Irish Linguistic Diversity

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.

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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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10 Responses to Irish Linguistic Diversity

  1. Warren Maguire says:

    Actually, I don’t think Irish English is especially diverse, certainly nowhere near as much as traditional dialects of English in England (not surprisingly, as Irish English varieties are relatively new in comparison), although there’s a fair amount of accent variation.

    Also, quite a bit of the diversity in Irish English(es) is the result not of Irish influence but of diversity in the input varieties, which ranged from Middle English dialects of southwest England to Midland English dialects and broad Scots of the 17th century. The main dialect divisions in Irish English as a whole (not just in Southern Irish English) reflect the differences in input as much as anything else, though these interacted with dialect differences within Irish in interesting ways (e.g. the difference in settlement populations in the north plus the difference between Ulster Irish and other Irish dialects means that northern Irish English dialects are rather different from southern Irish English ones).

    Oh, and although it is pretty much universally assumed that ‘fillum’ is the result of Irish influence (which of course if perfectly possible), ‘fillum’ is also found in Scots dialects and in traditional English dialects the length and breadth of England (see Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Grammar for examples, or the very similar word ‘elm’ in the Survey of English Dialects). So like many features of Irish English it is probably a complex case of dialect and language contact.

    • Ben says:

      @Warren,

      That’s a great analysis. I agree that Ireland isn’t as diverse as England in terms of dialects (Ireland doesn’t really have mutually unintelligible English dialects unless you’re including Ulster Scots). It gets extra points in my book, though, for its relatively small population, relatively short history with English, and relatively small geographic size.

      I also agree (despite my Eastern vs. Western video comparison) that the three broad dialect regions of Ireland seem mostly reflective of who settled where. That being said, I find the differences within those dialect regions pretty remarkable. Although it’s definitely more of a matter of phonetic qualities and allophones than major structural differences.

  2. Brythonic says:

    I agree, Irish is nowhere near becoming homogenised, although as a northern Englishman who has lived there, I can see a notable change. Dubliners, particularly on the south side, have a tendency to sound more English (though this would be hotly debated) but Irishmen/women I have spoken to agree with me, also the trendy Dub accent is creeping further south amongst younger people. Listen to a hip 18 year old as far south as Waterford City and then listen to a 70 year old in Waterford City and you will hear the change, but certainly in places like Arklow, most young and old speak very different from each other.

    Of course accents change all the time, just as they do over the water. Fillum (film) was mentioned, but that pronunciation is still also frequently used by older people in the north east of England. Nevertheless, even today, you can still generally know what part of Ireland someone comes from by their accent and I hope it stays that way.

  3. Elaine says:

    You got me thinking when you suggested a future post on “Why Off-Handed Footballer Interviews Make the Best Dialect Clips” and I looked for a clip of Willo Flood speaking more ‘officially’. Found this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WN-u-56gj_0 and was struck by Willo ‘tidying up’ the edges as he spoke to camera, rather than one woman in a field. Or was I imagining that?

  4. Dan says:

    I don’t know much about Ireland, but didn’t they used to have a foreign language that wasn’t english? I really think if that’s the case, then it’s sad that they lost their native foreign language and have been forced to speak english.

    • Danny Ryan says:

      Well, the language that was largely and is partially still spoken today in Ireland, is not “foreign” at all, but indigenous to Ireland. It’s called “Irish” (sometimes referred to as “Gaelic” or “Irish Gaelic”) and is a member of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages boasting a long written literary history dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries. Most people outside the Pale, the area around Dublin, spoke Irish before the 19th century. This century with its catastrophic famine and subsequent emigration saw the collapse of the indigenous language in most areas outside some areas along the western seaboard. Irish independency and the founding of the Irish Republic and the reinstatement of Irish as the national language somewhat slowed the process of language shift to English in the areas where Irish was still spoken as a native language (these areas where Irish is given prefernece to English is called the “Gaeltacht”). It was integrated into the school curriculum and public servants were expected to be proficient in Irish as well as in English. Irish today has around 1.5 million speakers, though the number of people who use Irish on a daily basis today is lower, around 100 000 of which ca. 75 000 are native speakers.

  5. Susan Michaud says:

    Well, if you will, I have a question which deals with a statement by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with regard to whether “bother” rhymes with “rather” as spoken by Brits re: the play/movie “My Fair Lady.”
    Apparrently, there is a “w” sound, I suppose, in the word “rather”, as spoken tonight on CNN by Nic Robertson’s “rawther”, but quite frankly I’d never detected it before. I always thought it more like “rahther” , as in a New England pronunciation of “fahther”. Sort of in between “ah” and an “aw ” , so my question is this: What on God’s earth is Andrew Lloyd Webber talking about? Does the fact that “rather” doesn’t rhyme for him
    with “bother”… “rawther” and “bawther”? I get the nuiance of a dropped “w” but more importantly, an added “h” makes more sense when sounding out the word. Perhaps we could dispense with the “w’s”? Or perhaps, not.

    • Susan Michaud says:

      Sorry to get off the Irish/Gaelic discussion. It’s just been bothering me for years.
      Apologies to all.

    • Ed says:

      You are right. As far as I’m aware, all accents in England itself use the same vowel in “rather” that would be used in “palm” or “calm”. The quality of this vowel does vary across England, but it’s usually not too different from how an American would say it.

      I think that some Scottish accents have a short a in “rather”, so that it rhyme with “gather”.

  6. Nick says:

    This may be as good a post as any to ask, but I know two Irish people my age (mid-30s) who grew up in Dublin and County Tipperary, respectively, and in talking to them I’m always surprised at how faint, and almost American, their accents sound compared to the other side of the Irish Sea. I think so many Americans are used to thinking of an Irish brogue as so thick, but do you have any insight as to why younger generations of people in Ireland sound more “North American” than the British do?