Mid Ulster English

Mid Ulster English is the dialect of most people in the traditional province of Ulster in Ireland, including those in the two main cities. It represents a cross-over area between Ulster Scots and Hiberno-English (southern Irish dialects). Varieties phonologically influenced by Scots, found in districts in counties Antrim, Londonderry, Donegal and Down, sound similar to Scottish English, and middle-class speakers from these areas in particular are sometimes mistaken by outsiders for Scots.

Despite its name, the term Mid-Ulster English is commonly used to describe the dialect of Ulster in general, not simply County Tyrone (where the geographical centre of the province lies). Before English came, all of Ireland, the Isle of Man and most of Scotland spoke Gaelic, and as there was a dialect continuum of understanding, in that dialects gradually changed from region to region. Ulster lay at the heart of this, and thus Ulster Irish is linguistically said to be midway between southern Irish Gaelic dialects and northern Scottish Gaelic dialects. This mirrors the modern day linguistic reality of the province, which now is almost entirely English-speaking. The accent of much of Cavan (in southwestern Ulster) is largely southern in character. Whilst the accent in north Antrim (in the northeast of the province) sounds much more akin to lowlands Scots. The rest of the province uses "Mid-Ulster English" in differing varieties usually distinguished with reference to the county of origin of the speaker.

The vocabulary of the dialect has been greatly influenced by Ulster Gaelic, but also profoundly by the languages/dialects of the 17th century settlers who came to Ireland from Britain; Scottish Gaelic, Lowland Scots and the West Midlands accent in England. The use of Scots and Irish Gaelic has diminished greatly since the 18th century, but both have impacted on the syntax, grammar and vocabulary of modern Mid-Ulster English.


Phonetics are in IPA.


/i/ feet /əi/ fight
/e/ fate /əʉ/ shout
/ɛ/ bet /ɛ̈/ bit
/a/ bat /ɔ̈/ but
/ɑ/ pot /ɔː/ bought
/o/ boat /aː/ 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.
  • 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 opositions before /r/, e.g. /ɛrn/ earn, /fɔr/ for and /for/ four.


  • Rhoticity, that is, retention of /r/ in all positions.
  • Palatalisation of in the environment of front vowels.
  • /l/ not vocalised, except historically; generally "dark" as in Scottish English rather than "slender" as in Hiberno-English.
  • /b/ for /p/ in words such as pepper.
  • /d/ for /t/ in words such as butter.
  • /ɡ/ for /k/ in words such as packet.
  • /ʍ/ - /w/ contrast in which - witch. This feature is recessive, particularly in vernacular Belfast speech.
  • Dental realisations of may occur through Irish influence before /r/, e.g. ladder, matter, dinner and pillar, etc.
  • Elision of /d/ in hand [hɑːn], candle /'kanl/ and old [əʉl], etc.
  • Elision of in lamb [lam] and 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.

Ulster English by region

Belfast and Environs

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/ (/bɛɡ/ for "bag"). The accent is also arguably more nasal compared with the rest of Ulster.

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 or such areas are Moira, Kinallen, 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 neighbours would use. Other phonological features include the following:

  • Long vowels are diphthongized in closed syllables, usually to /ɪə/. Hence "maid" is pronounced /mɛ:d/, while "made" is /mɪəd/.
  • The /ɔ/ phoneme in "pot" and "paw" is better distinguished than other Ulster dialects, with short "o" often unrounded (i.e. "not" is /nat/, while "pawed" is /pɔ:d/ (see "Vowel Lengthening" above).
  • The /au/ phoneme is typically pronounced /ɑʉ/. In strong dialects, the second vowel in this diphthong can become a rhotic consonant, so that "doubt" and "dart" are nearly merged to /dɑɺt/.

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 Penninsula in County Down, the Lagan valley in County Down 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 was inextricably Scottish, 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.

Derry City and Surroundings

The accent of Derry City is actually that of western County Londonderry (including Dungiven and Limavady), northestern Donegal (including Inishowen), and northern Tyrone. There is a higher incidence of palatalisation after /k/ and its voiced equivalent /ɡ/(eg. /kʲɑɹ/ "kyar" for "car"), perhaps through influence from Hiberno-English. However, the most noticeable difference is perhaps the intonation, which is unique to the Derry and Strabane area.


The speech in counties southern and western Donegal, southern Tyrone, southern Londonderry, northern Fermanagh, north Armagh, northern Monaghan, southwestern Antrim and most of 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.

Southern Ulster

Areas such as southern and western Armagh, central Monaghan, northern Cavan and southern Fermanagh is 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 South (as it once did in Gaelic). This accent is also used in north Louth (located in Leinster) and in north Leitrim (in Connacht). The last native Irish speakers in these areas were likewise midway between Ulster Gaelic and more southern dialects.


The Southern Irish dialect of English is to be heard in central and southern Cavan as well as southern Monaghan. Despite this, speakers of this dialect do still have traces of the Mid-Ulster dialect, which can be heard (albeit faintly) through certain words, and turns of phrase which would be more commonplace in Tyrone.


Much non-standard vocabulary found in Mid 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 Hiberno-English, especially in the northern half of the island.

Mid-Ulster English Standard English Notes
Ach!/Och! annoyance, regret, etc. (general exclamation) Usually used to replace "Oh!" and "Ah!". Ach is Irish for "but", and can be used in the same context.
aye yes Heard throughout Ireland, Scotland and northern England. General Scots and dialect or archaic English, first attested 1575.
bake mouth From Scots, extension of meaning from beak. Many body parts are also from Scots: see below.
boke, boak vomit From Scots bowk, Middle Scots l-vocalisation with West Central monophthongisation to /o/ betraying the origins of Scottish Planters. Cognate with English "baulk".
cowp, cope to tip over, to fall over From Scots cowp, Middle Scots l-vocalisation with West Central monophthongisation to /o/ betraying the origins of Scottish Planters.
crack banter, fun, eg. "What's the crack (with ye)?" - "What's up?" From Scots or Northern English or Irish. Originally spelt crack but the Gaelic spelling craic is now common.
culchie a farmer, rural dweller Either from "Kiltimagh" (KULL-cha-mah), a town in County Mayo, or from the -culture in "agriculture". Some say it derives from the Irish cúl (a') tí (lit. back of the house). For it was common practise for country people to go in the back door of the house they were visiting, so they were dubbed Culchies.
dander walk (noun or verb) Usually encountered as a noun in Scots (daunder), its use as a verb is well attested in the Dictionary of the Scots Language, and Ulster use may reflect the preponderence of nouns over verbs in an Irish adstrate.
duke, jouk, juke duck, dodge From Scots jouk, "to dodge".
gob, gub mouth Perhaps from Scots gab, but also Irish gob, mouth.
gutties plimsolls Note also the phrase "Give her the guttie" - "Step on it (accelerate)". From Gutta-percha, india-rubber. Also used in Scotland.
hallion a good-for-nothing From Scots.
(to have) a hoak, hoke to dig, to look around in e.g. "Have a wee hoak" From Scots howk, Middle Scots l-vocalisation with West Central monophthongisation to /o/.
jap to spill From Scots jaup.
lug ear Scots, almost certainly from a Scandinavian source, c.f. Norwegian lugg, a tuft of hair.
oxter armpit Scots
poke ice-cream From Scots poke, a bag or pouch.
scunnered, scundered annoyed (around Tyrone) From Scots scunner.
sheugh Pronounced /ʃʌx/ a small, shallow ditch. From Scots sheuch.
til to From Norse via Scots and northern English. Common in inner-city Belfast and Mid-Ulster region.
thon that From Scots, originally yon, the th by analogy with this and that.
throughother untidy, like "something the cat dragged in" Derivies probably from Irish. Though, it has parallels in both Goidelic, e.g. Irish trína chéile, and Germanic, e.g. German durcheinander.
wee little, but also used as a generic diminutive Cognate with German wenig, meaning "a little", although more closely related to English weigh.
wheeker excellent Onomatopoeic. From Scots wheech meaning "to snatch".

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, which has probably been reinforced by Irish, in which the verb-endings in any given tense remains the same in all persons (ie. you do, he does = déanann tú, déanann sé and also I am, you are, he is = mé, sé).|-

See also


  1. Here a film critic describes the nasal Belfast accent that American actress Gillian Anderson put on for the film The Mighty Celt as "nothing short of the real thing".
  2. From p 13 of Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language, by Robinson, Philip, published 1997.
  3. BBC Your Voice poll results
  4. Elmes, Simon Talking for Britain: A Journey Through the Nation's Dialects (2005) (ISBN 0-14-051562-3)
  5. See this lexicon of south-west Tyrone for examples
  6. See for more information on the Belfast dialect.

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