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   Recording Dublin English

Initial methods used
Conducting the interviews
Data collection in 2009
Data collection in 2011

For the results of the most recent recordings (November 2014), see the presentation on Short Front Vowel Lowering.


The present section offers background information on surveys carried out by myself on English in Ireland and on Dublin English in particular. It furthermore discusses and attempts to assess the methods employed in these surveys. Two projects concerned with variation and change in Dublin English were carried out between the mid 1990s and the early 2000s:

1)     Change in Dublin English (1994-1998)
2)     A Sound Atlas of Irish English (2000-2002)

The results from the first project were published in a series of articles in the late 1990s (Hickey 1998, 1999) and those from the second are available in Hickey (2004). The first project was initiated after observations on changes in pronunciation in Dublin were made by myself from the late 1980s onwards. The appropriateness of such a project was confirmed with each passing year in which the new pronunciation in Dublin became ever more widespread. Because of the status of Dublin as capital of the Republic of Ireland, the new pronunciation disseminated from here to the rest of the country. The desire to record this spread was one of the main reasons for the second, larger project which followed after 2000.

The main purpose of the sound atlas project was to record, in as comprehensive a form as possible, the different varieties, both urban and rural, of English spoken throughout the entire island of Ireland at present. Naturally given the size and status of Dublin, several hundred of the over 1,500 recordings for the entire country were actually from the capital. The project did not set out to confirm any specific theory about Irish English, i.e. there was no ‘theoretical hunch’ (Johnson 2000: 88f.) which I wished to prove or disprove although the recording of current changes in English, particularly in the Republic of Ireland, disseminating from the capital Dublin, was a primary objective.

Initial methods used

The initial data for Dublin English was collected in the mid 1990s using a variant of the ‘rapid anonymous interview’ (Labov 1966). There are two types of anonymous interviews. The first is where the informant does not know that an interview is taking place. The second is where he/she does, but the name of the informant is not known to the author and both were used for the two projects mentioned above.

The purpose of rapid anonymous interviews in the Dublin context was to obtain attestations for the diphthong in the PRICE lexical set, i.e. (ai), and that in the CHOICE. lexical set, i.e. (oi). The vowel in the latter had begun to show raising and the onset of the (ai) diphthong was showing retraction in the early 1990s.

A selection of locations in Dublin were chosen which were taken to be representative of both halves of the city. On the north side, two shopping centres were chosen in less residentially desirable areas: 1) the Northside Shopping Centre, close to the motorway and an industrial estate in Coolock and 2) the Omnipark Shopping Centre in Santry, near Ballymun, which contains Ireland’s only group of high rise flats (many of which have since been demolished). These two locations were assumed (as it turned out, quite rightly) not to be areas in which would-be sophisticated urbanites would alter their speech to hive themselves off from the vernacular-speaking local population.

For the purposes of comparison two outlying shopping centres on the south side were also examined: 1) Stillorgan and 2) Cabinteely, both of which are several miles from the city centre, further from this than are Santry and Coolock as can be seen from the following map.

In addition to the suburbs interviews were also done for the first project, Change in Dublin English (1994-1998) in the centre of Dublin, chiefly in Grafton Street and O’Connell Street, two of the main shopping streets in Dublin.

Conducting the interviews

To do an interview I entered a particular shop and searched for an item on sale, preferably one which cost 5.99 pounds (or with the later project, the equivalent in Euro currency) or indeed any price which ended in 99 pence/cent (practically all do and hence price tags show this figure). Furthermore, I tried to ensure that the item was made in Ireland. I then approached an assistant and, feigning short-sightedness, asked what sum was on the tag. Reading out the price provided a spontaneous pronunciation of the /ai/ diphthong before a voiced consonant, in five and in nine respectively. This environment was that in which the vowel shift, if present for a particular speaker, would have been noticeable. The question was then repeated, which gave a more careful pronunciation of the same words.

Structure of rapid anonymous interview, variant 1

Question 1:
   Hello, I'm afraid I don't have my glasses with me, could you tell me the price of this item?
Answer 1:
   Five ninety nine [spontaneous style]
Question 2:
   I beg your pardon?
Answer 2:
   *Five ninety nine* [more careful style]

For the vowel shift of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the pronunciation of the two key words Ireland and Irish was important. These words are obviously common and have high iconic value so that for many speakers the shift was particularly obvious in their phonetic realisation of these words. To elicit a pronunciation of these items, the following question was added to the above in each interview.

Structure of rapid anonymous interview, variant 2

Question 3:
   I wonder could you tell me where this item [garment, etc.] was made?
Answer 3:
   In Ireland.
Question 4:
   You mean it’s not English?
Answer 4:
   No, it’s Irish.

The answers to questions 3 and 4 were not always predictable. The answers indicated above were given about half the time, but they varied from some other sentences like ‘It’s home-produced’, ‘It was made here alright’ or just ‘No’ for question 4. This meant that the amount of data here was much lower than for variant 1 of the interview.

Recording the pronunciation of the vowel /ai/ was done immediately after the brief interview. In this situation, the author had to remember the pronunciation as accurately as possible and for this reason only three variants were recognised although phonetically the range was much greater.

/ai/    >    [əi]    (local)
/ai/    >    [ai]    (mainstream)
/ai/    >    [ɑi]    (new)

The vowel shift, in its initial form, would seem to have been a push shift with the retraction of /ai/ providing the impetus for the change. This meant that the /oi/ vowel which normally has a lowered and somewhat unrounded realisation in Irish English was realised close to [oi] in those varieties which showed the vowel shift.

     /ai/    /oi/
Local DE    [əi]    –
Mainstream DE    [ai]    –
New DE    [ɑi]    –

Testing for the (oi) variable within the first investigation was done in the following manner. The author ascertained whether the store in question had a department for children’s toys.

Structure of rapid anonymous interview, variant 3

Question 1:
   I’m looking for something for my 8-year old nephew for his birthday, do you know where I might look?
Answer 1:
   Yeah, in the toy department. [spontaneous style]
Question 2:
   I beg your pardon?
Answer 2:
   Why don’t you try the *toy* department. [more careful style]

The name of the department was offered in over 80% of cases. Sometimes an answer like ‘In the kids’/children’s department’ was given which was not useful in the present context where the pronunciation of the (oi) variable was the object of interest. As with (ai), all realisations were assigned to one of three variants as follows.

/oi/    >    [ɑi]    (local)
/oi/    >    [ɒi]    (mainstream)
/oi/    >    [ɔi]/[oi]    (new)

The interpretation of the vowel changes being described here as motivated by the desire to dissociate oneself in language from locals was clearly confirmed one time during data collection when I was in a Grafton Street jewellery shop early one morning. There was no-one in the shop apart from myself and a single shop assistant. After engaging in conversation on the matter of earrings for a few moments, I was presented with a few pairs which were prohibitively expensive. The assistant obviously noted the expression of surprise and dismay on my face and, as if to apologise for the pricing policy of her employers, immediately fell back into her native pronunciation, a clear local Dublin accent, and commented profusely on the cost of living and inflation in present-day Ireland. In this particular case it was plain that the young woman had adopted a new pronunciation which she felt was expected in her work environment, a pronunciation quite different from her own vernacular, that of lower-class north Dublin.

Data collection in 2009

The book publication of Dublin English. Evolution and Change (John Benjamins, 2005) is a summary of developments in Dublin English up to the early 2000s. However, it was obvious that the speech of young, non-vernacular females was continuing to develop. So in the late 2000s I carried out two further rounds of data collection, the first in 2009 and the second in 2011.

The recordings done in 2009 had a specific goal, the examine the realisations and distributions of low vowels in Dublin English. These vowels, different types of /a/-sounds along with the vowel in the LOT and the THOUGHT lexical sets, show variation which is different from that in other varieties of English, especially in southern British English. In all, 72 recordings were done, 56 of which were of speakers from Dublin and its environs. The set of sentences and the word list used is shown below. The data collected confirmed a number of assumptions about non-venacular Dublin English.

1) A retracted [ɑ:]-vowel is only found in Irish English in a few lexically specified items, in father and for some, but not all speakers, in rather and not in other words such as gather and lather which has the same phonotactics, i.e. a long low vowel before a voiced dental stop (corresponding to the /ð/-sound of other varieties of English).

2) SOFT lengthening: The low back rounded vowel – that of the LOT lexical set as posited by J. C. Wells – is long is Dublin English when it precedes a voiceless fricative or a dental stop historically derived from this, e.g. cloth [klɔ:ṯ].

3) The raising of the THOUGHT vowel was continuing and so there is a split between the vowel in THOUGHT (in a closed syllable) and that in LAW (and open syllable).

4) Pre-rhotic tensing, as in Martin [mɛ:tṇ] is a colloquial feature of Dublin English which while found with a few non-vernacular speakers cannot be said to be spreading outside of local Dublin English.

5) Many speakers, both vernacular and non-vernacular, did not have a vowel length distinction before tauotsyllabic /r/ which meant that word pairs such as MERRY and MARY were not distinguished. There were also case of near-mergers, where the distinction was very slight and only apparent in word list style. Height distinctions between vowels before /r/ are generally maintained in all forms of Dublin English so that word pairs like MERRY and MARRY were always distinguished.

Data collection in 2011

In the late 2000s I noticed that many advanced speakers of non-vernacular Dublin English were lowering short front vowels. This was found with the DRESS and the TRAP vowels in particular, with the KIT vowel trailing behind except where it followed /r/ or /l/ as in lid [led] or riddle [redḷ]. Similar lowering is known from varieties of English in North America, e.g. in Canada and in California. The question of what triggered this does not have a simple answer, but for the data collection the aim was to record speakers who might have this lowering.

As with the changes of the 1990s, it was obvious from the very beginning that young female non-vernacular speakers were the vanguard of this change. None of the males recorded either in 2009 or 2011 had short front vowel lowering to any appreciable extent.

Recording young females is not perhaps as easy for a middle-aged male linguist as it would be to record older male speakers. The only possibility was to obtain data by recording young women in public places and using short texts with no personal information whatsoever solicited. Once it was explained to potential informants that the survey I was conducting was anonymous and that the sentences I was presenting to them were fictitious and harmless then the speakers immediately consented and provided recordings which could be evaluated for potential short front vowel lowering.

The informants were presented with the following list of sentences on a single page which contained the list of words given below on the reverse side. Each recording took about 2 to 3 minutes. In all, 106 speakers were recorded in a variety of places, in shopping malls, cafes, restaurants, in the halls of colleges and universities, for instance. Note that the underlining to be seen in the following list was not present in the list presented to informants.


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 2004. A Sound Atlas of Irish English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hickey, Raymond 2005. Dublin English. Evolution and change. (with sound recordings on CD-ROM) Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Johnson, Barbara 2000. Qualitative Methods in Sociolinguistics. Oxford: University Press.