Irish English: The Influence of Irish on the English Spoken in Ireland

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 26 Pages

English - Pedagogy, Didactics, Literature Studies


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Terminology

3. History of the English language in Ireland

4. Grammatical features
4.1 Phonetics
4.2 Word Stress
4.3 Rhythmic retentions
4.4 Syntax
4.5 Semantics
4.5.1 English words in different use
4.5.2 Irish loan words and names

5. The Role of National Identity

6. Conclusion



1. Introduction

Loreto Todd states in his book “Green English” one very important sentence concerning English in Ireland that depicts the basis on which this term paper is built upon: “The language spoken in Ireland is similar to the language spoken in England – similar but by no means identical”.

This term paper will deal with the kind of English spoken in Ireland today[1] and how it differs from English spoken in England or America[2], especially taking the influence of the native language of Ireland into account. Because of the space limitations, it will only serve as an overview covering the most important grammatical features in which Irish English (IrE) differs from Standard English (StE), for instance phenomena concerning phonetics, word stress, rhythmic retentions, syntax and semantics. Concerning each field of study some striking features of IrE will be described and explained by the use of examples. It will be of special interest to what extent the differences date back to the influence of the Irish mother tongue Gaelic[3]. Since English is a relatively new language in Ireland, it will be the aim of this paper to find out if today’s linguistic phenomena of IrE can be traced back to the period of the language shift from Irish to English. While by now most of the Irish people’s mother tongue is English, it is still probable that the people are still influenced by their past – at least by means of language. Because of this certain approach towards IrE, all the analysed features in this term paper will be a selection of features that somehow have to do with the native language of Ireland.

Before the analysis of grammatical features, a brief overlook over the terminology concerning the term ‘Irish English’ as well as an outline of the history of the English language in Ireland will be given. After the analysis, a last part will be stated in which it will be of interest to how far the Irish accent can be seen as part of the national identity of the Irish people. In the end, a final conclusion will be stated.

It is important to mention that although the term IrE is used for a general variety of English in Ireland, a lot of internal distinctions could be made. These accents are linked to different regions and sometimes even differ from city to city. Because of this complexity of the topic, this termpaper will not go into detail concerning the different accents.

2. Terminology

Before beginning to analyse certain features of the form of English spoken by the Irish, one first needs to clear up the terminology. Researching that topic, one might find different words entitling this variety as ‘Hiberno-English’, ‘Anglo-Irish’/ ‘Anglo-Celtic’ and ‘Irish English’. This inconsistency will be cleared up in the following section.

But first, one should remark that the field of study concerning IrE “only became a major field of study in the twentieth century” (Walshe, 2). The first books to be published on that topic were “The Irish Dialect of English: Syntax and idioms” by Hayden/ Hartog (1909) and “English as we Speak it in Ireland” by P.W. Joyce (1910); more serious linguistic studies followed only later. Although one can find a lot of works on IrE today, it is by far not even comparable to the amount of works one finds on other varieties of English.

Therefore, it seems no surprise that “the terminological confusion (…) stems from the fact that scholars have, as yet, not been able to agree on a single term for the English language in Ireland” (Hickey 2007 , 3). However, different authors have tried to give certain definitions that could help to distinguish the terms from one another.

One term, namely Anglo-Irish, is the oldest one established and can still be found in recent literature. It first occurred as a name for the English settlers of Ireland and has remained in this context. But as Hickey argues, it is linguistically not acceptable. One of two reasons he names is that this term literally means “an English variety of Irish” as the ‘Anglo-‘ functions as a modifier to the ‘Irish’. The second reason is that the term in Hickey’s opinion has some inappropriate connotations today which do not have to do with its linguistic meaning, but with its use in literature, politics, etc. – especially within Ireland. In consequence, the term ‘Anglo-Irish’ is used for example in Canada and ‘Anglo-Celtic’ in Australia, but none of them in Ireland itself (cf. ibid. 2007, 3 f.).

On the contrary, ‘Hiberno-English’ was used by T. F. O’Rahilly for the first time describing a specifically Irish form of English, ‘Hiberno’ deriving from the Latin word Hibernia which simply means Ireland. Especially in the 1970s the new term became popular as an alternative to ‘Anglo-Irish’. Some authors try to draw an “artificial distinction” (ibid. 2007, 4) between Hiberno-English and Anglo-Irish. For example defining that Hiberno-English is “a range of English spoken by people whose ancestral mother tongue was Irish” (Todd 1999, 71) while Anglo-Irish is defined as “a middle- and working-class variety spoken over most of Ireland and deriving from the English of the 17cplanters from England” (Todd 1992a, 530). But since there is no “smooth dialect continuum” (Hickey 2007, 4) across the whole of Ireland one cannot generalise the definition in that way. Moreover, there are also other definitions that do not match with Todd’s one, but are even opposed, which proves the fact that there is no consistency in terms of definition.

All in all, Hickey evaluates the usefulness of both terms as unsuitable for different reasons: concerning Anglo-Irish he remarks the non-linguistic connotations and concerning Hiberno-English the high technicality of the term as well as a popular, almost sentimental attitude towards English that might be implied within Ireland.

In conclusion, the most appropriate term in present day studies would probably be ‘Irish English’, being the most neutral one. It is less academic and unlikely to be misinterpreted and after all the only term fitting into the set of similar expressions as ‘American English’, ‘British English’ and so on. As it is defined in the Oxford Companion to the English language, the term IrE is used “as the generic term for all kinds of English in Ireland” (Todd 1992a, 529).

3. History of the English language in Ireland

When the Normans came to Ireland in 1169, they brought along the English language. It is likely that about that time three languages were spoken in Ireland: Irish by the majority of the original inhabitants, French by the clerics, Lords and the upper class in general and English by the immediate tenants and the mercantile classes (cf. Bliss, 5). At this point in history, the Irish learned at least a little English.

Since the Irish language and culture spread rapidly in the 14th century, both French and English lost ground to Irish and therefore efforts were made to strengthen the English language. Thus, in 1366 the Statutes of Kilkenny were published prescribing that every Englishman should use the English language, surnames and also follow English customs as well. But people outside of "the Pale" still preferred their native language and even Englishmen adopted the Irish language and culture (or alternatively went back to their home country). This led to an even greater decline of English so that "if in the year 1500 someone had been called upon to make a forecast as to what would happen, the obvious forecast would have been that Irish would be quite soon the only language spoken in Ireland." (Bliss, 8).

Irish became very popular indeed, but then started to decrease from the seventeenth century onwards. The English spoken in Ireland today probably dates back to the 1650s and the Cromwellian plantations when "large numbers of people were transferred to Connacht, and their lands were given to Englishmen" (Bliss, 12).

In the 18th century still two thirds of the population used Irish as their ordinary language, but by the end of that century English started to spread again. One reason was that the society was divided into two classes by then: the Protestant English-speaking landowners and the Catholic Irish-speaking peasants. By that time, the peasants needed at least a small knowledge of English to be able to understand tenancy agreements or read newspapers which were all printed in English.

Yet the most significant "change" was still to come in form of the Great Famine in the years from 1845 until 1852. In that time Irish peasants relied wholly on the potato crop since it was easy to grow and rather cheap. Because it was not a big problem to feed a big family, the Irish population grew rapidly. But when the potato harvest failed for some years in a row, roughly one million people died and more than a million emigrated to other countries (cf. Bliss, 16). Bliss concludes in his book: "Before the Famine more than half the population spoke Irish. After the Famine less than a quarter spoke Irish." (Bliss, 16). From that moment on, the Irish language lost ground to English steadily.

Today Irish is the first official language in Ireland. According to figures published by the Central Statistics Office of Ireland in 2002, around 1 570 000 inhabitants of Ireland are able to speak Gaelic, opposed to around 2 180 000 Non-Irish speakers (cf. CSO “Irish language”). Nevertheless, these statistics are not very reliable which results from the questionnaire of the CSO and how the question of language ability was asked. As one can see in a sample copy of the Census 2002 form[4], it was simply asked “Can you speak Irish?” without any restrictions concerning how good one can actually speak the language. Neither was asked if the person was a native or a non-native speaker and in the final evaluation it was of no interest how often or in what contexts the Irish language was used. It is more than probable that for the majority of those people who said they could speak Irish, it is not their mother tongue and they do not use it their every day life, but instead just know the language because it is an obligatory subject in school, which might be the reason why “the occupational groups with the highest ability to speak Irish were Teachers (79.3%)” (ibid).

4. Grammatical features

Some people think that the difference between IrE and StE are merely those of an accent, but “yet, it goes much deeper than that” (Todd 1999, 24). People from Ireland are still influenced by the language of their ancestors, both in writing and in speech. The exceptionalities are so diversified that the topic, although a relatively new field of studies, fills many books. It is therefore not possible to go into detail on every single phenomenon, but at least the most striking ones (meaning the ones a visitor to the country might hear the most often and most regularly) shall be analysed[5].

The analysis of the grammatical features that differ from StE will start with phonetics explaining why some sounds are pronounced differently in IrE and will then go on to word stress that in some cases is still influenced by Gaelic, too. Furthermore, some rhythmic retentions will be analysed exemplarily since Irish people still tend to perform certain grammatical constructions in a way that mirrors the Irish language. Following this will come a subsection on syntax dealing with some typical sentence constructions in IrE. The last part of this section will be on semantics and how Irish people still use Irish words, names or at least words that have Irish origin in their every day language.

4.1 Phonetics

It is of common knowledge that if we learn a language as adults, we carry over the sounds we already know from our mother tongue. This is what the Irish did when they first started to speak English. Quite often, it worked well because Irish and English phonemes fitted. For example the short and long vowels in Irish could just be used in English words. The initial consonants as in the Irish words beag, colm, fear and mála could be used in English words like ‘big’, ‘call’, ‘fall’ and ‘man’. Still, there are other consonants that were not identical, but only similar. These sounds are [t], [d], [l], [s], [z], [n] and [r], almost all of the sounds that are alveolar in StE, meaning that the tip of the tongue is put on the ridge just behind the teeth (alveolar ridge) when one of these sounds is produced. In Irish, these sounds are not alveolar, but dental, which means that Irish speakers actually touch the back of their teeth with their tongue when they are producing these sounds. And since [t], [d], [l], [s], [z] and [n] are the consonants that are most frequently used in English, it is clear that this difference forms a major distinction (cf. Todd 1999, 78 f).

Another striking feature of IrE is that whenever the sounds [t] or [d] are followed by [r], they are combined into an ‘interdental affricate’. This is also a feature that dates back to Gaelic, for example to words like trácht (‘mention’) or dreige (‘meteor’) and was adopted when Irish speakers had to pronounce English words like ‘try’ or ‘drums’. In the Irish language, these consonants (among others[6]) were quite often pronounced in a lenited way, depending on other words that occur in the same sentence or even morphological conditions. For example the Irish word carr (‘car’) is spelled without ‘h’ if the speaker means ‘a car’, but it is spelled charr if the possessive pronoun mo (‘my’) stands in front of it (cf. Airlie, x). But since this phenomenon could not be transferred to the English language because of the lacking syntactical or morphological conditions, it now appears erratical when Irish people speak English (Hickey 1996,183). Interestingly, this phenomenon was adopted into written language when writers from the 17th century tried to express that an Irishman was speaking; spellings like ‘dhry’ ‘betther’ or ‘thundther’ were invented (cf. Todd 1999, 79).

Already in 1910 P.W. Joyce wrote a book called “English As We Speak It in Ireland” in which he stated that Gaelic has influenced the English in Ireland especially concerning the three phonemes [d], [t] and the ‘th sound’. As already stated above, there were similar consonants to [d] and [t] already in Gaelic, but the ‘th sound’ was completely new for Irish people and they had therefore some trouble using it correctly. Most of the time, Irish people just replace the voiceless ‘th’ [T] by [t] and the voiced ‘th’ [D] by [d]. Thus, they say /tInk/ instead of /TInk/ and /de/ instead of /De/ (although Joyce already said that the use of the last replacement was declining already in 1910). Irish people also have troubles using [T] or [D] in the middle or the end of a word, so that a word like /brVDer/ becomes /brVder/. It is definitely not the case that Irish people are just not able to pronounce the phonemes [T] and [D]. Proof for this is for example, that the ‘th-problem’ also works the other way round so that Irish people put the ‘th sounds’ in words where they do not belong. Sometimes, apparently especially in the region around Dublin, people tend to say /beDər/ instead of /betər/.


[1] From now abbreviated with IrE for Irish English.

[2] Since AmE and BrE are more closely related to IrE than other varieties, those two will be combined under the expression StE for Standard English.

[3] The term ‘Gaelic’ in this context refers only to Irish Gaelic and equals the term ‘Irish’.

[4] Accessible via http://www.cso.ie/census/documents/censusform_2006.pdf (question 12)

[5] The selection is based on my own experiences in the region of Dublin and might vary depending on where in Ireland one spends time.

[6] cf. table 1 in the appendix


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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558 KB
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Institution / College
RWTH Aachen University – Institut für Anglistik: Angewandte Sprachwissenschaft
Irish Anglo-Irish Gaelic Green English Hiberno Hiberno-English




Title: Irish English: The Influence of Irish on the English Spoken in Ireland