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Item : You Don't Say: A Glossary of Ulster Dialect
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I am Ulster; my people are an abrupt people

Who like the spiky consonants in speech.

(W. R. Rodgers 1910-69)


Language is the fabric we wrap our thoughts in for presentation to the world at large. It serves many purposes, but communication is central, and its essence is speech - not writing. The variety of sounds is infinite; millions may share a common language yet no two people speak exactly alike. Only when they come to be written down and codified by lexicographers does the idea of standard words and speech begin. But dictionaries, in general, deal with a relatively narrow band of commonly accepted 'standard' words. Leading off from this central stem are myriad dialectal branches - repositories of sounds and idioms used by people in everyday discourse, and invariably more colourful and expressive than much of standard speech.


Dictionaries are useful and necessary, if only to impose some cohesion on the welter of spoken and written words. But it is neither possible nor desirable to freeze-dry language in some clinical way; words cannot be laid out, anaesthetised, then dissected and something labelled 'meaning' neatly extracted. This is especially so with dialect words - and in this case with the dialect words of Ulster. It is easier, for instance, to frame a definition (never mind spelling) for, say, 'triangle' than for 'sprachle'. Whereas triangle is a concept belonging to the many and readily explicable via a line drawing, or reference to a physical example, the connotations of sprachle are difficult to encapsulate in words. Being so delicately tuned to a particular viewpoint and experience, it might be said of this word that you either know what it means or you don't!


'You Don't Say' is not a dictionary as such - nor does it stake any claims in the territory of strict lexicography. Rather, it offers a selection of dialect words as used throughout the northern part of Ireland, together with examples of their meanings, usage and, where possible, their derivation. The selection is necessarily arbitrary; words were collected from most parts of each county, though in some parts students of the subject had gleaned more detailed or specialist collections than in others. Many entries tend towards a rural and agricultural bias - unsurprising in a region where close association with the land has long informed attitudes and provided a backdrop to everyday life. But examples of words from a more urban background appear as well, and it can be said that much of the material is alive and in daily use. The aim throughout has been to provide a glimpse of the rich variety of Ulster words and expressions - and in the process to record for posterity some of those more rurally based examples that are in danger of passing out of common parlance.


Put simply, we in Ulster speak English in our own way, just as any community of English speakers might. Ours bears the imprint of infusions from other linguistic blood-lines - chiefly Irish, Scots Gaelic and Lowland Scots, as well as dialects from northern and central England. The tortuous course of our history has ensured this intermingling. From earliest times there was commerce between Ireland and Scotland, then with successive waves of soldiers, adventurers, traders and planters over later centuries were implanted the chief ingredients of Ulster's rich linguistic brew. The influence of Irish is to be detected nearly everywhere in our dialect. After all, Irish was the first language of much of central and western Ulster until the mid 19th century, and remained widely spoken in some parts - central Tyrone and the Antrim Glens, for instance - until the early 20th century. Similarly, the dialects of English-speaking Scots - likewise descended from Gaelic antecedents - added further to the colour and vivacity of Ulster speech. This Scots influence was, and remains, principally found throughout east Ulster, particularly in Antrim and Down, but also in pockets of north and east Derry, mid Tyrone and east Donegal. It is not confined to vocabulary either, living on in the accent and intonation of these parts.


A third component of our dialect is the number of archaic English words still in use. In fact, if someone from here were magically to be transported to Elizabethan England, he or she would not be all that hard put to understand and be understood. Words like afeard, forby and fornenst were in daily use in Early Modern English, but have since been sidelined on the road to standardised speech. But such words were carried to Ireland by settlers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, here remaining somewhat sheltered from the levelling forces at work on English elsewhere. So it was that many of the words and idioms of Shakespeare's time have remained in use in Ulster, but would be largely unintelligible to a stockbroker from Surrey. (In much the same way, present-day Afrikaans retains the character of the seventeenth century Dutch from which it evolved - though a Boer might have some difficulty conversing fluently with a citizen of Amsterdam.)


Sir John Byers, President of the Belfast Literary Society, writing in 1916, noted that whereas.. 'a glossary of more than 2,000 words would be required to enable a modern Englishman to read his Shakespeare, probably about 200 words or less would be all that an intelligent North of Ireland person would need to understand the work of the greatest of poets and dramatists'. [From 'Shakespeare and the Ulster Dialect'; The Northern Whig, 22 April 1916.] Forty years later, one of the most insightful writers on Ulster life observed that.. 'the English dialects spoken in many districts, even if shot through with Gaelic derived turns of phrase, are strikingly Elizabethan'. [E. Estyn Evans; 'Irish Folk Ways', 1957.]


The Ulsterman's speech has long been characterised as accurate but tuneless, presumably in contrast to the more mellifluous blarney of the southern and western provinces. In part this springs from the popular impression of Ulster as being a trifle dour, dominated by graft and nurtured on the God-fearing sobriety of its dominant Calvinist ethos. This image, of course, is largely a cliché - and so only about half the truth. Ulster's evolution has been a complex and, at times, a complex process. Conflicting allegiances and apparently opposed identities have contrived to produce a degree of cultural schizophrenia that is embedded with equal rigidity in the consciousness of both major traditions. But, on a positive note, this heterogeneity has brought advantages too. In their villages and small towns, at fairs and markets, and on family farms that spread across the plains and up the ancient hills, ordinary people - of whatever background or tradition - have tended to get on with the business of living together. Existing cheek by jowl for centuries, a fair degree of intermingling has been inevitable, and this 'rubbing off' effect has produced in Ulster a healthy mix of speech, attitude and approach to life.


The words collected here represent only a skimming of this region's dialect. They are in use all over Ulster, though not necessarily exclusive to it. Some are becoming increasingly rare - confined to older people in rural areas and, as such, in the process of becoming extinct. For instance, wersh, meaning pallid or tired-looking, is remembered by few people under fifty and used by many less. Likewise, sheebo, meaning fiercely driving snow, occurs in W. F. Marshall's poems but is hardly known outside mid-Tyrone. Indeed, Liam O'Connor, Irish folklorist and broadcaster, said that prior to visiting Cappagh, Co Tyrone in 1947 he had never heard the word. But such an example is rare. Ulster, after all, is a small place - only 130 miles across - and while in the fairly recent past some districts may have used dialect words peculiar to them alone, today such linguistic insularity is rare. Modern transport and the mass media have flushed out these gristly pieces, so to speak, and either they are known and used more widely or else trampled underfoot and forgotten in the onward march of language. Throughout the book, wherever a word occurs which was recorded only in a particular area, this fact is noted. There are very few such, and it should not be assumed that such a word doesn't occur elsewhere.


The approach to spelling has been to write words as they sound - that is to say by representing them like general English words of similar sound and not according to any official phonetics canon. This is an arbitrary method to be sure, with its own drawbacks, but one that probably also avoids a deal of complications. Few dialect words have ever been written down, and since most are pronounced in a variety of ways it was thought best to give the most common forms of a particular word and to cross-reference these. To advance any particular spelling as definitive would, it was felt, be presumptuous. It is assumed that any given word will be intelligible to an Ulster reader, and further that he or she will pronounce it in a manner appropriate to themselves. In those cases where ambiguity is possible, a simple guide to pronunciation is added - for example by indicating the syllable to be stressed, or by suggesting a standard word of similar sound.


The huge power of television and social media in shaping modern culture can be seen in the appearance of vogue words, chiefly amongst the young. For instance, US cartoon characters have long used constructions such as that there house, as opposed to the more standard that house there, and this usage is common in the under-thirty age bracket. Similar usages include lethal, in the sense of great, and hectic, meaning enjoyable or good. It is not suggested that these usages are confined to Ulster, but since they reflect current usage they are deserving of inclusion alongside words of more venerable lineage which, just because our grandparents used them and they pepper the works of Marshall, Kavanagh or Lynn Doyle, are felt to be somehow more authentic.


Much detailed research into Ulster dialect has already been carried out, most notably by Dr Brendan Adams (1916-82), long associated with the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and by Professor John Braidwood of Queen's University, Belfast. The 'Concise Ulster Dictionary', edited by Dr Caroline McAfee and published in 1996, represents the most comprehensive reference work on our dialect yet published. It draws on the wealth of excellent source materials gathered by the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum over many decades and is particularly rich in terms of dialect names for flora and fauna. It stands as the definitive work on the subject and will continue to bring Ulster dialect to a wider audience worldwide.


Finally, the whole area of dialect, and language usage generally, is for many people a fascinating one. True, most of us use words much as we breathe, not thinking especially about what we're doing, but now and then we like to stop and consider these most basic blocks of communication. 'You Don't Say?' is presented merely as a guide to our Ulster words and usages. It tries to suggest the subject's diversity and its fluid spectrum of overlapping flavours, sounds and possibilities. Incomplete though it is, readers will hopefully derive some measure of information and enjoyment from it - and perhaps some will volunteer words that have not been included, or further information on those that have.


William O'Kane

1991 and 2018