The English language in the south of Ireland

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Historical background

3. Pronunciation
3.1 Consonants
3.2 Vowels
3.3 Stress placement

4. Grammatical structures

5. Lexis

6. Concluding remarks


1. Introduction

English is the language which is spoken all across Ireland, in the Republic as well as in Northern Ireland. Different varieties of the language can be found. In the far north of the island the English which is commonly used is Ulster-Scots, a variety which is heavily influenced by Scots. Mid-Ulster English is also spoken in the north and is less Scots-influenced. Together Ulster-Scots and Mid-Ulster English constitute what is known as Northern Irish English (see Trudgill, Hannah 1994: p102).

The variety spoken in the South of Ireland, which is sometimes called Hiberno-English (see Harris 1984: p115), will in the following be referred to as Southern Irish English. It is important to point out that the linguistic division between the north and the south of Ireland is not the same as the political borders. Northern Irish English is not only spoken in Northern Ireland but also in some areas of the Republic of Ireland, for example in Donegal. The use of Southern Irish English on the other hand is quite common in some of the southern parts of Northern Ireland (see Trudgill, Hannah 1994: p102).

In the following the historical development of the Southern Irish English variety will briefly be looked at before its main features in terms of pronunciation, grammatical structures and lexis will be explored. There is only little regional variation within Southern Irish English (see Barnickel 1982: p117), and the few differences will here not be taken into consideration.

2. Historical background

Until the seventeenth century Irish was the language spoken in the whole of Ireland. From 1600 onwards however a gradual language change began to take place. English was brought to Ireland by English immigrants. From Dublin it began to spread all over the country. The immigrants came from the west and west Midlands of England, and these roots can still be detected in the English spoken in Ireland today. In contrast to this, the English in the north of Ireland can still be traced back to its origins in Scotland from where it was brought to Ireland by settlers (see Trudgill, Hannah 1994: p102). From the seventeenth century onwards English spread over the island and began to gain in status. By 1800 half the population, mainly from the upper class, spoke English on a regular basis. The other half remained Irish-speaking. This half consisted mainly of poor, disadvantaged and less educated people who were mostly to be found in rural areas. These facts contributed to the Irish language’s decline in status which resulted in its gradual abandonment. The Catholic clergy soon took on the English language and it was consequently introduced in schools, where many priests also served as teachers (see Edwards 1984: p481). At the same time Ireland was systematically colonized by the English and thus the Irish language disappeared more and more. Only in the west, where the land was the least fertile and therefore not too interesting for English settlers, the Irish language remained strong. This was the only part of the country left to the Irish alone, without much English influence. The so-called “Gaeltachts”, regions where Irish survived as the first language, can today be found in these areas.

The numbers of the Irish-speaking population changed dramatically. While at the beginning of the nineteenth century the majority of people in Ireland spoke Irish, with half of them not able to speak any English, by the end of the century these people made up only 1% of the population. Roughly 14% spoke both languages and for approximately 86% English was the only language at their disposal (see Bähr 1974: p181).

In 1921 the Irish Free State was declared. In spite of the fact that by this time English had already become the first language for most of the population, Irish was officially recognized as the new state’s language, while English only had the status of a second official language. This decision was made in an attempt to strengthen the national identity and to emphasize the separation from England. Since in reality the Irish language appeared to be dying, the “Conradh na Gaeilge”, the Gaelic League was founded with the objective of preventing this imminent language death. Irish became a compulsory subject taught in schools and a requirement of applicants for official posts.

Despite all efforts to revive the language, today it only has the status of a second language for most Irish people. Its active use is generally confined to the Gaeltachts. But the population of these special areas in the counties Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Kerry and Cork only accounts for less than 2% of Irish people (see Edwards 1984: p486).

The Irish language has never successfully regained its status as first language in the country. It has been replaced by the English language, or rather by specific Irish English varieties.

3. Pronunciation

The Southern Irish English accent differs distinctly from other accents of English. It is heavily influenced by the Irish language and its phonemic system (see Bliss 1984: p135). This means that when native speakers of Irish tried to reproduce sounds of the English language, they did not have the English phonemic system at their disposal and therefore used the Irish system. By doing so they created a very distinct kind of pronunciation of the English language which was then passed on through the generations. This accent is often referred to as “the Irish brogue”. Some characteristic features of this accent will now be introduced.

3.1 Consonants

The most striking feature of the Southern Irish English pronunciation is the realization of the dentals /θ/ and /D/. While both of these phonemes are pronounced as dental fricatives in RP, in Southern Irish English they are realized as dental plosives (see Bähr 1974: p184). The words “thin” and “tin” for example become homophones when pronounced with a Southern Irish English accent, whereas they are minimal pairs in RP.

Voiceless plosives, such as /t/, /p/ or /k/, in postvocalic positions are pronounced as slit fricatives in Southern Irish English. That means that unlike RP they are realized with aspiration and not with a glottal stop (see Trudgill, Hannah 1994: p105). So “hit” pronounced with the typical Southern Irish English slit fricative and “hiss”, which ends in a groove fricative, are near-homophones.

In other positions /t/ is realized as flapped /R/. This is usually the case in intervocalic positions, as in “bitter”, “letter” or “matter.

In the west of Ireland there is a tendency to pronounce /s/ as [S] when it is positioned before a final “t”. This is for example the case with words such as “best” or “fist” (see Bliss 1984: p138).


Excerpt out of 16 pages


The English language in the south of Ireland
University of Flensburg
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
522 KB
English, Ireland
Quote paper
Sarah Prigge (Author), 2004, The English language in the south of Ireland, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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