Ulster Scots and Appalachian English

I’ve had conversations with several commenters about the Scots Irish, and their impact on Appalachian English in the United States. This region was largely settled in the 18th-Century by “ethnically Scottish” immigrants from what is present-day Northern Ireland, hence the “Scots-Irish” moniker. For a frame of reference, this short documentary offers numerous samples of the dialect spoken in the Appalachian region:

The Scots-Irish have lent quite a bit of vocabulary to Appalachian English. But unlike the accents of contemporary Northern Ireland, which are clearly influenced by Scots and Scottish English, Appalachian English isn’t as patently “Scottish”-sounding. Why is this?

I see two possible answers to this question. The first relates to Ulster Scots, the Germanic language that would have been spoken by the earliest Scots-Irish settlers. Notably, this language is still heard in contemporary Northern Ireland, but is emphatically not spoken in Appalachia. This suggests that there was, for reasons that are unclear, much more pressure to speak “standard” forms of English* there than in Ulster. Hence, Scots had far less time to influence the English spoken in the United States.

But there is another important point that is often missed here. Note the following summary of Scotch-Irish migration to the US, from Wikipedia:

From 1710 to 1775, over 200,000 people emigrated from Ulster to the 13 Colonies, from Maine to Georgia. The largest numbers went to Pennsylvania. From that base some went south into Virginia, the Carolinas and across the South, with a large concentration in the Appalachian region; others headed west to western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and the Midwest.

As this well-documented migration patterns implies, the Scots-Irish took a detour through Pennsylvania (and perhaps other states) before heading down to the inland South. Which invites the question: what about the children?

It’s logical to think that the offspring of these Ulster-Scots speaking immigrants would have picked up the accents of American English spoken in the areas where they first settled. By the time the Scots-Irish reached Appalachia, isn’t it possible that the younger generation already spoke with some type of “American” accent?

I haven’t come to any conclusions myself, but I find the question of how much the Scots-Irish influenced Appalachian English an endlessly fascinating debate.

*I am aware that Appalachian English might not be considered “standard” by many people.  But, it isn’t Ulster Scots, despite some apparently lexical and grammatical influence.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in American English and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Ulster Scots and Appalachian English

  1. Danny Ryan says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve been wanting to hear Appalachian English for a long time. What a great sample.
    I don’t know if this is any help, but my great grandparents emigrated from Waterford in Ireland to north Manchester. And while their children grew up speaking Lancashire dialect or Mancunian, many items of vocabulary typical of Irish English remain in the family’s vocabulary.
    I think there’s a lot to your theory that the children of the first settlers quickly learnt to speak like their peers and assimilated to the ‘levelled’ dialects of the colonies.

    • trawicks says:

      I’ve noticed that quite a bit in England’s Northwest. There’s also quite a bit of shared linguistic heritage between Northern England and Ireland: “craic,” for example, appears to be a Hibernicized version of Northern English “crack.”

  2. Ed says:

    I have heard that Appalachians use the words “owt” and “nowt” for “anything” and “nothing”. Is this true? These dialect words are used in many areas of England, but (as far as I know) are not used in Scotland or Ireland, so this might suggest English influence as well.

    How are they pronounced in Appalachia? There are three main zones in England.

    Pronounced with the MOUTH vowel in Lancashire, Cumbria and the North-East (whatever the local MOUTH vowel might be).
    Pronounced with a diphthong typical of the GOAT or GOAL set in Yorkshire and parts of the Midlands [ɔʊ]. This does not necessarily make them homophones of “oat” and “note”, as these are pronounced with monophthongs in Yorkshire.
    Pronounced with the THOUGHT [ɔː] vowel in the West Country.

    • trawicks says:

      I think Appalachia has quite a bit of rural English influence as well. My guess is the dialect had much more diverse origins than just “Scots-Irish.” If you look at ancestries for that region, there’s usually a good bit of English, Welsh and German mixed into the melting pot as well.

      Not sure about “nowt” and “owt,” though!

      • Ed says:

        I remembered that I’d read something like this on Wikipedia. I had another look and it was actually for “summat”.

        There is also summat (meaning something) /səmət/ (as summit), derived from Middle English some-aught; it is heard also in rural parts of the USA such as in the Appalachians.

        “Summat” is even more widespread and used in about 3/4 of England. It shows how dominant the south-east is that a word used everywhere except the south-east got excluded from Standard English.

      • Salamander says:

        That is true…my family is from eastern Kentucky and has lived in that area for over 200 years. I was surprised to find out how much German ancestry we had; seems that a number of Hessian soldiers opted to stay in America after the Revolutionary War.

        There is also a lot of French ancestry in Appalachia, but I don’t know if it had much influence linguistically. Most of the French who ended up in Appalachia were the descendents of Huguenots who emigrated to English-speaking Virginia in the early to mid-17th century, so they were probably pretty assimilated by the time of the early migration to the mountains. The other French influence came from trappers and explorers who had moved down from Canada.

        There was also a fairly significant African influence in the early years. Appalachia was one of the melting pots of colonial America, as everyone from rowdy Ulster Scots to ex-Hessians to escaped slaves seemed to end up there. The “Melungeons” of Kentucky and Tennessee are thought to be a tri-racial group descended from Europeans, Native Americans and Africans.

      • Joyce says:

        I don’t know who started the notion that it was Scots-Irish who settled Appalachia, but in the part where I grew up, almost all the earliest settlers were second, third, or fourth generation English settlers from the eastern seaboard colonies of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and eastern North Carolina (which itself was populated from Virginia), plus Swedes from Delaware and the Jersey settlements, lots of Germans, and so on. Their dialect was derived mostly from Elizabethan English, altered by a hundred or more years in America. Which is why there would be little Scots or Irish influence.

        • Peter Franklin says:

          I agree that the scotch-irish settlement of Appalachia is vastly overstated. I think it has something to do with the modern fascination for all things celtic, or perceived as such. Also there seems to be a view that the’ less tough’ English couldn’t possibly settle such a wild terrain. I’ve read the most infantile comments on line about this subject. Many of the people making these comments don’t seem to realise that ulster scots also had a sizeable population of people from northern England, who I’m sure were just as hardy as the lowland scots. Judging by Appalachian names I would say that english ethnicity far outnumbers any other. I’ve also noted that many english names are claimed as scottish especially by people extolling their scotch-irishness. Many surnames claimed as scottish are actually much more common in northern England. As for the people who say the Appalachian dialect was greatly influenced by the scotch-irish their argument is very weak.

        • Jamie says:

          The non-Ulster component is probably strongest in the Carolinas. Most of the Huguenots, Welsh, Germans, etc. settled in the eastern part of the mountains and in the foothills. Appalachian Tennessee, Kentucky, W.Va, Southwestern Virginia, and the upland regions of Alabama and Georgia did have a plurality of Ulster Scots settlers. And the Swedes of Delaware had been there so long they had mostly assimilated into and indistinguishable from the general Anglo-Protestant population.
          The English component in the Appalachians probably originates from Northern England, Cumbria & Northumbria – the Borderlands. They were ethnically, socially and culturally almost indistinguishable from Lowland Scots, but they did tend to have English surnames. If family names like Armstrong, Taylor, Bell, and Turnbull, are very common among what you mention are the “English” family names found in Appalachia, then they may have come from Northern England, since these surnames are quite common in that region ( and equally uncommon in other parts of England).

  3. Wade says:

    All the people in the video have what I would call Southern accents. I can’t hear the difference.

  4. An aul han says:

    As an Ulster-Scot it was fascinating to hear how the hamely tongue developed in the states. Right the way through the video clip I was picking out Ulster-Scots influences and linguistic roots. Although it is now used in a somewhat derogatory fashion, the term Hillbilly refers to the Ulster-Scot presbyterians (Billy Boys) who settled these regions and indeed helped to shape the United States. (see http://youtu.be/fmcR0T55jMw)

  5. trawicks says:


    Appalachian English is a variety of Southern English (although there is some argument as to whether West Virginia English could be termed “Southern”).

    @An aul han,

    Interesting. I think I heard something similar. From what I’ve read, the Ulster Scots had a huge hand in shaping what we nowadays think of as Southern culture. Along the same lines, libertarian economist Thomas Sowell wrote a book called “Black Rednecks and White Liberals” (which I haven’t read), that suggested much of African American culture derives from the Scots-Irish as well. As you can tell from the title, his theory is more than a bit controversial!

  6. Rev. Ian Paisley says:

    Odd that the term Scots Irish is not used in Britain or Ireland, only in the US. The Appalachian accent, though it may contain some Scots words contains no trace of the phonological influence of Scots whatsoever e.g. charateristic forms such as out /ut/ down /dun/ more /mer/ home /hem/ night /next/ trough /trox/ fall /fa:/ all /a:/ or the common Scots negations didna, couldna, canna etc. These forms still exist in parts of Ulster. Perhaps the Scots Irish contribution to Appalachian speech has been somewhat exaggerated?

  7. “Which begs the question: what about the children?”

    No, it doesn’t. It invites the question, or begs that the question be asked, but it doesn’t “beg the question.” To “beg the question” is to engage in circular logic — to use a premise to prove a premise. Look it up, please; Webster will enlighten you — even Wikipedia is up to speed on this term. Example:

    Q: “Why do you think the Bible is true?”
    A: “Because the Bible says it’s true!”

    That is begging the question. It is a highly specific term that comes to us from parliamentary procedure wherein “the question” is not a question at all, but rather the issue that is currently being debated.

    Please, if you are going to write for public consumption, have at least enough professionalism to set assumptiopn aside longe enough to ascertain the meaning of the words and terms you intend to employ. And especially if you are going to write about language! I have no choice but to paraphrase your final sentence: “Perhaps your contribution to general knowledge has been somewhat exaggerated?”

    • boynamedsue says:

      If you’re going to comment on a linguistic blog, please remember that linguistics is a descriptive not a prescriptive discipline. “Begs the question”, in modern English, almost always means “invites/suggests the question”. If change of this kind wasn’t possible, your “wife” would slap you every time you referred to her using that insulting epithet, and you would be thrown out of your friend’s house for pissing on their “toilet”.

    • trawicks says:

      I’ll change the phrasing if it’s so offensive (I don’t particularly care either way). However, I concur with what boynamedsue says above.

      I mean no offense to you, Brian, but I hate “BTQ” prescripivism. My reason being that “begging the question” is an utterly terrible translation to begin with (there is no “question” in the original Latin, and even the use of “begging” is a stretch). My feeling is that if a phrase is misleading to begin with, it deserves every bit of misuse it gets.

      BTW, Brian, if you have any interest in linguistics, I might direct you to this post over at Language Log about the issue. Their conclusion is that nobody should ever use the phrase for any reason.

  8. brian jackson says:

    Trawicks and Boynamedsue: Unlike Humpty Dumpty, words, to me, do not mean exactly what I want them to mean. And there is a a large difference between the natural evolution of the meaning of a word or phrase over time and its misuse due to ignorance. Once again, I invite you to research the term “beg the question” in any reputable source, and you will not find so much as a single reference to “invite the question” as even a secondary meaning. It is the sound of the phrase that has led to its misinterpretation and misuse only in the past decade or so.

    By holding writers accountable for correct usage I am not prescriptive, but precise. If, for instance, a writer chose to essay on the appropriate tones in the diatonic scale whereby to achieve on a guitar what is commonly referred to as “standard tuning”, and indicated that the third such tone should be C#, I would have overwhelming grounds for correction, since the actual tone is D. Or if, for instance, an author chose to wax instructional about the Volkswagon automobile, and referred to it in every instance as a “vegetable peeler”, I doubt seriously if anyone would object to my pointing out that, in fact, a vegetable peeler is a small handheld kitchen device used to remove the inedible exterior skin from carrots, potatoes, etc. — not an example of a German-made internal-combustion-powered vehicle.

    As a student of language, I am aware of many other misuses of perfectly good English words and phrases — and also of the reasons for their misunderstanding and misuse. To say that a phrase “was misleading to begin with” is to assume personal responsibility for language, which is by nature collaborative but dependent on common understanding of definition in order to function. This is why dictionaries, lexicons and the like were invented and continue to be useful. If I do not know the meaning of a word or phrase, I look it up; I do not arbitrarily confer upon it whatever meaning I choose. By following your lassez faire approach to language, I might propose that E=Mc2 is a recipe for chocolate pudding. The fact is, it isn’t. If your approach to language were generally followed, it would soon mean nothing at all and fail utterly as a tool of communication.

  9. boynamedsue says:

    Brian, if you don’t like a particular use of a word, don’t use it. I like the “incorrect” version more, and will continue to use it. Let’s see what the dictionaries say in 40 years.

  10. Sinclair says:

    Amazing! poke=bag, Poke ‘o’ Chips. Gaumed up=Messed up. words I used as a child, Scotland, East lothian.
    Thanks for sharing.