Nelson McCausland the ex-DUP politician, is still beating his “Culture” drum. It has become a kilted obsession with the little, bearded red-cheeked man . He’s been banging on about Ulster-Scots; paradiddling and drumrolling his tartan roots and promoting this odd, local lucky-bag dialect as an independent language ,for a few years now .It’s all a bit of a nonsense , of course.;an invention no better than a tin-hat conspiracy theorist’s best blatherings that aliens landed in Area 51.
The truth is that this particular obsession is of only comparative recent vintage and has been introduced as the Yin to the Irish Yang in the language stakes, possibly less than twenty years ago.When I was a boy , a young man, a middle-aged man and now progressivly an older, creaking citizen, I never once heard mention of a language called” Ulster Scots”. That’s a simple fact. I grew up with a mixture of friends who spoke English , tinted with some colourful slang , I’ll grant you, but never a word about such a creature as Ulster -Scots.
I’d heard about the Irish and the Scots going to America and was aware that the descendants of some of those long-ago “Billy-boys” had become the same “hillbillies” who later helped to invent rock’n roll when they weren’t brewing moonshine .They have been referred to as the Irish and the Scots or the Irish-Scots.Some of them may have run plantations full of slaves and some of them might have become presidents, warriors or white- trash.
I spoke no Irish , that I can remember ,until I entered Grammar school at the age of eleven where the rudiments of that language were taught, until A-level standard.Like Latin, French and English , some of it stuck and some of it was forgotten almost immediately.There was one boy in primary school who spoke Irish and English because his parents were fluent in both languages and they conversed soley in Irish at home, school -legend had it .My parents did not and never showed any need to speak in Irish at all .At school we never learned German, Spanish or Greek or Chinese , either ,in those far -away days , but one thing is sure, there was never any mention of a language called “Ulster -Scots”. No-one anywhere had ever come across anything like this and I doubt that it ever appeared on any school -curriculum across the land.None of the fellows I knew from the Unionist/ Protestant community , who went to different schools ,but whom we hung out with in the cafes after school had ever heard of it either.They never mentioned, it if they did and none of the girls we all attempted to chat -up ever mentioned it either.. I dare say that there are precious few linguists who have ever heard of such an arcane lost language either.
The idea of a special wee language which was spoken, alone, by Protestants and unionisists of Scottish descent was unheard of in my circles .That’s because no such “language” ever existed. There were plenty of colloquialisms, though, much as you’d get anywhere throughout the islands.. We used plenty of “slang” words though and plenty of “makemeup” words which were rooted in everything and originated in every place, from America, Ireland, Scotland , Wales , England and every country beyond .
Oh, back in the 1950s when I spend summer days at my country grandfather’s house…my mother’s old home, I can still remember him digging up his favourite fresh blue-skinned “purties”….spuds( Is “spuds” Ulster-Scots?!) which tasted wonderful with only butter and salt, or the two wee “bantie” eggs he might serve up especially for my breakfast. He had “chuckies” and “chooks” running about pecking in the yard and the wee bantams were part of that farmyard circus.I recall the stinging, acrid , sulphur smell of the “chuckie house” that made my nose twitch and my eyes weep and there was that odd, dry dusty odour of the old thunderbox outdoor toilet with the little squares of paper hanging on a wire hook, inside. There was the big sow that escaped into the cabbages which was met with some choice Anglo -Saxon expletives. I only recall the incident because when I searched for the shovel he had requested and I arrived back with the tiny little thing used for putting coal in the big stove , he dismissed it and ran to the shed for the big long-tailed affair for shovelling stones and cement…a much more useful tool for herding large recalcitrant pigs intent on gorging on fresh greens.A shovel to me, a wee townie, was something for putting coal on the fire ..way back in those entirely fossil -fuel days.
Language!!!!! Well , like I said,I was a “townie” and everything beyond those town limits was different , exotic and a bit foreign; even if it was only five mile bus-journey , “out the road”. The language of the country -folks was slightly different from the language us “townies” used. It was English, of course , but the accents were slightly novel only a mere few miles away and there were some words that were sounded differently. My cousins sounded different to me, anyway and my aunties and uncles had slightly different accents, but I understood exactly everything that was being said.. I didn’t think of any of it as a different language , any more than the many slang words and names for all the new foods that were drifting into common use from America, Europe and across the world were any less part of the English language we all used.
Who knew that “bungalow” was an Indian word? I hadn’t even thought about it , but I found out that little fact somewhere along the line. When my mother cooked spaghetti bolognese for us as 1950s children ,we took it for granted without even considering the Italian origins or the fact that both words had faraway origins .It was the same when she made “kedgeree”; we never considered that this lightly spiced dry -curry rice dish was an Indian word.
“Burger” was another one . you never saw a proper burger when I was growing up, except possibly in American films or in a “Wimpy Bar” in the cities. What an odd word that was .Its origins are German, probably from “Hamburg” and then immigrants to America took it in hand, but in a time before everyday “burger-joints” and the advent of the “Big Mac”.the word was a rare enough beast here in Norneverland. We grew up in a world where Italian immigrants to our shores eventually introduced us all to “English” fish and chips and ice-cream.At one time there was only fish and chips on sale when the pubs closed at night.After that there’d be no problem in assimilating such exotics as saag aloo , samosas, biryani ,tandoori or chapatis….not to mention chow mein or tortellini.our local English was growing by leaps and bounds but it was still English .
So back to this “language ” of Ulster -Scots which Nelson McCausland wished to promote on a par with Irish. I think he will find if he looks long enough and hard enough ,that the dialect he speaks of is really a mixture of local oddness, welded on to the already- existing languages.Every one of us use odd local words on occasion and consider it no more than fertile local slang which has been slipped down from one generation to the next, just as many Americanisms , Italianisms , indianisms or whatever, have entered our own speech and have become embedded in English.
The list is endless and can be very entertaining, but hardly constitutes a separate language : “bread” for money, “peckerwood” for idiot, “queen” for homosexual man, “chilling” for relaxing, “hooker” for prostitute, “cool it” for relax,”cruising for a bruising” for looking for trouble, “dough” for money,”flicks” for films, “gig” for job, “give me a bell” for phone me,”kicks” for good things, “Mickey Mouse” for something stupid…even “bad” for “good”……it goes on and on and becomes part of the language without us even realising…..but a separate language it isn’t.
Someone needs to tell Mr McCausland the hard facts of life and for the Dear’s sake, nobody should mention Cockney rhyming slang to him ,either! ……or Geordie “Toonspeak” for that matter.He’ll be looking for language acts for them too!