Ulster-Scots Urban Speech in Ulster: A Phonological Study of the Regional Standard English of Larne, County Antrim*

Robert J. Gregg


4.0 A scientific study of any one of the various regional forms of standard English is, of course, important in itself. Even those whose main task has been the description and promulgation of SSB (59) have now come to realise that the latter is not acceptable everywhere, that other standards must be recognised and will probably remain as permanent features in the linguistic landscape of the English-speaking world.(60)

4.1 Apart from this intrinsic importance, however, there is some interest in the general linguistic problem of analysing the various factors which have led to the establishment of a regional version of standard English.

4.2 In proceeding from Larne and Glenoe to a consideration of the local county Antrim Gaelic we have, as it were, been going back historically, for we know that Gaelic had already been established in this area as indeed over the whole of Ireland for many centuries before the introduction of Lowland Scottish or any form of English. Actually when the Lowlanders were brought over by the MacDonnells of Antrim at the beginning of the 17th century they must have found Gaelic in universal and exclusive use throughout the county, except for the Carrickfergus area, where some English was spoken. In places such as Larne (generally marked as 'Olderfleete' on the old maps of the period), where the population was not very numerous, there may have been a few bilingual speakers with an acquired knowledge of the current Elizabethan English in addition to their native Irish. The point open frictionless continuant r, which is still prevalent in both Larne and Glenoe (as it is elsewhere in Ulster) and which is quite distinct from the typical Gaelic and Scottish r's, may be derived from this type of English. In any case, although it has generally less retroflection, it is very similar to the current North American r, which probably has links with the same period.

4.3 The growth of Larne during the last three and a half centuries has largely been brought about by the influx of population from the surrounding countryside. Successive generations of these incomers have settled down and many have given up their US rural dialect for something approximating to standard English. A comparison of our analyses of Larne and Glenoe shows an almost complete identity in the range of phonemes and even in their actual phonetic realisation. The reason for this identity is undoubtedly that, in the past, rural speakers attempting to speak standard have simply continued to use their repertoire of native sounds, re-arranging them for any given word-form so as to correspond as closely as possible to the new and for them 'foreign' language-type. This substitution of native sounds for 'equivalents' in another language is of course (under the name of interference) a process very familiar to language teachers. It is still quite easy to observe it to-day as rural dialect speakers are still moving into the town and making the same linguistic adaptations as described above. The same situation arises also when children brought up speaking the rural dialect go to school.

4.4 The phonological similarities between both types of US speech on the one hand and county Antrim Gaelic on the other are also very close, though not quite so complete as those just discussed. They can also be explained to a large extent by the same process of linguistic interference already cited, for following the introduction of Lowland Scottish speech there must have been a fairly lengthy bilingual period during which local Gaelic speakers picked up this new language, modifying it in the way described above as they learned it.

4.5 If we consider to begin with the vowel system as analysed by Holmer, it is obvious that the Gaelic speaker had in his own language a range of vocalic qualities and quantities sufficient to match those of the Scottish system he was acquiring. In the case of the consonants he was able to utilize many of his native sounds unchanged in speaking Lowland Scottish. The only non-Gaelic consonants that he had to add were those mentioned earlier.

4.6 On the other hand even if we accept that both types of US speech owe a considerable phonetic debt to the original county Antrim Gaelic we must also recognize that during the presumed bilingual period Gaelic in turn underwent important changes as described by Holmer, neutralised many of the older phonemic oppositions and in short drastically simplified its whole phonological system. This process was without doubt accelerated in the last phase before Gaelic disappeared, for by that time even those who had learned it as a native language probably used it a great deal less than they used one type or another of English. On the rare occasions when these last speakers did use it they failed to observe traditional Gaelic oppositions which had no counterpart in English, and at the same time they introduced many non-Gaelic sounds in the frequent English loan words. This at least is the picture Holmer gives of GA and RI at the time when he investigated them in the 'thirties'.

4.7 In trying finally to assess the different phonological factors that have contributed to the formation of regional standard forms of English such as Larne we may recognise the following diachronic stages of development.

(i) The original Lowland Scottish dialects that were brought over to county Antrim were modified in the mouths of the local Gaelic speakers who acquired them and eventually, after the bilingual phase, lost their native tongue.
(ii) This modified form of the Lowland dialects which we designate as Ulster-Scots was gradually adopted even by the descendants of the original Scottish settlers.
(iii) With the growth of towns and the spread of education, which has always worked through the medium of written standard English, a new local spoken standard arose, modelled on and conforming closely to the written standard in lexicon,(61) morphology and syntax.(62) Phonologically speaking it has without doubt complex origins, including perhaps a local reflex of Elizabethan English and some early version of Scottish standard,(63) but at the present time its constituent elements — phonemic and sub-phonemic — are essentially identical with those of the rural Ulster-Scots dialects.

4.8 Such then is the background of Larne and similar Ulster-Scots urban versions of modified standard English, distributed in a wide arc stretching round the coasts of Ulster from east Down through Antrim and Londonderry to the Laggan district in Donegal. They are spoken nowadays not only by the towns-folk but by educated country-dwellers as well. For this very reason they are obviously destined to expand, for with uninterrupted recession of the rural dialects, the regional modified standard language is spreading out from the towns and rapidly encroaching upon the surrounding countryside.

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Conclusion | Notes