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   Derry English

Derry English
Map of Derry city centre
Map of Derry hinterland

  Derry accent, young male


The city of Derry has a population of over 100,000 and is ethnically over 70% Catholic as opposed to Belfast which has a majority Protestant population. There is a large degree of segregation in terms of residence for the two communities: east of the River Foyle, which divides the city, are found Protestants and west of the river is almost exclusively Catholic. The segregation increased after sectarian violence flared up in the late 1960s and applies to all spheres of life: occupation and leisure time activities apart from place of residence.

What’s in a name? The city of Derry is called ‘Londonderry’ by the Protestant community in Northern Ireland and by most British people (this goes back to the renaming of the city by the English in the early 17th century). The Catholic community in the north and everyone in the south uses the shorter and older form ‘Derry’ (from Irish Doire meaning ‘oakgrove’). The long form of the name dates from the early 17th century. James I (1603-1625) of England encouraged merchants from London to participate in the English settlement of the city and the Irish Society was set up by 12 London-based companies. The city was then renamed ‘Londonderry’ to reflect the engagement of these companies. When people do not want to divulge their allegiances by using one form of the name or the other, they resort to the label ‘Stroke City’ (a common strategy during the troubles from the 1970s to the 1990s).

Derry English

The only research on the English of Derry city is that of McCafferty (1999, 2000), apart from one study of intonation in Derry (McElholm 1986). The city has a special status within Northern Ireland as it is on the one hand the second largest and on the other the only major city with a Catholic majority. It is understandable that it would receive innovations which arise in Belfast but also that the Catholic majority in the city might well show an inherent resistance to these. A number of changes are recorded for Derry which are listed in the following.


Quantitatively, change in Derry English is not as significant as in Dublin. Nonetheless, it is interesting in the context of Ireland as a whole to consider the motivation for the changes which have been registered. Given the inverse proportion of ethnic communities in Derry compared to the rest of Northern Ireland, McCafferty maintains that the relationship of ethnicity to change would appear to be relevant. McCafferty (1999) points to the tendency for the SQUARE and NURSE lexical sets to merge, a feature spreading from the east of Northern Ireland and typical of the Protestant middle class. For this group a lack of quality distinction with the NORTH and FORCE lexical set is also found. The shift of older [ɪ] to [iə] in the FACE class is taken to be characteristic of younger Protestants. Protestant changes are in general incoming innovations which are spreading from eastern Northern Ireland, i.e. from the Belfast conurbation.

The only leading change among the Catholics in Derry is the shift of intervocalic [ð] to a lateral [l] (a change which is clearly attested in the recordings for A Sound Atlas of Irish English, Hickey 2004). The Protestants in Derry have no vernacular innovations of their own.





Hickey, Raymond 2004. A sound atlas of Irish English. Topics in English Linguistics 48. Berlin/NewYork: Mouton de Gruyter.

Kirkwood, Harry (ed.) 1986. Studies in Intonation. Occasional Papers in Linguistics and Language Learning. Coleraine: New University of Ulster.

McCafferty, Kevin. 1998a. “Shared accents, divided speech community? Change in Northern Ireland English”, Language Variation and Change 10: 97-121.

McCafferty, Kevin. 1998b. “Barriers to change: Ethnic division and phonological innovation in Northern Hiberno-English”, English World-Wide 19: 7-35.

McCafferty, Kevin 1999. ‘Derry/Londonderry English’, in Foulkes and Docherty (eds), 246-64.

McCafferty, Kevin 2000. Ethnicity and language change. English in (London)Derry, Northern Ireland. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

McElholm, Dermot D. 1986. ‘Intonation in Derry English’, in Kirkwood (ed.), pp. 1-58.