The development of the English Language in Ulster

Vol. 7 No. 3 - 1999

The development of the English Language in Ulster

by Dermot Kelly

"The history of a language is often a story of possession and dispossession, territorial struggle and the establishment or imposition of a culture".

Tom Paulin

Three unrelated phenomena, physical, political and social, have helped shape our dialect speech, be it Ulster English in its variant forms or the more uniform Hlberno-English of the South.

The first of these is the existence of an ancient barrier, popularly known as The Black Pig's Dyke, and stretching across the southern perimeter of the geographical province. This physically traceable and irregular earthwork has been identified as a cause for the divergent forms of Irish and as an impediment later to the spread of English northwards in Tudor and Elizabethan times.

The second, the plantations of the 16th century and later under Cromwell, brought English speaking colonists to these shores at a time when the English language itself was about to undergo rapid and profound change. This change, affecting phonology and syntax, largely bypassed the migrating colonists be they Lowland Scots or Midlands-dialect speakers. The flood of immigration under James saw some 200,000 Scots land in the north-east, to become tenants of the confiscated lands of the O'Neills and O'Donnells. They outnumbered their English counterparts in Ulster 6 to 1, both camps largely illiterate and, outside of the towns, thinly spread,

The third, and most catastrophic, was of course, the Great Famine of the mid 19th century which finally tipped the balance in no uncertain manner between the two competing languages on the island.

While these three factors deeply shaped the tongue we speak today, the development of the English language on the island, of course, had begun much earlier.

The spread of literacy

We know that literacy itself spread under the influence of Roman occupation in Britain and the coming of Christianity to these shores.

The earliest native literary evidence we have is contained in the many Ogham stone etchings of the 4/5th century AD. These marks are based on the Roman alphabet and the script predates Christian influence. Indeed, it is said to have been a secret Druidic sign language from pagan Celtic times, a sort of Masonic code for the initiated. Whatever its origins, it had a long, though unspoken, life.

A Kinsale man was summonsed in the last century for omitting his name from his cart. He won his case when he proved that it was, in fact, entered there in Ogham script. Some gravestones of modern times carry Ogham Inscriptions. The key to the script was first discovered in the 14th century Book of Ballymote, a millennium after it had been written in stone.


Viking incursions from the end of the 8th century onwards had increased; encouraged, no doubt, by the discoveries of vast monastic wealth on coastal sites like Bangor and at inland cities such as Armagh and Clonmacnois. These Norsemen eventually established their own urban settlements along the East coast - the first ports, which were to spell the demise of the monastic-centred landscape and introduced the first secular communities here. But their impact on language was limited and delayed.

They gave words to Irish connected to the vocabulary of ships, sailing and commerce and so represent the first traces of a Germanic tongue on the island. It was their Danish kinsmen, not the Norse, who gave the English language. new vocabulary Scandinavian words such as "skirt", "byre" "ford" and "kirk" would travel over on the tongues of colonists during the first plantations of the 16th century.

Some four centuries after the first Vikings appeared in Irish waters, their descendants the Normans set foot in the very ports that the Norsemen had established. About 140 knights and 300 foot soldiers landed at Bannow Strand near Wexford in 1169, seeking to recover lost lands for the Leinster king Dermot McMorrough and his prospective son-in-law Strongbow. They spoke a mixture of Latin, French and dialect English - with Flemish and Welsh thrown in. Many of the infantry spoke a dialect form which would survive in pockets of Wexford and Dublin until the last century. Despite this apparent longevity that dialect, called "Yola" ("Old"), never spread with the conquest, even though by 1250 some 75% of the island was divided into feudal shires. Military and administrative success for the new order had not brought linguistic change.

This may have been due to the fact that the French-speaking Norman leadership was able to use Latin, the language of Christianity, as a lingua franca or common bridge between themselves and the Gaelic-speaking nobility. English and Irish could then be used to transmit decisions and orders to the respective camps. Latin also became the language of the law, before being challenged by French in the early 14th century. But even then the linguistic order was again changing. Normandy itself had been lost and the English Court had supplanted French with English.

In Ireland the first recorded use of English dates to 1250. A century later an Anglo-Norman statute proclaimed that "all law suits must he conducted in English." So, what had been earlier regarded in England as "a rude and uncultivated tongue" was now being promoted here as official language. In reality, though, English was on the retreat in Ireland. The Anglo-Normans and their descendants had been assimilated into Gaelic society to such an extent that Irish had become the common vernacular. To redress this drift in 1366 the Statutes of Kilkenny - written in French - commanded that "every Englishman use the English language and be named by an English name".

The proverbial writing had been on the wall for some considerable time by then. As far back as 1285 the Anglo-Norman Bishop of Kildare had petitioned the king in vain to stop promoting Irish-speaking clergy.

French and Gaelic

This drift to Irish accelerated despite edicts and official disapproval, Edward Bruce tried to get on the bandwagon in 1315 by claiming his right to the kingship of Ireland on linguistic grounds. He petitioned the Pope in his cause, that, though Norman French himself, he spoke Scots Gaelic, then practically the same tongue as Irish.

The very Lord Chief Justice, Earl Fitzgerald, was writing poetry in Irish in the 14th century. Matters drifted so badly that a law enacted in Waterford forbade "ony manere of man, freman or foraine, to defende in Yrish tong agenste ony man in the court". By then, however, English had been forced off the stage throughout rural Ireland and replaced by Irish even in the market place.

Under Henry VIII, the people of Galway in 1536 were ordered to wear English dress and to"... put forth yer childe to scole to lerne and speke Englishe". These edicts and laws were ignored wholesale, and served only to associate English with coercion and with a distant administration at loggerheads with the native culture.

When Henry was proclaimed King of Ireland in 1541 the Proclamation was read out in Irish by the Earl of Ormond. Only he, it seemed, knew English also. Most documents swearing loyalty to Henry are written in Latin, as was Con O'Neill's submission on his creation as Earl of Tyrone. Then O'Neill, somewhat tongue in cheek, committed himself and his heirs "to use to their knowledge the English language".

Irish and Latin

Two decades later his son, Shane O'Neill, arrived at Elizabeth's Court and startled the assembly by raging forth in Irish. A generation on and O'Connor of Sligo presented himself to Elizabeth professing his loyalty in Irish via an interpreter. His kinswoman, Grace O'Malley, when she sailed to meet Elizabeth at Greenwich in 1593, conversed directly with the Queen in Latin.

Throughout this time it should be said that the use of Irish was also indicative of its prestige in native Society: the language of the poets and nobility, akin in rank to Latin.

The legacy of this linguistic conflict was to leave its mark. Today Irish, not English, is the official language of the Republic despite the fact that the vast majority of us on the island speak a form of English, variously known as Irish English or Hiberno-English. Indeed, only in recent times has this unofficial language been given recognition through the compilation of dialect dictionaries north and south of the border.

The Reformation only served to strengthen the linguistic bond between the Anglo-Norman Irish and native society. Both clung to the old religion, Elizabeth, in her zeal, did have the New Testament printed in Irish in 1603, perhaps acknowledging the import of the Lord Chancellor's remarks that year: "all English ... even in Dublin speke Irish".

But English linguistic revival recommenced with the Elizabethan seizures and the plantations of Leinster and Munster. Lands seized there from the Gaelic nobility were occupied by families from the Midlands and West of England, These settlements would set the character for the homogenous type of Hiberno-English which would develop across the Southern plain, below the Dyke's demarcation line stretching from Dundalk Bay to Sligo.

English and Scots North of that, and sometime later, an English settlement from Shakespearean Warwickshire filtered down the Lagan Valley but was overshadowed in time by a larger influx - that of the hardier, hungrier Lowland Scots fleeing poverty, persecution and, in some instances, the law.

By 1659, when the first Census under Petty took place, the island returned an 18% proportion of English speakers, touching on 30% in some urban areas. But only Antrim at 54% showed a majority. County Armagh stood at 35% while Dublin's was 45%. All others outside present N. I. returned less than 20%.

Cromwellian plantation

By then, however, the huge Cromwellian plantation, particularly of Scots to troublesome Ulster, had marked a turning point in the linguistic struggle.

The Crown was now intent on eradicating the old Gaelic order. A further English plantation was settled in Leinster and Munster and this pattern of settlement - English to the South, Scots and English to the North - would determine the nature of the linguistic mix.

Excepting the extreme North-East and in urban areas, plantation settlement was thinly spread and so mixed rather than replaced the native labouring populace. Nor was it the voice of an elite, but that of an uneducated rural rump. It had no aspirations to an influential standard or role model to emulate. By its nature it was conservative.

Swift later referred to the new language emanating from the native tongue, "the deliverer ... ridiculous and dispised", The old rhyme puts it with more feeling:

"Who ever heard Such a sight unsung As a severed head With a grafted tongue."

By 1800 there was an approximately even split between the two languages and this divide was mainly East-West, urban-rural. By then the language spoken in England was undergoing radical change at structural and realisation levels. Here in Ireland the 1.5 million or so bilingual speakers contributed heavily to the developing speech, introducing bridges across from the Irish and transmitting aspects now obsolete across the water. Both the rural, fragmented nature of society here and its isolation ensured stalemate between the two over a long period of time,

Nevertheless rapid change was about to occur, much of it linked with political and social reform, A relaxation of the Penal Laws, the return of Roman Catholic clergy to be educated at newly-opened Maynooth, and the end of the Ascendancy Parliament were followed a generation later by the setting up of a National schools system, in English. Political movements for emancipation and repeal were largely addressed in English and the language of Westminster was adopted as that for political advancement. Irish was viewed as a "hindrance to progress", English as the language of commerce and prosperity.

Two famines in the early years of the century had stimulated a flow of emigration to the English-speaking world and a burgeoning population of 8m meant many more were destined for the emigrants' boat. The advent of a railway network meant access to the ports from the remote Irish-speaking regions of the West,

Families, too, hastened the change. Parents, fearful of the future, struggled to master English and only resorted to Irish out of earshot of their children. The dreaded tally stick was used to marginalise Irish and to ridicule it.

the Great Famine

But it was the Great Famine of 1845-1850 that dealt a devastating blow to the old tongue. In five years, 2 million people, mainly Irish-speaking, departed or died.

By the century's end a census of 1891 reported a fall in the number of Irish speakers to half a million, from a figure of some 3 million less than a century earlier.

In the circumstances of this swift turnaround Irish had not functioned as a lingua franca and this was to have its consequences in the adoption and adaption of the new tongue by an illiterate, rural populace.

Changeover lay largely in the remit of bilingual teachers, themselves the products of an earlier hedge school system. Transfer was assisted by assuming parallels in the two languages, Idioms were carried across wholesale. Thus Irish, despite its abandonment, exercised a heavy influence on a mix of English vernaculars, themselves ruleless and flexible.

Elizabethan English, Scots and Irish forged a new language in a relatively short time. By 1911, excluding Donegal, only 3% of Ulster reported as Irish-speaking. Padraig Pearse, promoting the native tongue at this time, was confronted in Galway by the remark (in Irish): "sure it's of little use when you go past a burnt house".

In Ulster, where English had arrived later than further south, Scots, with its own separate vowel sound system, has affected the emerging Hiberno-English in varying degrees and according to the depth of settlement,

The North East core region of Ards, Antrim and parts of Derry speaks a variety of English akin to Lowland Scots, such has been the density of Scots of settlement there and, until recent times, its comparative isolation.

A much larger region, embracing Belfast and mid Ulster, where both English and Scots settled among a native Irish-speaking populace, has fashioned a variety distinct from the first and inexorably encroaching on it. The mushrooming of Belfast in the 19th century attracting vast numbers of people from the hinterland, has in time fused Scots, Irish and archaic English components in a distinctive, phonological way.

A third type along the Border regions, where little Scots penetration took place, is more akin to the homogenous Southern variety with its long and short English vowel sounds and influences from the Irish. It can be traced in South Armagh-Monaghan and south Fermanagh-Tyrone.

Common to nearly all of these varieties are:

  • Scots vocabulary - "oxter", "message", "carnaptious", "crowl", "loanin" and "glipe";
  • Shakespearean verbs - "vouch" "warrant", "perish" and "thole";
  • Elizabethan meaning - "doubt" as "believe", "backward" 'as "shy", "able" as "fit", "throughother" as "messy";
  • The survival of the Shakespearean - 'collogue", "yoke" , "crawthumper" "cog" and "mooch/mitch";
  • Irish - "kitter/kittog", "pracas" "praties", "blether", "moiley", "greeshagh" and "gasson/gassur".

Whatever the variety, we have all retained the voicing of the consonant (r) in all positions, where elsewhere it has been lost at the ends of words and before consonants.

Thus "water", "for", "four", "tart", "learn" including the distinctive voicing of "r" in "earn/urn" now lost in Southern British English.

We retain the contrast in voicing of the consonant soundings in "whiskey" and "wind".

We have not yet lost the sounding of the Elizabethan long vowel 'e", realised as "ay" in "tea", "leave" and "peas".

This historic pronunciation of the vowel was captured for linguistic posterity by Pope in his "Rape of the Lock" [Canto 1]:

"Hear thou, Great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Doth sometime counsel take and sometime tay"

From the Irish we have inherited many forms, among them:

- the so-called "after" perfect tense

(Ir. indhiadh): "I'm after closing the door"; - the use of "and" in unrelated clauses (Ir. agus]: "He worked on ahead and darkness falling";

- the propensity for the use of the definite article (Ir. an):

"'He's on the drink" , "I was down with the 'flu'';

- the use of the linking phrase "the way"

(Ir. amhlaigh): "I worked Saturday the way I'd be free to go there on Sunday".

These are but some of the more obvious markers of Ulster and Hiberno-Englishes in general.

Our dialect speech has been succinctly described by John Braidwood as "... the mark of history on our tongues". Indeed, on the basis of this exploration of its development, we can readily sense that this is so,

Another language-loving Ulsterman, John Hewitt, summarised the evolvement of the Ulster dialect - whatever the shade - as "... a narrow speech, the rags and remnants of Tudor rogues and stiff Covenanters, curt soldierly dispatches and puritan sermons ... with a jab or two of glar from the tangled sheugh."

It was a speech constructed and transmitted in a very short time after centuries of linguistic struggle and stalemate. The speed of change countenanced no role for a lingua franca, so a unique tongue was hewn out of the cultural interface. Comprising facets of Elizabethan English, Irish, and Scots, our speech encapsulates much of the social history of this island.

  • English Language in Ireland:, ed. D. O'Mulrthe, Mercier Press.
  • The Twilight Lords: R. Berleth, Barnes & Noble.
  • The Dawning of Democracy: D. McCartney, Helicon Press.
  • Rage for Order, Poetry of N.I.Troubles: ed. F. Ormsby, Blackstaff
  • Concise Ulster Dictionary: ed. C. Macafee, Oxford University Press.