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

Robert J. Gregg

0.1 In the theory of diachronic linguistics the concept of continuous change and drift (1) is axiomatic, and it is easy to demonstrate the inevitable results of the process, as Sweet has done (2) in his History of English Sounds (1888). He describes how a language whose speakers have spread over an extensive plain and have settled down in scattered villages will eventually (if communications are restricted) develop into a series of dialects each differing slightly from its neighbours, the remote extremes, however, being doubtless mutually unintelligible. His description starts with a somewhat idealized picture of the gradual but ineluctable fragmentation of human speech in settled communities (3) whose only contacts are with their immediate kindred. He quickly goes on to add that in real life sharp divisions even between contiguous dialects will of course occur if they are separated by some natural geographical barrier, and further that at a certain stage of development the political supremacy of one centre is almost certain to be established and with it the predominance of the dialect used there, which becomes in effect a kind of standard language. The setting up of a communication system focused on this point, coupled with such factors as centralized education and printing press, will eventually tend to spread the standard language over the whole territory at the expense of the regional forms of speech.

0.2 This theoretical description of the origin and development of dialects coincides, of course, very closely with the actual history of the dialects of English and many other languages. Sweet does not fail to note, however, that in the formation of standard English the language of the administrative centre did not finally prevail without some admixture arising from its contact with different regional dialects, which in turn suffered even more drastic modifications under pressure from the central speech. We must recognize in fact that this pressure becomes eventually an even more potent force than the older natural tendency toward change which is inherent in language.

0.3 In more recent years the rise and diffusion of standard English in its written form have been investigated in detail by H. C. Wyld and his followers.(4) Wyld himself in his work on modern colloquial English (5) has also described the origin of spoken 'Received Standard' English, together with that of its many offshoots which have arisen from blends with the various regional dialects and which he calls 'modified standard'.

0.4 The purpose of the present paper is to give a brief and tentative phonological analysis of one of these regional standard forms of English as it is spoken in Larne, county Antrim. The Larne version differs in many respects from the regional standard of Belfast and mid or south Ulster, which has been described by G. B. Adams in An Introduction to the Study of Ulster Dialects.(6) It is worthy of attention, however, not only for its own sake but because it is typical of many other Ulster-Scots urban varieties of English which have arisen in the more northerly Ulster towns with a history and a setting like those of Larne. It has also a wider interest because it must have been a similar type of speech which was transported across the Atlantic by many of the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who have left Ulster to settle in various parts of North America since the early part of the 18th century and who have undoubtedly left their linguistic mark in various parts of the United States and Canada.

0.5 The links will also be traced between Larne speech and its linguistic background — the neighbouring Ulster-Scots rural dialect — and an attempt made to assess the more remote influence of the now extinct local Irish Gaelic.

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