The Diversity of Irish.

Stan Carey, of Sentence first, has a piece in the Irish Times, ‘Wasn’t it herself told me?’: Which bit of Ireland would that phrase be from? (abridged from the text published in The Stinging Fly, winter 2020-21), that’s an excellent roundup of the distinctive features of Irish English:

In Eilís Dillon’s novel The Bitter Glass, set in west Co Galway during the Irish Civil War, there is a line of dialogue that is quietly extraordinary in showing some of the turns the English language has taken in Ireland: “Wasn’t it herself told me ye were coming today . . .”

Few Irish people would bat an eyelid at this – or pause to deconstruct it, such is the story’s momentum. And it borders on cryptic for readers uninitiated in Irish English dialect; certainly its nuances and cadences are likely to be lost en route. So humour me while I marvel at some of its features.

1. Herself as an unbound reflexive pronoun […] 2. Clefting for topicalisation […] 3. Ye as second person plural […] 4. Subject contact clause. The relative pronoun (who or that) that we expect before told me is dropped, strengthening the colloquial effect. […]

Any local dialect on the island will have properties that mark it as Irish English, though their frequency and proportion will vary from one place or speaker to the next.

So it is with Galway. Its dialects are close to those spoken anywhere west of the Shannon, where Irish lingered longer and had more effect on the English that largely, and violently, supplanted it. But the county’s size and topographical range mean there are considerable differences in local speech as we travel from the towns and farmlands of the east – virtually the midlands – through the city and westward to Connemara and the islands, where in many households Irish prevails. […]

Irish is the source, for example, of the after-perfect, which uses after to form the perfect tense, usually in reporting something recent and of high informational value – hence its other name, the hot news perfect. Since Irish lacks a verb for have, a literal translation of the perfect tense (“I have eaten”) was not possible, so we transposed Irish phrases like tar éis and i ndiaidh to form “I’m after eating”. […]

What we did with habitual aspect is equally striking. The distinction between tá mé, “I am”, and bíonn mé, “I (habitually) am”, was so integral to native expression that our ancestors remoulded English multiple times to retain it, perhaps helped by convergence with Scots and English dialects. There is do be (“The people do be full of stories of all the cures she did” – Lady Gregory), do by itself (“I’m not so old as you do hear them say” – JM Synge), and the northern be’s (“But sure plenty dogs be’s that way” – Robert Bernen). Quintessentially Irish structures, but you’ll also hear them in Newfoundland, an imprint of emigration.

There’s much more at the link. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. John Emerson says

    One of the less-discussed aspects of “Huckleberry Finn” is the way he distinguished between the different nonstandard dialects of the American South and West. He did this quite consciously and notes it on his intro. And some of the features of these dialects show up in this piece on Irish English.

  2. “What’s after happenin’ now?” is a great piece of Newfoundland Irish combining many of these features. It basically is, you spilled your beer, we went to grab a paper towel, and on our return somehow another beer got knocked over. Not an uncommon occurrence on George St in St John’s!

  3. David Marjanović says

    So humour me while I marvel at some of its features.

    No mention of the verb-first order in what doesn’t seem to be a question? I mean, that’s a sufficient condition for “clefting for topicalisation”, but not a necessary one.

    And what’s “reflexive” about herself here? Isn’t the noteworthy feature here that it’s not reflexive at all, but used purely for emphasis?

  4. One of the less-discussed aspects of “Huckleberry Finn” is the way he distinguished between the different nonstandard dialects of the American South and West.

    Discussed by David Carkeet in The Dialects in “Huckleberry Finn”: Duke University Press, 1979.

  5. Stan Carey, of Sentence first…

    And one of the filth-mongers at Strong Language, too.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    “Wasn”t it herself…” is a (rhetorical) question, if you mean told is at the beginning of its clause, this is as stated because who/that is omitted. The “herself” is not only for emphasis but carries the meaning “in person, specifically”. Ian Paisley was putting up illegal posters in Dublin as part of a 1-man demonstration against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The investigating Garda greeted him with “Is it yourself, Dr. Paisley?” Had Henry Stanley been Irish, we would have the immortal phrase “Is it yourself, Dr. Livingstone?”

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Standard English does use the reflexive form for a kind of emphasis – ‘he did it himself’* is different from the truly reflexive ‘he did it to himself’ – but you need that repetition of the pronoun.

    *actually, ‘he himself did it’ might be different again, but it feels a bit old-fashioned.

    Scottish Gaelic – I’m assuming Irish is the same – has three pronoun forms – ordinary (e.g. mi), reflexive (mi fhin), and emphatic (mise), so the English form might be a kind of borrowing into an Irish pattern of the only emphatic form available.

  8. Calling the -self form “reflexive”, even when the use is not reflexive, is found even in academic texts, e.g. example 17(i) here

    “It’s yourself!” tout court is a common greeting when bumping into an acquaintance one has not seen for a while. Also useful when you can’t remember their name — they may suspect as much, but blushes are spared.

  9. jack morava says

    ` The question of nonsense is central to both the early Wittgenstein and to Flann O’Brien’s fiction,’

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Despite living surrounded by Welsh English, I’ve never really paid very much attention to it from a linguistic point of view. (I don’t speak Welsh English myself.) My extremely subjective impression is that it shows some phonological influence from Welsh (though not as much as you might expect; it’s not even rhotic, for example), but very little in the way of syntactic influence (for example, although Welsh, just like Irish, uses constructions with the preposition “after” for the “perfect”, nobody at all uses any such construction when speaking English.)

    The major loss of Irish as an everyday speech seems to have been more or less coeval with the major loss of Welsh, or indeed earlier, if anything (potato famine.) So this seems a bit odd. Maybe the Welsh were just that much more intensively exposed to English than the Irish were during the period in question. There seems to have been a major impact from immigration of English-speakers into South Wales during the period of the exploitation of the coalfields, which perhaps accounts for much of the difference; still, not even the English of North-Walians shows the sort of interference from Welsh syntax that Irish English shows from Irish. Maybe the deliberate exclusion of Welsh from education as planned government policy was more effective in eradicating traces of the language form the speech of évolués than the colonial neglect that the English applied in Ireland. And of course, Wales has a long actual land border with England. Even so, the difference seems a bit odd now I think of it.

  11. A book on Welsh English came out just recently.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    @Jack morava:

    It is a pity that Flann O’Brien did not deal Wittgenstein in to the wonderful poker game in At Swim-Two-Birds.
    I am sure that St Ludwig (whom I have long imagined as a particularly terrifying Celtic saint, à la Ronan) would have found himself on very much the same wavelength as Suibne Geilt.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    The nonsense of questions, indeed the indecency of them, is the subject of this book. IIRC poker is played without questions – “call”, “raise” etc.

  14. @David Eddyshaw: The portions of the population that say they can speak the local Insular Celtic languages are (very roughly) about 40% in Ireland and 30% in Wales. However, that difference is probably actually illusory. If you correct for the fact that about 20% of people living in Wales are on English origin, the percentages of locals who say they can speak the languages are pretty similar. That land border with England just leads to there being a lot more non-natives among the Welsh population than among the Irish population.

    Where the languages really are on different footing is in how many of those theoretical speakers actually use the languages in practice. The exact numbers depend, not surprisingly, on how exactly you measure frequency, but the upshot is that the rate of “everyday” use of Welsh in Wales is far higher (a few nepers) than the corresponding use of Irish in Ireland.

  15. jack morava says

    @ David Eddyshaw: Thanks, I needed that (\ie an excuse to reread At Swim-Two-Birds after many years). I wonder what The Plain People of Ireland would have to say about clefting for topicalization &c [very guttural languages, the Irish and the German …]

  16. @Stu Clayton: I think “Obszönität” is a wonderful-sounding word. I wonder now about the details of its etymology.

    In English, obscene and obscenity appear simultaneously in the second half of the sixteenth century. The OED says they were borrowed partially from French, partially from Latin. I would guess that the German came more directly from learned Latin, but I don’t know.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    @Brett: the DWDS article starts off by giving the impression that learned German Latinists loaned the word all on their lonesome. But the oldest witness is early 18C. Right at the end we are told that the French had the word in the 16C.

    # obszön Adj. ‘das Schamgefühl verletzend, unanständig, schlüpfrig, zotig’, Entlehnung (obscoen, obscen, Anfang 18. Jh.) aus lat. obscēnus, obscaenus ‘anstößig, unanständig, abscheulich, unsittlich’, Rückbildung aus *obscaenāre ‘Schmutz über etw. verbreiten’; zu lat. caenum ‘Schmutz, Kot, Unflat’. Obszönität f. (18. Jh.), lat. obscēnitās (Genitiv obscēnitātis), auch obscaenitās. Vgl. frz. obscène Adj. und obscénité f. (16. Jh.).#

  18. Stu Clayton says

    very guttural languages, the Irish and the German …]

    Stuff and nonsense as concerns German. The only people I’ve ever heard speak gutturally were Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers in the familiar film scenes. What they spoke was not German, and neither of them was, either. That was the point of their performances.

  19. jack morava says

    @ Stu Clayton: sorry, my bad. I was citing Flann O’Brien; I should have provided the whole text but can’t now locate it, will try again.

  20. John Emerson says

    “Guttural”: a sentimental Irish-American friend who finally was able to visit the Gaeltacht was very disappointed not to hear the mellifluous poetic language he had dreamed of.

  21. jack morava says

    Found it (slightly abridged):

    … Beer and music and swims in the Neckar with Kun O’Meyer and John Marquess… MEIN HERZ/es schl”agt am Neck-ar-strand. Tumpty tumpty tum.

    The Plain People of Ireland: Isn’t the German very like the Irish? Very guttural and so on?

    Myself: Yes.

    The Plain People of Ireland: People do say that the German language and the Irish language is very guttural tongues.

    Myself: Yes.

    The Plain People of Ireland: The sounds is all guttural do you understand.

    Myself: Yes.

    The Plain People of Ireland: Very guttural languages the two of them the Gaelic and the German.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Scots Gaelic sounds pretty mellifluous to my ear; but these things are just a bit subjective, I guess. While on patriotic grounds I can only applaud Tolkien’s judgment that Welsh is especially euphonious, I can’t say that it seems so to me, particularly*. Perhaps it helps with the euphony if you don’t understand the words (as with Schubert’s Lieder.)

    *On the other hand, Penderyn whisky, that I was ignorantly dismissive of hitherto, is actually very nice, as I shall be reconfirming later on.

  23. Stuff and nonsense as concerns German.

    Well, compared to Spanish, French or Italian (the only other foreign languages most English speakers are familiar with) German seems pretty guttural. The Alemannic dialects certainly are.

    Obviously it doesn’t help that for decades almost any anglo-american film or TV show about World War II depicted „Germans“ screaming commands with exaggerated gutturality.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    The supposed gutturality of Standard German is but a slight thing compared with that of Dutch.

  25. John Emerson says

    Of course it would be the contrarian Stu who dared contradict The Plain People of Ireland.

  26. Stu Clayton says

    The PPI are not to blame. They were merely repeating (several times in succession, in the novel) what they have repeatedly heard. Everybody does it – even I have said before what I said just now.

    It’s nice to have a stock of simple things to say when you want to say something. It promotes intercourse both social and otherwise. All animals go about their business in silence for the most part, until they can’t stand it any longer and growl or pipe up to attract attention. Life is like that – long stretches of honest toil broken by fits of annoyance.

  27. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I keep wondering what about the Beautiful People of Ireland, but I have realised that they go under a synonym and may be better not mentioned.

  28. jack morava says

    `Sir: Sir W. Beach Thomas asks

    “Is any animal anywhere quite silent?” The most extraordinary
    instance of almost, if not complete, silence in any land animal
    is the giraffe. It has been heard, I believe, to utter a very
    slight bleat when teased with food.’

    This letter appeared recently in the London Spectator. It reminds
    me that I have been harboring a strange little animal in my house
    for years. It looks not unlike a monkey, but since it roosts at
    night it must be something else. The `face’ is extraordinarily
    withered and old. The creature is covered with coarse fur and has
    never uttered a sound. It feeds chiefly on books and newspapers,
    and sometimes takes a bath in the kitchen sink, cunningly turning
    on the taps with its `hand’. It rarely goes out and is in its own
    way courteous. I am afraid and ashamed to let anybody see it in
    case I am confronted with some dreadful explanation. Supposing
    it’s a little man cunningly disguised, some eccentric savant from
    the East Indies who is over here studying us. How do I know he
    hasn’t it all down in a little book?

    The Plain People of Ireland: Yerrah man you’ll find it’s an
    over-grown rake of a badger you have in the house. Them lads
    would take the hand off you.

    Myself: Indeed?

    The Plain People of Ireland: Better go aisy now with them lads.
    Ate the face off you when you’re asleep in the bed. Hump him out of
    the house before he has you destroyed man. Many’s a good man had
    the neck clawed off him be a badger. And badgers that doesn’t be
    barkin out of them is very dangerous.

    Myself: Thanks for the warning.

    The Plain People of Ireland: A good strong badger can break a
    man’s arm with one blow of his hind leg, don’t make any mistake
    about that. Show that badger the door, Chinaman or no Chinaman.

    Myself: Thank you, I will draw his attention to that useful

    [Myles na g’Copaleen [Flann O’Brian], in The Irish Times,
    maybe in the 1930’s?]

  29. “guttural” in sense 4 of Trask’s Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology

  30. @jack morava: Myles’ column was p.3 of the Irish Times of 1 March 1943. Beach Thomas’ letter was p.102 of the Spectator on 29 January 1943. I love the internet.

  31. Lars Mathiesen says

    So himself is Flann O’Brien?

  32. jack morava says

    @ Lars Mathiesen: Indeed. Or maybe Brian O’Nolan – he had a civil service day job which somehow pushed him to many pseudonyms.

    @mollymooly: Wow, I’m impressed. I love the internet too; but …

    2007 is when the human species accidentally invented telepathy (via the fusion of twitter, facebook, and other disclosure-induction social media with always-connected handheld internet devices)…

  33. David Marjanović says

    The I was after saying construction is also reported from Gaelic-influenced Scots dialects.

    some phonological influence from Welsh (though not as much as you might expect; it’s not even rhotic, for example)

    That particular example doesn’t surprise me – arrhoticity is simply too young: it must have spread long after widespread language shift had happened.

    I would guess that the German came more directly from learned Latin, but I don’t know.

    In many such cases, it seems to me that the French word spurred scholars to look for, find, and borrow the Latin original of the French word – with the French meaning where that is different. Occasionally this happens today with English. Etymological latinization instead of nativization.

    Stuff and nonsense as concerns German.

    Varies geographically (but not much between the standard and the local dialect). [χ] is pretty common in the north; separately, if you go up High enough in Alemannic, it becomes as common as in northern Dutch or Afrikaans*. Elsewhere it’s absent. [ɑ] also occurs in the north and is all over Alemannic; it’s also found in Bavaria. L is downright pharyngealized** in Vienna’s 12th district***, and that spreads to most of the rest of the sound system…

    * Find the South African national anthem on YouTube, wait for oor ons ewige gebergtes, waar die kranse antwoord gie.
    ** They took the Czech velarized one and ran with it.
    *** Meidling [mˁɯ̯ɛ̞ˁlˁɪŋ]. Etymologically Murling(en), supposedly – I can believe it.

  34. John Cowan says

    I don’t know how I learned German /x/ (from my mother) as [χ], but I did. She grew up speaking Standard German (not dialect) in Heringen on the Hessian-Thuringian border. Unfortunately, I know of no surviving recordings of her.

    Tolkien’s judgment that Welsh is especially euphonious […] Perhaps it helps with the euphony if you don’t understand the words

    That’s more or less what he says (apologies for the length, but “English and Welsh” seems to only be available in un-searchable formats; I have transcribed it by hand and used ☞ to mark the paragraphs I consider most significant):

    […] It would not be of much use if I tried to illustrate by examples the pleasure that I got [from learning Mediaeval Welsh]. For of course the pleasure is not solely concerned with any word, any ‘sound pattern + meaning’ by itself, but with its fitness also to a whole style.

    Even single notes of a large music may please in their place, but one cannot illustrate this pleasure (not even to those who have once heard the music) by repeating them in isolation. It is true that language differs from any ‘large music’ in that its whole is never heard through in a single period of concentration, but is apprehended from excerpts and examples. But to those who know Welsh at all a selection of words would seem random and absurd, while to those who do not it would be inadequate under the lecturer’s limitations, and if printed unnecessary.

    Perhaps I might just say this […] — it is the ordinary words for ordinary things that in Welsh I find so pleasing. Nef may be no better than heaven, but wybren is more pleasing than sky. Beyond that, what can one do? For a passage of good Welsh, even if read by a Welshman, is for this purpose useless. Those who understand him must have already experienced this pleasure, or have missed it for ever. Those who do not cannot yet receive it. A translation is of no avail. For this pleasure is felt most immediately and acutely in the moment of association: that is in the reception (or imagination) of a word-form which is felt to have a certain style, and the attribution to it of a meaning which is not received through it.

    ☞ I could only speak, or better write and speak and translate, a long list: adar, alarch, eryr; tân, dwfr, awel, gwynt, niwl, glaw; haul, lloer, sêr; arglwydd, gwas, morwyn, dyn; cadarn, gwan, caled, meddal, garw, llyfn, llym, swrth; glas, melyn, brith and so on — and yet fail to communicate the pleasure. [Tolkien’s footnote: “Each, of course, with immediately following ‘sense'”. I do not know if this means he gave the sense when giving the lecture and merely omitted it from the printed version with its inelastic typeface. Probably. I also don’t know what the grouping by semicolons means, if it is other than Tolkien’s breath-pauses.]

    ☞ But even the more long-winded and bookish words are in the same style, if a little diluted. In Welsh there is not as a rule the discrepancy that there is so often in English between words of this sort and the words of full aesthetic life, the flesh and bone of the language. Welsh annealladwy, dideimladrywdd, amhechadurus, atgyfodiad are far more Welsh, not only as being analysable, but in style, than incomprehensible, insensibility, impeccable, or resurrection are English.

    [I think Tolkien is wrong there; the Latinate words are part of the English ‘style’. Preface. for example, has a long history in English from “The Second Nun’s Tale” (where it means ‘the first part of the prayer of Eucharistic consecration’) to Caxton’s Esop, where it is used in the modern sense, to the present day, whereas the Germanic foreword is a mid-19C etymological nativization of Vorwort, itself a calque of praefatio. But such a persuasion is forgivable in the proponent of the “A-scheme” in the School of English.]

    ☞ If I were pressed to give an example of a feature of this style, not only as an observable feature but as a source of pleasure to myself, I should mention the fondness for nasal consonants, especially the much-favoured n, and the frequency with which word-patterns are made with the soft and less sonorous w and the voiced spirants f and dd contrasted with the nasals: nant, meddiant, afon, llawenydd, cenfigen, gwanwyn, gwenyn, crafanc, to set down a few at random. A very characteristic word is gogoniant ‘glory’: [quotes the Lord’s Prayer in Welsh].


    So, hoping that with these words I may appease the shade of Charles James O’Donnell [who endowed the lecture series which Tolkien is opening] I will end — echoing in rejoinder the envoi of Salesbury’s Preface [to his Welsh-English dictionary, first of its kind]:

    Dysgwn y llon Frythoneg!
    Doeth yw ei dysg, da iaith deg.

    [The original, says Tolkien’s footnote, is “Discwch nes oesswch Saesnec / Doeth yw e dysc da iaith dec”.]

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    the frequency with which word-patterns are made with the soft and less sonorous w and the voiced spirants f and dd contrasted with the nasals

    IIRC Otto Jespersen has something rather similar to say about English, somewhere, again focusing on its supposed euphony, as a sort of via media between German or French on the one hand, and Danish on the other.

    (Not too guttural, not too mushy: just right!)

  36. I just remembered that in one of my favorite short stories, “Honeymoon in Tramore” by Saoi William Trevor, the non-reflexive use of yourself is an key indication that Kitty is getting uncontrollably drunk (although she turns out to be just as dishonest drunk as sober):

    “Did I tell you poor Coddy cried?” she said. “The day I told him I was marrying yourself?”

    While I was searching for the story online, I also came across this rather interesting 2009 essay by Lionel Shriver (a female writer who changed a conventionally male name when she was a teenager). The essay, about the nature of the short story, as opposed to the novel, does rather spoil the plot of the stories it discusses however, including “Honeymoon in Tramore” (and more than I spoiled it in this comment, I mean).

  37. I think you mean “changed to a conventionally male name.”

  38. Yes. Too much re-editing.

  39. John Cowan says

    Jespersen’s rant on the sounds of languages.

    As a teen, I observed the use of X and myself in object position, as in “He asked George and myself to carry the piano” or “The dogs of Alice and myself fought yesterday”: seemingly an unconscious alternative to me vs. I.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    “The business-like, virile qualities of the English language also manifest themselves in such things as word-order.”

    So true. So very true.

  41. I have seen it claimed* that some people will have recourse to a -self pronoun to duck an uncertain choice between subject and object pronoun forms.

    *only as a speculative aside in more general cautions against overuse of -self forms. Linguistic introspection is famously hard; surely it must be harder still to examine the thought processes of speakers other than oneself (which I would dub “extraspection”, but apparently that already means something else).

  42. jack morava says

    @ David Eddyshaw:


Speak Your Mind