Ulster English

Approximate boundaries of the current and historical English dialects in Ulster. Mid Ulster English is in light grey-blue. Ulster Scots (in red) is no longer spoken in the entire area. The modern-day greater Derry (dark blue) and Belfast (sea-green) dialect regions are also designated. The Irish-speaking Gaeltacht is not shown

Ulster English (also called Northern Hiberno-English or Northern Irish English) is a major variety of Irish English spoken in most of the province of Ulster. It is spoken throughout Northern Ireland. The dialect has been influenced by Ulster Irish and the Scots language, the latter of which was brought over by Scottish settlers during the Plantation of Ulster. The Scots language was itself influenced by Scottish Gaelic, providing another source of Gaelic influence to Ulster English.

The two major divisions of Ulster English are mid Ulster English, the most widespread variety, and Ulster Scots, sometimes regarded as a dialect of a Scots rather than English, spoken in much of northern County Antrim.[1][2] Occasionally also recognised is a regional dialect of English that is transitional between mid Ulster English and southern Irish English, known as south Ulster English.


In general, Ulster English speakers' declarative sentences (with typical grammatical structure, i.e. non-topicalized statements) end with a rise in pitch, which is often heard by speakers of non-Ulster English as a question-like intonation pattern.[3]

The following phonetics are represented using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).


In the following chart, "UE" refers to Ulster English, which includes mid Ulster English (which may incorporate older, more traditional mid Ulster English), as well as 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)
UE SSIE Example words
/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
divergent /ɒ/ ɒː (mid Ulster)
ɔː (Ulster Scots)
äː (traditional)
ɒː cloth, loss, off
/ɔː/ all, bought, saw
/ɛ/ ɛ (Belfast: [ɛ̝ːə]) dress, met, bread
/ə/ ə about, syrup, arena
/ɪ/ ɪ̈ (mid Ulster)
ə~ɘ (traditional)
ɛ (Ulster Scots)
e (unstressed, word-final)
ɪ hit, skim, tip
/iː/ i(ː) (traditional, possibly, [ɪi]) i(ː) beam, chic, fleet
/ɨ/ ɪ~ɪ̈~ə island, gamut, wasted
/ʌ/ ɞ~ʌ̈ ʊ~ʌ̈ bus, flood, young
/ʊ/ ʉ (mid Ulster)
ʊ̈ (Ulster Scots)
ʊ book, put, should
/uː/ food, glue, new
/aɪ/ ä(ː)e~ɜi aɪ~äɪ~ɑɪ eye, five, try
ɐi~ɜi bright, dice, site
/aʊ/ ɐʏ~ɜʉ æʊ~ɛʊ now, ouch, scout
/eɪ/ (closed-syllabic [e(ː)ə~ɪ(ː)ə]) lame, rein, stain
/ɔɪ/ ɔɪ ɒɪ boy, choice, moist
/oʊ/ o(ː) goat, oh, show
R-coloured vowels
/ɑr/ ɑ(ː)ɻ ɑ(ː)ɹ~ä(ː)ɹ barn, car, park
/ɪər/ i(ː)ɚ i(ː)ɹ fear, peer, tier
/ɛər/ ɛ(ː)ɚ (Belfast: [ɝː]) 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:


Grammar derived from Irish or Scottish Gaelic

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), ("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.[4] For example:

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.[5][6] For example:

This is not necessarily true in Ulster English where "Aye" for yes and "Naw" for no are used, probably a Scottish Influence.

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".[7] For example:


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.[8] 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 northern Ireland, Scotland and 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
banjax to break/ruin/destroy,
a mess
Used throughout Ireland; origin unknown.[9]
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.[10]
bog wetland/toilet noun From Irish and Scottish Gaelic bogach meaning "wetland".
boreen a narrow road/lane/track noun From Irish bóithrín meaning "small road".[11]
bout ye? how are you? greeting From the longer version "What about ye?" ("What about you?"), which is also used.[12][13]
bru unemployment benefits noun Pronounced broo. Shortened from welfare bureau.[14]
cat-melodeon awful adjective Probably a combination of cat and melodeon, referencing the sound of a screeching cat and badly-played melodeon tunes.[15]
The second part is pronounced mə-LOH-jin.
caul, coul cold adjective Pronounced kowl. From Scots cauld meaning "cold".[16]
carlin' old woman noun From Norse kerling meaning "woman" (especially an old woman).[17]
carnaptious[17] quarrelsome/irritable adjective From Scots.[18]
claggerd covered with something adhesive (usually dirt) adjective From Scots claggert meaning "besmeared".[19]
cowp to tip over/to fall over verb From Scots.[20]
crack, craic banter/fun/gossip/news
(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.[13]
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";[21] 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);[22] or from the -culture in "agriculture".
dander walk noun/verb From Scots or Northern English.
dead-on okay/no problem interjection
Origin uncertain.[13]
to soak/drench,
From Irish droch-aimsir meaning "bad weather" or "wet weather"[23] or the less likely Scots draik/drawk.[24]
eejit idiot noun From the Hiberno-English and Scottish English pronunciation of idiot. Popularised in England to some extent by Terry Wogan.
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.[25]
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".[26]
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".
grub food
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)".[27]
hallion a good-for-nothing noun From Scots hallion meaning "rascal".[28]
hesp a scolding old woman noun Perhaps from Irish easpan.[29] Cf. Scots hesper: a hard thing to do; a difficult person to get on with.[30]
hoak, hoke to search for/to forage
(e.g. "Have a hoak for it")
verb From Scots howk.[31]
hooley party noun Origin unknown; perhaps a variant of Irish céilí.[32]
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.[33]
jouk, juke to dodge/to go verb From Scots jouk meaning "to dodge".[34]
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.
munya great/lovely/attractive adjective Origin unknown.[35]
oxter armpit/under-arm noun From Scots.[36] Dutch oksel = armpit
poke ice-cream noun From Scots poke meaning "bag" or "pouch".
potcheen hooch/bootleg alcohol noun From Irish poitín.
quare, kwer very/considerable
(e.g. "A quare distance")
A different pronunciation and extended meaning of "queer".[37]
Used throughout Ireland.
scratch/scrape noun/verb From Irish scráib.[38] Cf. Northern English scrab and Dutch schrapen (to scrape).
to annoy/embarrass,
From Scots scunner/scunnert meaning "offended" or "fed up".[39]
a small shallow ditch
(pronounced /ʃʌx/)
noun From Scots sheuch.[40]
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".[41]
smidgen a very small piece noun From Irish smidean.
snig to snap-off/lop-off verb Origin unknown.[42] Cf. Scots sneg[43] < sneck.[44]
stoor dust noun From Old French estour.[45]
tae tea noun Pronounced tay, this is the Irish word for "tea".
tip dumpster noun
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.[46]
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,[47] Dutch doorelkaar, 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).[48]
wheeker excellent adjective From Scots wheech meaning "to snatch". Onomatopoeic.[49]
wheen[50] a few/several determiner From Scots.[51] Usually used in the phrase "a wheen of..."
whisht be quiet (a command) interjection The Irish huist,[52] meaning "be quiet", is an unlikely source since the word is known throughout England and Scotland where it derives from early Middle English whist[53] (cf. Middle English hust[54] and Scots wheesht[55]).
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 or Scottish Gaelic.

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.

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:

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

Derry City and surroundings

The accent of Derry City is actually that of western County Londonderry (including Dungiven), 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 /a/[57](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.

Ulster Scots

This region is heavily influenced by the historic presence of 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. The strong Scots influence is noticeable in those districts and Scots pronunciations are 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, in the written form, Gaelic of this area continued to use standardised Irish forms, while the spoken dialect continued to use the Scottish variant, and was in effect not different from the Gaelic of the Scots regions of Argyll and Galloway.

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

South Ulster English

South Armagh, south Monaghan, south Fermanagh, south Donegal, north Leitrim, and north Cavan[59][60] natives speak their own distinct variety of English.[61] 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).

See also


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

  1. Hickey, Raymond. A Source Book for Irish English.
  2. Higgs, Robert J. Appalachia Inside Out: Culture and custom. University of Tennessee Press, 1995. p.512
  3. Hickey, Raymond (2007). Irish English: History and Present-Day Forms. Cambridge University Press. p. 118. ISBN 978-0521852999.
  4. Hiberno-English Archive: yous
  5. Hiberno-English Archive: yes
  6. Hiberno-English Archive: no
  7. Hiberno-English Archive: have
  8. Irish Dictionary Online: ach
  9. Hiberno-English Archive: banjax Archived 17 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  10. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Bowk
  11. Hiberno-English Archive: boreen
  12. http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/recordings/group/ulster-chinesewelfare.shtml
  13. 1 2 3 "BBC - Voices - The Voices Recordings - Youth leaders". bbc.co.uk.
  14. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 36.
  15. Jeffries, Stuart (27 March 2009). "The G2 guide to regional English". guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 1 January 2010.
  16. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Cauld
  17. 1 2 Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 44.
  18. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Carnaptious
  19. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Claggert
  20. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Cowp
  21. Irish Dictionary Online: coill
  22. Hiberno-English Archive: culchie
  23. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 80.
  24. SND: Draik
  25. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 95.
  26. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Founder
  27. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Guttie
  28. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Hallion
  29. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 121.
  30. SND: Hesp
  31. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Howk
  32. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 122.
  33. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Jaup
  34. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Jouk
  35. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 160.
  36. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Oxter
  37. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Queer
  38. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 202.
  39. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Scunner
  40. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Sheuch
  41. Irish Dictionary Online: slua
  42. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 220.
  43. SND: Sneg
  44. SND: Sneck
  45. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 228.
  46. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Thon
  47. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Throughither
  48. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 250.
  49. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Wheech
  50. Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Gill & Macmillan. p. 252.
  51. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Wheen
  52. www.hiberno-english.com
  53. "Middle English Dictionary Entry". umich.edu.
  54. "Results of Headword Search in Middle English Dictionary". umich.edu.
  55. Dictionary of the Scots Language: Wisht
  56. See Wells for more information on the Belfast dialect.
  57. Elmes, Simon Talking for Britain: A Journey Through the Nation's Dialects (2005) (ISBN 0-14-051562-3)
  58. From p 13 of Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language, by Robinson, Philip, published 1997.
  59. Burchfield, Robert (1995). The Cambridge History of the English Language. Cambridge University Press. p. 174. ISBN 978-0521264785.
  60. Hickey, Raymond (2007). Irish English: History and Present-Day Forms. Cambridge University Press. p. 93. ISBN 978-0521852999.
  61. Filppula, Markku (1999). The Grammar of Irish English: Language in Hibernian Style. Routledge. p. 32. ISBN 978-0415145244.

Further reading

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