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  Dublin English

History of Irish English
Documentation of Irish English
Hypercorrection and malapropisms
Irish English accents in history
Changes in the history of Irish English
Changes from the nineteenth into the twentieth century
Early twentieth-century Dublin English
English dialect and/or archaic features
Irish English in Newfoundland


Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland, located on a bay on the centre of the east coast of the country. The city can trace its origin at least back to the Viking settlement there (before 1000 AD). The name is an Anglicisation of Irish Dubh Linn, ‘black pool’. There is a second name Baile Átha Cliath ‘town at the fortified ford’ which is used in Irish rather than Dubh Linn.

The present-day city has a population of over one million, including outlying towns which have been incorporated into the metropolitan area. About one third of the population of the Republic of Ireland lives in Dublin or its immediate environs.


Dublin is by far the largest city in Ireland. Among the remaining cities Cork (in the Republic of Ireland) as well as Belfast and Derry (both in Northern Ireland) rank next in terms of size with Cork about 120,000, Derry over 100,000 and Belfast (the capital of Northern Ireland) about 400,000. The remaining cities of the Republic of Ireland, which are all under 100,000, are Waterford, Limerick and Galway (in clockwise direction starting from the South-East). Other smaller cities or towns are regional centres, e.g. Kilkenny in the inland South-East, Sligo in the lower North-West


Dublin is divided into two basic halves, the North Side and the South Side. The dividing line is the Liffey in its horizontal course through the centre of the city before it enters the middle of Dublin Bay. Many of the speakers recorded by the author over the past two decades identified themselves as from the north or the south. Beyond that, speakers identified themselves according to the part of Dublin (district of the city or suburb in the greater Dublin area) they came from.

View down the Liffey looking eastwards through the centre of Dublin towards Dublin Bay. In this picture the north side is on the left of the river and the south side is on the right.

The North Side proper is away from the northern side of Dublin Bay. The latter area contains some suburbs, such as Clontarf, Sutton and above all Howth, which are quite affluent and do not generally show the local accents found further inland on the North Side, e.g. in Coolock, Santry or Ballymun.

The South Side stretches down quite far along the southern shore of Dublin Bay and beyond. The suburbs found here, such as Mount Merrion, Deansgrange, Foxrock, Monkstown, and further down to Dalkey and Killiney, are the most affluent parts of greater Dublin.

The postal districts indicated in the map below are important too: Dubliners know the postal code of the area they live. Certain postal districts are prestigious and others are not. In particular one should mention postal district 4 which is used as a reference to an affluent part of south Dublin – either as ‘Dublin 4’ or just ‘D4’. These labels, especially the second one, have been and are sometimes still used to refer to someone’s accent (see second map below).


The next map shows the localities (city districts and suburbs) for which the author has multiple recordings, firstly for a number of articles on Dublin English, then for the book Dublin English. Evolution and Change (Hickey 2005) and after that for a number of follow-up studies of ongoing change in the city.


Ireland is divided into four provinces of roughly equal size, Leinster, Munster, Connaught and Ulster (from the east in clockwise direction). Each province consists of a number of counties, 32 in all. The Republic of Ireland consists of 26 counties, the remaining six form the state of Northern Ireland (a part of the United Kingdom). The northern province of Ulster actually consists of nine counties, three of which are within the Republic (Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan). All the main cities of Ireland are located at the estuaries of rivers. In general, the cities were either established or properly developed during the Viking period (the 9th and 10th centuries) as the English names often show, Waterford, Wexford, etc. The Republic of Ireland shows a strong concentration of population in the centre of the east coast in the Dublin metropolitan area.

Topographically the most significant feature of Ireland is the generally hilly and mountainous rim of the island. The centre of the country is largely flat, particularly on the banks of the Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles, which rises in the north and flows in a southerly direction entering the sea beyond Limerick. The most important urban settlement on the Shannon is Athlone. Ireland is poor in mineral deposits but rich in soil which made it traditionally a largely agricultural country. The quality of the land is best in the east and south, the west of the country has suffered from natural erosion and overpopulation, particularly in the 18th and the early 19th century. Apart from agriculture, most of the Irish are employed in service industries, many of which have arisen during the past two decades with increased economic growth. Ireland has a temperate climate, with mild winters and cool summers. There is considerable rainfall throughout the entire year which results in rich vegetation, the abundance of natural growth is responsible for the traditional label for Ireland, the Emerald Isle.

Historical map of four Irish towns (from top left in clockwise direction: Galway, Dublin, Cork and Limerick)

History of Dublin English

First period:      Late 12th century to approximately 1600
Second period:  1600 to the present-day

The English language in Dublin has been spoken since the late 12th century when the first settlers came up from the south-east where they had landed around 1169. Subsequently the Pale was established, an area around Dublin and stretching down to the south-east corner of Ireland. Beyond this region the native Irish were in the majority along with the Normans lords who settled in fortified castles in the country. The propaganda view of the Irish was as a barbarous people, hence the phrase ‘beyond the pale’ which refers to the ‘uncivilised’ area outside the medieval east coast of Ireland.

The status of English was initially low, with Anglo-Norman the dominant language of the newcomers to Ireland. There are some documents in English in the following centuries, such as city records which contain features which point towards some still found in local Dublin English to this day, e.g. the breaking of long /u:/ in a word like school, pronounced something like ‘skewel’. For information about the earliest forms of Dublin English, see the following item.

Hickey, Raymond 2002. ‘Dublin and Middle English’, in: Peter J. and Angela M. Lucas (eds) Middle English. From tongue to text. Selected papers from the Third International Conference on Middle English: Language and Text held at Dublin, Ireland, 1-4 July 1999. Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, pp.187-200.

The first few centuries form the first period which lasted from 1169 to around 1600 and which in its closing phase was characterised by considerable Gaelicisation outside the capital and within. Despite this resurgence of native culture and language, English never died out in the capital and there are some features of colloquial Dublin English which can be traced to the first period.

The 17th century in Ireland marks the beginning of the second period and is characterised chiefly by the re-introduction of English on a large-scale. This happened in the north of the country with a steady influx of immigrants from the Scottish Lowlands who were to form the base of the later Ulster Protestant community. In the south, many new English settlers came as a result of plantations and land confiscations under Oliver Cromwell in the mid 17th century.

Documentation of Irish English

The records of Dublin English are slight and before 1600 they consist mainly of municipal records which here and there betray the kind of English which must have been spoken in the city. For an historical background to present-day speech one must look to the elocutioner Thomas Sheridan (the father of the playwright) who in 1781 published A Rhetorical Grammar of the English Language with an appendix in which he commented on the English used by middle class Dubliners, the ‘gentlemen of Ireland’ in his words, which he regarded as worthy of censure on his part.


Sheridan’s remarks are a valuable source of information on what Dublin English was like two centuries ago. Among the features he listed are the following (the phonetic values have been ascertained with reasonable certainty by interpreting his own system of transcription which is decipherable and fairly consistent).

1) Middle English /ɛ:/ was not raised to /i:/. The pronunciation [ɛ:] can still be heard in Dublin in words like tea, leave, please. Of these, the first is still found as a caricature of a by-gone Irish pronunciation of English. Hogan (1927: 65) noted in his day that the non-raised vowel was rapidly receding. Today it is somewhat artificial; the pronunciation is also found in the north of the country, where equally it is a retention of an earlier value.
2) A pronunciation of English /ai/ from Middle English /i:/ as [ei] is found, though it is uncertain whether Sheridan means this or perhaps [əi] which would tally better with what is known from present-day Dublin English.

When discussing consonants Sheridan remarks on ‘the thickening (of) the sounds of d and t in certain situations’. Here he could be referring to the realisation of dental fricatives as alveolar plosives as found in colloquial forms today. There is no hint in Sheridan of anything like a distinction between dental and alveolar plosive realisations, which is an essential marker of local versus non-local speech today.

Realisations of coronal stops in present-day Dublin English

N.B. The THINK and TWO lexical sets have stop realisations in Irish English. In local Dublin English, and in other vernaculars on the east coast and else in the Republic of Ireland (è recording of local speaker from Co. Kerry), these stops are alveolar and so merge with alveolar stops of the TWO and DIP lexical sets. This means that word pairs like thin and tin or thinker and tinker are not distinguished. In all mainstream varieties of Irish English there is a distinction between dental and alveolar stops. In general Irish people are very sensitive to this small articulatory difference and there is stigma attached to the collapse of distinction.

Hypercorrection and malapropisms


Hypercorrection is a phenomenon where speakers of one variety try to imitate another. Generally, the one they are imitating or aspiring to is the standard of the language in question, here English. In Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries there were many features which differed between the standard and local forms of English. Those speakers of the latter often overshot the mark when trying to speak the standard. Take for instance, the widespread use of /e:/ for /i:/ is words like MEAT in Irish English. This led to those people who had this pronunciation producing words like GREAT and BEAR with /i:/, i.e. as if they were written GREET and BEER respectively. Gradually, these pronunciations disappeared as speakers had more exposure to standard English because of education. Later, they acquired the standard pronunciation to begin with and hypercorrection waned away.


A prominent feature of the language acquired by the colonised – in this case the Irish – is that they do not always master the standard. Just as they may have difficulties with a difference in pronunciation – consider the hypercorrection just discussed – so they may have difficulties with words which they do not quite grasp and which they use with the right meaning but a sound form which is close but not quite the same one would expect in the standard.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the figure of Mrs Malaprop – from whom the term ‘malapropism’ stems – comes from a play written by an Irishman, namely The Rivals (1770) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the son of Thomas Sheridan (see above).

But the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow-to illiterate [obliterate – RH] him, I say, quite from your memory.
... and I hope you will represent her to the captain as an object not altogether illegible [ineligible – RH].
I am sure I have done everything in my power since I exploded [explored – RH ] the affair.
Sure, if I reprehend [ apprehend – RH ] any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue.

Irish English accents in history

References in history to Irish accents do not distinguish between the urban and rural areas. But the terms used are clearly associated with a specifically Irish, i.e. non-English, type of accent which can be assumed to have been most widely found in rural areas.

The term ‘brogue’

John Skelton (?1460-1529)

The term ‘brogue’ was already used in the 17th century and became clearly established in the 18th century (used by Swift, for instance, in his ‘On barbarous denominations in Ireland’). The first mention of the term ‘brogue’ would appear to be by John Skelton (?1460-1529) in Speke, Parrot (?1521) in which a parrot imitates various languages and dialects, including that of Ireland.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

‘Brogue’, meaning an Irish accent of English, may come from the Irish word for ‘shoe’ – bróg – or it maybe from the word barróg (teangan) meaning ‘knot in the tongue’.

The use of ‘brogue’ as a reference to a non-standard accent became common in later centuries among British commentators on the Irish use of English as the following remarks by Benjamin Smart in the early 19th century show.

Hints for softening a Hibernian Brogue

The first point our Western friend must attend to for this purpose is, to avoid hurling out his words with a superfluous quantity of breath. It is not ‘broadher’ and ‘loudher’ that he must say, but the ‘d’ and every other consonant in the language must be neatly delivered by the tongue, with as little riot, cluttering, or breathing as possible. (Smart 1836: xli)

Smart, Benjamin H. 1836. Walker Remodelled. A New Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language. London: T. Cadell.

Changes in the history of Irish English

Changes from the nineteenth into the twentieth century

English in early twentieth-century Dublin

For English as spoken in Ireland there are audio recordings going back to the early twentieth century. The earliest recordings are generally of prominent figures in Irish society and in some cases, where enough is known about their biographies, one can be reasonably certain that their use of English was typical of the social group they belonged to. Following on these recordings there are more which appear with the widespread use of radio and television in Ireland. The range of individuals for whom recordings are available became increasingly wider in the second half of the twentieth century.
One of the main questions to be examined is whether individuals born before Ireland became independent in 1922 show accents closer to British English than later Irish English. This is partially true: older persons show an open vowel inthe STRUT lexical class and are frequently non-rhotic. This is true of James Joyce and Patrick Kavanagh (two Irish authors), for example. But such individuals also have a monophthong in the GOAT lexical class, no sign of GOOSE fronting, no BATH retraction and dental stops in the THIN and THIS lexical classes. In sum, people born at the end of the nineteenth or into the early twentieth century show combinations of features which are not found anymore. It would seem that after independence supraregional accents of Irish English, deriving from middle-class Dublin usage, developed in which a retracted and slightly rounded STRUT along with complete rhoticity were, and still are, typical.

Hickey, Raymond 2016.‘Early recordings of Irish English’, in: Raymond Hickey (ed.) Listening to the Past. Audio Records of Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 199-231.

English dialect and/or archaic features in Dublin English

Irish English in Newfoundland

In the constellation of overseas varieties, forms of English in Newfoundland represent a unique situation. These derive from two clear sources, English in the south-east of Ireland and English in the south-west of England, leading to two specific varieties of English in Newfoundland.

Until well into the 20th century English in Newfoundland was largely isolated from other forms of English in North America. Furthermore, during their genesis both varieties were reinforced due to repeated contact between the Old and New World populations as a consequence of seasonal migration for fishing.

Only in the 18th century did settlers from Britain and Ireland begin to remain on the island for the entire year (yielding residents). Immigration to Newfoundland from south-west England and south-east Ireland continued up to the 1830s. Because nearly all the Irish immigrants to Newfoundland came from within a thirty-mile radius of the city of Waterford (within a day’s walking distance) there were speakers of an east coast dialect and hence of an especially old form of Irish English with its roots in the First Period, i.e. before 1600 (see discussion in Hickey 2002; Hickey 2001 discusses the dialect of source region for Newfoundland Irish English, i.e. South-East Ireland).

  Newfoundland Irish English (conservative rural speaker of Irish background) — 1
  Newfoundland Irish English (conservative rural speaker of Irish background) — 2

The value of Newfoundland Irish English for the history of Dublin English is that confirms that the following features were found in east coast dialects of Irish English in the eighteenth-century (including Dublin English) given that it is valid to assume that those features of conservative rural Newfoundland Irish English today are continuations of the same features in the speech of immigrants to Newfoundland in the 18th and early 19th century.

Features of conservative rural Newfoundland Irish English (audible in the above sound files)

1) Alveolar stop realisation of TH and DH, e.g. there [de:r].

2) Very open realisation of back vowels, e.g. morning [mɒ:rnɪn], clock [klɒk].

3) Centralised onset for AI-diphthong before voiceless obstruents, e.g. night [nəɪt], but not to the same extent before voiced ones, e.g. five [fɐɪv].

4) Alveolar realisation of syllable-final /l/, e.g. all [ɒ:l].


Bennett, Douglas 1991. Encyclopaedia of Dublin. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Bennett, Douglas 1994. A Dublin Anthology. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Boran, Pat 2000. A Short History of Dublin. Cork: Mercier.

Brady, Joseph and Anngret Simms (eds.) 2001. Dublin Through Space and Time (c. 900-1900). Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Clarke, Howard, Sarah Dent and Ruth Johnson 2002. Dublinia. The Story of Medieval Dublin. Dublin: The O’Brien Press.

Craig, Maurice 1969. Dublin 1660-1860. A Social and Architectural History. Dublin: Allen Figgis.

Dickson, David 2014. Dublin: The Making of a Capital City. London: Profile Books.

Hickey, Raymond 2001. ‘The South-East of Ireland. A neglected region of dialect study’, in: John Kirk and Dónall Ó Baoill (eds) Language Links: the Languages of Scotland and Ireland. Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics, 2. Belfast: Queen’s University, pp. 1-22.

Hickey, Raymond 2002. ‘The Atlantic edge. The relationship between Irish English and Newfoundland English’, English World-Wide 23.2: 281-314.

Hogan, James Jeremiah 1927. The English language in Ireland. Dublin: Educational Company of Ireland.

Joyce, Patrick Weston. 1910. English as we speak it in Ireland. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Kelleher, T. 1972. The Essential Dublin. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

McCormack, John 2000. A Story of Dublin. The People and Events that Shaped the City. Dublin: Mentor.

Moore, Desmond F. 1965. Dublin. Dublin: Three Candles.

Ossory-Fitzpatrick, S. 1977. Dublin, a Historical and Topographical Account of the City. Cork: Tower Books.

Sheridan, Thomas 1781. A Rhetorical Grammar of the English Language, calculated solely for the purpose of teaching propriety of pronunciation and justness of delivery, in that tongue. Dublin: Price.