Varieties of Dublin English
Features of local Dublin English
Colonial lag in Dublin English
Hypercorrection among local speakers
Perception of variation and change
The city of Dublin lies at the mouth of the river Liffey in the centre of the east coast, and spreads along the shores of the horseshoe shape of Dublin bay (see maps in Overview section). The suburbs, which have increased dramatically in recent decades, reach down to Bray and beyond into Co. Wicklow in the south, to the West in the direction of Maynooth and to the north at least to Swords, the airport and beyond. The Dublin conurbation now encompasses over a third of the population of the Republic of Ireland.
Within Dublin there is a clear divide between the north and the south side of the city. The latter is regarded as more residentially desirable. Within the south there is a cline in prestige with the area around Ballsbridge and Donnybrook, and suburbs like Foxrock and Monkstown, enjoying high status. The Ballsbridge and Donnybrook area houses certain key complexes like the Royal Dublin Society (an important exhibition and event centre in the capital) and the national television studios (RTE) and of the national university (University College Dublin) in Belfield. This entire area is known by its postal code, Dublin 4. This number gave the name to a sub-accent within Dublin English known as the ‘Dublin 4 Accent’, latter abbreviated to ‘D4’. The label ‘Dartspeak’ is also found with more or less the same meaning. The less prestigious parts of the city are known by their district names such as the Liberties in the centre of the city immediately north of the river Liffey (cleared during the early 2000s to make way for office blocks) and Ballymun, the only suburb in Ireland with high-rise flats and which is associated with adverse social conditions.
Construction work in the centre of Dublin, typical for the late 1990s and early 2000s
High-rise flats and derelict housing in the north of Dublin
Varieties of Dublin English
Speakers of Dublin English can be divided using a twofold division, with a further subdivision,. The first group consists of those who use the inherited popular form of English in the capital. The term ‘local’ is intended to capture this and to emphasise that these speakers are those who show strongest identification with traditional conservative Dublin life of which the popular accent is very much a part. The reverse of this is ‘non-local’ which refers to sections of the metropolitan population who do not wish a narrow, restrictive identification with popular, lower-class Dublin culture. This group then subdivides into a larger, more general section which I label ‘mainstream’ and a smaller group which also rejects a confining association with low-prestige Dublin and which is active in linguistic innovations, some of which have led to change (as with the vowel shifts of the 1990s). For want of a better term, this group is labelled ‘advanced’ (a reference to their type of pronunciation, see below).
A central issue in contemporary Dublin English has been the set of vowel shifts which began in late 1980s and early 1990s, becoming established by the mid 1990s and then spreading to the rest of Ireland. That these changes should have appeared in Dublin when they did is not surprising: the city has been a typical location for language change given the following features: 1) It has expanded greatly in population in the last three or four decades. The increase in population has been due both to internal growth and migration into the city from the rest of the country. 2) It has undergone an economic boom in the last 15 years or so, reflected in its position as an important financial centre and a location for many foreign firms – mostly in the area of technology – which run their European operations from Dublin. The increase in wealth and international position has meant that many young people aspire to an urban sophistication which is divorced from strongly local Dublin life. For this reason the developments in advanced Dublin English have diverged – and continue to diverge – from those in local Dublin English, indeed can be interpreted as a reaction to it. This type of linguistic behaviour can be termed dissociation as it is motivated by the desire of speakers to hive themselves off from vernacular forms of a variety spoken in their immediate surroundings (Hickey 1998, 1999). It is furthermore a clear instance of speaker-innovation leading to language change, much in the sense of James and Lesley Milroy (J. Milroy 1992: 169-72; 1999; J. and L. Milroy 1997).
Features of local Dublin English
1) R-deletion Popular Dublin English tends not to be rhotic or only weakly so; the loss of /r/ is clearest in unstressed word-final position, as pronunciations like [pʌɔtɐ] for porter testify. The allophony of vowels deriving from a former sequence of short vowel plus /r/ is quite complicated because of rounding which occurs after labials in this position and a general lengthening resulting from mora compensation on the loss of /r/. The labial rounding can be accompanied by retraction giving a vowel continuum from low front unrounded to back mid to high rounded: circles [sɛ:kḷz], first [fʊ:st].
Weakly rhotic speaker (local Dubliner)
Strongly rhotic speaker (non-local Dubliner)
Because of the low rhoticity of local Dublin English, non-local varieties in the capital are clearly rhotic. In this respect Dublin English is distinct from forms of English in Britain and shows distributions of rhoticity more characteristic of New York. The maintenance of rhoticity means that there is no justification for interpreting changes in non-local Dublin English as an adoption of southern British standards of pronunciation.
2) Pre-rhotic A-tensing A syllable-final /r/ has the effect of raising and tensing a preceding /a:/. This feature would appear to be quite old in Irish English as it is found in both Dublin English and rural Irish English, e.g. car [kɛ:r], Martin [mɛ:rtṇ].
Pre-rhotic A-tensing with young male speaker from Dublin
3) TH, DH-fortition It is safe to assume that the realisation of TH in the THIN lexical set in popular Dublin English as an alveolar plosive [t] is not a recent phenomenon. Hogan (1927: 71f.) notes that it is found in the seventeenth century plays (assuming that t, d represent [t, d]) and furthermore in the Dublin City Records (from the first period, before 1600) where the third person singular ending -th appears regularly as -t.
Alveolar realisations are common in rural varieties in the south and west of Ireland. Here they are probably a contact phenomenon deriving ultimately from the realisation of non-palatal /t, d/ in Irish. Normally the THIN lexical set has a dental stop in supraregional Irish English. The acoustic sensitivity of the Irish to the shift from dental to alveolar derives from the use of the latter in vernacular varieties of Irish English and from the merger which it causes, consider such homophonic pairs as thinker and tinker, both [tɪŋkɐ] or thank and tank, both [tæŋk]. There is an analogous fortition of the initial fricative in the THIS lexical set to a stop (dental or alveolar depending on variety).
THOUGHT with alveolar stop (rural speaker)
THERE with alveolar stop (local Dubliner)
THEY with dental stop (non-local Dubliner)
4) T-lenition The clearest phonetic feature of southern Irish English is the reduction of /t/ to a fricative with identical characteristics of the stop, i.e. an apico-alveolar fricative in weak positions. This cannot be indicated in English orthography of course but vacillation between t and th for /t/ is found already in the Kildare Poems (probably early 14th century, Hickey 1993: 220f.) and would suggest that it was a feature of English in Ireland in the first period.
The lenition of /t/ — phonetically [ṱ] — intervocalically or pre-pausally is not continued in non-local Dublin English beyond the initial stage with the exception of one or two lexicalised items such as Saturday [ˡsæhɚde]. However, it is precisely the extension beyond the apico-alveolar fricative which is characteristic of local Dublin English. The sequence is usually as follows:
T-Lenition: apico-alveolar fricative (non-local Dubliner)
T-Lenition: glottal stop (local Dubliner)
5) Vowel breaking Long high vowels, i.e. /i:/ and /u:/ tend to become disyllabic in local Dublin English. This feature would appear to go back many centuries, indeed to the first period (before 1600) if the interpretation of certain non-standard spellings in municipal documents from 15th century Dublin are correct. Nowadays one finds pronunciations like [mi:ən] and [mu:ən] for mean and moon respectively. Sometimes the breaking produces a hiatus glide, [j] after front vowels and [w] after back vowels, i.e. one has [mi:jən] and [mu:wən] for the words just cited.
Vowel breaking, AI = [æjə] (local Dubliner)
Vowel breaking, I = [ijə] (local Dubliner)
6) NURSE-TERM distinction Local Dublin English has retained a distinction between a back and a front vowel before historical /r/ within a stressed syllable. The /r/ was lost at some stage (a chronology cannot unfortunately be established for this) but the distinction was retained so that in present-day vernacular Dublin English the contrast is between a back [ʊ:]-vowel and a front [ɛ:]-vowel.
The words ‘nurse’ and ‘term’ read by a local Dubliner showing distinct formant contours.
NURSE-TERM distinction (local Dublin speaker)
Colonial lag in Dublin English: SOFT lengthening
Educated Dublin English usage was established in the second half of the 19th century and it retains features which stem from this period. By and large it did not participate in the later changes which affected southern British English. One case where this is obvious concerns the SOFT lexical set. In modern standard British usage the vowel here is short, that is one has the pronunciation [sɒft]. But it is known that it used to be long during the 19th century and it is the long vowel pronunciation which established itself in mainstream Dublin English. To this day words like lost, frost, soft, loft are pronounced with long vowels.
SOFT lengthening (non-local Dubliner)
Outside Dublin speakers tend to have a short vowel in such words. The reason for this is that Irish English in the early modern English period did not undergo the lengthening of low back vowels before voiceless fricatives which was responsible for the 19th century long vowel in the SOFT lexical set in British English. So it is not the case that varieties of English outside of Dublin followed a 20th century southern British innovation although the vowel realisation is the same in both cases, i.e. short. Rather they never had a long vowel in the SOFT lexical set at any time and have simply maintained this state to the present day.
Hypercorrection among local speakers
Hypercorrection is found with speakers of local Dublin English when trying to speak in a less vernacular manner. The following sound file illustrates this clearly. The speaker is a local Dubliner and in the words water and letter she uses a [t] for intervocalic /t/. In her native pronunciation she would have a glottal stop, i.e. pronounce the words as [wɑ:ʔɐ] and [lɛʔɐ] respectively. In the sound file one can also hear that for the words PUT, FOOT and IT in the phrase He put his foot in it she uses a glottal stop each time. Interestingly, this speaker told the author afterwards that her mother always said she should pronounce the /t/ in words like water clearly (i.e. avoid the glottal stop); it did not matter to her father, though, who told her she should speak naturally.
The reason the pronunciation of water with [-t-] is a case of hypercorrection is that in acrolectal Irish English an apico-alveolar fricative [-ṱ-] would be found; the [t] would be found only in syllable-initial position. So in using [-t-] intervocalically the speaker overshot the mark so to speak.
WATER and LETTER with [t] rather than [ʔ] (local Dublin speaker)
Perception of variation and change
When language variation proceeds towards language change it becomes more and more noticed by the general population. In this situation the change is generally condemned and censorious comments on the new features abound. In the case of Dublin English negative references to the front onset for the diphthong in a word like town or the retroflex ‘r’ in a word like fork or the high vowel in a word like toy are to be found throughout the 1990s when the change was establishing itself. Remarks were made in phone-ins on radio and on television shows complaining about the way many young people spoke who used the new pronunciation. People in the media came in for special scorn, e.g. radio and television announcers, a group which adopted and promoted the new pronunciation at an early stage. I remember that one announcer, who did the traffic reports on radio, was heavily criticised for pronunciations like Cork [ko:ɽk], rather than [kɔ:ɹk], and roundabout [rɛʊndəbɛʊt], rather than [raʊndəbaʊt].
But people gradually get used to items of language change, including a new pronunciation, and with time the excitement and the condemnation subsided and the ‘new’ became ‘normal’. The changes of the 1990s began to be adopted by young people throughout the Republic of Ireland in general and the New Pronunciation of advanced speakers in Dublin became the new supraregional form of spoken Irish English during the 2000s.
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Bertz, Siegfried. 1987. ‘Variation in Dublin English’, Teanga 7: 35-53.
Clery, Arthur E. 1921. ‘Accents: Dublin and otherwise’, Studies 10,40: 545-52.
Edwards, John. 1977b. ‘The speech of disadvantaged Dublin children’, Language Problems and Language Planning 1: 65-72.
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Foulkes, Paul and Gerry Docherty (eds) 1999. Urban voices. London: Edward Arnold.
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Hickey, Raymond 2005. Dublin English. Evolution and change. (with sound recordings on CD-ROM) Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
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Milroy, Lesley and James Milroy (1997) ‘Exploring the social constraints on language change’, in Stig Eliasson and Ernst Håkon Jahr (eds) (1997) Language and its ecology. Essays in memory of Einar Haugen (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter), pp. 75-101.
Detailed map of Dublin with streets and roads