Sunday, 1 August 2010

Natural Ulster-Scots v the book-learned variety

My mum tells me that when she first came to live in Newtownards some sixty years ago, as a student nurse from south Down, she had great difficulty understanding the locals, as virtually all the indiginous residents (with the possible exception of a few snooty social climbers) talked what I would now call Ulster-Scots, or what my Newtownards born-and-bred dad referred to as "broad Newtown".

I happened to hear a BBC Radio Ulster news feature this week on Ulster-Scots summer schemes at various local primary schools. I think it's great that these summer schools exist and that they include tuition in music, dance and the Ulster-Scots language. Indeed, if such schemes are still operating when my baby daughter is old enough I will be at the head of the queue to sign her up to attend. However, Maggie Taggart's interview with the children at Castle Gardens Primary School about their Ulster-Scots language lessons saddened me. Don't get me wrong, the children were obviously enjoying the lessons and I'm not criticising what they were being taught. What upset me was that it came across that basic words and phrases (eg "Houl yer Wheesht") were strange and new to the children speaking them - children who I presume live in my home town in the heart of an Ulster-Scots area.

I suppose it's a combination of factors, including years of stigmatisation of the language. Maybe the parents or grandparents had the Ulster-Scots beaten out of them (literally or otherwise) and either have none left in them or assume that they also have to exorcise the remants from each successive generation. Then of course there's the pervasive influence of the media. While I can't claim to have escaped this myself, it annoys me that local youngsters seem to think it's cooler to sound more like extras from Home And Away or High School Musical than kids from county Down. Oh, and why is everything "random"? I probably have all of this heartbreak in front of me!

As a first time parent, I'm sure I will make many mistakes but I really will feel as though I have failed Isla if she isn't naturally bilingual in English and Ulster-Scots before starting formal education. I don't want her growing up thinking that Ulster-Scots is something you have to go to a class in order to learn from someone who probably didn't speak themselves when they were a child. I am so glad that my dad, who taught at a local primary school, was proud of the local way of talking and used it wherever he could, while ensuring that we also learned "proper English". Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I was always being to told to "wheesht", but never knew how to "houl" it and I was no stranger to a "guid skelp on tha arse" (I doubt the summer school classes teach that one)!


  1. Summer Schools ir guid Fiona an tha weans larn wurds that ir noo in mony cases alien tae them. But tha sad thing is that naw eneuch 'Native Taakers' ir wullin tae pit thur heid abane tha haf leaf dure an gie tha weans a lesson on tha wye tha leid shud bae spake. An whiles tha book larned folk dinnae want tae bae toul bae yins wha ken what they ir taakin aboot. They ( tha native taakers) ir in mae ain oppeenion ir baein left oot o tha hale equashun whun it cums tae tha pittin forrit oor preesious tongue. A fear wae wull enn ap wae a new tongue that naeboady on tha face o tha eirth iver spake.

  2. Aye, Charlie. A'm wi ye on aa tha abune. Jist tak tha twa wurds "amateur" an "professional". Tae ma mine, tha richt meanin o tha furst (fae tha latin) is "a boadie that daes a thang fur tha luv o it" an tha richt meanin o tha ither is "a boadie that daes a thang on acoont o bein gien siller fur it" (like a parteecular kine o wumman A'm telt ye fine hingin roon tha Albert Clock!). Hooaniver, tha fowks in pooer seem tae thenk us "amateurs" ir a shower o hauf-wits that shud no be taken tent o, an tha buik-larned "professionals" in joabs wi fency names ir tha onie yins warth leestenin tae.

    Yer last sentence aboot a new tongue pit me in mine o Phaap Roabisin's buik "Tha Man Frae The Ministry", fur thangs ir warkin oot noo jist tha wye he said the' wud. Gin ye hinnae read it, ye shud.

  3. Fiona, A'll gie ye anither yin. A year or twa syne A was at a "Parent Teacher" nicht at a school no far fae whaur A leeve. The P1 teacher was a wee young yin, fresh oot o' Stranmillis. Whun yin o the weans' parents axed her a question she answered by sayin "like totally and stuff". A near cowped.

  4. Noo ma da wus real "oul schuil" in tha wye he larned tha weans (masel an ma brither an aa) - he aye haed an oul cane hingin in the oxter o his tweed jaicket an wae betide tha yins that wusnae minin him - but he wud hae pit a sweetie in yer buik gin ye got aa yer spellins ir sums richt. Ye jist got oan wi it - nae messin aboot an nane o this poleetical correctness that haes tha hale kintra awa tae reck an ruin.

    Gin Isla gets yin like yer describin, A cudnae tak it serious, but ye know me, A'll mair nor likely niver be awa fae Isla's schuil oniehoo.