“Every Man Thinks He’s a Tenor In Cork”

In my college “dialects” class, our instructor played a recording of a talented Irish actor imitating various Irish regional accents. When he got to Cork, he wryly observed, “In Cork, the voice always seems to be higher–every man thinks he’s a tenor in Cork.”

Well, at least that’s what I remember; it’s been years and I’ve never located that recording, nor do I know the actor responsible for it*. But after listening to Irish accents for a good decade, I have found this stray observation to be bear some truth. Consider, for instance, this clip of Cork native, hurler Seán Óg Ó hAilpín:

I picked Ó hAilpín because he is likely not a tenor–he sounds like a baritone to me. Yet his speech has a tendency, at emphatic moments, to ascend to the upper resonators of his vocal tract (head, nasal, mouth). This strikes me as a holdover from Irish, the language which has a marked impact on Western and Southern Hiberno-English. I suspect there are some articulatory factors at play, perhaps related to Irish’s contrast of velarized and palatized consonants (although I’m not sure how).

Since different accents center vowels and consonants in different parts of the vocal tract, it’s unsurprising that humans configure their anatomy to adjust. Scouse (the Liverpool accent) is also frequently described as high-pitched (when it isn’t described in less flattering terms). One can find instances of this, as is apparent in this clip with thickly-accented Merseyside footballer Jamie Carragher:

I bring this up in part because of my post several days ago about the connection between “race” and “voice quality.” In my mind, the Cork and Scouse are good examples of how very different the “voice” of different dialects and ethnolects can be, without taking anatomy into account.

*Caveats being, therefore, that I’m possibly paraphrasing (it might have been “Everyone is a tenor down in Cork” or “In Cork they all think they’re tenors), and that there is a slight chance some important detail has escaped my memory.


About Ben

Ben T. 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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14 Responses to “Every Man Thinks He’s a Tenor In Cork”

  1. dw says:

    He seems to pronounce “Cork” non-rhotically — or am I missing something?

    • No, I think you’re correct! I’ve often been struck by what sound like non-rhotic pronunciations among people in Western Ireland. I don’t think this is related to any kind of British influence, but rather that /r/ is velarized. So there’s likely a process quite similar to that of l-vocalization in England, i.e. the alveolar element gets dropped with only the velar movement remaining. Since ‘Cork’ ends with a velar consonant, it seems especially noticeable. BTW, I’ve occasionally heard Irish people mock this pronunciation by making the velars uvular or pharyngeal: “I’m from [kɑ::ʁq].”

  2. Tammy says:

    I’ve noticed that sometimes American accents make male voices sound deeper than British accents (good examples are Hugh Laurie and Jamie Bamber), any guesses why that is?

    • Danny Ryan says:

      I don’t know if it’s really a question of making the accent ‘deeper’, rather IK English seems to be more ‘lively’ in intonation while American English, especially from male speakers can sound quite flat intonation wise. Maybe it’s a cliché, but when doing an accent an actor often goes for a kind of intonation pattern that seems familiar to him/her from the relatively little experience s/he has had speaking and hearing such an accent/dialect. I’m currently working on a Berlin accent for a production I’m doing and I’m constantly falling into this trap, and appreciate my director offering different patterns of emphasis and intonation to make the accent sound more authentic in relation to what I’m actually saying and feeling. It’s a tough job!

      • Tammy says:

        Interesting, thanks! Yeah, acting with an accent sounds tough (which is why you often see the accent slipping in emotional scenes).

  3. Diarmuid says:

    I’m not sure what you mean about Seán Óg Ó hAilpín’s voice. He just sounds like a Corkman to me. Jamie Carragher’s voice does sound high-pitched to me though.

    • Danny Ryan says:

      Jamie Carragher just sounds hoarse 😉 Probably from pitching so high all the time

  4. idiomático says:

    For me, the most interesting fact is that accents are traces of the presence of a previous language.

  5. mick mac namara says:

    Would that actor have been Niall Tóibín?

  6. Paul Ó Dubhthaigh says:

    “Seán Óg Ó hAilpín…. his father’s from Fermanagh, his mother’s from Fiji, neither a hurling stronghold.” — Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh (national treasure)

    Here’s a clip of Mícheál talking to Ryan Tubridy, Tubbers has a “Dort accent” in comparison:

    Mícheál is a native Irish speaker from Kerry.


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  9. Charlie Doyle says:

    I notice he says [d͡ʒə ˈnoː] a lot. I hear that a lot from Cork people.