Whether Ulster-Scots is a language, a dialect of English or simply a political football is an open question, and one which I'm not going to attempt to answer in this writeup. Whatever its status, however, with the advent of the Good Friday Agreement, it is being given parity of esteem with Irish as a minority language in need of preservation. The North/South Language Body, one of the cross-border bodies set up under the terms of the Agreement, has two parts: Irish Language and Ulster-Scots. The Irish Language part is called Foras na Gaeilge, the Ulster-Scots part Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch. One of the first initiatives of this agency was to set up an institute of Ulster-Scots at the University of Ulster.
Essentially, Ulster-Scots is defined as the language/dialect spoken by the Scottish planters who arrived in Ireland from the 16th century onwards. Like other lowland Scots of the time, these settlers spoke Scots, or Lullans, of which Ulster-Scots or Ullans is the Irish variant. Again, it is difficult to say whether Scots counts as a language in its own right, or simply a dialect of English. Some argue that Scots is a separate development from the same roots as English, Dutch and German, but it seems clear that Scots and English are a lot more closely related than English is to Dutch, for example.
Considered as a language in its own right, Ulster-Scots is superficially similar to English spoken with a broad Northern Ireland accent, and a syntax not entirely dissimilar to Gaelic. The following example given on an Ulster-Scots web site:
Ir ye fur a cup o tea?
It doesn't take a genius to translate
this as "Are you for a cup of tea
?", i.e. "Do you want a cup of tea?". Many of the superficial
differences between English and Ulster-Scots can be accounted for by the transliteration
of English words to conform with their pronunciation
in an Ulster accent, for example tae = to, tha = the, o = of, Noarth = North, Airish = Irish. However, Ulster-Scots does have a rich lexicon
of words which are not found in English, such as brae
= hillside, burn
= stream, kirk
= church, redd
= to clean or clear. In this sense, Ulster-Scots is spoken by almost everybody in Northern Ireland
, although most would consider these words simply idiomatic
. In any case, the case for Ulster-Scots as a language in its own right is far from clear cut
, but there are many who accept its status as such.
The political football aspect of the situation lies in the fact that claiming Ulster-Scots's status as a language is often seen as a "me too" measure by Unionists seeking to counterbalance the claims of Nationalists who want to secure official status for the Irish Language in Northern Ireland. Having official documents of the Northern Ireland Assembly provided in Irish translation, for example, is quite discomfitting to Unionists, who might see it as an erosion of the Britishness of the province. The sudden emergence of Ulster-Scots is seen as a political countermeasure: a concession to Unionism to counter the concessions to Nationalism. An explanation of why this might be necessary is outside the scope of the writeup: Northern Ireland politics is far from straightforward.
In conclusion, Ulster-Scots exists, and many people speak it, or speak a form of English heavily influenced by it. What it is, however, is open for discussion. Whatever its status, a movement to study and preserve it is now in full swing.
Some useful URLs: