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The Irish For: Don’t like Ulster Scots? Catch yourself on

When seeing Ulster Scots writing, many people are surprised by how much of it appears readily intelligible to them.

You might recognise some Ulster Scots words from TV show Derry Girls.
You might recognise some Ulster Scots words from TV show Derry Girls.
Image: Channel 4

THIS IS THE latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy. 

In less than a month, a lot of us will be singing a song that only gets sung once a year.

I’ve often wondered when anyone gets the opportunity to learn the words to Auld Lang Syne, given that the time window for singing it closes moments after you realise you don’t know the second line.  

The Robert Burns song is the world’s best known work in Lowland Scots.

The version of Scots used in Ireland is known as Ulster Scots, and the Boord o’ Ulster Scotch – the body formed after the Good Friday Agreement to promote and preserve it – celebrates its twentieth birthday this year.

This past week, you may have seen a number of people online share the results of an online quiz proving that they have “a wheen o wurds”. 

The advancement or encouragement of Ulster Scots is sometimes presented as making a mockery of the Irish language movement, especially in the North.

However, this should not be the case and discussions and criticism of Ullans (as it is also sometimes known) give a new perspective on similar conversations about Irish. 

When presented with a piece of Ulster Scots writing, many people are surprised by how much of it appears readily intelligible to them. Consider this seasonal extract from the Luke’s Gospel: 

“Roon aboot thïs time tha Emperor, Caesar Augustus, gien ordèrs that a heid-coont wus tae be taen o aa tha fowk ïn iverie pairt o hïs empire.”

Some Ulster Scots terms appear like startlingly literal explanations of English terms. For example, a shambles or abattoir in Ulster Scots is a “slauchtèr hoose” and an atlas is a “map book”. One of the entries for astrology is “readin tha stars”. 

As with Irish, when Ulster Scots is presented with a new invention or idea, a choice is made: do we use an existing word or compound of existing words of ours to name the new thing, or do we replicate the loanwords spelling in the phonetic norms of our language?

The people who would mock simpeansaí (chimpanzee) and tarramhacadam (tarmac) in Irish would make the same points here, and the same defence stands. 

It’s been said that a language is just a dialect with an army, and a lot of negative opinions of Ulster Scots hinge on its informality – it’s not just that it sounds like English, but the kind of English it sounds like isn’t the sort you’d hear from a newsreader, lawyer or HR official.

But rather than being an opinion on language, maybe this is more of an opinion on power itself and how it uses formality to create the legitimacy to justify itself? 

While the debate continues – and it will – here are some Ulster Scots words which I have learned from my North Antrim in-laws. 

Boke

You might recognise this one from Derry Girls. It is the Ulster Scots word for vomit, which can also be used as a comment that something is vomit-inducing.

It is not to be confused with poke, the Ulster Scots term for an ice-cream cone.  

Wean

Another one you may have heard in Lisa McGee’s beloved sitcom, a wean is a child. It can also refer to the youngest of the family, no matter how old they now are.  

Thran

This adjective describes someone or something prickly, disagreeable and inclined to stand up for itself. 

Sinther

This means to disentangle or pull apart. Something sinthery is something (a roast chicken, perhaps, or maybe even a committee) that has fallen apart or come undone. 

Fain

This means gladly. James Orr was an Antrim poet who wrote in Ulster Scots. An extract from one of his poems Written in Winter is included on page 28 the Irish passport: 

“The hedge hauntin’ blackbird

On ae fit whyles restin’

Would fain heat the tither in

Storm-rufflet wing”

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