“New Joysey” and “Oirish:” 6 Accent Myths

A Leprechaun

These assumptions are as mythical as leprechauns

As per yesterday’s post about the mythological Canadian aboot, I’ve thought of some other myths people harbor about accents and dialects of English. Here are a few common misconceptions:

1.) Myth: People in Shakespeare’s day talked more like Americans than modern Brits.

Reality: That’s wishful thinking. As I’ve said before, Elizabethan English didn’t sound like contemporary British or American English. It sounded closer to an extremely strong Irish accent.  While it is true that the English spoken in Shakespeare’s day wouldn’t have sounded particularly English, that doesn’t mean it would have sounded American, either.

2.) Myth: American English is “colonizing” other accents of English.

Reality: Based on what evidence? There hasn’t been a large exodus of Americans to the UK, or Australia, or even Ireland. American English has become a bogeyman:  if the young people are speaking differently, it must be the influence of those rascally yanks! But I’ve never seen solid evidence that American English is spreading to other English-speaking countries.  This recent study only confirms how unfounded the notion is.

3.) Myth: The Irish pronounce Irish “Oirish”

Reality: Not quite. When you hear “oy” (i.e. IPA ɔɪ)in words like “Irish” or “kite” or “ride,” you’re usually mishearing a diphthong which begins in the center of the mouth: IPA əɪ (or, roughly speaking, “uh-ee“). Because this diphthong doesn’t exist in most English accents, it is often misheard as “oy.”*  Hence people often think the Irish pronounce fly, tide and right as “floy,” “toyed” and “royt.”  It’s also worth mentioning that Irish is more commonly “Arish” in many parts of Ireland.

4.) Myth: People from the New York area pronounce New Jersey “New Joysey.”

Reality: As with Irish/”Oirish” silliness above, this is actually a diphthong that starts in the center of the mouth; it’s most definitely not an “oy” sound.  Again, it’s more like IPA əɪ (that is, “uh-ee”).  If you hear “oy,” you’re just hearing the wrong sound.  It’s a moot point, anyway: this old-fashioned New York pronunciation is extremely rare these days.  It mostly died out in the 1960s or thereabouts.

5.) Myth: British English is older than American English.

Reality:  Just because America is a younger country doesn’t mean its dialects are younger.  In fact, many of the most widespread British accents feature newer linguistic innovations than their American counterparts. Between Estuary English and General American, for example, GenAm is by far the more conservative of the two accents.  American English preserves many old features–rhoticity and the short-a in bath, for example–that used to be more common in British English.

6.) Myth: Americans can’t tell the difference someone from Belfast and someone from London.

Reality: No seriously, I once read this absurd statement in a book written by a respected British vocal coach. The truth is, some Americans can tell the difference between British accents, and some can’t.  But there is no single “American Ear.”  Let’s not generalize!

Can you think of any more myths like these? There is so much misinformation floating around about the English language.  It boggles the mind!

*As a commenter notes below, there is a possible exception to this in working-class (or “popular”) Dublin accents, which may have a bit of lip-rounding in the first part of the diphthong.

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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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19 Responses to “New Joysey” and “Oirish:” 6 Accent Myths

  1. 'enry 'iggins says:

    1) Yeah I agree it sounds pretty Irish. I tried to put on Shakespearian accent one time for the hell of it and the result did sound really Irish to me.

    3) I’d still like to find more information on this one somewhere. When I try out [əɪ] it doesn’t sound quite right to me. J.C. Wells mentions the variant [ö̞ɪ] for “popular Dublin” (also called Local Dublin or working-class Dublin by others) accents in the Irish section of his Accents of English books. He tends to get into a lot of phonetic detail, which isn’t terribly surprising given that he’s a phonetician. But that sounds closer to the actual pronunciation, to my ears anyway, because I hear more rounding on the first element of the diphthong. CHOICE would be something different in this accent so the two phonemes would still not be merged. Wells also mentions a centralized [ɔ̈ɪ] realization which is common in “provincial Irish English”. He thinks it is this variant which is responsible for the “Oirish”, “royt”, etc. stereotype. This wouldn’t cause a merger either. Both of these variants are closer to realizations of CHOICE in American and other accents of English. Here is a recording of a 25-year-old (at the time of the recording) male from the Northside of Dublin reading a passage. The diphthong he uses in “outside“, twine and various other words sounds more rounded at the beginning to me than [əɪ].

    4) I agree completely. Thanks for mentioning that. I think it’s funny when actors don’t realize that this pronunciation died before they were born.

    5) Yes so many people don’t realize that. I’m including people on both sides of the Atlantic too.

    6) I’d probably agree (mostly) if the two cities were Nottingham and London. I have to admit a lot of my fellow countrymen can’t distinguish between the various dialects of the British Isles too well. However, I think it’s more likely to be difficult for them if the accents are both from the same country. I don’t think Belfast and London would be terribly difficult for most people. But maybe I’m wrong. I have noticed that many Americans have trouble with the Irish/Scottish distinction. But people should also remember that people from the British Isles (and probably elsewhere) often can’t distinguish between the various North American accents so well either. I’m not trying to start another war here 🙂 It’s just something I’ve noticed. Sorry for the ridiculously long comments I’ve been posting lately. I’m just obsessed with this subject 🙂

    • trawicks says:

      You’re right, I may be a bit hasty in that “Oirish” generalization. Thanks for pointing that out! I’ve actually found that the thing with the Dublin “oy” is not so much that it’s rounded so much as it’s slightly retracted from the traditional point of ə. Wells has it about right, although I think the lip-rounding varies at best.

      • 'enry 'iggins says:

        Okay. Well increased rounding is associated with retraction (and also a loweredf2). That’s why rounded vowels are to the right of unrounded ones on the vowel chart.

        • trawicks says:

          An interesting study you might want to look at is this one (sorry, it’s in a weird .ps format): http://www.ling.gu.se/konferenser/fonetik99/manus/2.ps It’s an acoustic analysis of a couple of working-class Dubliners that shows how incredibly unusual Dublin pronunciations really are. For example, the LOT vowel can be pronounced with an extremely high, unrounded vowel, something like ʌ̝. The researcher describes it as a “cramped” vowel system.

        • 'enry 'iggins says:

          I’ve never even heard of the .ps format before. It’s not working for me. Oh well.

  2. 'enry 'iggins says:

    Oh yeah. For [ö̞ɪ], the lowering diacritic is supposed to be on the first element, but it looks like it’s in between the two elements for some reason. Ditto with the centralizing diacritic and [ɔ̈ɪ]. I don’t know why those are screwing up. Oh well.

  3. Aidan says:

    I love your blog and the wonderful nuggets of information I have read so far.
    In relation to Irish accents it is true that northern accents are easily mistaken for Scottish accents. That is unsurprising as the dominant original dialect of English in the north was Ulster Scots.
    The accents further south in Ireland have a very big variation. There are many regional accents which derived from the Irish dialects spoken in those areas before the language shift. A lot of those accents would just sound ‘ Irish’ to non-Irish people. However, English was spoken in Dublin for hundreds of years before the rest of the country so the working class accents there are quite different to the rest of Ireland.
    The most dominant Irish accent rarely if ever gets mentioned maybe because it is a class accent. The middle class Irish accent is as neutral as English speaking accents get. It is not far from an English accent or the old-style mid-Atlantic accent.
    As I have that accent I can tell you that most Americans do not know where I am from unless I tell them. Equally I lived in England for a few years and people asked all the time if I was Canadian. Basically people expect Irish people to have an accent that very many people don’t have.

    • trawicks says:

      You probably speak with the “supraregional” Irish accent, which can definitely sound a little North American. I remember talking to a (very working-class) Dubliner once who complained that all the young people in Dublin these days sound like Yanks “thanks to the media.” And while I’m not sure I quite agree, I can see where he gets that impression.

      • Aidan says:

        I think that you are on the mark with the accent type. I got the accent I have because I went to a boarding school. I have video recordings of me speaking when I was younger and my accent was definitely regional before I went to secondary school.
        When you hear Irish rugby players being interviewed (rugby is an overwhelmingly middle class sport) the vast majority have a very neutral accent that is definitely Irish if you know it but it does not match at all with what people expect Irish people to speak like. Most pronounce ‘th’ which is one of the big accent markers in Ireland. When I lived in England people used to get me to say thirty three and a third somehow expecting I would pronounce the ‘th’ as ‘ t’. Years of being corrected for doing that when I was younger ensure that I pronounce ‘ th’ as standard now.
        My experience of moving from the regional accent to the supra-regional accent is very common in Ireland. Whenever I go back to my home town I notice that some people speak with the local accent but that many have an accent not far from my own.
        If you listen to RTE radio ads the voice-over is almost always in this type of accent.

  4. dw says:

    Myth: Americans can’t tell the difference someone from Belfast and someone from London.

    Some probably can’t. But then most Brits probably can’t distinguish between a New York accent and a Texas accent — or even an American and Australian accent. It’s just “not from here” 🙂

  5. Joe McVeigh says:

    Just stumbled across this blog (ok, caught the link from Stan Carey over at Sentence First) and it’s great. Thanks for writing it.

    After reading this article and the more recent Buffalo/Toronto one, it occurred to me that Buffalo speakers are often thought to use the “oy”. I wonder if this is also a mistake in hearing among listeners and if it’s the same diphthong that the Irish/Jersey folk use. The most common example of it I can think of is when a Buffalo native (Buffaloian? Buffaloer?) says “fire” and listeners hear “foyer”. I know a few Buffaloites and I’m going to listen extra carefully next time. If I can get them talking about a pyre of tires, that should offer more than enough examples.

    Anyways, thanks for the article and keep ’em coming.

    -Joe

  6. AUDIO NOIR says:

    i can’t tell you how many times i’ve heard it claimed by english people that american accents (especially appalachia and the ozarks) are language “fossils” of elizabethan english. this, i believe, is due to the fact that the english seem hell bent on attributing every single aspect of american english to british roots. the idea that american english has idiosyncracies purely its own seems to be a sore point with alot of british linguists. the pronunciation of ‘hundred’ as ‘hunnerd’ or ‘zed’ as zee’ (virtually standard in AmE even amongst newscasters and politicians) has no equivalent in the u.k., just to sight one example. the dominance of american english throughout the world has always been an incredibly bitter pill for british linguists and it seems as though in some abstract way they are somehow claiming “ownership” of it by constantly assigning every single aspect of it to british origins.

    as for american ‘colonizing’ other countries when i was in britain i was somewhat surprised at the number of american expressions (and not only slang) that are in such common usage in the u.k. no one even seems to know they were ever american to begin with. i expected a certain amount of that because of modern media but it was for worse than i ever expected. still, though, as in australia the basic accent itself is as strong as ever and does not appear to be “eroding” into AmE at all.

    as for non-english speaking countries learning english as a second tongue american english is, however, totally dominant and is even gaining popularity in former british colonies like india.

    whether that’s good or bad i will leave up to the individual.

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  8. Aaron says:

    My impression is that the onset of the PRICE vowel can be a bit rounded in Ireland sometimes. I’ve heard realizations like [ɞɪ] and [ɵɪ] in the vicinities of Dublin, Waterford and Cork. I would guess those realizations are probably where the “Oirish” stereotype comes from.