A few weeks back, Stan Carey responded to a “most attractive accent” survey which crowned Southern Ireland the most irresistible English. Anyone with a modest familiarity with Irish accents will recognize what’s odd about the survey’s map of sociolinguistic magnetism, which unequivocally treats Donegal as “Southern” (the border between the Republic and NI doesn’t quite correspond to sociolinguistic boundaries). As per Carey:
This phrase [“Southern Irish”] proved contentious in the replies to my tweet, many of which were along the lines of: ‘Oh, do we all have one accent now?’ or ‘What on earth do they mean by Southern?’
Carey quotes me as once saying “Ireland in some ways has too many varieties of English to easily classify into smaller sub-areas.” And I still agree with that statement. After all, Ireland contains accents that range from this (courtesy of County Kerry footballer Colm Cooper):
…to accents like this (courtesy of Dubliner Willo Flood*):
(One day I’ll write a post titled “Why Off-Handed Footballer Interviews Make the Best Dialect Clips.”)
So why all the accents in such a small space? That’s question is hard to answer, since “linguistic diversity” is a somewhat subjective notion. But Irish English is categorically unique among native Englishes. Linguist Rajend Mesthrie describes the difference (drawing from Raymond Hickey)**:
Initially a form of ESL, Irish English (aka Hiberno-English) gradually became a language-shift English, from the 18th century on (see Hickey, 2004). It is an important language in English studies for structural and historical reasons. It furnishes us with a clear-cut example of a language-shift English, in which a host of substrate features has survived, some to become part of an informal standard.
In other words, many Hiberno-English varieties can be described as foreign dialects which became native ones. This is in some sense true of many dialects, I suppose, but in Ireland this development happened on a large scale relatively recently. Even centuries later (in some regions) the Irish language‘s influence on Hiberno-English is obvious, whether through the frequent use of epenthesis (“I went to the fillum at the cinema”) or the ubiquitous velarized rhotic in many parts of the island. [Eds. note: As Warren Maguire points out in the comments, “fillum” has somewhat debatable origins.]
Second-language accents are generally unstable compared to first-language accents. So take this for the speculation it is, but I’m not surprised that a population whose English dialects largely started as second-language lects exhibits some seriously diverse Englishes. Throw in Ireland’s history as one of Europe’s most rural, remote areas, and I think you have a pretty compelling clue as to why there seems such a delightful panoply of speech on an island smaller than Maine.
Of course, Ireland is an exponentially more connected and metropolitan country these days. (You know a nation has changed when a city once described as provincial now headquarters a major division of Apple.) I’ve heard a number of impressions (and sometimes gripes) that Irish English has changed drastically over the past 20 years. But while I see signs of change, I don’t think Ireland is anywhere close to being homogenized linguistically. And thank goodness for that.
*Flood’s name (or rather, nickname) is misspelled in the interview.
**Mestrhie, M. World Englishes and the Multilingual History of English. World Englishes, Vol. 25, No. 3/4, pp. 381–390, 2006.