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English in Ulster


The north of Ireland can be divided into three main areas where the following are spoken: (1) Ulster-Scots, stemming from seventeenth century Scottish immigrants (2) Mid-Ulster English, deriving from immigrants, largely from the North of England speakers from roughly the same period, (3) South Ulster English consisting of transitional varieties between the north and south of Ireland. In Co Donegal, the most westerly county of the province, there are Irish speakers in the Gaeltachtaí (Irish-speaking areas) all of whom are bilingual. The English of this small group justifies a further sub-type (4) Contact English which can show an influence from the structure of native-speaker Irish. Although the latter group is not of great relevance today, transfer from Irish to English in Ulster in its formative period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is taken by some authors to have been considerable.

Types of English in Ulster

1) Ulster-Scots Spoken in most of Co Antrim (except the extreme north-east). North Co Down, upper half of the Ards peninsula. North Co Derry, centred around Coleraine. North-West Donegal, the lowland area immediately west and south-west of Derry city (the Laggan district).

2) Mid-Ulster English Spoken in south Co Derry. Co Tyrone. The north of Co Fermanagh, Co Monaghan and Co Armagh. South and central Co Down.

3) South Ulster English Spoken in south-West Fermanagh. South of Co Monaghan and Co Armagh.

4) Contact English Spoken in the west Donegal Gaeltacht, approximately from Falcarragh down to Dunglow (An Clochan Liath) and in the less robust south-west Gaeltacht from about Glencolmcille to Kilcar.

Research on English in Ulster

Much work has been done on forms of English in Ulster stretching back to the mid nineteenth century (see the relevant sections of Hickey 2002 for details). There are also a number of scholars who are working now, or have been until recently, with a primary focus on English in the north of Ireland and whose studies testify to the varied nature of language in Ulster and the fruitful field of research which it presents. Among these scholars are the following.

George Brendan Adams was a dialectologist working at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum near Belfast and did a considerable amount of work on various aspects of the English language in Ulster.

Karen Corrigan has written on general questions of language contact and shift – particularly with reference to syntactic change – as well as on emigration from Ireland during the nineteenth century.

Alison Henry has concentrated on syntactic variation in Belfast English and the implications of non-standard grammar for formal models of syntax.

Rona Kingsmore has investigated the English of Coleraine (a middle-sized town in an Ulster-Scots area in north-east Co Derry) in her 1983 PhD thesis which was revised as Kingsmore (1995). A concise summary of her investigations and insights is given in Kingsmore (1996).

John Kirk has done much research into the relationship of Scots input to current Ulster English and on questions of language status in Northern Ireland.

Kevin McCafferty’s early research has been on phonological variation and change in Derry city (see relevant section in the tree on left). In recent years he has been engaged in research on non-standard grammatical features of Irish English and their historical origins.

Michael Montgomery is an authority on questions of contact and influence between Ulster English and forms of American English during the colonial period. He has written widely on the origins of American English with particular focus on varieties in the south-east of the United States. See the section on transportation in the tree on left for further information.

Joan Rahilly’s research focus has been on the intonation of Belfast English and on questions of phonetic realisation in Northern Irish English.


Adams, George Brendan 1958. ‘The emergence of Ulster as a distinct dialect area’, Ulster Folklife 4: 61-73.

Adams, George Brendan 1964. ‘A register of phonological research on Ulster dialects’, in Adams (ed.), pp. 193-201.

Adams, George Brendan 1965. ‘Materials for a language map of seventeenth century Ireland’, Ulster Dialect Archive Bulletin 4: 15-30.

Adams, George Brendan 1967. ‘Northern England as a source of Ulster dialects’, Ulster Folklife 13: 69-74.

Adams, George Brendan 1977. ‘The dialects of Ulster’, in Ó Muirithe (ed.), pp. 56-70.

Adams, George Brendan 1978. ‘Prolegomena to the study of Irish place-names’, Nomina 2: 45-60.

Adams, George Brendan 1981. ‘Dialect work in Ulster: An historical account of research in the area’, in Barry (ed.), pp. 5-17.

Adams, George Brendan (ed.) 1964. Ulster dialects: An Introductory Symposium. Holywood, Co. Down: Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Ahlqvist, Anders and Vera ‡apková (eds) 1997. Dán do oide. [A poem for a mentor] Essays in Memory of Conn R. Ó Cléirigh. Dublin: Linguistics Institute of Ireland.

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Corrigan, Karen 1990. ‘Northern Hiberno-English. The state of the art’, in Dolan (ed.), pp. 91-119.

Corrigan, Karen 1993a. ‘Hiberno-English syntax: Nature versus nurture in a creole context’, Newcastle and Durham Working Papers in Linguistics 1: 95-131.

Corrigan, Karen 1993b. ‘Gaelic and early English influences on South Armagh English’, Ulster Folklife 39, 15-28.

Corrigan, Karen 1996. ‘Language attrition in nineteenth century Ireland: Emigration as “murder machine”’, in Henry, Ball and McAliskey (eds), pp. 43-84.

Corrigan, Karen 1997. ‘The acquisition and properties of a contact vernacular grammar’, in Ahlqvist and ‡apková (eds), pp. 75-93.

Corrigan, Karen 1999. ‘Language contact and language shift in County Armagh 1178-1659’, in Mallory (ed.), pp. 54-69.

Corrigan, Karen 2000a. ‘What bees to be maun be: Aspects of deontic and epistemic modality in a northern dialect of Irish English’, English World-Wide 21.1: 25-62.

Corrigan, Karen 2000b. ‘What are ‘small clauses’ doing in South Armagh English, Irish and Planter English?’, in Tristram (ed.), pp. 75-96.

Corrigan, Karen 2003a. ‘For-to infinitives and beyond: Interdisciplinary approaches to non-finite complementation in a rural Celtic English’, in Tristram (ed.), pp. 318-38.

Corrigan, Karen 2003b. ‘The ideology of nationalism and its impact on accounts of language shift in nineteenth century Ireland, in Mair (ed.), pp. 201-30.

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Henry, Alison, Martin Ball and Margaret MacAliskey (eds) 1996. Papers from the International Conference on Language in Ireland. Belfast Working Papers in Language and Linguistics Belfast: University of Ulster.

Henry, Alison 1995. Belfast English and Standard English. Dialect Variation and Parameter Setting. Oxford: University Press.

Henry, Alison 1997. ‘The syntax of Belfast English’ in Kallen (ed.), pp. 89-108.

Henry, Alison 2002. ‘Variation and syntactic theory’, in Chambers, Trudgill and Schilling-Estes (eds), pp. 267-82.

Henry, Alison, Martin Ball and Margaret MacAliskey (eds) 1996. Papers from the International Conference on Language in Ireland. Belfast Working Papers in Language and Linguistics Belfast: University of Ulster.

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Kingsmore, Rona. 1996. “Status, stigma and sex in Ulster Scots speech’, in Henry, Ball and McAliskey (eds), pp. 223-37. Kirk, John M. 1997a. ‘Ulster English. The state of the art’, in Tristram (ed.), pp. 135-79.

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Mallory, James P. (ed.) 1999. Language in Ulster. Special issue of Ulster Folklife (45).

McCafferty, Kevin 2003. ‘The Northern Subject Rule in Ulster: how Scots, how English?’, in: Language Variation and Change 15: 105–39.

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Ó Muirithe, Diarmuid (ed.) 1977. The English Language in Ireland. Cork: Mercier.

Rahilly, Joan 1994. ‘Phonetic characteristics of prominence in Belfast intonation’, Belfast Working Papers in Language and Linguistics 12: 225-45.

Rahilly, Joan 1997. ‘Aspects of prosody in Hiberno-English. The case of Belfast’, in Kallen (ed.), pp. 109-32.

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