His dialect was more of a code — and it didn’t need protection
My father Barney Dordy was a native speaker of Ulster Scots. His speech was full of words and expressions that I never heard at school.
His mother was a native Irish speaker from Fanad in Donegal.
Barney Dordy himself never spoke a word of Irish that I recall.
If he thought someone was stupid he would say he was a quare gulpin.
‘Quare’ was an interesting word in that dialect. I always assumed that it was simply an accented use of the word ‘queer’, but the meaning was completely different. When you say it is ‘quare’ you were marvelling at it.
A ‘quare gulpin’ was bordering on being a pure lig.
A pint of stout might be a quare pint. A good boxer might be a quare boxer.
Another example of a word being used to mean its opposite was ‘doubt’, as in, ‘I doubt we’ll have a fair bit of rain the day’.
Meaning, I expect we’ll have showers.
Maybe an earlier generation of Gaelic speakers, just getting a handle on the English language picked a few words up wrong and queer, meaning odd, became quare, meaning grand.
Our languages and culture legislation is being finalised now on the presumption that two distinct cultures in Northern Ireland are equally entitled to support and statutory endorsement. But are they distinct at all?
Serious champions of both the Irish language and Ulster Scots are emphatic that these traditions belong to everyone, that they do not map onto unionist and nationalist political attitudes, but the way in which the campaigns for legislation were run and the framing of the new laws makes precisely that assumption.
What I know of Ulster Scots from listening to Barney Dordy suggests that it is not a language at all.
It’s a lock of words and phrases that wouldn’t get you through the day on their own.
These words are often strangely unspecific in their meanings.
I was at an event recently in the Seamus Heaney Home Place in Bellaghy when poet Maura Johnston spoke about Heaney’s own use of the old ways of talking.
I asked her if she could help me distinguish between a rake, a lock and a wheen.
All three words were used to denote number.
Barney Dordy might go into a hardware shop and say, ‘Give me a lock of them yokes’.
It would be for the man at the counter to know just what yokes he was talking about and how many he actually wanted.
The language was deliberately vague, more a code than a language, a way of speaking that covered your real meaning from anyone listening in.
I suspect this way of talking comes out of a lawless culture.
It is the talk of oul fellas who thought their business was nobody’s but their own.
The idea that this patois could be elevated into a language of general communication is daft. For a start, it was hardly about communication at all. It was the way people spoke out of the sides of their mouths. It was men’s talk.
If you had told Barney Dordy that a helpline had been set up in Stormont for him so that he could speak to an official in his native Ulster Scots he would have been utterly bewildered. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t speak plain English.
And if he spoke to you in that gruff country manner he was including you in his circle of like-minded people.
He would never have spoken to a policeman or the taxman like that.
‘That shower’, he’d have said. And he wouldn’t have needed to finish the sentence because his so-called Ulster Scots was as rich in silences as in words and phrases.
But he never had any sense that these words and silences were stitched together by anything other than the English language.
We have a movement now coining new Ulster Scots words, like ‘langbletherer’ for a telephone. It’s not a word Barney Dordy would ever have picked up and used. He knew what blethering is. Blethering is talking nonsense. It is long-winded, frivolous gossip. It’s the very opposite of the type of guarded speech in which he resorted to what we call Ulster Scots.
There are certainly people who blether at length on the phone, but where is the word for people who speak purposefully?
And, anyway, how is it paying respect to the language of the likes of Barney Dordy to be coining a whole new vocabulary that would make your speech unintelligible to him? Would you be expecting him to learn all these new words?
He wouldn’t have bothered because he had no sense that he was preserving or enriching an old culture. A culture that needs enriched and refined isn’t a culture at all. A culture is what people do when they are simply being themselves.
Barney Dordy would have had no use for an Ulster Scots commissioner appointed to protect his language rights.
He would be amazed to know that his country speech which his teachers would have sneered at is now to be facilitated in schools, or the law will have something to say about it.
In May of this year, the government officially recognised Ulster Scots as a national minority under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
That’s not something Barney Dordy would have taken any notice of.