For all the political furore about Irish and Ulster Scots, we tend to overlook the intricacies of modern Ulster English.
Language is a surprisingly complex social construct. When we speak, we are aware of some of the regionalisms in our speech, and we may even opt to use them intentionally – for the purposes of anything from social solidarity to humour. We may not even be aware of some of them!
There is therefore a distinction between what is sometimes referred to as “Standard Ulster English” and the broader Ulster dialect. The latter is an intentional departure from formal speech, where the former is what we use even in relatively formal contexts provided it does not hinder the comprehension of outsiders. What are the markers of formal Ulster English, versus Standard British English?
A discussion like this often begins with vocabulary (those are, after all, easier for non-linguists to discuss), but many of the most obvious markers are grammatical.
For example, to express ongoing duration Ulster English prefers the present tense/aspect rather than the perfect, making it progressive for all verbs except ‘to be’.
I’m working here all that time (I have been working here all that time)
She’s in Belfast five years now (she’s been in Belfast for five years now)
He’s living there since the flooding (he has been living there since the flooding)
Here, the Ulster usage is more reflecting of all the other languages I know than Standard British English is.
Ulster English can also tend towards preferring the past to the perfect if there is doubt about relevance to the present time:
Were you ever in Cavan? (Have you even been to Cavan?)
This is not universal but in some cases it can be closer to typical American usage than British.
Note also that Ulster English prefers the conjunction where even with reference to time (compare wo in colloquial German): the occasions where this really matters (the occasions when this really matters).
For questions in a subordinate clause, Ulster English often orders words in line with a normal question, where Standard British English prefers a conjunction followed but non-question word order:
I don’t know is she here yet (I don’t know if she is here yet)
I wonder how many had he scored before that (I wonder how many he has scored before that)
There is a possibility that this hints at an underlying Irish language influence (as do the “verbless subordinate” clauses found in more informal Ulster English: I came in and him just sitting there).
Some non-standard words are in such common use in Ulster English that they can be used even in quite formal situations, often because they defy easy “translation” (thole, scundered).
As in Scotland, wee is a diminutive – more or less equivalent to little in Standard British English but more commonly used. ‘Diminutive’ means not only that it indicates small size but also endearment.
Interestingly, however, some words are also more commonly avoided. Perhaps, anyone or shall (see below) are often avoided, with maybe, anybody or will preferred.
Some words are descriptive of things found more commonly in Ulster and may be unfamiliar to some outsiders, but they are not strictly non-standard: barmbrack, lough, drumlin, traybake.
Modal verbs are a specific subset of verbs in Germanic languages, deriving typically from verbs whose past form has become present, which mark emotion or attitude (necessity, volition, option etc).
Ulster English barely uses shall or ought to at all, and might tends to be restricted to emphatic statements.
May is used in Ulster English more in the Standard sense of ‘had better’: well, you may be there on time (well, you had better be there on time). Standard English may is usually substituted for a construction involving maybe in Ulster English: she will maybe come but it’s not certain (she may come but it’s not certain).
Ulster English also happily uses will even for collective suggestions: Will we go by train (Shall we go by train).
Ulster English also tends to treat have as a full verb with modal tendencies rather than as a standard verb:
Have you a pen (Do you have a pen/Have you got a pen)
She has ten of them sitting at home (She has got ten of them sitting at home)
Nevertheless, this usage is uncertain and subsequent reference nearly always treats ‘have’ as a standard verb even in Ulster English: Have you a pen – yes I do (now rarely have); you had twelve of them, didn’t (now rarely hadn’t) you.
Some common verbs which are not modal but have similar meaning are made progressive: Are you wanting another table (Do you want another table).
Much of this usage reflects Scottish English.
Some common phrases are different in everyday Ulster usage.
How are you is often used in Ulster English upon first introduction (very formal Standard English has How do you do).
I don’t care is used in Ulster where Standard British English would use I don’t mind; the distinction between ‘care’ and ‘mind’ in these contexts is not maintained in Ulster English.
These are some of the ways in which Ulster English, even in formal situations, varies from Standard British English. Of course, in all cases these represent broad tendencies, but it is noticeable that the distinctions persist even away from more deliberate “dialect speech”.