Irish Accents

Ireland

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NOTE: This page uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For information about this notation, please visit my page of International Phonetic Alphabet Resources.

It is hard to divide Irish accents into categories. Even as Irish Gaelic has ceased to be spoken in the vast majority of the island, Irish people often consider English as, spiritually speaking, a second language.

Below is a list of the broadest categories of speech in Ireland.

Please note: I am openly relying on the classification system created by linguist Raymond Hickey, since I find his dialect groupings to be the most accurate.

East Coast Irish English (Dublin)

This category comprises the mostly urban accents spoken from Drogheda in the North to Waterford in the south. Perhaps the most famous of these dialects is working-class Dublin.

Features:

  • Unlike most Irish accents, non-rhoticity can occur in some very working class variants (i.e. the “r” at the end of “water isn’t pronounced).
  • The vowels in goat and face are pronounced as diphthongs similar to most American and British accents (this contrasts with the rest of Ireland, where these phonemes are monophthongs).
  • The dipthong in kite often starts from a centralized place: IPA kəit. To American and British ears, kite can sound a bit like “koyt.”
  • The diphthong in mouth is often fronted to something like IPA ɛu or æu or ɜu, among other variants. Hence mouth can sound like “meh-ooth.”
  • Th becomes IPA t and d in words like thing and this (i.e. “tin” and “dis”).
  • There is a tremoundous amout of variation, ranging from some suburban Dublin dialects which sound faintly American, to working-class dialect which are nearly-incomprehensible to outsiders.

Famous Speakers: Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleason, Damien Dempsey, the members of U2.

South-Western Irish Accents

This is the group of Irish accents spoken from County Cork on up through County Mayo of the West and Southern coasts of Ireland. These tend to show a good deal of influence from Irish Gaelic, even if the speakers have no knowledge of that language.

Features:

  • The diphthong in mouth is often heavily backed and rounded, pronounced IPA ʌʊ or ɔʊ. Hence “about” can sound a bit like “a boat” to American ears.
  • The diphthongs in “goat” and “face” tend to be monophthongs (i.e. IPA go:t and fe:s).
  • The accent tends to have a very “musical” intonation.

Famous Speakers: Cillian Murphy is the only really famous person I can think of (he’s from Cork), there are a number of other celebrities from this region, but they have almost all softened the features of this dialect.

Northern Irish Accents

This is the group of Irish accents spoken in the province of Ulster (and a few “border” areas). Although most of these accents are to be found within the boundaries of Northern Ireland, this also includes English as it is spoken in County Donegal (in the Republic). Due to the history of Scottish plantation in this region, many of these accents share features with Scottish English.

Features:

  • Centralized proununciation of the diphthong in words like mouth or mound: this can be IPA məʉnd, mɑʉnd, or a number of other variants. Hence mouth can sound a bit like “maith” or “moyth” to a British or American listener.
  • As in other Irish accents the dipthongs in face and goat tend to be monophthongized (see above).
  • The “oo” in “goose” is pronounced very far in the front of the mouth (as in Scottish and London English). This can be IPA ʉ, ʏ, or a number of other variants.

Famous Speakers: Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, Van Morrison

Conclusion

But wait? Isn’t Ireland the land of a million accents? Why are there only three categories here?

The problem is, Ireland in some ways has too many varieties of English to easily classify into smaller sub-areas.

Take Dublin, for example. It seems there are as many accents in that city as there are people, and many of these accents are wildly different from each other. These differences are found in many parts of Ireland, where it often seems that every village has a totally different way of speaking from the one next door.

As with most of these dialect overviews, this is a very incomplete guide to a large region. In the future, this page will be updated information on various outside sources that will give you a more complete overview of Irish accents and dialects.

Copright (c) 2011 by Ben Trawick-Smith. All rights reserved

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18 Responses to Irish Accents

  1. 'enry 'iggins says:

    I really like the way you did this. However, I wanted to mention a couple of things I’ve noticed (and maybe you have too) in the accents of the Emerald Isle. First of all, I’ve noticed that in East Coast Irish English and specifically in working-class Dublin English, FACE can be a monophthong at least some of the time. Maybe it’s pronunciation varies between a diphthong and a monophthong, i.e., between [ɛi] and [ɛː]. Here is a hilarious YouTube video I found with two trolls who have very strong, working-class Dublin accents (not “Norn Irish” accents, despite the name of the video) talking about Northern Irish accents. You’ll notice one of them pronounces name with [ɛː] when he says, “…a lorra problems pronouncing our name.”

    I’ve also noticed that the centralization of the diphthong in kite seems to be more widespread in the South. It seems to happen in Cork accents. It might happen in other southwestern accents as well. I’ve heard this pronunciation from some of the actors in The Wind that Shakes the Barley. You can also hear it here from singer-songwriter John Spillane, a Cork native.

    Another thing I’ve heard in the South of Ireland is an extreme fronting (and possibly even raising) of the START vowel. I’ve heard this in both East Coast Irish English and South-Western Irish English (so basically all over the South of Ireland; maybe there are exceptions). You can hear this feature in John Spillane’s speech for example. You can also hear this in the speech of actor Robert Sheehan, from County Laois. Listen to him say the word garden, and the phrases glove compartment of an old car and carved out of Roman marble in an interview I found on YouTube. Professional golfer Pádraig Harrington, from Dublin, also has this feature in his speech. You can hear him say Carnoustie around here. Also note his pronunciation of Sharpies. All of these people may all have different degrees of START-fronting, but all of the tokens sound fronted in comparison to my own low back START vowel.

    And last but not least, there’s something salient I’ve noticed in Northern Irish English that you didn’t mention in that section. This is the intonation pattern of the accent, which is maybe its most distinctive feature in my opinion. Many people in Ulster use a distinctive high rising intonation in seemingly every utterance. The two Dub trolls do a great job at making fun of this feature. Here is a comedian, who I think might be a Dubliner, who also noticed this feature of Northern Irish English. He actually shows the intonation pattern with the movement of his hand, as you can see. Some Americans and others seem to think this feature occurs in all accents of Ireland, but in my experience it only occurs in the speech of the province of Ulster. I know this was meant to be just a general overview and I wasn’t expecting you to mention every little feature of every accent of Ireland, but these are very noticeable features in my opinion. Of course, there are also other things I’ve noticed that I didn’t feel like mentioning here.

    • trawicks says:

      In Dublin (and East Coast Irish dialects) the START vowel is definitely raised as well as fronted. So much so, in fact, that “star” sounds nearly like American “stair!”

  2. 'enry 'iggins says:

    Man, I always screw up links. I’m really sorry. I hate that. Here is Robert Sheehan saying the word garden. Here he is saying the phrases glove compartment of an old car and carved out of Roman marble. Here is Pádraig Harrington saying Sharpies. Let me know if those work.

  3. 'enry 'iggins says:

    Okay. I’m about to yell at the top of my lungs now. Third time’s a charm. Here is Pádraig Harrington saying Sharpies.

  4. Thomas says:

    I’m an Irishman who happened across this page. There certainly are many accents across Ireland, but in terms of acknowledgement by the popular-psyche at least, I think you’re missing a big one. Ask any Irish person to name just three distinct accents in Ireland and I believe the majority would say; Dublin, the North, and Cork. (Those from outside the South West might say Cork & Kerry.) If you asked them to name four, I don’t think anyone would leave out Cork.
    I think it merits it’s own distinction mainly because most Irish people can quickly and easily place someone if they have a Cork accent. Perhaps that is just due to it’s fame, and due the fact that it’s the second biggest county/city in the Republic by population. But it is also a quite an unusual accent, and Corkonians are known within Ireland for speaking with a lilt.
    I watched a BBC documentary many years ago – and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the name of the linguist presenter – which argued that the Cork accent had retained Elizabethan features because it was effectively and English-speaking island within a very Gaelic & hostile territory. I was disconnected from The Pale and Britain. He claimed that this is why it is similar to Caribbean accents (and it is I believe.)

    I’m not a linguist, and don’t speak IPA, but here’s some youtube examples:
    A comedian’s take:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRm9Q2KfzBA

    One Corkonian interviewing another:

    • teh_blumchenkinder says:

      Thomas… I found your ‘speak IPA’ rather amusing… you already do! It’s a way of writing, so that all sounds that humans make in speech can be documented/tabulated. I know what you meant, though…
      And, thank you for informing me (us?) of Cork, and thanks for the video!

    • acutia says:

      Thomas,
      I also recall the same documentary mentioning an Elizabethan English connection forfeatures of Cork English. The series was “The Story of English” (1986) presented by Robert MacNeil. Youtube tells me Ireland is covered in Episode 6. Have a look if you’re interested.

    • biggles says:

      Thomas – I totally agree about the three distinct Irish accents.

      I suspect the vast majority of Irish people would be hard pressed to locate accents other than Dublin, Cork and the North. And when I say Cork, I mean Cork City, not county. Once you go outside the city limits, the accent changes – it becomes immediately more ‘culchie’ (i.e. rural).

      My sister (from Cork, as I am, though I left the country many years ago and have lost my accent) married somebody from Midleton – just outside the city, but the difference between their accents is immediately obvious.

      • Gary H says:

        I noticed his accent is semi-rhotic (meaning the R is pronounced like the English), as are many of the older people I’ve spoken to in Cork.

      • Serena says:

        So can I ask, while an Irish person might recognize that by accent a person is clearly Irish, they won’t necessarily know from where if they don’t fall into this 3 categories?
        Also, how distinguishable is the Coleraine accent to a pair of Irish ears?

    • Sean says:

      Rather than the Cork and Caribbean similarities being tied to Elizabethan times its actually tied to the fact that before that Cromwell shipped many tens of thousands of Irish prisoners (including Cork people) off as slaves to the Caribbean. Being the first large scale population they formed the basis of the accents there. That’s the actual reason for the similarity between the Jamaican and Cork accent (and laid back nature). The Irish slaves were later forced to breed with later African slaves erasing their memory. In many parts such as on Montserrat the black descendants there actually spoke Gaelic until as late as the early 1900s. Many Caribbean people have forgotten their Irish roots. Those who seek the truth like the singer Rihanna find they have Irish roots. Those Irish were treated brutally and that set the tone for the treatment of later waves of slaves from Africa.

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  7. Barrington says:

    Have you anything on the Ulster Scots dialect, brought over from the Scottish settlers during the Ulster Plantation in the early 17th century & still spoken by many their descendants. I don’t have it myself being originally from Belfast, but only about 5 or 6 miles from where I live (near Newtownards) some people are, if not practically unintelligible if speaking among themselves, then certainly a bit of a devil to work out.
    If someone from Portavogie or Ballywalter gets drunk or lively then your ears won’t know what hits it.

  8. Barrington says:

    Here is a youtube link of some old fella reciting a poem about Stonewall Jackson (I have no idea why) in the Ulster Scots accent that i mentioned above thats still widely used in the Ard Peninsula, or Low Country as its known locally.

    [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suN2yfotE5Q[/youtube]

  9. jan says:

    travelled around southern ireland alot in the 90s, of all the accents i experienced the ones that stick out are the 2 Dublin ones (regular and “upper class d4″) , the Cork acent and the Waterford accent. the Waterford accent is softer and easiest to understand then any of the others and iv never heard it since Iv been there. it seems to have originated seperatly from any of the other surrounding dialects. the Cork accent is very musical but hard to understand for some tourits (like myself) also the “posh” irish accent is the same wherever you go there. it sounds like lloyd Grossman! the northern irish accent and its variants are grating to my ears. all the other accents are individual but seem to blend into each other. (carlow, kilkenny, wexford, wicklow are all akin as are mayo, sligo, galway etc)

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