Irish English features in the ICE-Ireland corpus

Bachelor Thesis, 2013

41 Pages, Grade: 2,3


1. Introduction: The status of English in Ireland

When the English language was first brought to Ireland in the late 12th century, the predominant language of the island’s population was Irish, a Gaelic language, which had been native to the island since the first centuries BC. Now, roughly 800 years from the first encounter of the two languages, the situation in Ireland is quite different: Irish is on the decline and seems to have withdrawn to some regions primarily in the west of the country. For the majority of the Irish population Irish is taught in school, but rarely spoken at home.

Without a doubt, English is now the mother tongue of the majority of Ireland’s population North and South. However, during the 800-year presence of English in Ireland the language has changed, developed, and taken on features that clearly distinguish it from the language of its closest neighbor and former colonist - England - but also from other English varieties around the world. Bearing in mind that other countries, for example the United States of America or Australia, managed to establish their own national standard of English, it seems somehow odd that there is no such development in Ireland. This has two reasons:

As Croghan points out, “(…) Hiberno-English has been neglected, officially, in Ireland” (1990: 31). What he refers to is the constitution of the Republic of Ireland, which declared Irish the first official language but recognizes English only as the second language. The reasons for this are quite obvious: Since the Republic of Ireland gained independence in 1921, there has been a need to redefine the country’s identity and to separate itself from the British. In terms of language, this meant to re- establish and promote what was felt to be a marker of Irish identity. This preference of Irish over English though prevented the recognition of a distinctive variety of English in Ireland. As Hickey speculates,

“The Irish shifted to English and a legacy of this shift is a certain uneasiness on the part of the Irish towards their present-day native language English. It may seem a little far-fetched, but there could well be an unconscious trauma among English-speaking Irish today over having abandoned the Irish language in the recent past” (2007: 24).

Therefore, it seems that Irish English is only sparsely appreciated by the Irish. Though being aware of the distinctive character of this variety, “A view is often found that Irish English is a substandard form of language not to be taken seriously” (Hickey 2007: 23) and further, that “often the impression conveyed is that Irish English is a bemusing form of language confined to colloquial usage” (Hickey 2007: 23).

Supposedly, it is due to this attitude that there have only been few attempts to record distinctive Irish English features in a national dictionary or in grammar books. This problem is, of course, closely linked to the question of which aspects of Irish English are “dictionary - or grammar book-worthy”, meaning which features are not only restricted to colloquial usage but are also accepted in more formal and learned or educated contexts. Furthermore, the issue arises of whether there actually is a necessity to create dictionaries and grammar books for Irish English or if it is functionally sufficient to draw on textbooks of the major varieties of English: British English and/or American English. This ultimately leads to the question of whether or not there is a standard form of English as spoken in Ireland.

It is therefore necessary to look further into the concept of Standard Language. Generally speaking, the standard variety of a language is nothing more than a particular manifestation of the language in question. Typically, the standard language is predominantly used by educated and learned speakers. Since the standard language is bound to a group of individuals, it is also termed a social dialect or a sociolect. Furthermore, it seems as if there is a general consensus that a standard variety also needs to be codified in grammar books and dictionaries describing typical usage and meanings. However, norms, whether grammatical or lexical, have never been established for Irish English. As indicated above, in the case of English with its status as a widespread language, the degree of convergence and divergence with other national varieties is of special importance: Surely, linguistic distance to other varieties, mostly the leading varieties, is a crucial criterion for the existence of an independent variety and for national standard forms. As Kirk suggests, it may well be assumed that all Englishes are characterized by “an idealised set of shared features” (2011: 32), which is also termed “the common core” (Kallen and Kirk 2007: 154). Due to this set of shared features, international communication is possible. Additionally, the national Englishes have “different sets of national features” (Kirk 2011: 32), which contribute to the distinctive character of each variety. Due to the lack of a codified standard of Irish English, it follows from the above that the social dialect of educated native speakers and, furthermore, the comparison of Irish English with its closest codified variety - British English - would serve as a means to analyze standard English usage in Ireland. Thereby the distinctive character of Standard Irish English as opposed to other varieties can be measured.

It can be suggested that the distinctive features of Irish English stem from, basically, three major sources: (1) Archaic (British) English input, (2) transfer and contact from Irish and Scottish and (3) independent developments (see below). Surely, colloquial usage shows clear traces of these three sources. Therefore, the question asked in this paper is whether or not this distinctive character, which is reflected in colloquial usage, can also be observed in Standard Irish English or if basically, Standard Irish English equals Standard British English. Thus, several selected features which are traditionally ascribed to Irish English will be presented. These features will then be examined with respect to their frequency, usage and distribution in Standard Irish English. “Distribution” refers to both the occurrence in certain discourse types and registers (written/spoken, formal/informal), but also the proportioning of features in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Afterwards, the results will be compared with British English standard usage. For this purpose, the Irish (divided into Northern

Ireland/ ICE-NI and the Republic of Ireland/ICE-ROI) and the British component of the International Corpus of English will be used.

2. Irish English features in the ICE-Ireland corpus

2.1. Preliminary remarks

2.1.1. Overview of possible sources for Irish English features

As indicated above, three main sources for distinctive Irish English features can be pointed out:

First, Irish English displays features that stem from earlier forms of (British) English, which is due to the colonial history of the country. Generally, it can be assumed that both “Old English” (early settlement in the 12th century) and “New English” (later settlement in the 17th century) influence will be found in ICE Ireland.

Secondly, Irish English is also influenced by the Gaelic languages Irish and Scottish. These features can be subdivided into transfer and contact features. Transfer features, on the one hand, refer to lexical features which are directly taken from Irish or Scottish. Such transfer is considered to be rather unlikely in contact situations where one language is dominant and the other language is inferior. As far as the situation in Ireland is concerned, it can be assumed that during the first period Irish was not regarded as an inferior language, since the first settlers assimilated to the Irish population and finally also took on their language. Therefore, the possibility that Irish lexis influenced English lexis during the first period of settlement may also be taken into consideration. The situation in the second period is probably quite different from the first period as the English were of higher social rank than the Irish and thus it is quite unlikely that lexical transfer from Irish to English took place during the second period. Generally speaking, direct lexical transfer from Irish is expected to be rather small. But with Irish being dominant over English in medieval southern Ireland, there will probably be more Irish influence in ICE ROI. The present situation in southern Ireland may also play an important role: Irish is the first official language of the Republic and most Irish speakers live in the southern part of Ireland, in the western province Connaught. Scottish features, however, are expected to be more dominant in ICE NI due to the settlement patterns of the seventeenth century. Contact features, on the other hand, result from close, enduring contact of two languages and unguided, non-prescriptive learning situations. As for Irish and English, this setting is given. Furthermore, contact features do not refer to direct transfer, but more or less to indirect transmission. For lexical items, this can be seen in the usage of words: For English lexemes, the scope may have been either broadened or reduced depending on the scope the corresponding concept has in Irish.

Thirdly, Irish English has also developed several features which are independent from both archaic (British) English influence and Irish influence. Some lexical items have taken on meanings and usages which are not found in any other English speaking countries. It is very important to mention this instance since it shows that Irish English is not just a blend of archaic (British) English remains and influence of the Irish language, but that Irish English is a distinct variety which is well able to develop its own peculiar features, just as American English or Australian English.

2.1.2. The notion of Standard English: Old and new

As mentioned in the introduction, there is no codified norm of Standard Irish English. This may indeed also be due to the fact that until recently the traditional approach to standard language has been favored by researchers. This attempt is based on the belief that standard language can exclusively be observed in written forms of the language in question. Furthermore, in the case of English, there seems to have been a general consensus that British and American English represent the guiding norms of standard language usage and that any deviation from this norm can justifiably be considered as non- standard. However, a new approach to the concept of Standard Language has emerged, not least due to progresses and changes in modern corpus linguistics. White describes this new approach as follows:

“Recent corpus-based approaches to standard language have rather changed definitions of what standard language consists of. They incorporate examples of real language use, spoken as well as written, thus shifting the focus of standard language away from an exclusively written form. Corpora such as the International Corpus of English (ICE), (…), start from the premise that standard language consists of whatever language is produced by standard language users, rather than judging language against pre-established norms of correctness” (2006: 224).

Kirk, one of the compilers of ICE Ireland, follows a similar line of argumentation: “Standard English need not be a matter of prescriptivism or any attempt to ‘create’ a particular standard, but, rather, can be a matter of observation of actual linguistic behaviour” (2011: 32)

In sum, standard language usage is not defined by the norms which are based on the two traditional standard varieties, neither is it bound to predetermined rules and moreover, standard language does not manifest itself in exclusively written forms. Therefore, the ICE corpus is a suitable means of investigating Standard English in accordance with the new notion.

2.1.3. Analytic procedure

In the following, Standard Irish English as given in ICE Ireland will be analyzed. The concordance program used is AntConc3.2.3w. To give credit to the possible sources that make up present-day Irish English, the following chapters examine each possible source separately. However, in some cases the assignment of words to their source was rather difficult and sometimes not entirely clear-cut (see bold). Furthermore, each subchapter covers a wide range of word classes: Adjectives, nouns, pronouns and verbs. Since the paper concentrates on the most obvious and frequent features, the word classes are not always represented with the same amount of items.

Each lexical item will be analyzed in terms of the definitions found in two dictionaries: The Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) and the Dictionary of Hiberno-English (DoHE). The ODO was chosen first, because it seemed to be sufficient for the purposes of this paper and second, because it focuses on present-day language usage. The dictionary is based on the Oxford Dictionary of English (revised second edition) and the Oxford Thesaurus of English (third edition). Furthermore, the ODO is regularly updated (quarterly) for new words or new senses. The meaning shades given by the ODO will be numbered as “(ODO1)”, “(ODO2)”, etc. The second dictionary consulted, the Dictionary of Hiberno-English (DoHE) compiled by Terence Patrick Dolan, was first published in 1999. It is intended to be a national dictionary and it includes words from all over Ireland. The meaning shades found in DoHE will be numbered as “(DoHE1)”, “(DoHE2)”, etc.

Each subchapter starts with an explanation of how the respective feature is used in Irish English. Where possible, some remarks on the possible source of the lexical item will also be given. Afterwards, the definitions given by the dictionaries will be presented followed by an interpretation of the findings in ICE Ireland. Thereby the criteria frequency1 , syntactic behavior, collocation and meaning variants were chosen. The corpus examples will be numbered as “(S1)”, “(S2 )”, etc. The corpus results will also be compared with the definitions given in the dictionaries. A further issue of the study is the difference between ICE NI and ICE ROI in terms of the criteria mentioned above. Thereby focus is given to specific meaning variants, which do not or only rarely occur in other varieties of English and which can thus be considered to be distinctively “Irish”. In addition, the results found in ICE Ireland will be compared with the findings in ICE GB.

2.2. Archaic English input

2.2.1. Adjectives Bold - ICE Ireland Irish English usage and possible source

The adjective bold is frequently cited as an example of English archaism surviving in Irish English. Hickey, for instance, claims that in an Irish English context, the adjective may reflect the earlier English usage of “misbehaved” (2007: 362). In contrast, Dolan suggests that the Irish English usage of bold meaning “misbehaved” or “naughty” stems from the Irish word d á na meaning “forward” or “brazen” (Dolan 2006: 228; Mac Mathúna and Ó Corráin 1995: 79). In this case it seems a bit difficult to clearly determine the origin of the word. However, bold is listed under the heading archaic English input, because I hold the explanation given by Hickey for the most plausible one. Definition according to dictionaries

The ODO lists two related meaning shades of the adjective: Associated with people, ideas or actions, bold can take on the meaning of “brave” and “confident”. When referring to manners, bold may also mean “impudent” (ODO1). However, this meaning is remarked as “dated”. When used with color, shape or lines, bold may also mean “having a strong clear appearance”. This meaning shade also includes the meaning of “thick and dark printing” (ODO2). The ODO also lists a specific Irish meaning of bold: “Naughty” or “badly behaved”, especially of a child (ODO3).

The DoHE explicitly states that the primary meaning of bold in Irish English is different to Standard English usage when referring to people. While standard usage generally refers to “a daring and brave person”, Irish English favors the meaning of “misbehaved” when using bold (DoHE1). Corpus results: Frequency, syntactic behavior, collocation, and meaning variants

Generally speaking, the adjective showed a rather low frequency of occurrence. In the whole ICE Ireland corpus bold only occurred ten times. The overall distribution can be seen in table 1a. As expected, the adjective mostly occurred in rather informal language settings as most hits were in spoken conversation in the text category of face-to-face conversation. Furthermore, bold was used in both predicative and attributive position.

When analyzing the specific meanings that bold can take on, it becomes clear that the meanings found in the corpus are quite similar to the meaning descriptions given by the ODO. Though ICE Ireland shows both the meaning of “brave” and also “clear appearance”, the meaning shade of “misbehaved” as cited by Dolan occurs quite frequently, for instance in S1A-040:

(S1) Is she not eating her greens Mummy No she 's not. She 's a very bold girl.

With five hits this meaning shade takes up half of the overall occurrence. Table 1b shows the distribution of bold meaning “misbehaved” in ICE NI and ICE ROI respectively. Generally speaking, the distribution of the adjective in ICE NI almost equals the distribution in ICE ROI. However, ICE ROI shows less occurrences of bold in speech, but more in writing. For ICE NI the situation is reversed. Furthermore, bold in this sense is very often associated with children or children’s behavior, for example:

(S2) My grandmother’s relatives did not scold us but it was clear that they thought we were “bold” putting our parents through such needless worry. (W2F-011)

It needs to be mentioned though that bold when referring to children indeed refers to very bad or even mischievous behavior and is not used in a downplaying sense like “roguish”, which would denote a less serious misbehavior. However, bold was also found when referring to the behavior of adults, for instance in S1A-050:

(S3) Buy what. Fireworks.2 I might be put in jail for doing illegal things and I never do anything illegal or bold.

In addition, it needs to be mentioned that in one case the classification of the meaning was problematic:

(S4) And it looks like Glenn manages to both live here and write here with equal success. Glenn fixes drinks in the background. Being with the bold Glenn Patterson was beginning to cheer me up. (S2B-027)

In this example bold may refer to either “daring” or “misbehaved” but in a less serious sense, meaning “roguish” or “naughty”. It seems as if the context is not quite enough to define the meaning of bold in this example. As Hickey points out, Irish English pronunciation may in some cases affect the meaning of a word and lead to “a lexical split” (2007: 27). Bold can be pronounced in the standard way [bo:ld] or with a diphthong [baul] and omitted final [d]. Hickey further argues that these specific ways of pronunciation have taken on additional meaning components: He suggests that [baul] incorporates the meaning of “daring” + “sneaking admiration” (Hickey 2007: 27). Based on Hickey’s explication, I suggest for (S4) an extension of the meaning “naughty” with the component “admiration” for it seems to be the most reasonable definition. Consequently, it may be assumed that bold when referring to adults can be interpreted as referring to less serious misbehavior than when used with children. Bold - ICE GB

The adjective bold shows a rather low frequency in ICE GB, just like in ICE Ireland (table 1c). In contrast to ICE Ireland, bold seems to occur almost equally as much in written and spoken communication.

When considering the meaning variants, however, it becomes apparent that the shade of “daring” and “confident” (ODO1) is primarily used in ICE GB. In only one example the meaning of (ODO2) was found. The specific Irish usage (ODO3) / (DoHE1) did not occur in ICE GB at all. In ICE Ireland, it made up half of the overall occurrence. Mad - ICE Ireland Irish English usage and possible source

As bold, the adjective mad is also cited in the literature as representing earlier English usage. Hickey claims that mad has kept the earlier meaning of “keen on” when used in Irish English (2007: 362). Definition according to dictionaries

The ODO lists two meanings for mad: The first meaning can be paraphrased with “mentally ill” or “insane” (ODO1), which is listed as being “chiefly British”. When referring to behavior or ideas, mad may also take on the meaning of “foolish”. Informally used, mad may also mean “very angry” when followed by the preposition at. The second meaning variant is listed as “informal” as well and is synonymous to the adjective enthusiastic. In this case, mad is followed by the preposition about (ODO2).

Dolan’s DoHE only lists one meaning for mad, which is quite similar to (ODO1): In an Irish English context, mad is frequently used as meaning “angry” (DoHE1). Corpus results: Frequency, syntactic behavior, collocation, and meaning variants

ICE Ireland showed a quite high frequency of mad. However, the adjective was mostly found in spoken communication, primarily in the text category face-to face conversation (table 2a). In terms of distribution there seems to be only a slight difference between ICE NI and ICE ROI. ICE NI shows seven additional occurrences, which can mostly be found in spoken communication.

In terms of syntactic behavior, mad mostly occurred in predicative position after a copular verb. However, mad is sometimes also found in attributive function. When used predicatively, mad was very often preceded by the copular verb to be, but sometimes also by the verb to go. To go mad then indicates that someone is about to get angry/crazy, for instance:

(S5) Daddy will go mad when he hears the water 's broke. (S1A-045)

In attributive position, mad frequently co-occurred with the intensifiers very and so. Furthermore, mad was sometimes accompanied by the prepositions about and into.

In terms of meaning variants, mad frequently takes on the meaning variants “mentally ill”/“crazy” or “foolish” and “angry” as given in (ODO1). It needs to be mentioned though that these three shades occurred in relatively equal distribution and that there was no significant overrepresentation of the meaning shade “angry” as might be assumed due to the entry in the DoHE. However, the meaning shade of “keen (on)” as given by Hickey (2007: 362) and also cited by the ODO (ODO2), did only occur in combination with the prepositions into and about, for instance:

(S6) [I am] fucking mad into Trivial Pursuit. (S1A-027)

(S7) (…) those little transformers all the kids are mad about. (W2F-011)

In all examples with the preposition into, mad was preceded by the verb to be. This is interesting in so far since in these sentences mad might also be interpreted as an intensifier. This suggestion is supported by the fact that the phrase to be into something already indicates that someone or something is “keen on” something or someone.

Yet, with the preposition about a further meaning is possible in Irish English as shown in the following example:

(S8) (…) the girls working in the dementia unit are going mad about this other relationship that's going on. Inappropriate behaviours in public and all that sort of business. (S1A-036)

Though accompanied by the preposition about, mad in this sentence does not mean “being keen on something” or anything similar, it rather indicates “anger” and “fury”. However, the ODO states that this meaning shade occurred with the preposition at, which is not found in combination with mad at all. In sum, the meaning of mad is very much determined by the preposition it occurs with as can be seen in table 2b. ICE ROI generally has more instances of mad + preposition. While ICE NI only shows two occurrences of mad + preposition, six out of a total of eight hits can be found in ICE ROI. Moreover, ICE ROI also shows greater usage of mad meaning “keen on” than ICE NI and, furthermore, ICE ROI also uses mad about in the sense of “angry at” more than ICE NI. Mad - ICE GB

The adjective mad was also analyzed in terms of its frequency and meaning in ICE GB. Table 2c shows the distribution in the corpus. Quite obviously, the distribution in written and spoken text categories in ICE GB is similar to the distribution in ICE Ireland, with mad being more frequent in spoken communication.

Interestingly, the meaning shade “angry” occurs only once in ICE GB, while most other occurrences of mad follow the meaning of “crazy” or “mentally ill”. In ICE Ireland, however, the meaning of “angry” was equally as much represented as the meaning shade “crazy”. This is probably also due to the fact that mad was not accompanied by any preposition at all. In ICE Ireland, however, mad showed some occurrences with the prepositions about which could be interpreted as meaning “angry”. More importantly, though, ICE GB does not show the meaning variant of “keen on” at all, which was quite frequently found in ICE ROI. There are also some instances where mad functioned as an intensifier, for instance in the following example:

(S9) (…) people have been were complaining like mad that they couldn't find me. (S1A-100) The functionality of mad as an intensifier was also observed in ICE Ireland.

2.2.2. Nouns Chisler/chiseller - ICE Ireland and ICE GB Irish English usage and possible source

The first noun, chisler or also chiseller, is assumed to be an altered form of the word childer, which stems from ME childre, meaning “children”. Definition according to dictionaries

As expected, chisler is not cited in the ODO.


1 Note that with high-frequent words only 10 % were analyzed in terms of meaning variants. However, the different text categories were not ignored but proportionally represented in the chosen examples.

2 In the Republic of Ireland fireworks are prohibited.

Excerpt out of 41 pages


Irish English features in the ICE-Ireland corpus
University of Regensburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
573 KB
irish, english, ice-ireland
Quote paper
Sabrina Köck (Author), 2013, Irish English features in the ICE-Ireland corpus, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Irish English features in the ICE-Ireland corpus

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free