The Hamely Tongue - James Fenton

A review by Joe Gillespie

The full title of this book is "The Hamely Tongue - A Personal Record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim" and is now in its third edition. Of course, Ulster-Scots is not exclusive to Larne. Variants can be heard across most of County Antrim as well as in Counties Down and Donegall but Larne, with its geographical proximity to Scotland and the fact that it is a sea port, must surely be the epicentre from which the Ulster-Scots dialect spread across the North of Ireland.

On Memories of Larne, members helped compile a list of "Larne Words" and managed to remember a couple of hundred. The Hamely Tongue goes much further than that and is undoubtedly the definitive work on the subject. Where "Swallowing a Dictionary" is an accusation often levelled at know-it-alls, this particular "dictionary" is most pallatable, being both highly informative and amusing.

Although it appears to be a dictionary, The Hamely Tongue is much more. It provides very thorough background information on the subject including maps of where the included words originated. Interestingly, there is an area beyond Carnlough and all the way up to Ballycastle that seems to be devoid of the Ulster-Scots language. In addition to the entries for common and obsolete words, it has a useful list of people and place names with appropriate translations. There is also a list of English words missing in Ulster-Scots - "accompany" becomes "go wae" and "shall" is never used being replaced by "wull". A selection of poems and essays is thrown-in for good measure, demonstrating the language in use but I found too many of the non-English words unfamiliar and had to constantly refer back to the disctionary.

Although we all have a smattering of Ulster-Scots, mostly remembered from our childhoods, much of this language is specific to an environment that is lost in time. Words for household and agricultural implements that have no modern counterparts have numerous references in the book but it is the sheer volume of insults and put-downs that must surely exceed any other language on the planet. How many ways can you call a person a clumsy fool and have the vocabulary and indeed, the nuances, to do it with such relish? Bachle, balion, blooter, cabbage, cipher, cod, coof, dafty, doit, donkey, dunkle, dyach...and that's just for starters! The Eskimos don't have so many words for "snow"!

I am very glad to have found this book and to quote the cliché, "Every home should have one". Having left Larne some forty five years ago, my wife and I often drop back into our native tongue and enjoy the fact that naeboady aroon us noos whit we're takkin aboot!


The Hamely Tongue by James Fenton, published by The Ullans Press is available from The Ulster-Scots Language Society Book Shop - £12.00

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The Hamely Tongue
the hamely tongue

The definitive reference book for the language we were all brung-up wae but is sadly evaporating from our culture.