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  The phonology of Irish English

Lexical sets
Possible sources


The phonology of Irish English is an abstraction derived from many different varieties in Ireland which share features but which are nonetheless distinct from each other. It is beyond the scope of this website to deal with the differences in any great detail, so the ‘grand picture’ will be dealt with here. This does have the advantage of allowing readers to see the wood for the trees. Should anyone be interested in looking more closely at the pronunciation of varieties of Irish English then the best starting point is the author’s A Sound Atlas of Irish English which contains over 1,500 recordings of speakers from the whole of Ireland (north and south), from different age groups and both genders, from cities and the countryside, etc.

In order to deal with the phonology of Irish English a modification of the lexical set system originally devised by John Wells, and presented in Wells (1982), was undertaken. There follow tables in which the realisations of these lexical sets in five representative varieties of Irish English (vowels and consonants) are offered. Finally, a table is shown in which the probable sources of non-standard features of pronunciation are listed.

Lexical sets

A lexical set consists of a group of words all of which have the same pronunciation for a certain sound in a given variety. For instance, the lexical set TRAP is used to refer to the pronunciation which speakers of a variety have for the sound which is /æ/ in RP. So if speakers use [a] or [ɑ] in TRAP it is taken that they will use [a] or [ɑ] in all other words which contain this vowel, e.g. bad, latter, shall, that is in the words which comprise the lexical set. The advantage of this is that instead of saying ‘the realisation of the /æ/ vowel in variety X’ – which phonetically can be quite far removed from [æ] – one can refer to the vowel in the lexical set TRAP.

The following tables also indicate the type of pronunciation which can be expected in supraregional forms of Irish English. For non-local northern varieties a few adjustments would have to be made, e.g. rendering the GOOSE vowel as /gʉ:s/ and the MOUTH vowel as /maʉð/.

Note that the following vocalic and consonantal lexical sets are based on conservative mainstream pronunciations prior to the new pronunciation which arose in the 1990s. The validity of choosing these values as a point of departure could be questioned now (2011) given that the new pronunciation has become the supraregional form of Irish English for all young, non-vernacular speakers throughout the Republic of Ireland.

Vocalic lexical sets for Irish English

Consonantal lexical sets for Irish English

Lexical set realisations in five main varieties of Irish English (vowels)

These transcriptions are based on data collected by the author prior to 2003.

Lexical set realisations in five main varieties of Irish English (consonants)

These transcriptions are based on data collected by the author prior to 2003.

Possible sources



The following is a list of studies on the phonology of Irish English. For further references and annotations of those contained here, please consult Raymond Hickey 2002. A Source Book for Irish English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. There is also an update for this source book on the Irish English Resource Centre website.

Adams, George Brendan. 1956. ‘Phonology of the Antrim dialect. I. Historical introduction with special reference to the problem of vowel length’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C 57: 69-152.

Adams, George Brendan. 1948. ‘Introduction to the study of Ulster dialects’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C 52: 1-26.

Adams, George Brendan. 1950. ‘Phonological notes on the English of South Donegal’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C 53: 299-310.

Adams, George Brendan. 1964. ‘A register of phonological research on Ulster dialects’, In Adams (ed.), 193-201.

Adams, George Brendan. 1965. ‘The Ulster advanced /ü/ phoneme’, Ulster Dialect Archive Bulletin 3: 3-28.

Adams, George Brendan. 1966. ‘Phonemic systems in collision in Ulster English’, In Pop (ed.), 1-6.

Adams, George Brendan. 1966. ‘A note on the /ü/ and /ö/ phonemes in central and north Armagh’, Ulster Dialect Archive Bulletin 5: 20-3.

Adams, George Brendan. 1977. ‘The dialects of Ulster’, In Ó Muirithe (ed.), 56-70.

Adams, George Brendan. 1981. ‘The voiceless velar fricative in Northern Hiberno-English’, In Barry (ed.), 106-17.

Adams, George Brendan. 1981. ‘Towards a description of regional standard pronunciation of English in Ulster’, NISLF Journal 7: 70-7.

Adams, George Brendan and H. J. Tipping 1966. ‘On tracing a phonological isogloss in Central Armagh’, Ulster Dialect Archive Bulletin 5: 11-9.

Auer, Peter, F. Hinskens and Paul E. Kerswill (eds) 2005. Dialect Change: The Convergence and Divergence of Dialects in Contemporary Societies. Cambridge: University Press.

Ball, Martin J. and Joan Rahilly 1996. ‘Spectrographic analysis of /ʉ/ in Northern Irish English’, In Henry, Ball and McAliskey (eds), 1-18.

Barry, Michael V. 1981. ‘The southern boundaries of Northern Hiberno-English speech’, In Barry (ed.), 52-95.

Bliss, Alan J. 1972. ‘Languages in contact. Some problems of Hiberno-English’, Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C 72: 63-82.

Connolly, Linde. 1982. ‘Spoken English in Ulster in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Ulster Folklife 28: 33-9.

Cowie, Roddy et al. 1984. ‘Northern Irish listeners assessments of accents’, Northern Ireland Speech and Language Forum 10: 77-88.

Douglas-Cowie, Ellen, Joan Rahilly and Roddy Cowie 1995. ‘The social distribution of intonation patterns in Belfast’, In Windsor-Lewis (ed.), 180-6.

Gregg, Robert J. 1964. ‘Scotch-Irish urban speech in Ulster’, In Adams (ed.), 163-92.

Gregg, Robert J. 1972. ‘The Scotch-Irish dialect boundaries in Ulster’, In Wakelin (ed.), 109-39.

Gregg, Robert J. 1973. ‘The diphthongs əi and ɑi in Scottish, Scotch-Irish and Canadian English’, Canadian Journal of Linguistics 18: 136-45.

Gregg, Robert J. 1985. The Scotch-Irish dialect boundary in the province of Ulster. Ottawa: Canadian Federation for the Humanities.

Harris, John. 1985. Phonological variation and change. Studies in Hiberno-English. Cambridge: University Press.

Harris, John. 1987. ‘A hierarchical model of length variation in vowels’, In Dressler et al. (eds), 54-9.

Harris, John. 1989. ‘Derived phonological contrasts’, In Ramsaran (ed.), 87-105.

Harris, John. 1989. ‘Towards a lexical analysis of sound change in progress’, Journal of Linguistics 25: 35-56.

Harris, John. 1990. ‘Segmental complexity and phonological government’, Phonology 7: 255-300.

Harris, John. 1990. ‘More on brogues and creoles. What’s been happening to English short ‘u’?’, In Dolan (ed.), 73-90.

Harris, John. 1996. ‘On the trail of short ‘u’’, English World-Wide 17,1: 1-42.

Harris, John. 1997. ‘Phonological systems in collision in the north of Ireland’, In Tristram (ed.), 201-24.

Henry, Patrick Leo. 1957. An Anglo-Irish dialect of North Roscommon. Phonology, accidence, syntax. Dublin: Department of English, University College.

Hickey, Raymond. 1984. ‘Coronal segments in Irish English’, Journal of Linguistics 20: 233-51.

Hickey, Raymond. 1984. ‘Syllable onsets in Irish English’, Word 35: 67-74.

Hickey, Raymond. 1984. ‘Phonotactically conditioned alternation: Instances from Old High German and Irish English’, Linguistics 22: 673-86.

Hickey, Raymond. 1985. ‘Kontinuität und Erneuerung im Vokalsystem des irischen Englischen’; (‘Continuity and innovation in the vowel system of Irish English’), Zeitschrift für Dialektologie und Linguistik 52: 324-40.

Hickey, Raymond. 1986. ‘Possible phonological parallels between Irish and Irish English’, English World Wide 7: 1-21.

Hickey, Raymond. 1986. ‘Length and frontness with low vowels in Irish English’, Studia Linguistica 39: 143-56.

Hickey, Raymond. 1989. ‘R-coloured vowels in Irish English’, Journal of the International Phonetic Association 19: 44-58.

Hickey, Raymond. 1990. ‘Suprasegmental transfer. On prosodic traces of Irish in Irish English’, In Fisiak (ed.), 219-29.

Hickey, Raymond. 1996. ‘The acquisition of Irish English phonology’, In Dow and Wolff (eds), 171-87.

Hickey, Raymond. 1996. ‘Lenition in Irish English’, In Henry, Ball and McAliskey (eds), 173-93.

Hickey, Raymond. 1996. ‘Identifying dialect speakers: The case of Irish English’, In Kniffka (ed.), 217-37

Hickey, Raymond. 1998. ‘The Dublin vowel shift and the historical perspective’, In Fisiak and Krygier (eds), 79-106.

Hickey, Raymond. 1999. ‘Dublin English: Current changes and their motivation’, In Foulkes and Docherty (eds), 265-81.

Hickey, Raymond. 1999. ‘Ireland as a linguistic area’, Mallory (ed.), 36-53.

Hickey, Raymond. 2001. ‘The South-East of Ireland. A neglected region of dialect study’, In Kirk and Ó Baoill (eds), 1-22.

Hickey, Raymond. 2002. ‘Historical input and the regional differentiation of English in the Republic of Ireland’, In Lenz and Möhlig (eds), 199-211.

Hickey, Raymond. 2004a. A Sound Atlas of Irish English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hickey, Raymond. 2004b. ‘The phonology of Irish English’, in Kortmann et al. (ed.), pp. 68-97.

Jarman, Eric and Alan Cruttenden. 1976. ‘Belfast intonation and the myth of the fall’, Journal of the International Phonetics Association 6: 4-12.

Kallen, Jeffrey L. 2005. ‘Internal and external factors in phonological convergence: the case of English /t/ lenition’, in Peter Auer, Frans Hinskens and Paul Kerswill (eds) Dialect change: the convergence and divergence of dialects in contemporary societies (Cambridge: University Press), pp. 51-80.

Kingsmore, Rona. 1983. Coleraine speech: Phonology and sociolinguistics. Coleraine: New University of Ulster.

Kingsmore, Rona. 1995. Ulster Scots speech. A sociolinguistic study. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Kortmann, Bernd, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton 2004. A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lucas, Leslie. 1981. ‘The influence of Irish on English in Ros Goill’, Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 38: 232-7.

MacEnrí, Fidelis. 1975. ‘An Irish English vowel system’, Paper read at the 8th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences.

Maclaran, Rose. 1976. ‘The variable (ʌ): A relic form with social correlates’, Belfast Working Papers in Language and Linguistics 1: 45-68.

McCafferty, Kevin. 1997. Open minds, barricaded tongues. A study of ethnicity and language change in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. PhD thesis. University of Tromsø.

McCafferty, Kevin. 1998. ‘Barriers to change. Ethnic division and phonological innovation in Northern Hiberno-English’, English World Wide 19,1: 7-35.

McCafferty, Kevin. 1998. ‘Shared accents, divided speech community? Change in Northern Ireland’, Language Variation and Change, 10/2: 97-121.

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.), 1-58.

Milroy, James. 1981. Regional accents of English: Belfast. Belfast: Blackstaff.

Milroy, James. 1982. ‘Some connections between Galloway and Ulster speech’, Scottish Language 1: 23-9.

Milroy, James. 1992. Linguistic variation and change. On the historical sociolinguistics of English. Language in Society 19. Oxford: Blackwell.

Milroy, James. 1993. ‘Some new perspectives on sound change: Sociolinguistics and the neogrammarians’, Newcastle and Durham Working Papers in Linguistics 1: 181-205.

Milroy, James and John Harris 1980. ‘When is a merger not a merger? The meat/mate problem in Belfast vernacular’, English World-Wide 1: 199-210.

Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy. 1978. ‘Belfast: Change and variation in an urban vernacular’, In Trudgill (ed.), 19-36.

Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy 1985. ‘Linguistic change, social network and speaker innovation’, Journal of Linguistics 21: 339-84.

Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy 1990. ‘Language in society: Sociolinguistics’, In N. E. Collinge (ed.) An encyclopedia of language (London: Routledge), 485-517.

Milroy, Lesley. 1976. ‘Phonological correlates to community structure in Belfast’, Belfast Working Papers in Language and Linguistics 1: 1-44.

Milroy, Lesley. 1981. ‘The effect of two interacting extralinguistic variables on urban vernacular speech’, In Sankoff and Cedergren (eds), 161-8.

Milroy, Lesley. 1982. ‘Social network and linguistic focusing’, In Romaine (ed.), 141-52.

Milroy, Lesley. 1987 [1980]. Language and social networks. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Milroy, Lesley and P. McClenaghan. 1977. ‘Stereotyped reactions to four educated accents in Ulster’, Belfast Working Papers in Language and Linguistics 2,4: 1-11.

Ní Chasaide, Ailbhe. 1979. ‘Laterals in Gaoth-Dobhair Irish and Hiberno-English’, In Ó Baoill (ed.), 54-78.

Ó Baoill, Dónall. 1990. ‘Language contact in Ireland: The Irish phonological substratum in Irish English’, In Edmondson, Feagin and Mühlhäusler (eds), 147-72.

Ó Baoill, Dónall. 1991. ‘Contact phenomena in the phonology of Irish and English in Ireland’, In Ureland and Broderick (eds), 581-95.

Ó Baoill, Dónall. 1997. ‘The emerging Irish phonological substratum in Irish English’, In Kallen (ed.), 73-88.

O’Halpin, Rosemary. 1994. ‘Nuclear prominence in Hiberno-English: A preliminary investigation’, Teanga 14: 1-14.

O’Prey, Harry. 1976. ‘Long versus short /e/ in the area of Newry: A sonographic approach’, Northern Ireland Speech and Language Forum Journal 2: 38-48.

Ó Sé, Diarmuid. 1986. ‘Word-stress in Hiberno-English’, In Harris et al. (eds), 97-110.

Ó hÚrdail, Roibeárd. 1997. ‘Confusion of dentality and alveolarity in dialects of Hiberno-English’, In Kallen (ed.), 133-52.

Pandeli, Helen, Joseph F. Eska, Martin J. Ball and Joan Rahilly. 1998. ‘Problems of phonetic transcription: The case of the Hiberno-English slit-t’, Journal of the International Phonetic Association 27: 65-75.

Pitts, Ann H. 1985. ‘Urban influence on phonological variation in a Northern Irish speech community’, English World-Wide 6: 59-85.

Pitts, Ann H. 1986. ‘Differing prestige values for the (ky) variable in Lurgan’, In Harris et al. (eds), 209-21.

Rahilly, Joan. 1997. ‘Aspects of prosody in Hiberno-English: The case of Belfast’, In Kallen (ed.), 109-32.

Sangster, Catherine M. 2001. ‘Lenition of alveolar stops in Liverpool English’, Journal of Sociolinguistics 5:3, 401-12.

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.

Todd, Loreto. 1984. ‘By their tongue divided: Towards an analysis of speech communities in Northern Ireland’, English World-Wide 5: 159-80.

Collections containing some of the above articles

Adams, George Brendan (ed.) 1964. Ulster dialects. An introductory symposium. Holywood, Co. Down: Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Barry, Michael V. (ed.) 1981. Aspects of English dialects in Ireland, Vol 1. Papers arising from the Tape-Recorded Survey of Hiberno-English Speech. Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies.

Dolan, Terence P. (ed.) 1990. The English of the Irish. Irish University Review, 20:1 Dublin: n.p.

Dressler, Wolfgang et al. (eds) 1987. Phonologica 1984. Proceedings of the Fifth International Phonology Meeting. Cambridge: University Press.

Edmondson, Jerold A., Crawford Feagin and Peter Mühlhäusler (eds) 1990. Development and diversity. Linguistic variation across time and space. A festschrift for Charles-James N. Bailey. Publications in Linguistics, Vol. 93. University of Texas at Arlington: The Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Fisiak, Jacek and Marcin Krygier (eds) 1998. English Historical Linguistics 1996. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Foulkes, Paul and Gerry Docherty (eds) 1999. Urban voices. London: Edward Arnold.

Harris, John, David Little and David Singleton (eds) 1986. Perspectives on the English language in Ireland. Proceedings of the first symposium on Hiberno-English, Dublin 1985. Dublin: Centre for Language and Communication Studies, Trinity College.

Henry, Alison, Martin Ball and Margaret MacAliskey (eds) 1996. Papers from the International Conference on Language in Ireland. Belfast Working Papers in Language and Linguistics Belfast: University of Ulster.

Kallen, Jeffrey L. (ed.) 1997. Focus on Ireland. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kirk, John M. and Dónall P. Ó Baoill (eds) 2001. Language links. The languages of Scotland and Ireland. Belfast: Queen´s University Press. Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics, 2.

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

Kniffka, Hannes (ed.) 1996. Proceedings from the Third International Conference on Forensic Linguistics. Frankfurt: Lang.

Lenz, Katja and Ruth Möhlig (eds) Of dyuersitie & chaunge of langage. Essays presented to for Manfred Görlach on the occasion of his 65th birthday. Heidelberg: Winter.

Lewis, J. Windsor (ed.) 1995. Studies in general and English phonetics in honour of J. D. O’Connor. London: Routledge.

Ó Baoill, Dónall (ed.) 1985. Papers on Irish English. Dublin: Irish Association of Applied Linguistics.

Ó Muirithe, Diarmuid (ed.) 1977. The English language in Ireland. Cork: Mercier.

Pop, S. (ed.) 1966. Verhandlungen des zweiten Dialektologenkongresses, Marburg 1965. Zeitschrift für Mundartforschung, neue Folge, Beiheft Nr.3 Wiesbaden: Steiner.

Ramsaran, Susan (ed.) 1989. Studies in the pronunciation of English. A commemorative volume in honour of A. C. Gimson. London: Routledge.

Romaine, Suzanne (ed.) 1982. Sociolinguistic variation in speech communities. London: Edward Arnold.

Sankoff, David and H. Cedergren (eds) 1981. Variation omnibus. Edmonton: Linguistic Research Inc.

Tristram, Hildegard L. C. (ed.) 1997. The Celtic Englishes. Anglistische Forschungen 247. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Trudgill, Peter (ed.) 1978. Sociolinguistic patterns in British English. London: Edward Arnold.

Ureland, P. Sture and George Broderick (eds) 1991. Language contact in the British Isles. Proceedings of the Eighth International Symposium on Language Contact in Europe. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Wakelin, Martyn (ed.) 1972. Patterns in the folk speech of the British Isles. London: Athlone Press.