Talking Irish-English
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Talking Irish-English

By Richard Nordquist

If you celebrate St. Patrick's Day with plastic pitchers of green beer and rousing choruses of "Danny Boy" (composed by an English lawyer) and "The Unicorn" (by Shel Silverstein), you may be roaring just about anywhere in the world this week--except in Ireland. And if your friends insist on hollering "top o' the mornin'" and "begosh and begorrah," you can be pretty sure they're not Irish.

The English language as spoken in Ireland (a variety known as Hiberno-English or Irish English) has many distinctive features--none of which should be confused with your friends' Celtic clichés or the Hollywood brogues of Tom Cruise (in Far and Away) and Brad Pitt (in The Devil's Own).

As examined by Markku Filppula in The Grammar of Irish English: Language in Hibernian Style (Routledge, 1999), Irish-English grammar "represents a unique combination of elements drawn from the two principal partners in the contact situation, Irish and English." This grammar is characterized as "conservative" because it has held on to certain traits of the Elizabethan English that helped shape it four centuries ago.

Here are just a few of the characteristics of Irish-English grammar:

Like Scottish English, Irish English has unmarked plurality in nouns indicating time and measure--"two mile," for instance, and "five year."

Irish English makes an explicit distinction between singular you/ye and plural youse (also found in other varieties): "So I said to our Jill and Mary: 'Youse wash the dishes.'"

Another characteristic of Irish English is nominalization, giving a word or phrase a noun-like status that it doesn't generally have, as in "If I had the doing of it again, I'd do it different."

A direct borrowing from the traditional Irish language (also known as Irish Gaelic or Gaeilge) is the use of after in noun phrases such as "I'm only after my dinner."

Like Scottish English, Irish English often uses progressive forms of stative verbs ("I was knowing your face").

Another salient feature is the use of sentence tags initiated by so, as in "It's raining, so it is."
(adapted from World Englishes: An Introduction, by Gunnel Melchers and Philip Shaw. Oxford University Press, 2003)

That's just a small sample of the many distinctive features of Irish-English grammar. Discussion of its rich vocabulary (or lexicon) and patterns of pronunciation (phonology) will have to wait until next year's St. Patrick's Day.

Until then, if you're interested in learning about Gaeilge (the historical language of the Irish people, now spoken by only a small minority of the population), visit Michelle Gallen's website, Talk Irish. Marking its first anniversary this week, the award-winning site provides a social network for teachers, speakers and learners of traditional Irish.

Slán go fóill. Goodbye for now.



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