The Language of “The Troubles”

Derry Road Sign

SeanMack / Wikimedia / CC BY 3.0

When people discuss “accent discrimination,” they usually refer to everyday injustices: being passed up for promotions, denied loans, or scolded in school. Contemporary history, however, suggests more severe examples.

In the BBC documentary series Who Do You Think You Are?, for instance, Graham Norton describes fraught childhood visits to his grandmother’s Belfast home:

I remember once my father got lost [in the Sandy Road area] and we were walking around, and I’d be gabbling on and my father was like, “shut up! Shut up!” Because if anyone heard our voices, you know, we spoke with a southern accent, it would have been trouble.

Of course, this shouldn’t suggest that Republican neighborhoods would have been more generous to, say, someone speaking Received Pronunciation than a Loyalist enclave would have been toward Dublinese. Furthermore, Norton quickly points out how remarkably things have changed since then. But the anecdote reminds us of how easily language becomes a touchstone in ethnic and political conflict.

Language, of course, often symbolizes sectarian strife. Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian can intuitively be described as dialects of Serbo-Croatian, yet they’re treated as separate tongues largely due to the Balkans’ violent history. Language likewise demarcates schisms and separatist movements in Cyprus, Quebec, and Spain. So how did linguistic variation typify one of the most prominent sectarian conflict in the English speaking world?

I’ll get the most well-known differences out of the way. Whether one described the region as “Northern Ireland” or “The North of Ireland” separated those who aligned themselves with a unified Ireland and those who didn’t. (One might think “Northern Ireland,” which eschews “of’s” extra syntactic level, would be the more “inclusive” term, but “North of” is the preferred Republican phrase.) Along the same lines, one either speaks of Derry or Londonderry, depending on one’s viewpoint. (Although I’ve personally found the situation more complicated when I’ve spoken to people from that city.)

More prosaically, the letter /h/, either termed “haitch” or “aitch,” ostensibly serves as a border between Protestants (aitchers) and Catholics (haitchers). Well, maybe. Wikipedia articles, lexicographers and online forums have repeated this assertion for years, yet I know few substantive studies on the matter. If true, though, these pronunciations may align less with a sense of national identity than they once did: “haitch” has, according to some, become significantly more “British” in the past few decades.

These quirks are so repeated that they’ve taken on a mythological quality. But do the two factions speak differently? Do they have different dialects? I see no easy answer. To my American ears, the rather softened accents of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, Jr. sound closer to each other than either does to their working-class constituents. But Belfast is different; accents mix, level, and separate unpredictably in urban areas. Belfast, in particular, has so much accent variation that perhaps only locals can confidently pinpoint “Catholic” or “Protestant” speech qualities (if they exist).

Many (especially rural) areas have overwhelmingly Catholic or Protestant majorities, on the other hand, so one might logically find “Protestant” or “Catholic” dialects depending on where you’re listening. And in areas where Ulster Scots is spoken, that language no doubt creates a linguistic barrier. Furthermore, an article from 2008 suggested that in (London)Derry, Protestants are more likely to adopt new speech patterns coming from the region’s more Loyalist East.

However, Ireland as a whole exhibits complex webs of linguistic divisions: urban/suburban/rural, bilingual/monolingual, “local”/”non-local”, educated/uneducated, North/South, East/West. Religion may be a factor as well, but it’s no easy task untangling single threads in isolation.


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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10 Responses to The Language of “The Troubles”

  1. bill says:

    I claim no expertise in the matter of accents, but I was once told by someone from Belfast that it was only “obvious” whether someone was Catholic or Protestant when you discovered where they went to school (i.e. the equivalent of grade school). Schools were – and maybe still are? – totally segregated on religious grounds. The question: “where did you go to school” was therefore highly loaded during the “Troubles”.

    • A very enjoyable post. It made me immediately think of Seamus Heaney’s Poem, Singing School.

      The poem as a whole is wonderful but the most pertinent lines to the current discussion are probably the following:

      “Vowels and ideas bandied free
      As the seed-pods blowing off our sycamores.
      I tried to write about the sycamores
      And innovated a South Derry rhyme
      With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled.
      Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain
      Were walking, by God, all over the fine
      Lawns of elocution.
      Have our accents
      Changed? ‘Catholics, in general, don’t speak
      As well as students from the Protestant schools.’
      Remember that stuff? Inferiority
      Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on. ”

      And perhaps the poem “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” which contains such choice lines as:

      “The famous

      Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
      And times: yes, yes. Of the “wee six” I sing
      Where to be saved you only must save face
      And whatever you say, you say nothing.

      Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
      Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
      Subtle discrimination by addresses
      With hardly an exception to the rule

      That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
      And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
      O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
      Of open minds as open as a trap,

      Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
      Where half of us, as in a wooden horse
      Were cabin’d and confined like wily Greeks,
      Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.”

  2. Paul says:

    I never thought I’d see Gerry Adams’ accent described as “softened.”

  3. Paul says:

    I never thought I’d see someone describe Gerry Adams’ accent as “softened.”

  4. Mary Garner says:

    When speakers of different languages interact closely, it is typical for their languages to influence each other. Through sustained language contact over long periods, linguistic traits diffuse between languages, and languages belonging to different families may converge to become more similar. In areas where many languages are in close contact, this may lead to the formation of language areas in which unrelated languages share a number of linguistic features. A number of such language areas have been documented, among them, the Balkan language area , the Mesoamerican language area , and the Ethiopian language area . Also, larger areas such as South Asia , Europe, and Southeast Asia have sometimes been considered language areas, because of widespread diffusion of specific areal features .

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  7. Alai Mac Erc says:

    Whether one described the region as “Northern Ireland” or “The North of Ireland” separated those who aligned themselves with a unified Ireland and those who didn’t. (One might think “Northern Ireland,” which eschews “of’s” extra syntactic level, would be the more “inclusive” term, but “North of” is the preferred Republican phrase.)

    Actually, most often it’s simply “The North”, so no extra syntax as such. Nor is this really a Republican usage as such: it’s more of a “soft Nationalist” one. It’s used relentlessly by RTE, for example, as well as by the SDLP (as is “Derry”, of course). More Republican per se would be “The Six Counties”, or to go the whole nine yards, “British-Occupied Ireland”.

    “Northern Ireland” is avoided by nationalists simply because it is the official name, so using it implies recognition of it as a discrete entity, whereas “The North (of Ireland)” isn’t, and can be seen as asserting its status as simply a portion of (the island of, or else the irredentist claim to, depending…) Ireland. And also because of the connotations it has of the remainder being “Southern Ireland”, the name once envisaged by the UK for the RoI, and not (to put it mildly) well received. “Northern” as an adjective isn’t, though the precise sense may vary. For example, in one interview an RTE reporter referred to John Reid as “the Northern Secretary” (meaning, rather plainly, and to anyone else straightforwardly, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, which he was at the time), and Gerry Adams insisted on “correcting” him, by observing that he wasn’t “Northern”, but Scottish.

    The “more Unionist than thou” counterpart to the above would be “Ulster”, a usage fairly widely seen as obnoxious and incorrect in its redefinition of the historical sense of that word. And fairly widely used, all the same.

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