County Antrim accent: James talks about his affinity with the area and reflects on the importance of identity



This recording is an example of a County Antrim accent.

Immigrant influences

The dialects of Northern Ireland stand out from other dialects of English due to the area’s unique linguistic history. English was introduced to this previously Irish Gaelic speaking area from the early 1600s from two principal sources: immigrants who spoke the Scots dialect of the southwest of Scotland and English speakers from the north and west Midlands. It is no surprise then that James makes use of a number of features that can be traced to their original source and that have indeed continued to spread worldwide.

Listen, for instance, to the vowel sounds he uses for words in the following three sets:

  1. book, booklet, should, could, put and good
  2. doing, do, you, two, produce, nineteen-ninety-two, who, truth and too
  3. now, out, down, counties, South Africa, town, around and somehow

The vowel he uses in the first two sets is virtually identical. For most speakers in Northern Ireland and indeed in Scotland, pairs such as pull and pool are often homophones, boot frequently rhymes with foot and phrases such as good food are pronounced with vowels of equal length, whereas speakers in England tend to use different vowels for each set – noticeable above all by the use of a considerably longer vowel for words in the second set. Listen also to the way James pronounces the initial consonant in the words whatever and while. It is common for speakers in rural Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland to differentiate words spelt with <wh> from those spelt with <w>. Speakers there still make a distinction in their pronunciation of pairs such as which and witch or what and watt. This and James’ tendency to use a <t> sound for the past tense suffix, such as in the words started and appreciated, show a clear link with Scots.

Roots of pronunciation

The stereotypical Northern Irish pronunciation of the words car and garden with a <y> sound after the initial consonant is perhaps no longer as widespread among younger speakers in urban areas, but certainly still present in the speech of older speakers and in rural areas. Listen to the way James pronounces the word getting in the phrase getting talking to people like that. This type of pronunciation is known to have been a feature of dialect speech in parts of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire until relatively recently.

However, the vowel James uses in the third set above has distinctively Northern Irish overtones and is quite unlike the pronunciation of these words in any other English accent. Although a Northern Irish accent therefore betrays influences from several sources, it remains individual – it is the combination of features that makes the speech of the region distinctive and demonstrates perfectly that there are no absolute accent boundaries, rather sounds change gradually as one moves from place to place.

About the speaker

James McIllhatton (b.1941/10/10; male; labourer)



James: Well, uh, I started studying local history and, uh, I thought to myself, "Well now, uh, I've such an interest in this; I should be doing something here." So, so what do you do? Well, you get working; you get studying and, uh, finding things out and you get down tae writing then. So, uh, I did this and I, I did some, an odd short story or two mebbe for the local papers or that. And, uh, they were very much appreciated. And then I thought, "Well, I'll produce something." I produced a little book, uh, first of all, in, uh, nineteen-ninety on local history: it was called The Ulsterman. And then in nineteen-ninety-two I produced, uh, a sixty-four-page booklet on, uh, The Ulster Emigrants it was called. It was on, on emigration from, uh, from the six, from the nine counties of Ulster I should say, to different parts of the universe. And that was further afield than America: it was for, uhm, places like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, uh, and so forth.

Owen: And obviously this is something that, that, that you've pursued with, with, with great, uh, vigour, because you, you've written a lot. Did you find that you had a knack for it?

James: Well, uh, there's people could say that better than I could, of course, uh. I, uh, I produced the thing and, uhm, uh, I know p, I know people've enjoyed it. And as far as I'm concerned, uh, if people enjoy something that I am doing or, uh, that I've done, then that is a reward in its own. And, uh, it seems as though I have a talent as you say.

Owen: Now, what, what do you think is, why is it important that people are aware of their history? You, you, you, you talk about some of the historical books that you've written: why do you think it's important that people understand their own local history?

James: Ah well, I think that they should. You know, every, uh, every area has, uh, uh, has something tae offer, like, you know, uh, some great and some great men and women of the past who have, uh, who have made an impact, uh, on wor, on world history actually. And I think that's important that it, uhm, that it should be uh, uh, p, put over either in writing or speech or whatever. Uh, I think it's very important to, uh,

Owen: Do you think it gives us a better understanding of who we are?

James: It gives, uh, younger people a better understanding it, of who we are and what we are.

Owen: Now you mentioned that, uh, in the sixties I think, you, you, you decided to try your luck elsewhere and you moved over to London. Is that, uh

James: Ahuh.

Owen: Could, could you, could you give me an idea of what that was like? Was it, was it tough to, to leave this part of the world?

James: Well, just let me, let me give ye a good picture on it. I left home completely on my own. And, uh, I never had been in Belfast, I'm sure, mebbe, half-a-dozen times in my life at that, that stage. It was tough as you say, but, I really enjoyed every minute of it. I set sail first of all to, to the Midlands and I spent, uh, many, I spent a, a good many years there, so I did.

Owen: Now what part would that've been?

James: Well, first of all I went to Staffordshire. I stayed there for a while: I was, uh, in a town they call Burton; uh, I sp, I spent a few months there. And then by this time I'd got my, I 'd got the feel of things and got to know my way around and all that sort of thing. And then I, I was in Nottingham for a while and I was in Coventry for a while, I was in Birmingham. And then I, uh, I finally set sail for London.

Owen: Did you find it difficult to adjust to a, sort of, different way of life and a different culture at first? Did it seem very different from the life you'd known?

James: Oh, it was very, uh, uh, it was very different: city life and all that; it definitely was v, was very, uh, much of a, a strange thing. But yet in a way all there was that, uh, sense of satisfaction, you know, in it, uh, it's so hard tae explain, you know, but just, uh, somehow I adjusted very well.

Owen: And you didn't feel, you know, that you'd, you were from, that people treated you as if you were from the back of beyond or anything?

James: Well, to tell you the truth, uh, the only person that, at would treat you that way would be the Irishmen. And that seems rather strange, because I, uh, uh, I met people and if, uh, you came from, well I came from Ballymoney originally and well, that's just, sort of, for the bog, sort of thing, as far as, as far as some of them were concerned. But, you know, uh, that, that, that doesn't bother me at all. Mebbe it was just a joke or what; I just treated it as such anyway. But I met so many people, you know, and, uh, from different countries and, uh, that was a real, uh, experience in its, uh, in itself, too. Getting talking to people like that even, uh, uh, and, uh, comparing, uh, cultures, you know and comparing, uh, uh, different ways of life, you know: it was wonderful.

County Antrim accent: James talks about his affinity with the area and reflects on the importance of identity
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