Celtic Connections - How much Celtic is in Irish English?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2007 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of content

1.) The history of Irish and English in Ireland

2.) What is language contact?

3.) Features of Irish English and their relationship with the Irish Language
3.1) Yes/No questions:
3.2) Indirect questions:
3.4 After-Perfect
3.4.1 Other perfects:
3.5) The definite article:
3.6) Periphrastic do:
3.7) Subordinating and:
3.8) Prepositions:
3.9) Clefting and topicalisation:

4.) Conclusion

1.) The history of Irish and English in Ireland

Tir gan teanga, tir gan anam –

Country without language, country without soul.

Irish seanfhocal

Irish and English have a long history of coexistence in Ireland. Irish is the language of the early Celtic population of Ireland. It has a long literary tradition and is well documented in old poetic, narrative and legal texts. English was first introduced to Ireland through the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century. It has been present ever since, but Irish remained the dominant language for a long time. The influx of English-speaking settlers during the 17th century plantations marked a turning point in the history of the two languages. At that point English started to become more important, but it would take until the 19th century before English could be established as the dominant language. The fact that English was dominant among the upper class, and its status as language of politics created the need among speakers of Irish to shift to English or to become bilingual. The number of Irish monoglots continued to fall, and today Irish is only spoken by about 2% of the population[1], and struggles to survive even in the Gaeltacht areas. However, the language has become a symbol for nationalism. It is the official language of the Republic of Ireland, is taught in schools, and produces a rich literature. Only time will tell if the Irish language can withstand the international economic pressure of English, and if the attempts to strengthen Ireland’s Celtic language will be successful. But however that struggle will turn out, it is clear that Irish played an important part in Ireland’s past, which leaves the question how the close contact between the two languages has influenced the English language in Ireland.

2.) What is language contact?

To understand how the contact situation in Ireland affected English we should first look at what language contact is and what effects it causes on languages. Sarah Thomason defines language contact as the use of more than one language in the same place at the same time.[2] To exclude trivial contact she adds that in a contact situation some people must use more than one language and that there has to be communication between the people speaking different languages.

Thomason mentions that pressure of a dominant group can lead to bilingualism and eventually language shift, and specifically mentions the Irish situation as example. Irish seems to be a special case though. As seen before, Irish has become a minority language, but enjoys a high status within the society. As Thomason states language is often used as a marker of cultural differentness, which leads to discrimination against a minority group.[3] In the case of Irish the language of a minority group has become a national symbol, and is considered valuable. This, however, is a modern phenomenon. If we look at the two languages during the 19th century, Irish fits Thomason’s statement perfectly, that:

Intense pressure from a dominant group most often leads to bilingualism among subordinate groups who speak other languages, and this asymmetrical bilingualism very often results, sooner of later, in language shift…[4]

Indeed the Irish situation is one of her examples.

One interesting point Thomason raises is that social factors are the only ones to be considered of relevance, where the stability of a contact situation is concerned.[5] Linguistic factors do not seem to have an effect. This statement can be confirmed by the Irish example, where language contact was stable, until social and economic factors lead to a change, which resulted in language shift.

Later on, Thomason states that in a newly formed nation the choice of the official language can help to establish national identity and that the choice of an indigenous language can signal separation from a former colonial power.[6] This explains why Irish enjoys such a high status in Ireland, as mentioned before, although only a minority of the population speaks the language natively.

Now that we have seen what language contact is, and how the Irish situation relates to the subject, let us see what effects language contact has on the languages in question.

Thomason defines contact induced change as a change that would probably not occur without the contact situation.[7] She distinguishes two major types of contact induced change, one type where imperfect language learning plays a role, and another type where it does not. In the second case features are borrowed into a language by speakers who speak that language fluently, mainly, but not necessarily native speakers. In these situations vocabulary is usually borrowed before structure, and non-basic vocabulary is borrowed first.

The picture is different, however, if imperfect language learning is involved. This is usually the case in language shift situations, like in Ireland. This type of language change is often referred to as substratum interference. Thomason avoids the term substratum on the grounds that imperfect language learning has similar effects no matter what the socio-political situation is like.[8] If imperfect language learning is involved structural interference will dominate over lexical interference in the target language of the shifting group. Changes in a language that are the result of language shift are more likely to be permanent, if the shifting speech community is large. Again Ireland serves as an example for Thomason:

This [features became fixed in the target language] is what happened with Irish Gaelic features in what is now called Irish English: the shifter’s variety of English was able to influence the English of Ireland as a whole because the shifters were numerous relative to the original native speakers of English in Ireland.[9]

Thomason also raises some important points on how to determine what changes in a language are contact induced.[10] First of all one should not attribute something to language contact only if no other explanation can be found. As Thomason says “a good solid contact explanation is preferable to a weak internal one.”[11] Furthermore she adds that multiple causation should always be considered. Another point is, that the absence of loanwords does not mean that there is no structural interference. Also, a feature is most likely to be the result of contact induced change, if there are more features in a language that can be explained that way. It is unlikely that only one, or a few features are due to contact, while other areas of the language remain unaffected by the contact situation.

3.) Features of Irish English and their relationship with the Irish Language

3.1) Yes/No questions:

One interesting area in looking at language contact phenomena in Irish English is the area of responses to yes/no questions. This area is particularly interesting, since Irish has no equivalent of yes and no. Therefore answers to questions that require a polar response have to be expressed in other ways. This is usually accomplished by repeating the main verb of the question. Another non-standard possibility is the use of dean ‘make, do’, which is subject to dialectal differences.[12]

Various authors have commented on the tendency in Irish English to avoid strait yes and no answers to questions. The Irish characteristics seem to suggest that this tendency might be due to influence from the Irish language. Filppula addresses the question by looking at the distribution of responses to yes/ no questions within Ireland. He operates under the assumption that Irish influence should be strongest in areas that remained Irish speaking longer than areas where Irish was replaced by English sooner.


[1] EAWa page 38

[2] LC page 1

[3] LC page 5

[4] LC page 9

[5] LC page 21

[6] LC page 38

[7] LC page 62

[8] LC page 75
I tend to agree with her on this. I furthermore dislike the distinction of sub- and superstratum because those labels sometimes seem in my view to put value on the languages involved, marking the “substratum” language as primitive and inferior, which is a notion I reject.

[9] LC page 79

[10] LC 91 ff

[11] LC page 91

[12] GIE page 161


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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University of Hamburg – Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Celtic Connections Irish English Seminar Language Change



Title: Celtic Connections - How much Celtic is in Irish English?