Stephen Dornan: People who make fun of Ulster Scots tend to be the least aware of it

Certain things come with territory if you acknowledge an interest in Ulster Scots. It is likely that people will suddenly become linguistic experts with strong opinions about what is the right language and what is not.

A major fail is that a couple of decades after the Ulster-Scots were included in the Belfast Agreement, there is still so much confusion and misinformation about the basics in society.

Ulster Scots has been spoken for centuries and has been used by writers since the 1700s. You no longer need to rummage through libraries to find old Ulster-Scots texts, as many of them are available online through the efforts of the Ulster-Scottish Poetry Project of the University of Ulster and the Ulster-Scottish Academy website.

Let’s start with the Scots element. Ulster Scots are the product of thousands of years of cultural interaction between Ulster and Scotland. It is important to consider Ulster-Scots in relation to the Scots from which it developed. Some argue that Ulster-Scots deviated enough from Scots to become a separate language, while others consider it a variety of Scots.

It is important to understand that the Scottish language exists. It has a long and rich tradition, a number of grammars and dictionaries, and has been the subject of extensive research. It is included in the school and university curriculum.

Familiarity with Scots shows that Ulster-Scots is not mispronounced English, but that its words are of historical origin. Most likely, those old words that you heard or said, but never wrote, are listed in Scottish dictionaries.

Thinking about Ulster Scots along with Scots should bust some of the myths. For example, it is absurd to accuse the Renaissance poets, whom King James IV of Scotland gathered in his court, of writing ornate poetry in a language invented in the 1990s.

Robert Burns would be disconcerted to find that he writes with a Ballyman accent, and probably Scotland’s current National Poet (Makar) Kathleen Jamie would be disappointed to learn that this is a form of communication used only by old people who have nothing to say.

It is also important to understand that accidentally saying the words “quare” or “wee” does not make a person an Ulster Scots speaker. Ulster Scots have influenced the language of almost everyone in Ulster, but most of them speak a variant of Ulster English.

When the pioneering linguist Robert J. Gregg mapped Ulster-Scots in the 1960s, he realized that the basic elements of the Scots vocabulary—words like wee, ai, and skelp—were spread far beyond the Ulster-speaking areas. -Scottish. Instead, he used a series of more specific markers to map the core of Ulster and Scotland.

As a minority language, Ulster-Scots has no problem. Its speech community is geographically fragmented. Its speakers in many cases grow old and are often not accustomed to seeing the written form of their language.

Its geographic reach has shrunk and some of its distinctive features have all but disappeared. Moreover, many commentators are still dismissive or outright hostile.

Even the entry of Ulster Scots into the political landscape after the Belfast Agreement was a double-edged sword. With increased funding and publicity, there was a backlash. It sometimes seems that Ulster Scots are one of the few things that commentators can speak viciously about without repercussions.

In a sense, it is unfortunate that Ulster-Scots was co-opted for reasons of political expediency into the binary systems of our politics, since it represents a third, complicating dimension for them.

It has the potential to enrich the common “two tribes” narrative.

Despite the problems, the Ulster-Scots survive. Over the past few years, a number of writers have discovered their voices: it’s gratifying that there are too many of them to mention here. This is in addition to those longtime grassroots enthusiasts.

It is also present in broadcasting and social media these days. It is a foundation upon which to build, and in some circles there is talk of a growing trust, even a renaissance.

It’s bad that people talk who don’t know anything about Ulster Scotch. We don’t give a damn when we publicly state it. I don’t think we did it very well, because good manners cost no one dear.

Stephen Dornan, originally from Newtownards and now based in Scotland, has studied and written about Ulster Scots. His collection of poetry in Ulster Scots was published in 2020.