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   English in Ulster

Ulster English and Dublin English

The dialects of the northern province, Ulster (Harris 1984, McCafferty 2007), are quite different from those in the south. The main reason for this is that they derive from Lowland Scots and forms of northern English which were taken to Ulster during the plantations of the seventeenth century. These varieties led to forms of English in the north which are easily recognisable to this date. However, the English of the two main ethnic groups in the north, Protestants and Catholics, are not usually distinguishable by their English (but see McCafferty 2001 for some differences with regard to innovation and conservatism in the respective communities).

Ulster English and Dublin English

The most distinctive form of Ulster English is Ulster Scots which, in its historically continuous, traditional form, is a rural variety spoken along the coast of Northern Ireland and derives from Scots settlers who came from Scotland to Ulster in the 17th century (see relevant sections of Bardon 1996). It is a paradox of English in present-day Ireland that there are three phonological parallels between Ulster Scots and present-day advanced Dublin English: (i) short front vowel lowering, (ii) a retroflex [ɽ] in syllable codas and (iii) intervocalic t-flapping.

  Lowering of KIT vowel (traditional Ulster Scots speaker)

  Lowering of TRAP vowel (traditional Ulster Scots speaker)

  Retroflex syllable-coda [ɽ] (traditional Ulster Scots speaker)

  Intervocalic T-flapping (traditional Ulster Scots speaker)

However, this is where the parallels stop. There are other central features of Ulster Scots which have no equivalent in any kind of Dublin English: (i) AI-tensing, (ii) Lack of phonemic vowel length (both linked to the Ulster manifestation of the Scottish Vowel Length Rule, Aitken 1981), (iii) DH-intervocalic deletion, (iv) Palatal glides after velars and (v) FACE-breaking.

  Tense, raised articulation of AI (traditional Ulster Scots speaker)

  Lack of distinctive vowel length (traditional Ulster Scots speaker)

  DH-intervocalic deletion (traditional Ulster Scots speaker)

  Palatal glide after velar stop (traditional Ulster Scots speaker)

  Breaking of FACE vowel (traditional Ulster Scots speaker)

FACE-breaking is very widespread in Ulster and characteristic of speakers from south of the border. Pronunciations like save [se:əv] are a clear indication in the south of Ireland that a speaker comes from somewhere closer to the border with Northern Ireland, e.g. from Co. Louth, Co. Monaghan, Co. Cavan or Co. Donegal.

  Breaking of FACE vowel (young female speaker from Dundalk, Co. Louth)

Lastly one should mention that the intonational patterns in Ulster English, especially Ulster Scots, are quite different from those in Dublin. In the following sound file one can hear a typical Ulster Scots speaker uttering a simple sentence. Note the intonational dip on the stressed syllable of ‘bother’ and the rise at the end of the sentence. This final rise is incidentally much older than the high rising terminal which spread through the anglophone world in recent decades and is unrelated to it. Both the dip (arrow 1) and the rise (arrow 2) can be clearly recognised in the spectrogram of the sentence.

  Sentence ‘They didn’t bother to meet him’ spoken by Northern Irish speaker

Ulster speech has been treated in many publications, some of these book-length, such as Adams (ed., 1964), an early collection of articles or Mallory (ed., 1999), a more recent volume. In Ulster, the status of Ulster Scots is a topic of considerable controversy, not only among linguists (see the discussion in Hickey 2007: section 3.3). Treatments of it as a separate language are Fenton (2006), a lexical study, and Robinson (1997), largely a treatment of grammar.


Adams, George Brendan (ed.) 1964. Ulster Dialects. An Introductory Symposium. Cultra: Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Aitken, Adam. J. 1981. ‘The Scottish vowel length rule’, in: Michael Benskin and Michael Samuels (eds) So Meny People Longages and Tonges. Philological Essays in Scots and Mediæval English Presented to Angus McIntosh. Edinburgh: The Editors, pp. 131-157.

Bardon, Jonathan 1996. A Shorter Illustrated History of Ulster. Belfast: Blackstaff Press.

Corrigan, Karen P. 2010. Irish English, Vol. 1: Northern Ireland. Edinburgh: University Press.

Fenton, James 2006. The Hamely Tongue. A Personal Record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim. Third edition. Newtownards: Ulster-Scots Academic Press.

Harris, John 1984. ‘English in the North of Ireland’, in: Peter Trudgill (ed.) Language in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 115-134.

Hogan, James Jeremiah 1927. The English Language in Ireland. Dublin: Educational Company of Ireland.

Macafee, Caroline (ed.) 1996. A Concise Ulster Dictionary. Oxford: University Press.

McCafferty, Kevin 2001. Ethnicity and Language Change. English in (London)Derry, Northern Ireland. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

McCafferty, Kevin 2007. ‘Northern Irish English’, in: David Britain (ed.) Language in the British Isles. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 122-34.

Mallory, James P. (ed.) Language in Ulster. Special issue of Ulster Folklife 45.

Robinson, Philip 1997. Ulster Scots. A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language. Belfast: Ullans Press.