How to speak Belfast / Northern Ireland
( Made me laugh)
Ulster English (also called Northern Hiberno-English or Northern Irish English) is a major variety of Hiberno-English, spoken in the province of Ulster: Northern Ireland and three counties of the Republic of Ireland. The dialect has been influenced by the Ulster Irish dialect and also by the Scots language, which was brought over by settlers during the Plantation of Ulster.
And if you are really interested see below for a lesson in Ulster speak!
The two major divisions of Ulster English are Ulster Scots English (spoken in much of northern County Antrim), and mid Ulster English. Sometimes, a third, transitional dialect between Southern and Northern Ireland is designated, known as south Ulster
Phonetics are in IPA.
In the following chart, “UE” means Ulster English, including “MUE” or mid Ulster English (which may incorporate older, more traditional mid Ulster English or “TMUE”), as well as “USE” or Ulster Scots English. “SSIE” here refers to a mainstream, supraregional southern Irish English, used in the chart for the sake of comparison.
|Pure vowels (Monophthongs)|
|/æ/||äː~a||æ~a||bath, trap, man|
|/ɑː/||ɑː~äː||aː~äː||blah, calm, father|
|conservative /ɒ/||ɒ~ɑ~ä||ä||bother, lot, top|
|ɒː||cloth, loss, off|
|/ɔː/||all, bought, saw|
|/ɛ/||ɛ||dress, met, bread|
|/ə/||ə||about, syrup, arena|
|ɪ||hit, skim, tip|
|/iː/||i(ː)||beam, chic, fleet|
|/ɨ/||ɪ~ɪ̈~ə||island, gamut, wasted|
|/ʌ/||ɞ~ʌ̈||ʊ~ʌ̈||bus, flood, young|
|ʊ||book, put, should|
|/uː/||uː||food, glue, new|
|/aɪ/||ä(ː)e||aɪ~äɪ~ɑɪ||eye, five, try|
|ɐi~ɜi||bright, dice, site|
|/aʊ/||ɐʏ~ɜʉ||æʊ~ɛʊ||now, ouch, scout|
|/eɪ/||eː||lame, rein, stain|
|/ɔɪ/||ɔɪ||ɒɪ||boy, choice, moist|
|/oʊ/||o(ː)||oʊ||goat, oh, show|
|/ɑr/||ɑ(ː)ɻ||ɑ(ː)ɹ~ä(ː)ɹ||barn, car, park|
|/ɪər/||i(ː)ɚ||i(ː)ɹ||fear, peer, tier|
|e(ː)ɹ||bare, bear, there|
|/ɜr/||ɚ(ː)||burn, first, learn|
|/ər/||ɚ||doctor, martyr, parker|
|/ɔr/||ɔ(ː)ɚ||ɒ(ː)ɹ||for, horse, war|
|/ɔər/||o(ː)ɚ||ɒ(ː)ɹ||four, hoarse, wore|
|/ʊər/||u(ː)ɚ||u(ː)ɹ||moor, poor, tour|
Other, less overarching features of some Ulster varieties include:
- Vowels have phonemic vowel length, with one set of lexically long and one of lexically short phonemes. This may be variously influenced by the Scots system. It is considerably less phonemic than Received Pronunciation, and in vernacular Belfast speech vowel length may vary depending on stress.
- /ɑ/ and /ɔː/ distinction in cot and body versus caught and bawdy is mostly preserved, except in Ulster Scots (which here follows Scottish speech) and traditional varieties.
- /e/ may occur in such words as beat, decent, leave, Jesus, etc., though this feature is recessive.
- Lagan Valley /ɛ/ before /k/ in take and make, etc.
- /ɛ/ before velars, as in sack, bag, and bang, etc.
- Merger of /a/–/aː/ in all monosyllables, e.g. Sam and psalm [saːm ~ sɑːm] (the phonetic quality varies).
- /ʉ/ is possible before /r/ in floor, whore, door, board, etc.
- Rhoticity, that is, retention of /r/ in all positions.
- Palatalisation of /k, ɡ, ŋ/ in the environment of front vowels.
- /l/ is not vocalised, except historically; usually “clear” as in Southern Hiberno-English, with some exceptions.
- Unaspirated /p/, /k/ between vowels in words such as pepper and packet.
- Voiced /d/ (or tapped [ɾ]) for /t/ between vowels in words such as butter and city. This is similar to North American and Australian English.
- Dental [t̪] and [d̪] for /t/ and /d/ before /r/ in words such as butter or dry. Dental realisations of /n, l/ may occur as well, e.g. dinner, pillar. This feature, of Gaelic origin, is shared with Southern Hiberno-English.
- /ʍ/–/w/ contrast in which–witch. This feature is recessive, particularly in vernacular Belfast speech.
- Elision of /d/ in hand [hɑːn], candle [ˈkanl] and old [əʉl], etc.
- Elision of /b, ɡ/ in sing [sɪŋ], thimble, finger etc.
- /θ/ and /ð/ for th.
- /x/ for gh is retained in proper names and a few dialect words or pronunciations, e.g. lough, trough and sheugh.
Grammar derived from Irish
The morphology and syntax of Irish is quite different from that of English, and it has influenced both Northern and Southern Hiberno-English to some degree.
Irish has separate forms for the second person singular (tú) and the second person plural (sibh), (“thou” and “ye” respectively in archaic and some intimate, informal English). Ulster English mirrors Irish in that the singular “you” is distinguished from the plural “you”. This is normally done by using the words yous, yousuns or yis. For example:
- “Are yous not finished yet?”
- “Did yousuns all go to see it?”
- “What are yis up to?”
Irish lacks words that directly translate as “yes” or “no”, and instead repeats the verb in a question (positively or negatively) to answer. As such, Northern and Southern Hiberno-English use “yes” and “no” less frequently than other English dialects. For example:
- “Are you coming home soon?” “I am”
- “Is your computer working?” “It’s not”
The absence of the verb “have” in Irish has influenced some grammar. The concept of “have” is expressed in Irish by the construction ag (“at”) mé (“me”) to create agam (“at me”). Hence, Ulster English speakers sometimes use the verb “have” followed by “with me/on me”. For example:
- “Do you have the book with you?”[clarification needed]
- “Have you money for the bus on you?”
Much non-standard vocabulary found in Ulster English and many meanings of Standard English words peculiar to the dialect come from Scots and Irish. Some examples are shown in the table below. Many of these are also used in Southern Hiberno-English, especially in the northern half of the island.
|Ulster English||Standard English||Type||Notes|
|ach!, och!, ack!||annoyance, regret, etc.||interjection||Pronounced akh or okh. Usually used to replace “ah!” and “oh!”. Ach is Irish for “but”, and can be used in the same context. Och is Irish and Scottish Gaelic for “alas”, and again can be used in the same context. Cf. German, Dutch, Frisian ach and English agh, German and Dutch have both ach and och.|
|aul, oul||old||adjective||Pronounced owl. From auld, an archaic form of old that is still used in Scots and Northern English dialects.|
|aye, auy||yes||adverb||Used throughout Ireland, Scotland and parts of northern England.
General Scots and dialect/archaic English, first attested 1575.
|bake||mouth||noun||A different pronunciation and extended meaning of beak. Dutch bek is used as a rude word for mouth too|
|Used throughout Ireland; origin unknown.|
|blade||girl||noun||Mainly used in Tyrone with different meanings depending on usage, but always refers to a female. “Look at thon blade” – “Look at that girl”; “Our blade” – “My sister/cousin” (Can also be used as a term of endearment in this form)|
|boak, boke||to retch/vomit,
|From Scots bowk.|
|bog||wetland/toilet||noun||From Irish bogach meaning “wetland”.|
|boreen||a narrow road/lane/track||noun||From Irish bóithrín meaning “small road”.|
|bout ye?||how are you?||greeting||From the longer version “What about ye?” (“What about you?”), which is also used.|
|bru||unemployment benefits||noun||Pronounced broo. Shortened from welfare bureau.|
|cat-melodeon||awful||adjective||Probably a combination of cat and melodeon, referencing the sound of a screeching cat and badly-played melodeon tunes.
The second part is pronounced mə-LOH-jin.
|caul, coul||cold||adjective||Pronounced kowl. From Scots cauld meaning “cold”.|
|carlin’||old woman||noun||From Norse kerling meaning “woman” (especially an old woman).|
|claggerd||covered with something adhesive (usually dirt)||adjective||From Scots claggert meaning “besmeared”.|
|cowp||to tip over/to fall over||verb||From Scots.|
(e.g. “What’s the crack?)
|noun||Crack is originally a Scots/Northern English word meaning something like “news”, “gossip” or “fun”. Originally spelt crack but the Gaelicized spelling craic started in the 1960s and is now common.|
|craitur, craytur||a term of endearment
(e.g. “The poor craitur”)
|noun||From the Hiberno-English pronunciation of creature where ea is realised /e/ (see above) and –ture as archaic /tər/ rather than the standard affricate /tʃər/.|
|culchie||farmer/rural dweller||noun||Origin uncertain—either from Irish coillte meaning “woods”; from Irish cúl a’ tí meaning “back of the house” (for it was common practise for country people to go in the back door of the house they were visiting); or from the -culture in “agriculture”.|
|dander||walk||noun/verb||From Scots or Northern English.|
|From Irish droch-aimsir meaning “bad weather” or “wet weather” or the less likely Scots draik/drawk.|
|eejit||idiot||noun||From the Hiberno-English pronunciation of idiot.|
|feck||a mild form of fuck||interjection||Gained popularity following its frequent use in the 1990s comedy TV series Father Ted.|
|feg||cigarette||noun||Pronounced fayg. From the English slang term fag.|
|fella||man||noun||From English fellow; ultimately from Norse felagi.|
|fidget/waste time||verb||Via Scots fouter from Old French foutre.Perhaps from Irish fútar.|
|fornenst||in front of/facing||adverb||From Scots or Northern English.|
to be cold
|From Scots foundert/foondert/fundert which can mean “(to be) chilled”.|
|geg, geggin’||joke, joking||noun/verb||From English gag.|
|glen||valley||noun||From Irish gleann.|
|gob, gub||mouth||noun||From Irish gob, which can mean “mouth”.|
|gutties, guddies||running shoes||noun||From Scots, in which it is used to mean anything made of rubber. Note also the phrase “Give her the guttie” meaning “Step on it (accelerate)”.|
|hallion||a good-for-nothing||noun||From Scots hallion meaning “rascal”.|
|hesp||a scolding old woman||noun||Perhaps from Irish easpan. Cf. Scots hesper: a hard thing to do; a difficult person to get on with.|
|hoak, hoke||to search for/to forage
(e.g. “Have a hoak for it”)
|verb||From Scots howk.|
|hooley||party||noun||Origin unknown; perhaps a variant of Irish céilí.|
|houl||hold||verb||Pronounced howl. From Scots/Northern English.|
|jap||to splatter; to splash; (of a frying pan) emit tiny ‘sparks’ of hot fat||verb||From Scots jaup.|
|jouk, juke||to dodge/to go||verb||From Scots jouk meaning “to dodge”.|
|to lament/to wail,
shrill (in terms of sound)
|From Irish caoin meaning “lament”. Keening was a traditional practice done by woman at Irish funerals.|
|lock’a||an unspecified amount
(e.g. “In a lock’a minutes”)
|determiner||From Irish loca meaning “a pile of” or “a wad of”, or simply an extended meaning of “lock” as in “a lock of hair”.|
|loch, lough||lake/sea inlet||noun||Pronounced lokh. From Irish loch.|
|lug||ear||noun||From Norse. Originally used to mean “an appendage” (cf. Norwegian lugg meaning “a tuft of hair”).
Used throughout Ireland.
|malarky, malarkey||nonsense||noun||Probably from Irish.|
|oxter||armpit/under-arm||noun||From Scots. Dutch oksel = armpit|
|poke||ice-cream||noun||From Scots poke meaning “bag” or “pouch”.|
|potcheen||hooch/bootleg alcohol||noun||From Irish poitín.|
(e.g. “A quare distance”)
|A different pronunciation and extended meaning of “queer”.
Used throughout Ireland.
|scratch/scrape||noun/verb||From Irish scráib. Cf. Northern English scrab and Dutch schrabben (to scrape).|
|From Scots scunner/scunnert meaning “offended” or “fed up”.|
|a small shallow ditch
|noun||From Scots sheuch.|
|to move quickly||verb||From Norse skjuta meaning “to shoot” (cf. Norwegian skutla meaning “to glide quickly”).|
|skite||to splatter with force||verb||From Norse skjuta.|
|slew||a great amount||noun||From Irish slua meaning “a crowd/multitude”.|
|smidgen||a very small piece||noun||From Irish smidean.|
|snig||to snap-off/lop-off||verb||Origin unknown. Cf. Scots sneg < sneck.|
|stoor||dust||noun||From Old French estour.|
|tae||tea||noun||Pronounced tay, this is the Irish word for “tea”.|
|til||to||preposition||From Norse til.|
|noun/adverb||From Scots the day, the nicht, the morra.|
|thon||that||adjective||From Scots; originally yon in archaic English, the th by analogy with this and that.|
|thonder||there (something distant but within sight)||adjective||From Scots; originally yonder in archaic English.|
|throughother||disorganised and careless||adjective||Probably from Irish. However, it has parallels in both Goidelic (e.g. Irish trína chéile) and Germanic (e.g. Scots throuither, Dutch door elkaar, door-een, German durcheinander).|
|wee||little, but also used as a generic diminutive||adjective||From Middle English.
Used throughout the north of Ireland and in Scotland.
|weean, wean||child||noun||From Scots wee (small) + ane (one).|
|wheeker||excellent||adjective||From Scots wheech meaning “to snatch”. Onomatopoeic.|
|wheen||a few/several||determiner||From Scots. Usually used in the phrase “a wheen of…”|
|whisht||be quiet (a command)||interjection||The Irish huist, meaning “be quiet”, is an unlikely source since the word is known throughout England and Scotland where it derives from early Middle English whist (cf. Middle English hust and Scots wheesht).|
|wojus||awful/expression of surprise||adjective||Probably a variation of odious. Can also be used as an expression of surprise, usually to something negative. In this case it is most likely a shortened form of “Oh Jesus!”
Used throughout Ireland.
|ye||you (singular)||pronoun||From Middle English ye, but pronounced with a short e sound.|
|yous, yousuns||you (plural)||pronoun||See grammar derived from Irish.|
Furthermore, speakers of the dialect conjugate many verbs according to how they are formed in the most vernacular forms of Ulster Scots, e.g. driv instead of drove and driven as the past tense of drive, etc. (literary Scots drave, driven). Verbal syncretism is extremely widespread, as is the Northern subject rule.
Ulster Scots English
This region is heavily influenced by the historic presence of Ulster Scots and covers areas such as northern and eastern County Antrim, the Ards Peninsula in County Down, The Laggan district in County Donegal and northeastern County Londonderry. These districts are strongly Ulster Scots-influenced, and Scots pronunciation of words is often heard. People from here are often mistaken by outsiders as Scottish. This area includes the Glens of Antrim, where the last native Irish speakers of a dialect native to what is now Northern Ireland were to be found. It has been stated that, whilst in the written form, Gaelic of this area continued to use standardised Irish forms, the spoken dialect continued to the Scottish variant, and was in effect no different from the Gaelic of Argyll, or Galloway (both in Scotland).
In the 1830s, Ordnance Survey memoirs came to the following conclusion about the dialect of the inhabitants of Carnmoney, east Antrim:
Their accent is peculiarly, and among old people disagreeably, strong and broad.
The results of a BBC sociolinguistic survey can be found here. East Donegal also has a strong Ulster Scots dialect (see below).
Mid Ulster English
The speech in southern and western County Donegal, southern County Tyrone, southern County Londonderry, northern County Fermanagh, north County Armagh, southwestern County Antrim and most of County Down form a geographical band across the province from east to west. On the whole, these areas have much more in common with the Derry accent in the west than inner-city Belfast except in the east. This accent is often claimed as being the “standard” Northern Irish dialect as it is the most widely used, and it is the dialect of famous Irish writer Séamus Heaney. Parts of the north of County Monaghan (an area centred on Monaghan Town and known as North Monaghan) would roughly fall into this category, but only to a certain extent. Bundoran, a town at the southern extremity of County Donegal, also has quite a western Ireland accent, as do parts of the south-west extremity of County Fermanagh.
Belfast and surroundings
The broad, working-class Belfast dialect is not limited to the city itself but also takes in neighbouring urban areas in the local vicinity (such as Lisburn, Carrickfergus and Newtownards), as well as towns whose inhabitants originally came from Belfast (such as Craigavon). It is generally perceived as being associated with economically disadvantaged areas, and with youth culture. This however is not the dialect used in the media (even those outlets which are based in Belfast). Features of the accent include several vowel shifts, including one from /æ/ to /ɛ/ before or after velars (/bɛɡ/ for bag). Nowadays, this shift largely only happens before /k/, so pack and peck are homophones as /pɛk/.
The Belfast dialect is now becoming more frequently heard in towns and villages whose inhabitants would have traditionally spoken with a distinctively rural accent. Examples of such areas are Moira, Ballyclare, Dromore and Ballynahinch. It could be said that many young people in these areas prefer to use the more cosmopolitan city accent, as opposed to the local variant that their parents or people in other areas would use.
Other phonological features include the following:
- Two major realisations of /e/ are to be encountered: in open syllables a long monophthong near [ɛː], but in closed syllables an ingliding diphthong, perhaps most typically [eə], but ranging from [ɛə] to [iə]. Thus days [dɛːz] and daze [deəz] are not homophonous.
- In Belfast, and in mid and south Ulster, the opposition between /ɔ/ and /ɒ/ is better maintained than in other parts of Ulster, though it is restricted to only a few environments, e.g., that of a following voiceless plosive. Thus stock [stɒk ~ stɑk ~ sta̠k] is distinct from stalk [stɔ(ː)k]. However, this is complicated by the fact that certain words belonging to the Standard Lexical Set THOUGHT have /ɒ/ rather than the expected /ɔ/. These typically include draw, fall, walk, and caught. Water often has /a/ (the TRAP vowel).
- The /aʊ/ phoneme is pronounced [əʉ] in most of Ulster, but in Belfast it is extremely variable and is a sensitive social marker. Pronunciations with a relatively front first element, [ɛ̈] or fronter, are working class. Middle class speakers prefer back [ɑ] or even [ɔ]. The second element is [ʉ ~ y ~ ɨ], often with little or no rounding. How and now may receive special treatment in working-class Belfast speech, with an open first element [a ~ ɑ] and a second element ranging over [i ~ ʉ], a retroflex approximant [ɻ], and zero, i.e., there may be no second element.
Some of the vocabulary used among young people in Ulster, such as the word “spide“, is of Belfast origin.
Derry City and surrounding
The accent of Derry City is actually that of western County Londonderry (including Dungiven and Limavady), northeastern County Donegal (including Inishowen), and northern and western County Tyrone (including Strabane). There is a higher incidence of palatalisation after /k/ and its voiced equivalent /ɡ/(e.g. /kʲɑɹ/ “kyar” for “car”), perhaps through influence from Southern Hiberno-English. However, the most noticeable difference is perhaps the intonation, which is unique to the Derry, Letterkenny and Strabane area. The accent of the Finn Valley and especially The Laggan district (centred on the town of Raphoe), both in East Donegal, together with the accent of neighbouring West Tyrone and the accent of the westernmost parts of County Londonderry (not including Derry City), are also quite Scottish sounding. A variety of Ulster Scots is spoken in these areas. This West Ulster variety of Ulster Scots is considered to be quite similar to the Scots spoken in Ayrshire in south-west Scotland.
South Ulster English
South Armagh, south Monaghan, south Fermanagh, south Donegal, north Leitrim, and north Cavan natives speak their own distinct variety of English. Areas such as southern and western County Armagh, central and southern County Monaghan (known locally as South Monaghan), northern County Cavan and the southern ‘strip’ of County Fermanagh are the hinterland of the larger Mid-Ulster dialect. The accent gradually shifts from village to village, forming part of the dialect continuum between areas to the North and Midlands (as it once did in Gaelic). This accent is also used in north County Louth (located in Leinster) and in part of the northern ‘strip’ of County Leitrim (in Connacht).