The Ulster Dialect Dictionary — Belfast Field Club's New Project*

Robert J. Gregg

An Ulster Dialect Dictionary? Why should anyone go to the trouble of making a dictionary of dialect? Some teachers may well wonder — one has already protested to us! — when they think of the strenuous hours they spend trying to 'insense' our Ulster children into the niceties of Standard or Literary English. Let me explain some of the ideas behind this recently announced project of the new Dialect Section of the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club.

There is first of all the impetus of regionalism, that newly-awakened and, I hope, enlightened interest in our own area of Britain, its landscapes as scenery to delight our eyes or as inspiration for the artist, its traditional music and dances, its folklore and, of course, its own rich varieties of speech which, far from being corrupted or degenerate forms of English, as many people think, have an honourable lineage, being survivals from the Elizabethan English or Lowland and Highland Scots, influenced in varying degrees by local versions of Irish Gaelic. The study of this unique and kaleidoscopic mixture is of tremendous interest. Nowhere else have we such an intimate blend of the three principal ingredients — English, Scots and Irish — as in our own Province, this Kolonisationsgebeit (colonisation district) as the German dialect experts call it, where the three races have met and mingled, especially in the last three or four hundred years.

Then we have the spur of competition, for it happens that 'across the water' a large-scale survey of Scottish dialects is being carried out by the Educational Institute of Scotland and Edinburgh University, while Professor H. Orton, of Leeds University, and Professor Dieth, of Zurich, are organising a similar survey in England. As good Ulstermen we must not allow ourselves to lag behind.

Furthermore, ever since dialect enthusiasts began collecting and publishing word-lists in the last century, the cry has constantly gone up that dialect is rapidly dying out. This we feel to be truer to-day than ever before, although (as Professor E. E. Evans stresses in his introduction to Irish Heritage) as far as Ireland is concerned it is very unwise to forecast the decay or disappearance of ancient traditional ways, for always when they are pronounced dead, evidence comes from somewhere to prove an unsuspected survival.(1) All the same it is to be feared that the combined onslaught of radio, cinema, travel and education will soon reduce the sphere of genuine dialect speech to very narrow limits. Some may view this situation with no regrets and actually welcome the advent of a form of English completely standardised both in vocabulary and pronunciation, but it is noteworthy that an erstwhile ardent supporter of Standard English — Professor D. Jones, former Professor of Phonetics at London University — has, in his new edition of The Pronunciation of English, voiced his mature conclusion that it can no longer be said that any standard exists. He adds: 'Nor do I think it desirable to attempt to establish one'.(2)

The Field Club Dialect Section have spent some time in elaborating plans for collecting material for the Dictionary, a task which will take about five years. Briefly the organisation is as follows: a centre was taken at Carrickmore (county Tyrone), which is almost at the mid-point of Ulster's nine counties, and from there the whole area was divided into eight wedge-shaped sectors reaching out about 70 miles — North, North-east, East, etc. — each sector being allocated to a chief collector. The collectors pass on to the editorial board all the material gathered. The twelve members of this board share the work of copying and arranging it and also the task of checking and utilising the lists of words from the older glossaries by our well-known predecessors — Patterson, Lutton, Marshall and others.(3)

Quite recently our first Questionnaire was produced and is now being sent out to teachers all over the Province as well as lighthouse-keepers, fishery inspectors and other people interested. This Questionnaire asks such questions as the following:

(1) What is the local name for the UNCUT TOP OF A BOG? (2) AN EARWIG? (3) THE THING OUT OF WHICH HORSES DRINK? (4) THE THING INTO WHICH WATER IS RUN TO WASH CLOTHES OR DISHES? (5) THE LAST SHEAF AT HARVESTING? (6) Do the local people say YIN, YEN, YAN, WAAN, or WON (for ONE)? (7) Do they say UP or DOWN to Belfast, Dublin, the nearest town? (8) What names are given to the domestic or farm animals (DOG, CAT, HORSE, COW, PIG, etc.) at the different stages of their life? (9) What is the local verb TO UPSET or TO KNOCK OVER something?

Some very interesting results are already apparent from the first returns we have received. There is, for example, a great variety of names for an earwig, ranging from the very common version eariwig to variants of gellick or gellock and dheel. This last word apparently represents the Irish word daol, which normally means a beetle. We are now wondering what a beetle is called in places where dheel is said for earwig! Would it be clock or some other word? The dishes and clothes are washed in the sink, the dish, the jaw-box or the jaw-tub. By the way, could anyone inform me if the expression a wee jaw o' milk, water, etc. (meaning a small quantity thrown into a bucket or trough) is still used in many districts?

We are interested in finding out not only the local words themselves but also the local pronunciation, and we have suggested the use of rhyming words to show the latter clearly, e.g. the bog-top in some parts is called flow to rhyme with now, in others flo (rhyme go) and in still others floo (to rhyme with too). Similarly, to knock over may be to cowp (ow as in now), to cope (rope) or to coop (hoop). Dog may be dawg, dug, doag (oa as in coal) or dowg (ow as in now). Trough in many parts rhymes with lough rather than with cough, i.e. the gh has kept its original guttural sound instead of changing it to an f-sound. We are interested to know where all these variants and others are to be heard.

In concluding I should like to make a special appeal to teachers all over Ulster to help us by observing and making lists of the dialect words and phrases they hear around them. We feel that no one is quite so well placed as they are (especially those in the rural areas) to record reliably and in scholarly fashion these interesting features of our local speech, and we are anxious that this survey should be as thorough and complete as possible. Lists of dialect names for birds, insects, fish, plants, trees, etc., would be of tremendous value, as would specialised lists relating to farming: the farmhouse and out-houses with their contents; the implements, vehicles and harness; the crops and cultivation generally; turf-cutting; flax-retting and scutching, and so on.

We should like to get in touch with teachers who have already made such collections of dialect words, and if they wish to help us they could write to me at the address given below. I should also be very pleased to have copies of the above-mentioned Questionnaire sent to anyone who is interested.


* Originally published in Ulster Education, September 1951, 24-25.

(1) Evans, E. Estyn, Irish Heritage: The Landscape, the People, and Their Work (Dundalk, 1942).

(2) Jones, Daniel, The Pronunciation of English, 3rd edition (Cambridge, 1950), v.

(3) Patterson, William Hugh, A Glossary of Words in Use in the Counties of Antrim and Down (London, 1880); Lutton, William, Montiaghisms — Ulster Words and Phrases, F. J. Bigger (ed.), (Armagh, 1923); Marshall, John J. 'The Dialect of Ulster' (in five parts), Ulster Journal of Archaeology new series, 10, 3 (July 1904), 121 - 130; 11, 2 (April 1905), 64 - 70; 11, 3 (July 1905), 122-125; 11, 4 (October 1905), 175-179; 12, 1 (January 1906), 18-22.