Until the seventeenth century, Irish Gaelic would have been spoken everywhere in this region, except in the town of Carrickfergus. The local form of the language was very similar to the Gaelic spoken in Scotland, and somewhat distinct from the Irish spoken in southern parts of Ireland. Until the twentieth century, there continued to be a large number of Irish speakers in the Glens, but the Famine and its aftermath, and the opening up of the area by the Antrim Coast Road, had led already to a permanent decline of Irish. The last stronghold of the language was in Rathlin, where, according to the 1910 Census, there were 220 fluent speakers out of a total population of 350.
However, even here there was a rapid decline, caused partly by the First World War. Many young people went to work in the shipyards of Scotland, and did not return. In 1938, the Royal Irish Academy sent Nils Holmer, a Swedish linguist, to study the language situation on the island. He reported that only 19 speakers remained. There are few, if any, native speakers on the island, though as in other areas language classes have been introduced, and there is a determination not to let the old tongue die out.
The language picture was changed by the emigration of large numbers of Scots, but two things have to be remembered about this influx from across the North Channel. In the first place, many of the planters would have come from Galloway and Ayrshire, which at that time had large Gaelic speaking populations, and it is certain that many were at first Gaelic speakers. Also, those who did not speak Gaelic would have spoken Scots, rather than English. Scots and English began as dialects of Old English, Scots being the language of the kingdom of Northumbria.
By the seventeenth century, they had become two separate, though similar, languages. The uniting of the two kingdoms under James I in 1603, when the Scottish King moved to London, and the use in both countries of the Authorised Version, an English translation of the Bible, led to the eclipse of Scots even in Scotland, at least as a written language. The spoken language remains, however and the “hamely tongue” is widely spoken throughout this area, where many people speak in what sounds to an outsider as English with a Scottish accent, but they may in fact be speaking in Ullans, or Ulster Scots. What might formerly have been dismissed as a mere dialect has now been recognised as a language in its own right, with its own distinct grammar and vocabulary.