Mid Ulster English

Mid Ulster English
Approximate boundaries of the English and Scots dialects spoken in Ulster. It should be noted that Ulster Scots (light blue) is not spoken in the entire shaded area – light blue indicates both current and historical Ulster Scots areas. The Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area) is not shown

Mid Ulster English is the dialect of Hiberno-English spoken by most people in the province of Ulster in Ireland. The dialect has been greatly influenced by Ulster Irish, but also by the Scots language, which was brought over by Scottish settlers during the plantations.

Mid Ulster English is the main subdivision of Ulster English (also called Northern Hiberno-English). The varieties spoken in south Armagh, south Monaghan, south Fermanagh, south Donegal and north Cavan[1][2] are termed South Ulster English[3] by linguists. Conversely, the varieties spoken in much of north County Antrim are termed Ulster Scots. The Mid Ulster English dialect is used in the area between these.



Phonetics are in IPA.


Phonetic notation
/i/ feet
/əi/ fight
/e/ fate
/əʉ/ shout
/ɛ/ bet
/ɛ̈/ bit
/a/ bat
/ɔ̈/ but
/ɑ/ pot
/ɔː/ bought
/o/ boat
// father
/ʉ/ boot
/ɔe/ boy

  • 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.
  • /a/ in after /w/, e.g. want, what, quality.
  • /ɑ/ and /ɔː/ distinction in cot, body and caught, bawdy. Some varieties neutralise the distinction in long environments, e.g. don = dawn and pod = pawed.
  • like, light, meat and beard also with /e/ [lek], [let], [met], [berd]
  • /e/ may occur in such words as beat, decent, leave, Jesus, etc. This feature is recessive.
  • Lagan Valley /ɛ/ before /k/ in take and make, etc.
  • /ɛ/ before velars in sack, bag, and bang, etc.
  • Merger of /a//aː/ in all monosyllables, e.g. Sam and psalm [sɑːm].
  • /i/ may occur before palatalized consonants, e.g. king, fish , condition, brick and sick.
  • /ɑ/ may occur before /p/ and /t/ in tap and top, etc.
  • /ʉ/ before /r/ in floor, whore, door, board, etc.
  • Vowel oppositions before /r/, e.g. /ɛrn/ earn, /fɔr/ for and /for/ four.


  • 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; generally "clear" as in Southern Hiberno-English, except in the Belfast area, where it is often dark, at least in some environments.[4]
  • 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 like North American and Australian English.
  • Dental /t̪/ and /d̪/ for /t/ and /d/ before /r/ in words such as butter or dry. This feature is shared by Southern Hiberno-English.
  • /ʍ//w/ contrast in which–witch. This feature is recessive, particularly in vernacular Belfast speech.
  • Dental realisations of /t, d, n, l/ may occur through Irish influence before /r/, e.g. ladder, matter, dinner and pillar, etc.
  • 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 () and the second person plural (sibh), like English used to have. 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.[5] 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.[6][7] 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") ("me") to create agam ("at me"). Hence, Ulster English speakers sometimes use the verb "have" followed by "with me/on me".[8] For example:

Ulster English by region

Belfast and surroundings

The urban 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 in the 'commuter belt' whose inhabitants would have traditionally spoken with a 'country' accent. Examples of such areas are Moira, Ballyclare, Dromore and Ballynahinch. It could be said that many youths 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 realizations 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.[9]

Some of the vocabulary used among young people in Ulster, such as the word "spide", is of Belfast origin.

Ulster Scots areas

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 to 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.[10] East Donegal also has a strong Ulster Scots dialect (see below).

Derry City and surroundings

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/[11](eg. /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 (centered 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.

Mid Ulster

The speech in southern and western County Donegal, southern County Tyrone (known as South Tyrone), southern County Londonderry (often known as South Derry), 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 centered 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.

South Ulster

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).


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.[12]
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.
banjax to break/ruin/destroy,
a mess
Used throughout Ireland; origin unknown.[13]
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.[14]
bog wetland/toilet noun From Irish bogach meaning "wetland".
boreen a narrow road/lane/track noun From Irish bóithrín meaning "small road".[15]
bout ye? how are you? greeting From the longer version "What about ye?" ("What about you?"), which is also used.[16][17]
bru unemployment benefits noun Pronounced broo. Shortened from welfare bureau.[18]
cat-melodeon awful adjective Probably a combination of cat and melodeon, referencing the sound of a screeching cat and badly-played melodeon tunes.[19]
The second part is pronounced mə-loh-jin.
caul, coul cold adjective Pronounced kowl. From Scots cauld meaning "cold".[20]
carlin' old woman noun From Norse kerling meaning "woman" (especially an old woman).[21]
carnaptious[21] quarrelsome/irritable adjective From Scots.[22]
claggerd covered with something adhesive (usually dirt) adjective From Scots claggert meaning "besmeared".[23]
cowp to tip over/to fall over verb From Scots.[24]
crack, craic banter/fun/gossip/news
(eg. "What's the crack?)
noun From Scots or Northern English. Originally spelt crack but the Gaelicized spelling craic is now common.[17]
craitur, craytur a term of endearment
(eg. "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";[25] 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);[26] or from the -culture in "agriculture".
dander walk noun/verb From Scots or Northern English.
dead-on okay/no problem interjection
Origin uncertain.[17]
to soak/drench,
From Irish droch-aimsir meaning "bad weather" or "wet weather"[27] or the less likely Scots draik/drawk.[28]
eejit idiot noun From the Hiberno-English pronunciation of idiot.[29]
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.[30]
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".[31]
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)".[32]
hallion a good-for-nothing noun From Scots hallion meaning "rascal".[33]
hesp a scolding old woman noun Perhaps from Irish easpan.[34] Cf. Scots hesper: a hard thing to do; a difficult person to get on with.[35]
hoak, hoke to search for/to forage
(eg. "Have a hoak for it")
verb From Scots howk.[36]
hooley party noun Origin unknown; perhaps a variant of Irish céilí.[37]
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.[38]
jouk, juke to dodge/to go verb From Scots jouk meaning "to dodge".[39]
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
(eg. "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.
munya great/lovely/attractive adjective Origin unknown.[40]
oxter armpit/under-arm noun From Scots.[41]
poke ice-cream noun From Scots poke meaning "bag" or "pouch".
potcheen hooch/bootleg alcohol noun From Irish poitín.
quare, kwer very/considerable
(eg. "A quare distance")
A different pronunciation and extended meaning of "queer".[42]
Used throughout Ireland.
scratch/scrape noun/verb From Irish scráib.[43] Cf. Northern English scrab and Dutch schrabben (to scrape).
to annoy/embarrass,
From Scots scunner/scunnert meaning "offended" or "fed up".[44]
a small shallow ditch
(pronounced /ʃʌx/)
noun From Scots sheuch.[45]
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".[46]
smidgen a very small piece noun From Irish smidean.
snig to snap-off/lop-off verb Origin unknown.[47] Cf. Scots sneg[48] < sneck.[49]
stoor dust noun From Old French estour.[50]
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.[51]
thonder there (something distant but within sight) adjective From Scots; originally yonder in archaic English.
throughother untidy adjective Probably from Irish. However, it has parallels in both Goidelic (eg. Irish trína chéile) and Germanic (eg. Scots throuither,[52] 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).[53]
wheeker excellent adjective From Scots wheech meaning "to snatch". Onomatopoeic.[54]
wheen[55] a few/several determiner From Scots.[56] Usually used in the phrase "a wheen of..."
whisht be quiet (a command) interjection The Irish huist,[57] meaning "be quiet", is an unlikely source since the word is known throughout England and Scotland where it derives from early Middle English whist[58] (cf. Middle English hust[59] and Scots wheesht[60]).
wojus awful adjective Probably a variation of odious.
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 druive, driven). Verbal syncretism is extremely widespread, as is the Northern subject rule.

See also


Wells, J.C. (1982). Accents of English 2: The British Isles. Cambridge University Press 1986.

  1. ^ Burchfield, Robert (1995). The Cambridge History of the English Language. Cambridge University Press. p. 174. ISBN 978-0521264785. 
  2. ^ Hickey, Raymond (2007). Irish English: History and Present-Day Forms. Cambridge University Press. p. 93. ISBN 978-0521852999. 
  3. ^ Filppula, Markku (1999). The Grammar of Irish English: Language in Hibernian Style. Routledge. p. 32. ISBN 978-0415145244. 
  4. ^ Wells
  5. ^ Hiberno-English Archive: yous
  6. ^ Hiberno-English Archive: yes
  7. ^ Hiberno-English Archive: no
  8. ^ Hiberno-English Archive: have
  9. ^ See Wells for more information on the Belfast dialect.
  10. ^ From p 13 of Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language, by Robinson, Philip, published 1997.
  11. ^ Elmes, Simon Talking for Britain: A Journey Through the Nation's Dialects (2005) (ISBN 0-14-051562-3)
  12. ^ Irish Dictionary Online: ach
  13. ^ Hiberno-English Archive: banjax
  14. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Bowk
  15. ^ Hiberno-English Archive: boreen
  16. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/recordings/group/ulster-chinesewelfare.shtml
  17. ^ a b c http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/recordings/group/ulster-craigavon.shtml
  18. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 36. 
  19. ^ Jeffries, Stuart (2009-03-27). "The G2 guide to regional English". guardian.co.uk. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/mar/27/regional-english-dialects. Retrieved 2010-01-01. 
  20. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Cauld
  21. ^ a b Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 44. 
  22. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Carnaptious
  23. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Claggert
  24. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Cowp
  25. ^ Irish Dictionary Online: coill
  26. ^ Hiberno-English Archive: culchie
  27. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 80. 
  28. ^ SND: Draik
  29. ^ Hiberno-English Archive: eejit
  30. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 95. 
  31. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Founder
  32. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Guttie
  33. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Hallion
  34. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 121. 
  35. ^ SND: Hesp
  36. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Howk
  37. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 122. 
  38. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Jaup
  39. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Jouk
  40. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 160. 
  41. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Oxter
  42. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Queer
  43. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 202. 
  44. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Scunner
  45. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Sheuch
  46. ^ Irish Dictionary Online: slua
  47. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 220. 
  48. ^ SND: Sneg
  49. ^ SND: Sneck
  50. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 228. 
  51. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Thon
  52. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Throughither
  53. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 250. 
  54. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Wheech
  55. ^ Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 252. 
  56. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Wheen
  57. ^ www.hiberno-english.com
  58. ^ Whist
  59. ^ hust
  60. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language: Wisht

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