that any such specialists could regard Ulster-Scots as a regional variant of English! Impossible! ... I feel these people are writing nonsense about Ulster-Scots not being a language but a dialect of English! Ridiculous!'

Professor Gregg remained an Ulsterman to the core. To this highly-developed sense of place, persistent despite his Canadian 'exile', was added a keen sense of family. He kept in contact with his brother, T. F. Gregg, who was still living in East Antrim. Also, the Greggs were blessed with three sons and a daughter, and Bob lived to see the third generation of his descendants. Underpinning all his prodigious activity professionally and academically was the loving support of his wife, Millicent, whose devotion and tender care never faltered through the distressing days of illness in his latter years.

Above all else Gregg was a life-long student of Ulster-Scots. The ideas planted in his mind's eye and ear as a young man in east Antrim would mature into his life's work. None of the well-deserved preferments that were heaped upon him throughout his long and active life could distract him from pursuing the study of his first love. Northern Ireland's academic establishment approached his early efforts with less enthusiasm, but it is a measure of the man that this only spurred him to greater scholarly achievements. Today, the debt owed by the Ulster-Scots speaking community to Professor Gregg for his pioneering work in establishing the study of Ulster-Scots as an academic discipline is incalculable.

Bob Gregg passed away peacefully in Vancouver on 15 November 1998, aged 86, and is much missed. He was a man of great generosity and great passion for his native soil, a proud man who made others proud to know him. It is the hope of those involved in the production of the present memorial volume that in reading the writings that form his legacy to the academic study of the language he loved, others will be encouraged to take up the challenge of devoting themselves to that same discipline and aspiring to the same high standards.