Supraregional Irish English

Dublin under construction

Dublin under construction during the economic boom (Wikimedia)

I spent Friday night at a gala for the organization my girlfriend works for, a community center created for (and largely run by) Irish immigrants.  As always, it was an accent tour of the Emerald Isle, as folks from Dublin, Belfast, Galway, Donegal and countless other regions gathered under one roof.

At one point of the evening I struck up a conversation with a young woman from Cork, a part of the country noted for its unusual accent.  This woman, however, had nothing resembling this dialect.  Rather, she spoke with what linguist Raymond Hickey terms Supraregional Irish English.  It’s definitely an Irish brogue, but greatly softens the more pronounced regionalisms.

You can hear something of this dialect in this video, in the interviews with RTE personalities Grainne Seoige and Ryan Tubridy (he starts speaking at 1:10):

You can also find quite a few samples of this accent in this trailer for the Irish romantic comedy, Speed Dating (particularly listen to the speech of the young protagonist):

Another prominent “SIE” speaker, I would argue, is actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (also from Cork):

All these people are clearly Irish, of course.  And yet there are some things are a bit different.  The “ar” in start isn’t as fronted or raised as in more pronounced accents (in working-class Dublin accents, star sounds very much like “stair”).  The dipthongs in kite and mouth are much closer to how they are pronounced in standard British or American accents.  And there is no hint of the “Irish r” you find in stronger accents (IPA ɾʷ).

This “neutral accent” seems to be a younger phenomenon.  As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve heard a number of older people who have been surprised, aghast even, at how quickly SIE has replaced local dialects among people under 40.  As such, it’s natural to wonder how much the Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s massive economic expansion in the 90s and 00s has played a part in this.

As the world now surveys the damage that Ireland’s economic exuberance wreaked upon the country, I can’t help but wonder how much this damage extended to Ireland’s linguistic diversity.  Was the island where “each village has its own voice” homogenized by the era of cell phones and Galway summer homes?

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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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18 Responses to Supraregional Irish English

  1. 'enry 'iggins says:

    Irish accents often don’t sound as distinctive as Americans expect them to. I think this is unfortunate, because I want people to have really strong accents when I go to Ireland. But unfortunately, a lot of accents seem to be going away these days.

  2. seanachie says:

    These accents are not anything particularly new and they are more a symptom of class mobility than a weathering of regional distinctiveness. Regional accents are alive and well in Ireland, especially among the younger generation. It is true that exposure to American TV from an early age causes many to adopt a horrendous mid-Atlantic twang, mostly in affluent suburbs of Dublin, but in other parts of the country too (and this is the source of Jonathan Rhys Myers’ very un-Cork accent). By and large however this is not the rule. No doubt Irish accents have evolved over the past several decades – listening to recordings of W.B. Yeats and James Joyce, one is struck by how ‘common’ their accents were compared to the Dublin bourgeois of today – but I would say Irish regional accents are currently enjoying a golden age, thanks in part to a more relaxed, less snobbish view on the parts of broadcasters and the democratising effect of YouTube.

  3. Dw says:

    exposure to American TV from an early age causes many to adopt a horrendous mid-Atlantic twang,

    I find claims of this type very difficult to believe. The evidence shows that children formulate their phonologies on the basis if the speech of people they physically interact with, not disembodied voices coming out if the television. British TV has been showing large amounts of American and Australian TV for decades yet there has been zero effect on British accents. If you have a counterexample I would be very interested to hear it.

    • grommit says:

      Counter-example, from *twenty-five years ago*:

      I was visiting friends in rural Co. Cork and went with them to a gathering at the local big house. While there I excused myself from the ladies at tea and sought refuge with the smokers outside the kitchen. The grand-daughter of the house, 11 and all of it lived there in rural Cork, was playing outside. You could clearly hear her speaking cultured Southern Irish with other children. Then she came up for a little performance before the guests, ***and immediately switched into a mid-Atlantic dialect almost like General American***. It seems she watched television religiously, and had come to perceive GenAm as the preferred dialect.

      I was minded of the way American politicians or educated blacks switch dialect according to the social environment. A new twist on the RP model, perhaps?

      • trawicks says:

        Actually, I find that in America politicians switch to LESS prestige dialects more often than the other way around! For example, Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota’s new governor, has been noted to adopt a Southern accent when he goes to the South.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if there was quite a bit of “code switching” in Cork. The younger people I’ve met from there speak with an accent that is thoroughly scrubbed clean of any regionalisms, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they switch to the native accent when they fly home!

      • Aoife says:

        Sorry to resurrect this old post, but that example is fascinating. Born Dublin 1983, I grew up speaking more or less the dialect described above with the odd regional marker (while my brother, in the same house, had a noticeable Dublin accent.)

        As a child, there was a tendency among my peers which used to bug me no end. When assuming a character in a pretend game (be it manipulating a Barbie doll or playing “mammies and daddies” (as we called “playing house”) ) other girls my age would invariably speak in as American an accent as they could when speaking in character. I found it jarring and thought it ruined the verisimilitude of the game, but I was an odd child. I don’t know if they even knew they were doing it, and they all sounded recognisably Irish when not playing pretend, or when playing and not speaking in character.

        So, definitely a form of code-switching, reserved for one very specific circumstance only. A performance or dramatic dialect, maybe?

  4. trawicks says:

    @seanachie,

    Interesting. So you would say that perhaps the Celtic tiger was a more democratizing force than people have portrayed it to be?

    I would agree with DW that I’m not so sure we Yanks are to blame for this accents. SIE seems more like an attempt to disassociate with a number of regional pronunciations, especially in Dublin. This results in an accent that superficially has a bit of an American sound to it, but I think it’s more coincidence than anything else. I would argue, in fact, that Ireland and America have less of a cultural bond than they used.

  5. Aidan says:

    I don’t think that this accent is anything new at all. I am 38 and ever since I can remember there were ‘posh’ accents and local accents wherever I went. In my home two in the west of Ireland there is a really distinct accent but many people from my town don’t have it because there was always a class accent running in parallel. I went to a boarding school whose graduates nearly all have this same neutral accent. We did have limited elocution lessons but a bigger influence was the emphasis on debating and public speaking.
    It’s funny that this accent is so maligned considering how many people have it. For me the fact that Ireland is English-speaking and not Irish-speaking is an issue not what accent people have speaking English.

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  10. This is really interesting. I almost couldn’t hear an accent. Many people in Ontario wouldn’t notice, and they would basically all fit right in to Nova Scotia. The other SIE speaker that comes to mind is Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood. If she spoke in a monotone she could pass for Canadian.

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  14. Tom Doyle says:

    This is an idiotic and moist article that epitomises Americans puerile understanding of ‘culture’. Accents I will have the author know, have remained as regional as they ever were. If anything, regional accents are even more pervasive than say 30 years ago.

    Class in Ireland as in any country in the world has an effect on how ppl speak. I can’t help what family I was born into but I’m from cork, have lived there most of my life and do not have a cork accent. This is because I went to boarding school up the country and college in dublin. Furthermore before the 1990’s Ireland was not as trendy as it is now (associated with poverty and the IRA) and private schools taught elocution so as ppl would have a better chance in life especially going abroad eg; terry wogan.Thank god that’s changed but to lament certain ppl (a small minority of irish ppl) for not having a strong regional accent is visceral idiotic inverse snobbery. Should I feel less irish because I don’t talk like roy keane? Even though I speak fluent irish and am from completely irish stock?
    If I was to speak with a big heavy accent I would be a phony, a fraud. Colin Farrell is from a posh irish background and he completely played up this thick gurrier accent simply to make it big in Hollywood where they have a sachirine, unnuanced grasp of culture to which you clearly subscribe. I know j.r Myers parents and they are from the same background as my own. But j r myrs was adopted and is originally from a proper rough background. He is pretty messed up besides. Ryan tubrity is from south dublin and James Joyce completely hammed up his own accent to conform to a caricunture of irish ppl.
    Accents remain strong but don’t be a moron and criticise ppl of a certain class for not speaking the way you want. The real tragedy is the death of the irish language. Ppl who focus on accents are visceral frauds and morons.