The Ulster 'egh' Sound*

G. Brendan Adams

The word lough occurs in many Ulster placenames and in general conversation. There are sea-loughs round the coast and many inland loughs ranging from Lough Neagh to quite small stretches of water. The term therefore covers the meaning of two words, firth and lake, that occur in Britain. It is the same word as that which is spelt loch in Scotland.

The difference in spelling between lough and loch, which are pronounced alike, is due to the difference between English and Lowland Scots spelling traditions. It is a loanword of Gaelic origin and the Scots have simply kept the Gaelic spelling. The English in Ireland, however, developed a tradition of anglicizing the spelling of Irish words. When this happened, probably in the 16th century, such English words as cough and trough would have rhymed with lough, so it was quite logical to spell it in this way, but in its own native words English has changed the sound of gh to that of f in some cases and lost it in most words. Since the word lough was not part of the general English vocabulary, it retained its original Irish pronunciation. The same is true of some northern English dialect words, like sheugh meaning 'ditch', that survive in Ulster, but are not part of standard English.

Of course, in the Ulster-Scots dialect of north-east Ulster the gh sound survives, pronounced like the written ch of German, Dutch, Welsh and Gaelic, even in words where it has become silent or changed to the f sound in standard English and most other dialects. In some areas, such as Ballymena, there is even a name for the old sound. The story goes that a school-inspector, hearing a county Antrim boy using the word pegh 'grunt', asked him to spell it. 'Pee-ee-egh-egh' came the answer, as quick as a flash. Between vowels the sound is often softened to h, even in Irish, as shown by anglicized spellings like Doherty and Gɑllɑher for Dougherty and Gɑllɑgher.

One curious fact is that the Ulster-Scots dialect pronunciation of the word trough, rhyming with lough, has spread and is widely used by east Ulster speakers of regional standard English who would not dream of using the corresponding dialect pronunciations of words like cough, rough, lɑugh, night, fight, eight.

In a few areas some people are losing the ability to pronounce this sound. Most English people are unable to do so unless they have learnt to pronounce the German ch. Dublin people also commonly replace the gh sound by the k sound and carry this over to the Irish ch when speaking Irish as a second language. The sound-change of gh to k or g has now begun to spread in the Belfast area, mainly among industrial workers with no rural connections. They say lock or lɑwk for the word lough and in proper names, where the sound is more common than in ordinary words, one will hear Gɑllɑcker for Gɑllɑgher, and Donɑckɑdee or Donɑgɑdee for Donɑghɑdee. Occasionally one even hears the pronunciation trock for the word trough, where the Ulster-Scots dialect pronunciation referred to above has undergone the local Belfast development to produce something quite different from the standard English pronunciation troff.

One final point may be mentioned. Apart from proper names where the gh sound is traditional among all speakers except those who now turn it into the k sound, how do we spell words that contain the original gh sound in Ulster-Scots dialect, but have lost it or changed it to the f sound in standard English? If we retain the gh spelling it may not be clear that it represents the gh sound, while if we change the spelling to ch as the Scots often do it may be mispronounced as the tch sound. Luckily there is a neat way out of this problem. Standard English silent gh is always preceded by one of six vowel-spellings: i, ei, ɑi, u, ou, ɑu. In the spelling of Ulster-Scots words this need never be the case because the vowel sounds are such that their spelling is better written in other ways. Thus we get the simple rule that the spelling gh is silent or pronounced as f after these six standard English vowel spellings, but has the old gh sound after all other vowel-spellings, e.g. lɑɑgh 'laugh', sɑgh 'sigh', heegh 'high', nɑght 'night', feght 'fight', eght 'eight', lɑegh 'low', doɑgh 'dough', thoght 'thought', doghter 'daughter', eneugh 'enough', reugh 'rough', hoogh 'shout', blowgher 'cough', stoygh 'stench'. In reugh 'rough', the e has become silent, but should perhaps be retained in the spelling since the spelling rugh might be misunderstood as rhyming with the name Hugh. Logically one should then write logh for the word lough, but logic is not a strong point in English spelling and the traditional spelling is perhaps best retained, unless like the Scots we revert to the original Gaelic spelling of this word.


* Originally published in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum Yearbook (1974-75), 10-11.