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A View North Flatten vowels, sharpen tongue

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Anyone who knows anything about Ireland knows how distinctive is the speech of Ulster folk from that of the rest of the country. Nowhere else would a ma barge her childer for coming home boggin. Nowhere else would Sean be awanting for his tay at sex and his brother Jimmy be tauld to shut his bake and stop gurnin. And nowhere but in Ulster could it be said of you that you are a scauldy-lukkin wee runt. And nowhere, I think, but Belfast would you take your girlfriend down the entry for a lumber.

I was reminded of the dialectical peculiarities of Ulster recently when a Belfast friend kindly sent me a copy of Concise Oxford Ulster Dictionary, which is described on the cover as "the fullest survey of Ulster dialect ever published."

I immediately looked up those words that I remember from my childhood, words that I heard on the streets of Belfast and have never heard anywhere else, like "barge," for instance. "To barge" means to scold someone "loudly and abusively," according to the dictionary. A "barge" was someone who scolds or speaks loudly. It was generally used in reference to a woman. The dictionary traces its origin to Western Scots dialect. It also appears in Scots sometimes as "bairge."

One of the major influences on how English is spoken in Ulster is, of course, the lowland Scots who introduced their own dialect at around 1600, according to Michael Barry, who wrote an introduction to the dictionary detailing the history of Ulster dialects. The Scots immigrants spread south and west from their original settlements in East Antrim and North Down and "gave at least a hint of Scots flavor to the speech of almost the whole northern third of the island." The fact that neither Anglo-Norman and Old Norse had much impact in Ulster (unlike in the southern part of Ireland) also affected the speech of the province, setting it apart. English influences mainly stem from Cromwellian times. The word "childer," for instance, (meaning children) belongs to the Western English dialect.

"Boggin" means dirty or soaking wet and comes from the word "bog," from the Irish signifying soft or a soft place.

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"Awanting" in the passive sense, as used above, means to be called or summoned. In an active sense, in meant stupid or crazy, as in "there’s awant in him".

Belfast has had a dialect of its own since about the middle of the 19th century, according to Barry. One of the characteristics of English spoken there is the tendency to flatten or broaden vowels. "Six" becomes "sex" and "tea" turns into "tay." So it is that "beak," meaning mouth, is pronounced "bake."

I was delighted to find the word "scauldy" here, which I have not heard spoken since I was a child. A scauldy (also written as "scaldie") is a fledgling bird fallen from the nest. If you were skinny or had very short hair, you might end up as the subject of this rather unflattering comparison. It would also be applied to you if you were "an unpleasant young person," says the dictionary. It has several possible derivations: from the Scots "scad," meaning "scabby," from the Old Norse "skalle," referring to a bald head, and from the Oxfordshire "skalley," signifying "an unfledged bird."

Among the first words I looked for in the dictionary was "lumber." "To lumber" was a verb which meant taking a woman in your arms, hugging and kissing her. It can also be used as a noun, as in "he and Rosie went for a lumber." Again, it is a word I have never heard outside of Belfast and even there I am not sure it is still in use. Surprisingly, the dictionary did not have it, nor any word resembling it. I was more successful with "clock," which was the name we gave to a black beetle that was often found under damp wallpaper or in the plaster of the walls of old cottages. The dictionary says that it is also used to refer to any insect and that its origin is unknown. It occurred to me that perhaps the name has something to do with the sound the beetles made, like a ticking noise.

The dictionary gives a nice definition of one of my favorites breads from Ulster, a barnbrack (now usually written as barmbrack): "a large round bun with dried fruit in it. At Halloween charms were concealed in it, such as a ring (foretelling marriage), a coin (foretelling wealth), or a rag (foretelling death)." The origin of this word is from the Irish "bairin breac," the literal translation of which is "little speckled loaf." My grandmother used to hide thruppeny bits in her barnbracks, and though I found more than my fair share of them, I am still patiently waiting for the prediction to come true.

I came across words that I had forgotten about, like "lig," for example. We often referred to someone as a "big lig," meaning a simpleton or, as the Oxford has it more exhaustively, a "gangling, simple-minded person; an easily-led fellow, a stupid, slovenly person, an awkward, clumsy fellow, a foolish person, a silly person; someone who acts the fool." Or it can mean a prankster or an untrustworthy, dishonest person. It is derived from the Western Scots dialect and is similar to the U.S. slang word "lug."

Then there are words that we use in Ulster which were once in standard English but have vanished, like "mitch." To mitch school means to play truant. The dictionary reveals that it comes from the Old French "muchier," meaning to hide or to skulk.

I noticed that the dictionary had a lot of words for stupid or clumsy people, words such as "mogey," a verb meaning "to stumble around foolishly." It is only found in County Antrim. As well, there seemed to be an unusual number of derogatory works for women, such as "thrumgullion," defined rather precisely as a "big-boned, loose-jointed, untidy woman."

So, if you want to insult someone, then the Ulster dialect offers more than enough words for your purpose. I wonder does that tell us something about the nature of the place?

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