Dublin: A Tale of Two Accents

Dublin, Ireland

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NOTE: This post uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For information about this notation, please visit my page of IPA Resources.

Why does Dublin have so many dialects? Even compared to other cities in the British Isles, the city has a startling amount of linguistic diversity: Although London (for example) has a number of accents, the poshest aristocrat and the most rugged Cockney at least seem to be part of the same dialect spectrum. In Dublin, however, the social classes seem to be living on different planets entirely.

To illustrate this point, I am going to reference video clips of two Dubliner celebrities of different backgrounds. First, take a quick look at Aiden Gillen of BBC’s Queer as Folk and The Wire on America television. Here’s him accepting an award for the latter program.

Gillen grew up in the suburbs, and his accent is notably mild. (He has spent some time in the UK and America, but not enough to alter his accent radically, in my opinion). His speech has a flat, measured intonation that reminds me of an American, an impression which is enforced by his tight dipthongs: “face” is pronounced [feɪs], rather than the more popular Dublin [fɛɪs]. When Dubliners have expressed to me that they feel like people in their city are starting to sound like “Yanks,” this accent is probably what they are referring to. This is the Irish accent most easily comprehensible to outside listeners.

Then there is Damian Dempsey, an Irish singer-songwriter who grew up proudly working-class on Dublin’s Northside. Check out this interview he did with an Irish-American newspaper.

It’s a world of difference. Suddenly we’re talking about an accent as inscrutable to outsiders as Glaswegian. Dempsey speaks with a “cramped” vowel system that is so unusual it’s hard to even analyze. Notice the pronunciation of “wiser” as IPA [wəizə] (sounds a bit like “woyzer”). This is a major dividing line between the working- and middle-class accents. This dialect is so different from Gillen’s that they might as well be on opposite sides of the world. And yet both are Dubliners.

So what is going on here? Well, according to Raymond Hickey, something of an expert in the field of Irish dialect study, Dublin is heir to two distinct linguistic traditions. The first is the Working-Class Dublin accent, which harks back to the earliest days of modern English. The other tradition is that of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy which emerged in the city in the 18th and 19th Centuries. One dialect was largely preserved up to the present day; the other morphed into the “suburban” dialect we hear among most middle-class Dubliners.

I am not versed enough in the history of the city to offer any commentary on why Dublin remains so divided in terms of dialect. I am a bit suspicious, however, when people of different backgrounds speak with wildly different accents in the same city. It’s an indicator of an educational and societal chasm that has not being bridged.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-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.
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12 Responses to Dublin: A Tale of Two Accents

  1. Mark says:

    I’m from Richmond, VA and one thing that seem to be unique to this region is how some locals pronounce ‘ours’. I have noticed this since I was a kid and when my wife moved here (she is from KC) she noticed it too. It is pronounced like ‘ayers’ but monosyllabic. I don’t think I’ve heard it anywhere else.

  2. michael says:

    Stopped reading after British Isles. Do you really have to use that archaic term in relation to Ireland? It carries such heavy political connotations for many Irish people, so much so that it is never used in the education system (books, atlases), the Irish government officially denounced the term, and the British embassy in London discourages its use in relation to Ireland.

    • STORYMON says:

      Spoken like a true Northsoider. Loike get over it mon . In foct we were better off with the Brits.

    • Ned Costello says:

      Lose the chip FFS! It’s a perfectly acceptable term, accurate and widely used intermationally. Ireland is part of the group of islands to the west of the continent of Europe of which Great Britain is the largest, hence “The British Isles”. it’s a geographical term, not a political one.
      Gerover yerself, for Jaysis sake!

    • Tara says:

      Well said! British isles! What century are we living in..

  3. AUDIO NOIR says:

    i too have noticed that many southern irish do seem to sound somewhat american these days. i’ve always wondered why that would be but when i was in ireland it was very noticeable.

    • jim says:

      kids raised in front of a tv i think for all the American ‘like’ accents. And snobs, Ireland has a lot of snobs. The last paragraph in the article hinted at it. After partition we had barely any minorities, handful of protestants in the south you wouldn’t notice them. We are all white, christian, the same. We have travelers, but not that many really. People with money needed some way to distinguish themselves from the rest. Wonder will it change with the immigration over the last two decades though i suspect immigrants and their children depending on their education and income level are fitting into the two categories mentioned above, kids from working class areas with one accent and middle class accents with an other.

      North Atlantic archipelago is a better term. Saying British isles is purely a geographical term is just nonsense. British is a political and cultural term, British isles can be said and interpreted as a political and cultural term. Some are ok with that and some aren’t. Why offend anybody.

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  5. Mark B. says:

    “It’s an indicator of an educational and societal chasm that has not being bridged.”

    But if it were bridged then at some point in the future you wouldn’t have as many cool accents to write about. I’m sure an accent fanatic like you doesn’t want that to happen.

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  7. Tom Richards says:

    I’m not really convinced that Dublin has a broader spread than other cities (though the city is not that big, of course.)

    I’m South West English, my partner is a Dubliner, she grew up in the Southside in the first generation of a family to move south, most of her extended family are still North.

    Listening to the clips I’d categorise Aiden Gillen’s accent as 1/3 Dublin, 1/3 American, 1/3 London – listen to those glottal stops – real Mockney and no part of Dublin.

    Damian Dempsey – yes, good example though no comprehensibility probs from a UK English point of view, I’d say.

    For an example of “posh” Dublin, which I’ve heard from various Southsiders in person I’d suggest this Andy Irvine interview clip. Andy starts speaking at about 45s.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gh6CIaueoBw

    The similarity between broader Dublin accents and the Liverpool “Scouse” accent is interesting – lots of links between the cities of course.

    Thanks for an enjoyable blog.
    Tom

  8. jaykay says:

    Tom Richards: spot-on about Aidan Gillen’s accent – the American influence is very audible to those of us in Dublin, in a way that it wasn’t if you watch him in clips from the original 1998 Q as F which are available on Youtube. I’m not sure that I get the London input as much, though, not 1/3rd anyway. I think a good example of the “modern” Dublin middle class accent is Bob Geldof, although even when he came to prominence in the late 70s his drawling accent was deemed abysmal to many of the older generation such as my father and his brothers and sister, who grew up in the same area of Dublin in the 20s and 30s and definitely did NOT have that horrible drawly sound.