How tay pure spick Ballymena lick, shem

Over the past 5 years, I’ve written a lot about the linguistic difficulties of travelling. Those of you who don’t know me in person may not be aware that when I’m anywhere but in my own town I speak with an accent that I myself cultivated after many, many misunderstandings and blank looks accompanied by “What did you say?!”. Let’s just say that the Ballymena accent does not lend itself well to travelling.

I taught my students in an accent that bordered on American, since I was required to teach American English and American pronunciation. When with my friends, I eased off a little bit, but still mostly spoke in a neutral accent – to the extent that, when I encountered someone from closer to home than the States, they’d  often seem surprised. “You don’t have a typical Northern Irish accent” was the usual comment.

Now that I’m back home for a while, however, I’ve had to perform the same accent/slang/dialect alterations I worked so hard on before… but in reverse. I mean, obviously my neutral accent can be understood here in the motherland, but the natives really don’t like it. I’ve been laughed at, teased, imitated, and called pretentious, a poser, and a snob, thanks to the occasional English or American accented word slipping out in conversation. You’re from Ballymena: speak Ballymena! is the general consensus.

And so here I am, trying to drop my ‘g’s and find my glottal stops all over again.

However, what’s struck me most about “speaking Ballymena” is that it’s about so much more than the accent. I’d always described the dialect here as Ulster Scots, which would be how people mostly of my grandparents’ age speak. I don’t speak Ulster Scots (which is a dialect, but one which speakers constantly fight to have reclassified as a language), but I do understand it, and can talk easily with someone who is using it even though I’m responding with something that is more easily understandable as English with a lot of local slang. I probably could speak it if I wanted to, but it doesn’t come naturally.

Anyway, sorry, this was meant to be a short introduction to a list of vocabulary that might be of interest to… I dunno. Someone, mibbay [maybe]. I’ve been jotting down words and phrases as I hear them, because they now stand out to me, as an ESL teacher and friend to people of many nationalities. And so, without further ado, I give you the first (or perhaps only, depending on how I feel) Coffee Helps guide to how to speak Ballymena.

General Pronunciation Rules:

  • Drop the g on every ing. [doin’, goin’, thinkin’]
  • Lose your ‘t’s. [“bottle of water” = “baw-ul aw waw-ur”]
  • The “ay” sound [face, eight, Hayley] becomes “ee-ih” [fee-ihs, ee-iht, Hee-ihley]


  • Bou’ ye? [Hello, how are you?]
  • Awrigh? [Hello, how are you?]
  • Lo there. [Hello, how are you?]
  • Howzih goin’? [Hello, how are you?]
  • Smiserable, innit? [It’s quite a cloudy, wet day today, don’t you think?]
  • Thassa scorcher the day, innit? [The temperature has risen to just above freezing, did you notice?]
  • The nighs er quarely drawin’ in, aren’ they? [Have you noticed that, with the hour we lost due to Daylight Savings Time, it’s getting darker rather significantly earlier each night?] (said on autumn/winter evenings)

Common Words/Phrases

  • Aye: yes [Anawrun? Aye.: I’m going to the bar, would you care for another drink? Yes.]
  • Naw: no. [Whose roun’ izzih, yers? Naw.: Is it your turn to purchase the drinks? No.]
  • Pure: very [Ah’m pure scunnered, so ah am: I’m very displeased/bored/sick of this.]
  • Weak: very [Thon’s weak cool, shem!: That’s very cool, my friend.]
  • Wile: very [S’wile cowl the day, innih?: Today’s weather is very chilly, don’t you think?]
  • Clean: very [Me car’s clean boggin’ so it is.: My car is very dirty.]
  • Thon: that
  • Thonder: over there (also: yonder)
  • …so it is / so she is / so they are / so he does (etc.): Added to the end of practically every sentence, apparently for no reason other than a reluctance to stop talking. [Ah was pure knackered, so ah was: I was extremely tired.]
  • Wait til ah tell ye: I’m about to tell a story, so please look attentive. Generally said as one conversation topic peters out but the speaker doesn’t want to relinquish control of said conversation. [“…ye know lick?” “Aye.” “Aye.” “…well, ah-” “Here, wait til ah tell ye! Huv ye been in thon new place on Welton Street (Wellington Street) yet?”]
  • Class: cool, brilliant. [Thon’s class lick!: That’s brilliant.]
  • Shem: I don’t know what this means. I used to think it meant ‘friend’, but you can basically put shem at the end of any sentence and it will make sense. [Awright shem? : Hello, how are you? / Ah’m pure knackered, so ah am, shem.: I’m extremely tired.]
  • Lick: Ballymena pronunciation of “like”; used similarly to American version, but at the end of sentences rather than as a comma. [American version:- And I was like totally and he was like I dunno like whatever. Ballymena version:- And I said class lick, and he said he didn’t care lick.]
  • Truth: Lie [“Ah worked wi’ Liam Neeson lick.” “Truth!”: “I once worked alongside Ballymena’s only celebrity, Liam Neeson.” “I don’t believe you for a second.” (Also, “Aye right!“]


  • Ah: I [Ah woulda, buh ah couldnay be arsed: I would have, but I’m far too lazy]
  • Swell seen: It’s obvious [Swell seen he’s no fray roun here: It’s obvious he’s not from Ballymena]
  • Messages: everyday purchases such as milk, bread, dinner ingredients. [Ah’m away down the streeh tay get me messages.: I’m going to the local shops to purchase some basic essentials.]
  • Shap: shop
  • Beg: Plastic carrier used for carrying one’s purchases home from the shaps.
  • Haunbeg: Handbag (American: purse)
  • Gee (pronounced with a hard ‘g’): Give (past tense: geen) [Gee me wan!: Please give me one of those! / Ah geen him a piece aw my mind, so ah did.: I let him know what I thought, in no uncertain terms.]
  • Boke : vomit (verb, noun); disgusting (adjective) [The weans wur bokin’ thur ring up all night, so they wur (shem): The children were unfortunately rather ill last night and I didn’t get much sleep. / Huv ye tried thon new Indian? Pure boke so it is shem.: Have you yet had the misfortune of dining at the newly established Indian restaurant in town? The food is rather substandard, to be honest.]
  • Bin lid = gulpin
  • Gulpin = eejit
  • Eejit = gipe
  • Gipe = bloon
  • Bloon = arsewipe
  • Arsewipe = turnip
  • Turnip: idiot [Thon gipe/bin lid! / He’s a pure turnip, so he is. / She’s a weak eejit, so she is. / They’re wile arsewipes, so they are. / Thon’s a weak bloon. / Ye gulpin! It has just occurred to me how many words for idiot there are in Ballymena.]
  • Wheesht!: Shhhh!
  • Quare: quite impressive/big/good [Thon’s a quare day! The current weather is pleasing to me. Ye get a quare feed in there lick! That restaurant serves satisfyingly large portions. He’s a quare fella! He’s a very decent person.
  • Cheeky: rude (not in a playful way, usually prefaced by ‘weak’) [Seriously?! That’s weak cheeky!: Did she really say that? That’s extremely rude!]
  • Clout: rough slap around the head. [He was bein’ weak cheeky tay me, so ah geen im a quare clout.: He spoke rather disrespectfully to me, so I’m afraid I lost my composure slightly and resorted to physical violence.]
  • Reely: (1) Mental/crazy (2) Cool [He’s pure reely so he is.: He’s crazy, in a crazy-fun way that makes everyone want to cautiously be friends with him. Thon new place is pure reely!: That new drinking venue is very cool.]
  • Oul boy: father (or unknown middle-aged or elderly man)
  • Oul doll: mother (or unknown middle-aged or elderly woman)
  • Wean: child (pronounced ‘wee-un’)
  • Gurn: whine/complain (adults); cry (children) [Wid ye quit yer gurnin’ wid ye?: Please shut up.]
  • Scunnered: fed up (Ah’m pure scunnered this day lick so ah am, shem: I’m feeling somewhat despairing and stuck in a rut today.]
  • …an’ gettin’ on: and so on [Them weans huv me head done in, they spent all day gurnin’ and gettin’ on, so they did.: The kids were playing up today.]
  • Yam: the sound a cat makes. [Let thon cat in, she’s standin’ yammin’ an’ gettin’ on at the winda.: I think the cat wants to come in.]
  • Heatwave: warm enough to take your winter coat off.

I could go on for pages and pages, but I suppose I should get back to Actual Work…

8 thoughts on “How tay pure spick Ballymena lick, shem

  1. Bert asked me today if there was any crame left. He wanted it for his boul of parritch. But I don’t think that’s Ballymena, more like the hills between Kells and Ballyclare.

  2. :-D Excellent!!

    My dad uses eejit… he picked it up when we were posted in Northern Ireland for 2 years. I was only little though, so anything I did pick up is long gone.

    Most people say they can’t tell by my accent where I’m from. I CAN speak with a northern accent if I want to, but most people don’t understand me a word I’m saying, so I’ve adopted a neutral accent… but it seems a lot of forces brats have no real accent so I’m not alone!

  3. I wish that someone had given me a list like that thirty six years ago when I arrived in these parts! Is it any wonder I had trouble understanding Elly at the end of each school day?

  4. Susanne Walter says:

    Brilliant! Loved your translations! Please don’t stop working on this, in a few more weeks it’ll all be gone, because it’ll have started to seem normal again.

  5. I’m homesick now!

    Also, the total overuse of the word “wee” – I was in Ballymena shopping (in a big shopping centre in a field, hai!) and I swear the woman at the till said:
    “Here’s your wee card, and I’ve popped yer wee receipt into yer wee bag”!

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