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   Language and the media

Irish television
Paths of diffusion
English television in Ireland

The role of television

There is disagreement among sociolinguists about the extent to which innovations in language, specifically in pronunciation, can be transmitted via the media. Some scholars are dismissive and point to research done on first language acquisition where young children ignore input offered to them on television either in live or recorded form.

However, recent research by Scottish colleagues, see Stuart-Smith (2012), for instance, has shown that certain colloquial features of urban south-east British English, such as TH-fronting, have been appearing in the language of Glasgow youths and that exposure to these features in television soap operas could well be a contributory factor given that there would be little or no direct contact between young Glaswegians and their lower-class urban co-evals in the south-east of England.

Irish television

In Ireland the situation with television is worth examining when considering the transmission of linguistic innovations. First of all an outline of the media situation: the Republic of Ireland has a single television (and radio) network, Raidió Teilifís Éireann, abbreviated to RTE, which dominated Irish television broadcasts during the last four decades of the twentieth century and has continued to do so into the twentieth first. There is now a further commercial television channel, TV3, along with many local radio channels and, of course, a host of further channels from outside Ireland available available through cable networks or via a dish. Despite the additional services now on offer, RTE remains the single dominant television network in the Republic of Ireland.

The female presenters, and also some of the male presenters, on RTE television and radio have always been speakers of advanced Dublin English and were instrumental in the exposure of people outside Dublin to these accents throughout the 1990s and the 2000s. These presenters were among the first to introduce the vowel shift of the 1990s to a general Irish public and have done the same for the short front vowel lowering which is currently (late 2011) on the increase in non-vernacular Dublin English, though not yet outside the capital to any noticeable extent. The presenters include newscasters and correspondents (within Ireland), weather forecast presenters and continuity announcers. True, it cannot be proven that RTE was responsible for the spread of advanced Dublin English in the 1990s. However, the appearance of advanced features in parts of the country far removed from the capital among individuals who did not have direct contact with Dubliners is difficult to explain otherwise.

  RTE presenter with NORTH-raising in ‘performances’ (advanced Dublin English, 1)
  RTE presenter with vowel lowering in ‘television’ (advanced Dublin English, 1)
  RTE presenter with vowel lowering in ‘twelve’ (advanced Dublin English, 2)
  RTE presenter with vowel retraction in ‘factory’ (advanced Dublin English, 2)
  RTE presenter with vowel lowering in ‘west’ and ‘wet’ (advanced Dublin English, 3)

  Older RTE presenter with lack of MOUTH-fronting and very moderate NORTH-raising (conservative Dublin English)

  RTE, four pronunciations with increasing vowel height and rhoticity:

        (1) [a: t: i:], (2) [ɒ:ɹ t: i:], (3) [ɔ:ɽ t: i:], (4) [o:ɽ t: i:].

Paths of diffusion

It is too early to say whether short front vowel lowering will spread to the whole of the Republic of Ireland as features from advanced Dublin English did in the 1990s. But if it does spread and begins to appear in parts of the country at a maximum distance from the capital (between 200 and 350 km) then spread by speaker contact at the edge of Dublin and progressively further out from the capital would be insufficient to explain such a dissemination. The timescale for a geographical spread in wave-like form from Dublin is far too great, this would require much longer than the couple of years which the spread of advanced Dublin English took in the 1990s.

Sociolinguists have discussed other models to account for rapid spread of change in present-day societies. The Urban Hierarchy or Cascade model (Britain 2012) assumes that changes move from city to city and that the intervening countryside is only affected afterwards. However, in my view cities have no priviliged position with regard to the diffusion of innovations. It is simply that exposure to innovations is greatest in areas of greatest population density. What is important for the adoption of innovations is the realisation by individual speakers (Stuart-Smith and Timmins 2009) that these innovations are ‘trendy’ and ‘cool’ and can lend one’s speech an aura of urbane sophistication. During the 1990s many young females in rural areas realised this and adopted the new pronunciation, irrespective of whether the innovations were first established in the nearest city to where they lived. The same may apply in the near future with regard to short front vowel lowering.

The dominant position of Dublin in Ireland and its association with sophistication and contemporary life styles is why there are no instances of counter-hierarchical spread from any part of Ireland outside the capital back into Dublin. Furthermore, it does not seem to be the case that innovations spreading from Dublin have been mutated outside the capital at locations where they established a foothold. Such mutations (Britain 2012) would imply an independence from Dublin and its leading role in the country which does not exist.

For another treatment of the possible role of the media, see the discussion of the sound shifts of the 1990s.

Influence of English television shown in Ireland?

The London-based English soap opera EastEnders is broadcast regularly in Ireland but has had no affect on accent variation in the Republic of Ireland, e.g. there has been no sign of TH-fronting, T-glottaling, H-dropping, FACE-diphthongisation, R-lessness or L-vocalisation, all common Cockney characteristics well represented in the speech of EastEnders characters, appearing in non-vernacular speech in Ireland (T-glottaling and R-lessness [low rhoticity] are established features of local Dublin English).

The fact that British English has not influenced Dublin/Irish English via English soap operas cannot be cited as proof for the lack of linguistic influence via television. Given the fact that for Irish people a British English accent is not something to be emulated, British English features would not be expected to enter Dublin/Irish English in the first place.


Britain, David 2012. ‘Diffusion’, in: Alexander Bergs and Laurel Brinton (eds) Historical Linguistics of English. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.

Stuart-Smith, Jane 2012. ‘English and the media: television’, in: Alexander Bergs and Laurel Brinton (eds) Historical Linguistics of English. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.

Stuart-Smith, Jane and Claire Timmins 2009. ‘The role of the individual in language variation and change’, in: Carmen Llamas and Dominic Watt (eds) Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 39-54.