The Ulster-Scots Dialect Boundaries in Ulster

Robert J. Gregg

The words in List 8 were intended to focus on forms with /ɔ/ in US dialects, although some of them turned out to have /ɑ/ with or without a labialized off-glide (thus: [ɑw]) in many of the items elicited.

The first subset includes words which had ME al for which US had reflexes with [ɔː], [ɑw], [ɑː] or [aː]. The l has been deleted, thus for Antrim and Down US, all, fall, wall gave [ɔː], [fɔː], [wɔː]; [ɑw], [fɑw], [wɑw]; or [ɑː], [fɑː], [wɑː], whereas the generally more archaic Donegal forms were [aː], [faː], [waː]. However, even the dialects that had developed [ɔː] had [ɑː] in items where ME al was followed by another consonant, hence: beholden [beˈhɑːdn̩], dwalm 'sick turn' [dwɑːm], salt [sɑːt], scald (in the sense 'tea') [skɑːd]. In a further subset ME a was followed by w or preceded by w or wh, a combination that produced all the above reflexes in the various US areas, e.g. blow [blɔː], [blɑw], [blaː], crow n./v. [kɹɔː], etc., row 'a series' [ɹɔː], etc., sow v. [sɔː], etc., as well as two [twɔː], etc., who [ʍɔː], etc. The words away [əˈwɔː], etc., and where [ʍɔːɹ], etc., fitted in here, pointing back to older w(h)a-sequences. Donegal US had /a/ in all these forms as well as items like draw [draː], etc. haw [haː], hawk [haːk],(35) jackdaw [ˌdźɛkˈdaː], jaw [dźaː], etc. The words borrow [ˈbɔːɹə] and tassle [ˈtɔːsl̩] frequently turned up with /ɔ/ (36) in US.

The UAI dialects have preserved the lateral in the first and second subsets: all [ɒːl], etc., scald [skɒld], etc. With l + voiceless consonant, [ɔ] occurred, as in salt [sɔlt]. The l has been deleted in UAI walk [wɒːk], talk [tɒːk]. In Donegal it was discovered that this set of words (with original -lk): stalk [staːk], talk [taːk], and balk 'beam' [baːk] were in phonemic contrast with original l-less forms such as stack [staːḱ], tack [taːḱ], and back [baːḱ], having plain /k/ versus the palatalized /ḱ/.

List 9 produced US forms with /i/ in contrast with a wide variety of vowels in the UAI reflexes. US had [i(ː)] in briar [ˈbriːəɹ], die [diː], eye [iː], fly n./v. [fliː], high [hix], lie n./v. [liː] over against the UAI diphthong /əi/ in [ˈbɹəiəɹ], [dəi], [əi], [fləi], [həi], [ləi]; although in Donegal US [diː] means 'do' and die is pronounced [dəi], apparently a borrowing from UAI to avoid homophonic clash. It was noted that in eyes — [in] —the US dialects had the archaic plural marker /-n/ along with the short allophone [i], and yet in died [diːd] the normal past tense/past participle marker /-d/ does not produce this shortening. died [di:d] is thus in minimal contrast with dead [did], which is a solid morpheme, and therefore has the normal short allophone which occurs in all closed syllables except those with a final voiced fricative or [ɹ]. The contrast was with UAI /ɛ/ in another subset where US has breast [bɹist], devil [dil], friend [fɹin], meadow [ˈmidə], threadrid], wet v. [wit], bread [bɹid], dead [did], deaf [dif],(37) deafen [diːv], head [hid], lead n. [lid], mare [miːɹ], pear [piːɹ], well adv. [wil], etc.

In a few instances US had the reflex [i(ː)], developed through lengthening from an earlier short i which is represented by [ϊ] in UAI, e.g. drip [drip], king [kiŋ], live [liːv], swim [swim], widow [ˈwidə].

That the older, underlying form of this US vowel is always long, and that the clipped allophone is a relatively recent innovation, is borne out by the preservation at a few points in the most conservative part of the US area (viz. the Mid Ards) of forms like [kiːk] 'peep' and [ˈkɹiːpe] (three-legged stool) with [iː], in contrast with the forms [kik] and [ˈkɹipe] in which the shortening rule applies, and which were found everywhere else, even in other similar items in the dialect of the same Mid Ards speakers who had [kiːk], etc. The sporadic survival of this archaic [iː] has, of course, also been attested by the Linguistic Survey of Scotland. It is noteworthy that semantically the words concerned tend to have a strong affective connotation.

List 10 brings together words that have /e/ in US in contrast with UAI /o/, /ɒ/, /ɛ/, depending on their origin and development. The first subset show contrastive reflexes of OE , US having /e/ in bone [beːn] clothes [kleːz], from [fɹeː], or [feː] (with deletion of [ɹ]), home [heːm], most [meːst], no adj. [neː], stone [steːn], straw [streː] as against UAI /o/ and /ɒ/ in [boːn], [kloːz], [fɹɒːm], [hoːm], [moːst], [noː], [stoːn], [strɒː]. A morphophonemic shortening rule for US by which [eː] > [ι], marks the morpheme boundary in the compound form nothing [ˈnιθən] versus UAI [ˈnɒθən]. The close vowel /e/ does not occur before /r/ in US; hence more [mɛːɹ] and sore [sɛːɹ] have [ɛː] in contrast with UAI [oː] in [moːɹ], [soːɹ]. The numeral one has a special development: UAI [wɑːn] versus US [jæ̈n] instead of the expected [eːn]. The latter reflex does, however, occasionally crop up in Donegal, and in all US districts in alone [əˈleːn]. The [eː] also appears in own adj. [eːn]. Another small subset contrasts US [eː] with UAI [ɛ̜] in seven [ˈseːvən], eleven [əˈleːvən] versus UAI [ˈsɛ̜vən], [əˈlɛ̜vən]. A third, larger, subset of words in this list with orthographic ea proved unhelpful in separating the dialects, as UAI tended to have the archaic [eː] in the same items as US and perhaps in an even wider range, many of these occurring in the popular speech of Belfast. Thus: beak [beːk] (in the vulgar phrase [ˈśʌt jəɹ ˈbeːk] 'Shut up!'), beast [beːst], creature [ˈkɹeːtər], easter [ˈeːstəɹ], neat [neːt], tea [teː] tend to crop up in all Ulster dialects whether of English or Scottish background, although a special detailed study might reveal that, apart from the group used in common, each dialect type has a special group of its own items not shared by the other type.(38)

A few special lexical items characteristic of US proved to be useless as boundary markers. For example [heːn] 'use sparingly', [weːnz] 'children' — although UAI has often preserved the older simple plural form [ˈtśϊldəɹ] — have for the most part spread beyond US areas.

Because of the development of OE ɑ̄ > US /e/ instead of > /o/ as in UAI, the phoneme /o/ has a relatively low frequency in US. List 11 brought together some items with US /o/ from various sources, which contrasted with /ɒ/ or /ɔ/ in UAI. Some special US lexical items were also included, such as [ˈgoːpən] 'a double handful', [hoːk] 'poke; search blindly', [ˈloːnən] 'lane', [snoːk] 'poke with snout', [θoːl] 'bear; stand; put up with', [skoːb] 'scrape off with the teeth and eat thin shreds of' — an apple, turnip, etc. These, however, tended not to be limited geographically to the Scottish-settled areas. Before [ɹ] US had [oː] in cord [koːɹd], corn [koːɹn], morning [ˈmoːɹnən], short [śoːɹt], sort [soːɹt], where UAI had [ɔː];(39) and also in the words not [noː] (emphatic) and rock which was frequently [ɹoːk] versus UAI [nɒt] and [ɹɒk]. The word dog had at least three variant forms in US, viz. [doːg], [dʌg], and [dəüg], over against UAI [dɒːg].

List 12 was intended to throw light on the complex situation that has arisen in the Ulster dialects with regard to the occurrence and distribution of diphthongs of the [əi], [aι], or [ɑe] type from various ME sources.

The UAI group had generally only the narrow type of diphthong — [əi] — almost exclusively (as in SSB) representing a reflex of ME ī. In the same items US has developed two reflexes in allophonic distribution: (1) the same narrow type —[əi] — as in UAI, which may be considered as the main member of this diphthongal phoneme; (2) a broad diphthong [ɑe] (or in Donegal [aι]), which occurs in open syllables or in hiatus (except when flanked by [w-] and [-əɹ], as well as before voiced fricatives. Thus contrasts emerged between US [ɑe] and UAI [əi] in words like:

buy; by[bɑe]versus[bəi]
lie 'recline'[lɑe]versus[ləi]

But note that there was no contrast with items like:


To complicate the situation US has preserved one of these diphthongs, namely [əi], in a small set of monosyllabic words that had a ME diphthong of the ei/ai type. As a result US /əi/ and /ɑe/ must in the final analysis be recognized as separate phonemes, as demonstrated by the following minimal pairs:

/əi/'ay'; 'always'versus/ɑe/'aye'; 'yes'
/məi/'May (month)'versus/mɑe/'my'
/stəi/'stay'versus/stɑe/'sty (for pigs)'

A similar contrast occurs with the word mine: /məin/ mine (coal, etc.) versus /mɑen/ mine (possessive). All these latter forms would be in contrast with UAI, which has no such diphthongal phonemic opposition but has /e/ in place of US /əi/ in the first column and /əi/ instead of US /ɑe/ in the second.

To round off this complicated picture, US has [i(ː)] in a few items where UAI has [əi], thus:

lie 'fib'[liː]versus[ləi]

and where US has /əi/ < ME ei/ai, UAI has /e/, as shown by the following contrasts:(40)


The US lexical form [kwəi] 'heifer' and the adverb [əi] 'always' tended to spread outside the US districts, and the general, archaic pronunciation [bəil] for boil n. was widely preserved in dialectal speech in all districts of the province.

The other frequently-occurring diphthong /əü/ belonged to both dialects in a subset of the List 13 items, derived mainly from me -ald < OE -ald where the standard English spelling has -old. Thus bold, cold, hold, old, sold, told have [əü] as the vocalic nucleus in both dialect groups, though US has the special distinction of regularly deleting the final [d] as well. From other sources both dialects had [əü] in bowl, soul, chew but US alone had [əü] in ewe [jəü], four [ˈfəüəɹ], pole [pəül], roll [ɹəül], bestow [beˈstəü], grow [gɹəü], over [ˈəüəɹ], thaw [θəü], tow n. [təü], where UAI had [oː] as follows:

[joː],(41) [foːɹ], [poːl], [ɹoːl], [beˈstoː], [gɹoː], [ˈoːvəɹ], [θoː], [toː].

US loose [ləüs] and loosen [ləüz] contrast with UAI [lüs] and [ˈlüsən].

Dialectal lexical items such as [kəüp] 'overturn', [gəül] 'howl' were found to be very widespread, occurring in both dialect groups, while [gəüp] 'throb' (with pain), [ləün] 'calm', [ləüp] 'leap' (specifically for the Salmon Loup, i.e. Salmon Leap — a place name)(42) tended to be restricted to the US areas.

The diphthong /ɔe/ proved to be of relatively rare occurrence in dialectal words. Some forms like [ˈmɔele] 'hornless' (cow) — from Gaelic sources — cropped up almost everywhere, but [stɔex] 'stench' was specifically US, though not very widely known.

The final list, List 14, attempted to check contrastive morphological patterns involving verb forms and negatives, thus:

does[dιz]vs.[döz] or [dɔːz]
(he made me) do it[dιt]vs.[ˈdüːət]
from it[fιt]vs.[ˈfɹɒmət]
with it[wιt]vs.[ˈwϊθət]
have to[ˈhιte]vs.[ˈhaftə]
had had[hədəˈhιn]vs.[hədəˈhaːd]
gave[gin]vs.[gϊv] or [geːv]
given[gin]vs.[gϊv] or [ˈgϊvən]
hit (past)[hʌt]vs.[hϊt]
let (past)[lɔːt]vs.[lɛ̜t]
set (past)[sɔːt]vs.[sɛ̜t]
is/are there?[ˈæ̈ɹˌðeː]vs.[ˈϊz ðəɹ]
was/were there?[ˈwʌɹˌðeː]vs.[ˈwöz ðəɹ]
i'll not be able to..[ˌɑl ˈnoː kən]vs.[ˌəil ˈnɒt be ˈe:bl̩ tə]

In the area of morphology in general the best criteria proved to be the US negatives in [-ne], contrasting with UAI [nɒt] or [n̩t], in addition to the archaic US plurals: eyes [in], shoes [śϊn], etc., cows [kɑe] discussed above, and the various plurals of house. Verb forms such as do [deː], did, done [dϊn], give [giː], gave, given [gin], or [giːd], etc., have [heː], must [mɑːn] proved to be reliable markers of US dialect versus [düː], [dön], [gϊv], [gϊv], or [geːv], [haːv], [möst] for UAI, as was the syntactic use of can as infinitive (43) in phrases like [ˌɑːl ˈnoː kən ˈstəi] versus [əil ˈnɒt be ˈeːbl tə ˈsteː] 'I'll not be able to stay'. The contracted forms of preposition + pronoun were also distinctively US, e.g.

from [feː] + it [æ̈t] > from it [fιt]

with [weː] + it [æ̈t] > with it [wιt].

When the task of collecting and scrutinizing the materials provided by the informants was completed, the phonologically relevant parts of all the responses were tabulated in the numerical order of the Questionnaire, county by county. From these tabulations ninety items were selected so as to cover all the Lists, 1-14, in a representative way. These items were then plotted on a series of base maps which made it immediately apparent that in the majority of cases the US phonological features discussed above and listed in the Tabulated Summary stood in sharp contrast with corresponding characteristic UAI features in such a way as to give a clear boundary between the two dialect groups. Further, the demarcation lines in item after item fell between the same points on the map — in other words the isoglosses bundled in a very consistent manner. As the main purpose of the research was to map the extent of Scottish-type dialect features in Ulster, a careful statistical examination had to be made of the distribution of each item in its function as an US boundary marker and then a further statistical estimate made for the classification of each informant as an US speaker (actually 89 out of the total of 125 were so classified) or as a non-US speaker.

Each map, of course, once again bore out the truth of the contention that every word has its own history — and geography,(44) for even a well-preserved Scottish feature like the voiceless, velar fricative /x/ was missing in the word daughter with 4 out of the 89 informants classified as US speakers; in the word eight it was missing with 9 (the influence of the schools could have been a factor here); in the word enough, with 3; in the word fight, with only 2; whereas in the word tough all the US informants had the /x/ and 6 of the non-US speakers as well, and in the word trough likewise not only all the US group but even 34 out of 36 of the non-US used the /x/. The /x/ in trough was thus virtually universal, hence useless as a boundary marker as compared with most of the other words with /x/.

A careful study of the ninety maps showed that thirty-six items were not useful criteria for boundary drawing because of atypical distribution (cf. trough above); because some US forms were not in contrast with a clearly recognizable UAI equivalent; because the morphological items were often obsolescent; because of incomplete coverage. The rest of the maps, which showed very little variation, provided the basis for a generalized Final Boundary map, which separated all the points producing consistently US forms from those that did not. Deviations either way — either US forms missing inside the boundary or present outside it — never amounted on any map to more than 10 out of a population of 125. From the point of view of the 125 informants likewise it turned out that 49 of them had no deviations; up to 115 had only 5 or fewer; another 8 had up to 12 or fewer and only 2 came anywhere near a point where their classification was tentative or doubtful. In this way then the Final Boundary was authenticated both from the point of view of the items investigated and from that of the dialect of the informants viewed as a coherent whole.

It should be emphasized, in conclusion, that the Final Boundary drawn represents the maximal extent of the US dialects at the time of the investigation and among the oldest speakers available. On the few occasions when it was possible to check the speech of the three generations it was observed that the younger and the youngest had lost many of the characteristic US forms, especially along the fringes of the US dialect zones. Only in the heart of the US areas was the dialect well preserved among the youngest speakers. In other words the US dialect boundary is and will be receding from the position marked in the Final Boundary Map and the ultimate extinction of the dialect may be envisaged, probably within the next two or three generations.

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