Irish English

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

24 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Historical and socio-cultural aspects
2.1 Geography and population of Ireland
2.2 History of Ireland and its language

3 Linguistic aspects
3.1 Irish
Spelling system and the lexicon
3.2 Language Varieties in Southern Ireland: Phonology
Irish English in the south-west
Irish English in the west
Irish English in the east
Irish English in the Midlands
3.3 Language varieties in Northern Ireland: Phonology
Ulster Scots
Ulster English
The transition zone from south to north
3.4 The IrE lexicon
3.5 The grammar of Irish English
Relativisation and complementation
Noun phrase structure
Pronominal systems
Word Order
Prepositional usage
Auxiliaries and negation

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Every language has several varieties which differ from each other in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Different speakers use different varieties depending on their regional provenance, individual social background, or educational level (see Erickson 1997: 106). Even the same speaker may use several varieties according to different situations. This paper will focus on the varieties of English used in Ireland. The name ‘Ireland’ is popularly used to refer to the Republic of Ireland. This paper, however, will include the varieties of English spoken on the whole island, namely the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. These two parts have a different government, a different history, and quite different features in the language that is spoken. Linguistic analysis should therefore differentiate between the languages spoken in each of these two parts separately. However, one must keep in mind that dividing the subject according to political borders is not meant to imply that there are language borders that run equally accurate. Linguistic features merely appear with greater or lesser frequency when one moves around the country. As Kortmann and Upton (2004: 26) point out, there are no “regional cut-off points for ways of speaking” but boundaries “blend subtly and imperceptibly into one another”.

Before the 12th century Irish was the native language spoken in Ireland. English was introduced in the late 12th century and was slowly established on the island. The development of English in Ireland can roughly be divided into two periods. During the first period (~1200-1600) English was mainly spoken by a few English settlers who lived in the south east of Ireland. During this phase English was exposed to considerable Gaelicisation (see Hickey 1997: 359). In the second period (~1600-1900) several political and social changes allowed English to spread out across the country and displace Irish as a native language roughly from east to west. In the first part of this paper I will have a closer look into historical developments in Ireland and investigate how they have influenced the moulding of Irish English[1]. Nowadays the English language plays a complex role in Ireland; its usage and the degree of its prestige strongly differ in different areas of the island.

In this paper I will discuss the main varieties of English spoken in Ireland by giving examples and pointing out some of their features[2]. In chapter 2 I will investigate some of the accents[3] spoken in Ireland and compare them to the features of the Received Pronunciation (RP). The choice of an accent used by a speaker can depend on various conditions, e.g. social context: Speakers will try to adjust their pronunciation to the social status of the addressee or the degree of familiarity. The same is the case for the use of dialects[4] (stylistic variation). In chapter 3 and chapter 4 I will point out typical lexical and grammatical features of dialects of IrE. Of course dialect features are not used by all speakers of a dialect with the same intensity; and most speakers are not totally consistent in their grammatical usage or lexical choice. However, one can abstract certain features and describe certain tendencies shown by speakers of dialects of IrE.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Map 1: Ireland (from Trudgill/Chambers 1991: XIV)

2 Historical and socio-cultural aspects

2.1 Geography and population of Ireland

Ireland is an island of about 84 km2; it is about 460km long and about 260km wide. Ireland lies in the Atlantic ocean and is part of the British Isles. The island is bisected by the River Shannon and its vegetation consists mainly of grasslands and moors. Most of the former forest stand has been cleared in the course of the island’s colonisation.

Since the middle ages Ireland has been divided into 4 provinces: Ulster in the north, Connacht in the west, Munster in the south west, and Leinster in the south east and east. It is further subdivided into 32 counties (see map 1). The population of Ireland is approximately 5.7 people, 4 millions of which live in the Republic of Ireland and 1.7 millions in Northern Ireland. The inner region of Ireland is sparsely populated; most inhabitants live in coastal areas.

2.2 History of Ireland and its language

Celtic civilisation was established on Ireland in the 3rd century BC as part of the massive Celtic expansion taking place all across Europe (see Kallen 1997: 7). Thus Celtic tribes who were speaking Goidelic Celtic varieties were the first inhabitants to contribute to the linguistic situation as it is found in Ireland today (see Hansen 1996: 79). These Celtic varieties were the basis for the development of Irish. During the following centuries Ireland was by no means isolated from the rest of the world and its inhabitants had contact with several languages: Celtic people settled in Scotland and the Isle of Man, inhabitants of Ireland had (at least marginal) exchange with Roman Britain in the 1st and 2nd century AD; and during the succeeding centuries Irish merchants as well as warriors had contact with their European and Scandinavian neighbours. Of course this contact also involved linguistic interaction.

The English language was introduced into Ireland in the late 12th century when the first Anglo-Normans came to Ireland from the west of Wales. Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (alias Strongbow), who was a vassal of Henry II, invaded the country in 1169: Around 400 soldiers arrived in Wexford on the southern east coast of the island and began to settle down (see Kallen 1997: 6). In 1171 Henry II officially came into power over the whole of Ireland. By this time, however, English was only spoken by Anglo-Norman military leaders and their families who settled down on the east coast of Ireland (Viereck 2002: 137). During this first period of English speakers on the island, Ireland was “a plurilingual Anglo-Irish colony, in which French and Latin occupied the high prestige […] and English the low prestige domains” (see Kallen 1997: 9). During the succeeding centuries the king’s influence over the Anglo-Norman settlers increasingly vanished and their English became more and more influenced by Irish. In order to strengthen the English authority Lionel, Duke of Clarence, promulgated the ‘Statutes of Kilkenny’ in 1366. He was concerned about the settlers’ lack of loyalty to the English crown and stated that

many English of the said land, forsaking the English language, manners, mode of riding, laws and usages, live and govern themselves according to the manners, fashion, and language of the Irish enemies; and also have made divers marriages and alliances between themselves and the Irish enemies aforesaid (Les Statuts de Kilkenny:[5]

Therefore he established English as the official language for the whole of Ireland, and paragraph II of the statutes ordained that “every Englishman do use the English language, and be named by an English name, leaving off entirely the manner of naming used by the Irish” (ibid.). But these attempts to enforce social and political boundaries between the two communities and counter the Gaelicisation of the Anglo-Irish community were only a modest success. Clarence and his lieutenants did not have the finances or resources to implement these laws: Clarence was forced to leave Ireland in 1368 and the linguistic balance remained in favour of Irish as long as till the end of the 16th century. In areas that were bilingual, words from English were taken up into Irish and vice versa. By 1500 the English speaking areas were limited to the region around Dublin, the south east of Ireland, and coast towns such as Waterford, Cork and Galway (see Viereck 2002: 137). In the mid 17th century English was re-introduced on Ireland on a large-scale (see Hickey 1997: 359): Lands in Ireland were seized through act of war under Oliver Cromwell and given to loyal English and Scottish settlers. These so-called ‘Plantations’ were meant to strengthen England’s political control over Ireland. The resettlements were later continued under Elizabeth I and English speakers spread out all over the island. Speakers of Irish were increasingly reliant on using “some English for communication within what was now becoming the ‘wider spread society’” (Kallen 1997: 16). This process finally heralded the long language shift in Ireland.

The following centuries were a time of repression for Irish people and the emergence of the English language. As a result of the ‘Act of Settlement’, passed by Cromwell in 1652, many Roman-Catholic Irish from the north were dispossessed and forced to move to the less fertile area west of the River Shannon. Their land was colonised by English speaking settlers from the Scottish Lowlands who came to form the base of the Ulster Protestant community. At the end of the 17th century the ‘Penal Laws’ were passed, which punished non-conformism in the United Kingdom: Irish speaking Catholics were excluded from voting and had to suffer severe property restrictions. Irish landowners and farmers had to speak English in order to retain social status.

The isolation of speakers of English in Ireland from speakers in England allowed IrE to retain archaic features of older forms of English and develop own features, many of which were influenced by Irish. As P. Donáll Ó Baoill points out, one must bare in mind that “when Irishmen wished to learn English, increasingly so from the middle of the 18th century, they learned what may be termed a ‘non-standard’ variety” (Ó Baoill 1997: 74) as it was taught mostly by native Irish speakers. This variety became more and more Gaelicised as it was passed on from one generation to the next.

Irish increasingly lost credit among the Irish population and was not even taught as a subject in the ‘National Schools’ which were introduced in 1831. English, on the other hand, was taught in ‘National Schools’ and “by the close of the 19th century, most of the country, especially the north, east, and central areas, had become predominantly English-speaking” (Kallen 1997: 17). The Great Potato Famine in Ireland (1845-1849) affected mainly farmers, most of which were Irish speaking. About 1,5 Million Irish people starved and 1 Million people emigrated from Ireland, carrying their language to other countries, especially England and the USA. In 1901 85% of the population of Ireland spoke English as their only language (see Viereck 2002: 139).

The drastic decline of the Irish language and the sanctions imposed on Ireland by the English government were interpreted as a threat to their national identity by many Irish people (Hansen 1996: 82). In 1983 the unionist Douglas Hyde founded the ‘Gaelic League’, an organisation for the sustainment of the Irish language spoken in Ireland. In the 1880s an increasing conflict between Irish nationalists and Irish unionists rose up in Ireland. The nationalists thought that Ireland was poorly served under British government and demanded ‘home rule’, i.e. the autarchy of Ireland. The unionists, on the other hand, wanted their country to stay under British government as they were afraid that a nationalist government in Dublin would discriminate against protestants (who built the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland) and penalise the industrial counties in the north east in favour of the rest of the country which was mainly agricultural. The ‘Government of Ireland Act’ of 1920 divided Ireland into Northern Ireland (including the counties Antrim, Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh, Down) and Southern Ireland (covering the remaining territory to the south and west). In 1922 Southern Ireland, with Dublin as its capital, became a free state called the ‘Irish Free State’ whereas Northern Ireland with its capital Belfast remained under British sovereignty as a part of the United Kingdom. Today English is still the official language in Northern Ireland. But in Southern Ireland it is Irish which is the first and English only the second official language since 1937. Despite this constitutional assignation, English has become the dominating language in official and in private life during the second half of the 20th century.


[1] The English spoken in Southern Ireland has often been called Hiberno-English [1]. Nowadays this term is not used that frequently anymore as many non-Irish readers are unfamiliar with it (see Hickey 2004: 68). In the following I will refer to this variety as IrE to parallelise it to the designation of other varieties, e.g. Scottish or Welsh English.

[2] Unless indicated otherwise, all information and examples presented in this paper are taken from Kortmann, Bernd. A Handbook of Varieties of English New York: Mouton New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004.

[3] The term ‘accent’ is used to refer to varieties in pronunciation (see Hughes/Trudgill 1996: 3).

[4] The term ‘dialect’ is used to refer to “varieties distinguished from each other by differences of grammar and vocabulary” (Hughes/Trudgill 1996: 3).

[5] The original text was written in French (see

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Irish English
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Varieties of English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Irish English (Hiberno English) is a variety of English spoken in Ireland. It has mainly been influenced by vernacular Irish and varieties of English and Scots. This paper investigates historical and linguistic influences on different varieties of English spoken in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Several accents spoken in Ireland will be discussed and compared to features of RP. Furthermore typical lexical and grammatical features of Irish English will be taken into account.
Irish, Varieties, Hiberno, English, Northern Ireland, Gaelic
Quote paper
Benjamin Althaus (Author), 2005, Irish English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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