The Ulster-Scots Dialect Boundaries in Ulster

Robert J. Gregg

As stated above, the phonological rule by which ME voiceless velar fricative /x/ remained in US, whereas in UAI the ME /x/ > Ø or /f/, proved to be the main general consonantal feature useful in separating the dialects. Consequently the first subgroup of questions in List 1 sought to elicit informants' reflexes for items such as daughter, eight, enough, fight, night, tough, trough, etc., all of which occur in Standard English and therefore have UAI as well as US reflexes as shown in this tabulation:

[əˈńʌx], [əˈnʌx]versus[əˈnöf]
[tśʌx], [ t́ʌx], [tʌx]versus[töf]

It should be noted that the US forms frequently exhibit a special vocalism: [ɛː] in eight and fight; [æ̈] in night; [jʌ] < ME ọ̄ + velar, in enough and tough, where the yod either combines with the preceding alveolar to produce palatalization or affrication, or becomes zero.

The second subgroup of List 1 elicited purely dialectal words with /x/ which have no obvious current equivalent in Standard English, some being of ON or Gaelic origin. It is interesting to note that many of these — even when of Scottish provenance — have spread to the UAI dialects and are in fact found all over Ulster and undoubtedly beyond (hence being useless as boundary markers), e.g. [drix] 'dreary', etc., [ˈgɹiśəx] 'embers', [ˈlɑːxtəɹ] 'brood of chickens', etc., [skɹeːx] 'shout', [śʌx] 'ditch', [ˈspɹɑːxəl] 'sprawl', etc. A few of these have even crept into the standard speech of many educated Ulster folk who are quite familiar with such forms as [śʌx], [skɹeːx], [ˈspɹɑːxəl] and who — strangely enough — tend in many cases (even in the city of Belfast) to use /x/ rather than /f/ in the word trough. Incidentally UAI speakers have generally no difficulty in producing the voiceless velar fricative, as it is of fairly frequent occurrence in Ulster place-names and family names: Doagh [doːx], Donaghadee [ˈdönəxəˈdiː], Aghalee [ˌaxəˈliː], Ahoghill [əˈhɒxəl], Dogherty [ˈdɒxəɹte], Gallagher [ˈgaləxəɹ].

At the phonetic level an important regional variation was noticed in parts of county Donegal where /x/ was represented by /h/ (or even /ɦ/), thus daughter [ˈdɔhtəɹ], high [hih], laugh [lah], tough [töh], as well as [ˈlahtəɹ] 'brood of chickens', etc., [lɔh] 'lough', [śöh] 'ditch', etc. This phenomenon is of interest to substratum theorists, as the same phonological shift — [x] > [h] > [ɦ] — occurs in some types of Donegal Gaelic.(24) Further, from the point of view of general phonetics, the shift [x] > [h] > [ɦ] helps to reinforce the theory of phonetic change by a series of simple steps.(25) A final step in this case would be [ɦ] > Ø.

List 2 of the questionnaire plunged straight into the investigation of the vowel systems with an inventory of items that elicited the various reflexes of ME ọ̄, which seems to have been represented by ǖ in Early Scots (ES) and Middle Scots (MS), the direct ancestor of the US dialects. Mid Antrim, the heartland of the US dialects, usually proved to have a lowered front-central, unrounded vowel here, viz. /ϊ/, phonetically close to the vowel in Standard Southern British (SSB) bit [bιt], but somewhat retracted. In fact, a vowel of this type corresponds to SSB /ι/ in the Standard English spoken in the urban areas within the US dialect zones, e.g. bit [bϊt], etc. This vowel is phonetically close to Russian ы, as in cыh [sϊn], but is generally a shade more open. It has also parallels in Gaelic.(26) Other US reflexes were /i/ and /e/. UAI generally had /ü/ and /ö/ in these words, /ü/ corresponding to both SSB /u/ and /ɷ/, and /ö/ — a short centralized type of [o] — being the equivalent of SSB /ʌ/, thus:


The forms with /ϊ/ — US(1) — are characteristic not only of mid Antrim as stated, but also the North Ards and number of other points in county Down. A similar reflex occurs in present-day Ayrshire and other parts of south-west Scotland. The /e/-forms — US(2) — belong to north Antrim and three points in north-east Londonderry. On the other hand reflexes with /i/ — US(3) — were found among all US speakers in county Donegal, in the Mid Ards peninsula and at many points in the area west of Strangford Lough in county Down. Contrary to appearances this feature does not link up US with north-east Scots as described, for example, by Eugen Dieth in A Grammar of the Buchan Dialect (1932). There also, ME ọ̄ or MS ǖ > /i/ in general, but Buchan has a special development after velars so that good is [gwid], school is [skwil] with a /w/-glide never found in US.(27) In any case the settlement history clearly points to south-west Scotland as the source of the overwhelming majority of Scottish settlers in 17th-century Ulster, and the Lingustic Survey of Scotland investigators subsequently found these reflexes with /i/ (including good /gid/, school /skil/ without the /w/-glide) in rather remote relic areas — Wanlockhead and Leadhills — on the borders of Dumfries and Lanarkshire, thus substantiating the theory that these /i/-forms were once current in the south-west of Scotland and represent an archaism in US. The present distribution bears out this theory if we assume that /ϊ/ is an innovation spreading from the usual ports of entry in Antrim and Down for the incoming Scots, from the early-17th century onwards, completely replacing the /i/-forms in county Antrim and the North Ards but leaving the /i/-forms unchanged in the Mid Ards and frequently west of Strangford Lough, where the influx of new immigrants may have fallen off soon after the first settlement period. For the same reason /i/-forms survive unaltered in the Laggan district of Donegal where the settlement of 1610 did not subsequently receive any notable reinforcement from Scotland. It should be observed that the change postulated here from /i/ to /ϊ/ was not a regular, internal, phonological change in the US areas concerned, but rather the result of the spread of a set of new forms incorporating an innovation that may actually have had its origins somewhere in eastern Scotland, and the simple substitution of the new /ϊ/ for the older /i/ in a restricted subset of words — not a random subset, however, but the subset that had ME ọ̄/MS ǖ. In other words the earlier south-western Scots dialects and their 17th-century Ulster offshoots had a neutralization in the phonological space occupied by the /i/-reflexes of ME ọ̄/MS ǖ as well as by the /i/-reflexes from other sources, but this neutralization was later reversed by the adoption of the /ϊ/-forms introduced from another — perhaps more prestigious — Scots dialect. A restricted area in north Antrim and north-east Londonderry has developed a new neutralization by which /ϊ/ > /e/, thus: done [deːn] and school [skeːl] become homophonous with Dane and scale. In areas with /ϊ/, an [eː] allophone has developed in open syllables and before /v/ and /r/ (the latter being a frictionless continuant), thus do [deː], shoe [śeː], move [meːv], floor [fleːɹ]. The vowel before /r/ in some areas is retracted, e.g. [flëːɹ] floor.

Some specifically dialectal words with the same vowel nuclei as those described appear in List 2, e.g. [lϊf] 'palm of hand' — from ON lōfi — [ˈfjʌge] or [ˈfĺʌge] 'left-handed', [śʌx] 'ditch', the latter two exhibiting the change to [jʌ] mentioned above.

A morphological feature of interest occurs in the alternate developments for the plural of shoe [śeː], which with different speakers was [śeːz] or [śϊn]. The long vowel in [śeːz] marks the morpheme boundary which is lost in [śϊn] with the older /-n/ plural allomorph. The solid morpheme soon also cropped up as [śϊn] as well as [sϊn]. The shortening of a vowel with an underlying length feature occurred also in the general US dialectal plural for eye [iː], namely [in].

List 3 covered items of diverse origins which characteristically exhibit a short, half open (or lower), somewhat retracted vowel /æ̈/ or /ɛ̈, the US dialect speakers' usual equivalent for the vowel in SSB bit [bιt] (US [bæ̈t] or [bɛ̈t]). The SSB forms show a variety of developments in these words, e.g. the /aι/ diphthong in blind, climb, etc.; /ɷ/ in bull; /ʌ/ in dozen, nut, son, summer, sun, asunder, etc.; /ι/ in bridge, build, etc.; and /ɛ/ in chest, red, tremble, etc.

The US dialects as a group tended to have the vowel /æ̈/ (or /ɛ̈/, especially in Donegal) — in all the items in this list, with occasional special consonantal reflexes, thus: [blæ̈n], [klæ̈m]; [bæ̈l]; [ˈdæ̈zən], [næ̈t], [sæ̈n], [ˈsæ̈məɹ], [sæ̈n], [ˈsæ̈nəre]; [bɹæ̈g], [bæ̈g]; [kæ̈st], [ɹæ̈d], [ˈtræ̈ml̩].

The UAI dialects had reflexes closer to SSB: [bləin(d)], [kləim]; [bül] or [böl]; [ˈdözən], [nöt], [sön], [ˈsöməɹ], [sön], [əˈsöndəɹ]; [bɹϊdź], [bϊld]; [tśɛst], [ɹɛːd], [ˈtrɛmbl̩]. The /g/ in US [bræ̈g], and the /k/ in [kæ̈st] represent typical Scottish consonantism over against the English affricates, as does the Ø versus /b/ or /d/ in the contrasting forms of tremble, blind, and asunder. Interdental [t], [d], [n], [l], and the flapped [r] associated with them are a non-contrastive, universal feature of the Ulster dialects and undoubtedly derive phonetically from the Gaelic substratum. They are allophonically distributed variants of /t/, /d/, /n/, /l/, and /r/ respectively, although their use may be an oristic signal, marking the absence of a morpheme boundary, for example: boulder [ˈboːldəɹ] — a solid morpheme — versus bolder [ˈboːldəɹ] from bold + the comparative morpheme [-əɹ].(28)

List 4 brings together forms that generally have [ɛ] in US over against UAI /a/ or /e/, as well as occasionally /ϊ/, /i/, or /əi/, e.g.

after [ˈɛːftəɹ], apple [ˈeːpl̩], blade [blɛːd], father [ˈfɛːðəɹ], flat [flɛːt], grass [gɹɛːs], halter [ˈhɛːltəɹ], hammer [ˈhɛ:məɹ], hasp [hɛːsp], ladder [ˈlɛːðəɹ], master [mɛːstəɹ], sack [sɛːk], Saturday [ˈsɛːtəɹde], shaft [śɛːft], traveltrɛːvl̩], arm [ɛːɹm], cart [kɛːɹt], married to [ˈmɛːɹet ˌɔːn], narrow [ˈnɛːɹə], branch [bɹɛːnś], haunch [hɛːnś], dinner [ˈdɛːnəɹ], kindling [ˈkɛːnələn], either [ˈɛːðəɹ].

For these words the UAI dialects had mostly /a/: [ˈaftəɹ], [ˈapl̩], [ˈfaːðəɹ], [flat], [gɹas], [ˈhaməɹ], [hasp], [ˈlaːdəɹ], [ˈmastəɹ], [sak], [ˈsatəɹde], [śaft], [ˈtraːvl̩], [ɑːɹm], [kɑːɹt], [ˈmɑːɹəd ˌtüː], [ˈnɑːɹə], [bɹanś], but various other vowels in the other items: [bleːd], [ˈhɒltəɹ], [hɒnś], [ˈdϊnəɹ], [ˈkϊnələn], [ˈiːðəɹ], or [ˈəiðəɹ]. Among the consonantal differences we note that US has /ð/ instead of /d/ in ladder and bladder. The allophonic interdentals cropped up in both dialect groups in after, gander, halter, manner, master, matter, plaster, saturday, travel, partridge, dinner. US has /v/ in marbles [ˈmεːɹvəlz] — UAI [ˈmɑːɹlez] (i.e. the game of marbles). The US form of stanchion is either [ˈstɛːnśl] or [ˈstɛːnśəɹ]. Note also that this SSB cluster [-ntʃ] is represented by [-nś] in both Ulster dialect groups, just as [-ndʒ] is represented by [-nź].

As already seen, the diphthongization process that produced SSB /aι/ (mainly from ME ῑ) did not always affect the same items in US as in UAI or the standard language. Hence forms like bright, fight, height, etc., did not have a diphthong in US but did have /əi/ in UAI. US, of course, has its own system of diphthongs of the /əi/ and /ɑe/ type from ME ῑ and other sources and with characteristic phonemic and subphonemic groupings.(29)

On the other hand, ME ū has not been diphthongized at all in US any more than in the Scots dialects generally, and an US pure vowel is thus in contrast with the diphthong /əü/ (30) appearing in all the UAI dialects (the UAI equivalent of SSB /aɷ/) in many words such as the major subset of List 5. The me ū has of course been changed in US, having been fronted and in certain contexts allophonically shortened and opened as also in south-western Scots generally, thus:

allow [əˈlü]brown [bɹɷ̈n]doubt [dɷ̈t]
about [əˈbɷ̈t]house [hɷ̈s]mouth [mɷ̈θ]
drought [drɷ̈θ]rust [ɹɷ̈st]suck [sɷ̈k]
round [ɹɷ̈n]thousand [ˈθüːzən]powder [ˈpɷ̈ðəɹ]
cow [küː]thumb [θɷ̈m]

The more open allophone [ɷ̈] occurred in closed monosyllables except before voiceless fricatives, as well as in dissyllables except before /z/. Directly before /r/ there was a long lowered allophone, a somewhat centred [øː], as in our [ø̈ːɹ], but dissyllabic words such as flour or flower, power, shower, sour with [-əɹ] as the final syllable had [üː], thus: [ˈflüːəɹ], [ˈpüːəɹ], [ˈśüːəɹ], [ˈsüːəɹ]. hour [ˈüːəɹ] was therefore in contrast with our [ø̈ːɹ]. Further, when our occurred with weak stress it was reduced to [wəɹ]. The word cow [küː] often had the old umlaut plural [kɑe] in US, especially in a collective sense, referring to a farmer's whole herd. The regularly-formed plural with [-z], i.e. [küːz], often cropped up as a second form when a specific number of cows was mentioned: two cows [ˌtwɔː ˈküːz].

plough had various US forms: [pĺüː], [plüː], [pjüː], with palatalized [ĺ], ordinary 'light' [l], or a simple yod with the lateral element deleted. These forms lacked the expected final /x/. UAI of course had only [pləü].

house [hɷ̈s] usually formed the plural [ˈhɷ̈səz], but in north Antrim [ˈhɷ̈zəz] and occasionally [ˈhüːzəz]. UAI had [ˈhəüːzəz]. Not all the items in List 5 had a diphthong — [əü] — in UAI. Some had contrastive US consonantal developments as compared with UAI, e.g. blue [bĺüː] or [bjüː], luke (warm) [lüː], full [füː], pull [püː], coulter [ˈkɷ̈təɹ], shoulder [ˈśɷ̈ðəɹ] were US forms contrasting with UAI [blüː], [ˈlɷ̈kˌwɑːɹm], [fōl] or [fül], [pōl] or [pül], [ˈkoːltəɹ], [ˈśəüldəɹ] or [ˈśoːldəɹ]. drought had a special US consonantal development, giving [drɷ̈θ] versus UAI [drəüt].(31) Some items with a French background such as foison(less) [ˈfɷ̈źən(ləs)](32) 'tasteless' and foutre [ˈfɷ̈təɹ] 'clumsy person' had /ü/ in US, but as often happens with dialect words that have no etymological equivalent in the standard language, the latter word, [ˈfɷ̈təɹ], proved to have widespread if not completely universal currency throughout the whole province. Some few items in this list had suffered earlier vowel shortening in the English dialects (though not in Scots) and appeared therefore with /ö/ in UAI, e.g. the US forms plum [plɷ̈m], suck [sɷ̈k], thumb [θɷ̈m] contrasted with UAI [plöm], [sök], [θöm].

List 6 consists of words of various origins that had /ʌ/ in US versus mainly /ϊ/ in UAI, the US /ʌ/ occurring in many cases in the sequence /wʌ/ or /ʍʌ/:

quilt [kwʌlt]switch [swʌtś]whip [ʍʌp]
whiskey [ˈʍʌske]will [wʌl]wind [wʌn]
winter [ˈwʌntəɹ]witch [wʌtś]wrist [ɹʌst]

(though the latter word has now lost its w!) All these had UAI [ϊ]. Some forms with US /ʌ/ such as found [fʌn], ground [gɹʌn], mountain [ˈmʌnʔn̩], pound [pʌn] (especially in the monetary sense) had [əü] in UAI. steady and stithy both appeared as [ˈstʌde] in US. cinders gave US [ˈśʌnəɹz] versus UAI [ˈsϊndəɹz]. The US [ˈmʌne] for many was in contrast with UAI [ˈmɛne] or [ˈmane].

List 7 elicited US forms with the vowel /ɑ/ which had developed historically from various sources. The first subset consists of words in which US /ɑ/ represented earlier short o and which had reflexes with [ɒ] in UAI. In crop [kɹɑːp], drop [drɑːp], hob [hɑːb], job [dźɑːb], loft [lɑːft], off [ɑːf], tom [tɑːm], bottle (of hay, etc.) [ˈbɑːtl̩], fond [fɑːnd], must [mɑːn], porridge [ˈpɑːɹιtś] we see that the triggering environment of the phonological change ME o > US /ɑ/ seems to be a following, or occasionally a preceding, labial (the dialectal equivalent of the auxiliary must represents the altered form of *mon). In all these cases UAI had /ɒ/, but for must had [möst].

A second subset shows the result of another conditional phonological change in US, viz. ME o > US /ɑ/ followed by the velar nasal, as in long [lɑːŋ], song [sɑːŋ], throng 'crowded' [θrɑːŋ], etc. thong usually gave US [ʍɑːŋ] and strong always gave [strɔːŋ] with [ɔː] instead of [ɑː]. UAI has [ɒ] in all of these.

A third subset illustrates the historical-phonological rule that ME e > US /ɑ/ in the environment of a preceding /w/ or /ʍ/, as in swell [swɑːl], twelve [twɑːl], weather [ˈwɑːðəɹ], web [wɑːb], wedding [ˈwɑːdn̩], well n. [wɑːl], wet adj. [wɑːt], whelm 'overturn' [ˈʍɑːml̩],(33) wren [ɹɑːn], wrestle [ˈɹɑːsl̩].(34) Note the loss of /v/ in twelve and the influence of the now silent w in the wr- clusters, i.e. wre > /wrɑ/ > /rɑ/, with e > /ɑ/ before the /w/ was deleted. well adv. is [wil] and wet v. is [wit] in US. A frequent form of quit was [kwɛːt] and from this an underlying form [kwɑːt] had developed by the application of the rule just described. The usual US version of wade was [wɑːd] versus UAI [weːd], and the US dialectal wale 'select' had three forms [wɛːl], [wɑːl], and [weːl], which reflect divergent developments of an older alternation between an underlying short or long vowel. The second version shows the same development as the other words with [wɑː].

Introduction | Lists 1-7 | Lists 8-14 | Phonetic Systems | Questionnaire | Notes