Introduction to Irish English
Ireland is an island in northwest Europe, west of England, which consists politically of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the latter of which has been a constituent part of the United Kingdom since 1922. The island has an area of 84,000 square kilometres and a total population of just under 6.5 million. Geographically, the country consists of a flat central area, the Midlands, and a mountainous, jagged western seaboard and a flatter east coast with Dublin, the largest city, in the centre of the east and Belfast, the main city of Northern Ireland, in the northeast. The main ethnic groups are Irish and Ulster Scots. There are speakers of Ulster English in Northern Ireland but they do not constitute a recognizable ethnic group today. Irish and English are official languages in Ireland; English is now spoken natively by over 99% of the Irish-born population.
Before the arrival of Norman and English settlers in the late twelfth century, Ireland was entirely Irish-speaking. In subsequent centuries both French and English established themselves, the latter being concentrated in towns on the east coast. The linguistic legacy of this is an archaic dialect area from Dublin down to Waterford. English subsequently declined and it was not until the seventeenth century that it became the dominant language in the entire island, due to increased settlement of English in the centre and south, and the movement of tens of thousands of Lowland Scots to Ulster. These events are often considered justification for dividing the history of English in Ireland into two periods: 1200-1600 and 1600 onwards.
After 1600 the language shift to English gained momentum and was to continue unabated to the present, with the Great Famine (1845-8) resulting in a great reduction in the number of Irish native speakers through death or emigration to Britain and North America. The lack of regular schooling for the native Catholic Irish before the 1830s meant that the shift to English occurred without the aid of formal education, and so many features from Irish were carried over.
Irish English is a cover term for varieties of English spoken in Ireland—there are a number of shared features in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary across the forms of English throughout the entire island. Below the level of Irish English, a distinction can be made between English in Ulster (more narrowly Northern Ireland) and varieties in the south, i.e., in the Republic of Ireland. The latter can in turn be subdivided into an east-coast dialect area, from Dublin to the southeast corner, reflecting the period of earliest English settlement, and the southwest, west and northwest which are areas in which the Irish language survived longest and where varieties are spoken which show many features deriving from the historical shift from Irish to English.
Irish English vocabulary can derive from English dialect input, e.g., mitch ‘truant’, chisler ‘child’, hames ‘mess’ (of Dutch origin), or from archaic pronunciation, e.g. [baul] (admiringly) for bold and [aul] (affectionately) for old, eejit /iːdʒɪt/ for idiot. Word pairs with complementary meanings are often confused: ditch is used for dyke; bring for take, rent for let; learn can be used for teach colloquially (That’ll learn ya). Older usages are also found, e.g. mad for ‘angry with’, sick for ‘ill’, bold for ‘misbehaved’. Phrasal verbs can have meanings not found elsewhere, e.g. give out ‘complain’. Words can stem from Irish, for example:
- callow, adj.2 (first attested 1811) – designating low-lying land situated beside a river and regularly submerged by flooding; from Irish caladh.
- camogie, n. (1904) – a game similar to hurling, played by women and girls; from Irish camógaíocht.
- gob, n.2 (1568) – the mouth; from Irish gob ‘beak’.
- rib, n.4 (1864) – a strand of hair, a single hair; from Irish ribe.
Many Irish words are used directly, for example:
- agra, n. (1757) – as a term of endearment: ‘my love’; ‘dear’.
- cúpla focal, n. (1975) – a few words in Irish; esp. a token Irish phrase used to introduce a speech, etc., that is otherwise in English.
- plámás, n. (1853) – flattery; insincere or exaggerated praise, esp. when used to persuade or cajole someone.
- sláinte, int. (1824) – as a toast: ‘good health!’
Specific uses of English words found in Irish varieties would include:
- crack, n. (a1966) – fun, amusement; mischief; from Irish craic, itself a borrowing from English.
- yoke, n. (1910) – a machine or device of any kind; a contraption, a contrivance. More generally: any object whose name one cannot recall, does not know, or does not wish to specify; (also) a person, a fellow.
Some Irish words appeared in American English in the 19th century, e.g.
- slew, n.3 (1839) – a very large number, a great amount; from Irish slua(gh) ‘crowd, multitude’.
- phoney, adj. (1893) – fake, sham, counterfeit; false; insincere; probably a variant of fawney, n. (a ring; from Irish fáin(n)e) ‘ring’).
When using English, Irish people place great store on agreement and ease of exchange, both of which are highly valued in Irish discourse, and a number of pragmatic markers are frequently used to realize these features:
- Sure, it won’t take you that long.
Sentence-final then (tacit agreement)
- I suppose it might be safe, then.
Grand (reassurance, agreement)
- You’re grand the way you are.
- That was a grand cup of coffee.
Just (mild disagreement)
- Just, he wasn’t go to pay for it after all.
Now (hedging device)
- Okay, I have to go, goodbye now.
- They’d go into the houses, like, to play the cards.
People in Ireland generally use grammar the same way as British English speakers, except for those who speak local dialect. However, when one looks at colloquial speech then it is obvious that there are many salient structures in vernacular Irish English which set it apart from standard British or American English.
There are several forms used for a second person plural pronoun, a special form for this having been lost a few centuries ago in standard forms of English. The first is ye, the older English second person plural pronoun, retained in Ireland. This is not stigmatized and is heard across the island of Ireland and across various levels of society. The other forms do carry a degree of social stigma, at least when they are the only forms which speakers use. These include youse, which arose from Irish speakers who put the plural –s on you when learning English. A combined form of ye + s also exists, i.e., yeez (the spelling is not regulated and varies). In Ulster Scots in the north the form yins (from you ones) occurs.
A non-standard use of -s in the third person plural as in The boys always gets up late or There’s lots of cars outside is common, as is the use of them as a demonstrative pronoun, e.g. Them shoes are smart. Amn’t is widespread as contracted am not, e.g., Amn’t I great now?
In the area of verbs, Irish English shows many non-standard constructions. The adverb after is used to report a recent action of high informational value: He’s after smashing the window. The word order Object + Part Participle is used to indicate that an action has been planned and carried out, e.g. She has the soup made ‘She has finished making the soup’ (and not ‘She had someone make the soup for her’). In very local varieties there is an habitual aspect, used to specify that something is done repeatedly; it is expressed in southern Irish English via do + V-ing: She does be worrying about the children (in the north the equivalent sentence would be She be worrying about the children). The iterative habitual is expressed via verbal -s: They calls this place City Square. A subordinate clause can be introduced by and with a concessive or restrictive meaning: We went out walking and it raining. The past forms of see and do are seen and done in virtually all colloquial forms of Irish English, e.g. He seen his friend in town and They done the work yesterday.
To emphasize an element of a sentence it can be brought to the front with the dummy verb It’s then starting the sentence, e.g., It’s to Dublin he’s gone today or It’s her brother who rang up this morning. The sources of these structures have been the subject of much scholarly debate, some may come from the Irish language, some from the input varieties of English taken to Ireland in past centuries.
The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.