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   Sound Shifts of the 1990s

Spread of vowel shift
Markers and indicators
Advanced speech and the new mainstream

The ‘New Pronunciation’ of the 1990s

Among the varieties of urban English in the British Isles, that of Dublin enjoys a special position. There are several reasons for this. The most important is that while geographically within these islands, the English-speaking sector of the Republic of Ireland does not look to England for a standard reference accent of English. In the south of Ireland the prestige form of English is that spoken in the capital Dublin. Here the ceiling in terms of standardness is the speech of educated, weak-tie speakers on the south side of the city. For the southern Irish, Received Pronunciation is an extra-national norm not aspired to. Indeed the emulation of anything like this accent of English is regarded as snobbish, slightly ridiculous and definitely un-Irish. The sociolinguistic significance of this fact is considerable and is evident in the vowel shift which took place in the capital in the 1990s. This sound change which started in the late 1980s has led to a considerable gap between strongly local forms of Dublin English and non-vernacular forms of English there, i.e. those varieties which are not locally bound.

The motivating factor behind the recent changes is the desire of sections of Dublin society to dissociate themselves from the local population. The linguistic dissociation which has expressed itself in these changes is only part of a more general dissociation on a social level: the people who initiated the shift lived on the fashionable south side, had different patterns of dress, food, leisure time activities and saw themselves as sophisticated urbanites on a par with those in similarly large cities outside Ireland. Once the shift had been initiated it was picked by other sectors of the population, especially those who aspired to a new status beyond what was conceived of as typical of traditional Dublin. The new pronunciation spread and slowly became a model for young Dubliners without a strong identification with local culture in the city. Because of the position of Dublin as capital and largest city in Ireland, the new pronunciation spread rapidly to other areas of Ireland, aided not least by the use of this pronunciation in national radio and television. In the course of the late 1990s and early 2000s the new pronunciation of the capital also became the new supraregional variety of English used by all young people outside Dublin which did not use the vernacular of the place they came from.



Apart from the vowel shift illustrated above, one can point to other features of the new pronunciation in advanced Dublin English to show how these were, and in the main still are, diametrically opposed to characteristics of strongly local forms of English in the capital.


The following table shows features which are prominent in both local and non-local forms of Dublin English. Most of these are also found in supraregional forms of Irish English. However, one or two are still confined to Dublin. For instance, the long vowel in lost (see SOFT lengthening) which does not normally occur outside the capital. The use of a tap for /t/ in intervocalic position is common outside Dublin, especially among young females, but it is not universal by any means. One reason for this is that it may be regarded (by non-Dubliners) as an Americanism and as such an affectation of some speakers not wishing to sound Irish.


Markers and indicators

In the Labovian tradition of sociolinguistics a distinction is made between features which are ‘markers’ and those which are ‘indicators’. Essentially, the difference is that markers are features which are sociolinguistically relevant and distinguish different socially-determined subgroups with a society; these features tend to disappear in more formal styles of language, e.g. when reading word lists. Indicators on the other hand are features which do not show sensitivity to social factors and which do not vary across styles. In Dublin English (and Irish English in general) the fricative realisation of /t/, i.e. [ṱ], does not vary across social groups or styles of language, i.e. it is an indicator, as are the dental realisations in the THIN and THIS lexical sets, i.e. [ṯɪn] and [ḏɪs] respectively. These are found with all types of speakers from all groups in Irish society. However, alveolar realisations of the initial segments in THIN and THIS, i.e. [tɪn] and [dɪs] respectively, are clearly markers and are only found in local rural varieties, especially in the east and south of Ireland, and in vernacular Dublin English. Such alveolar realisations are frowned upon by non-vernacular speakers and are often the subject of adverse comment. Similarly, lenition of /t/ beyond [ṱ], i.e. as a glottal stop [ʔ] or indeed with complete deletion are unacceptable realisations in supraregional public speech in Ireland.

In the following tables, those features which have marker status are listed first while those which can be labelled indicators of Irish English can be found in the second table. Note that the distinction between marker and indicator applies to grammatical features as well (see examples below).



Advanced speech and the new mainstream

In the last two decades the major instance of language change in Ireland has undoubtedly been the shift in pronunciation of Dublin English. To understand the workings of this shift one must realise that in the course of the 1980s and 1990s the city underwent an unprecedented expansion in population size and in relative prosperity with a great increase in international connections to and from the metropolis. The in-migrants to the city, who arrived there chiefly to avail of the job opportunities resulting from the economic boom formed a group of socially mobile, weak-tie speakers and their section of the city‘s population has been a key locus for language change.

Speakers began to move away in their speech from their perception of popular Dublin English, a classic case of dissociation in an urban setting. This dissociation was realised phonetically by a reversal of the unrounding and lowering of vowels typical of Dublin English hitherto. The reversal was systematic in nature, with a raising and rounding of low back vowels and the retraction of the /ai/ diphthong and the raising of the /ɒi/ diphthong, representing the most salient elements of the change.

N.B.: AI-retraction is not a widespread feature anymore and has been recessive since the late 1990s.

  AI-Retraction with female speaker from Dublin (1990s pronunciation)

The spread of the vowel shift

If my observations of Dublin English and Irish English in general during the 1990s are correct, then the New Pronunciation managed to establish itself among the younger female generation in less than a decade and furthermore spread quickly outside Dublin to the rest of the country.

The rapidity of this development gives rises to a number of questions. The adoption of a new pronunciation implies fairly extensive exposure to this accent. Traditional accounts of the spread of change would see the new pronunciation emanating out of Dublin in wave-like form to gradually encompass the entire Republic of Ireland. But there are two serious objections to this view of the change.

1) Traditional accents of Irish English in the counties surrounding Dublin, namely Wicklow, Kildare and Meath, as used by the male and older female section of the population there do not show the shifts typical of the new pronunciation, a fact confirmed by recordings for A Sound Atlas of Irish English (Hickey, 2004).

2) An objection to the wave model (gradual fan-like dissemination from Dublin) has to do with the time-scale. A gradual diffusion would take decades before reaching the edges of Ireland. But, for instance, in the recordings for Kerry, a considerable distance from Dublin, the same new pronunciation was found among younger females as, say in counties Carlow or Offaly which are less than 100 kilometres from Dublin. This fact has not escaped the attention of social commentators either. To show this consider the following extract from the column ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times by Kevin Myers.

I gave a lift to a teenage girl who was hitch-hiking near the village (Listowel, Co Kerry - RH), and was struck by her accent. It was not quite Dortspeak, but it was unquestionably Dublin middle class.

Was she visiting? No, she was from just down the road there. Really? I said. You don't sound local at all.

Oh thank you so much, she said, that's very kind of you. Why? I asked, astonished. Oh because only the stupid, the old, the backward spoke with a Kerry accent, she said. She was delighted to hear that she did not speak with one.

The point is this. In her out-going demeanour, she was typically Kerry - as courteous and friendly as you would ever hope to find. Yet to her, that other vital sign of place, of community - the language of her area - was something to be ashamed of.

(Kevin Myers 2000: 65)

The role of the media?

If one dismisses gradual diffusion through speaker contact without speaker movement (the wave-model), then there are two remaining options.

(i) There was considerable speaker movement with large numbers of young speakers of advanced Dublin English carrying their pronunciation to remote parts in the south-west and west of Ireland. But that is entirely improbable and there is no evidence of such demographic movement.

(ii) The mass-media have played the decisive role. In general sociolinguists do not attribute media, such as television or radio, a major role in the spread of change. However, the situation in contemporary Ireland is different. One should remember that the changes in Dublin English are clearly in evidence in the speech of newscasters and programme presenters in the national television network, RTE (Raidió Telefís Éireann ‘Radio and Television of Ireland’). This network is located in the part of Dublin which first began to show the shift in the 1980s. And, of course, the employees of such an institution would be just the sector of the population which one would expect to find dissociating themselves from the putatively narrow confines of local Dublin speech. With regard to the dissemination of the new pronunciation, one should note that exposure to the national television network is universal in the Republic of Ireland. As the presenting staff of the three English-speaking channels which exist nearly all exhibited the new pronunciation, this accent reached audiences in parts of the country distant from Dublin which would otherwise have only limited opportunities to realise what advanced Dublin English was like.

For more comments on the possible role of the media in the spread of linguistic innovations, see the module Diffusion and the media.


Hickey, Raymond 1999. ‘Dublin English: Current changes and their motivation’, in: Paul Foulkes and Gerry Docherty (eds) Urban voices. London: Edward Arnold, pp. 265-281.

Hickey, Raymond 1998. ‘The Dublin vowel shift and the historical perspective’, in: Jacek Fisiak and Marcin Krygier (eds) English Historical Linguistics 1996. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter, pp. 79-106.

Hickey, Raymond 1998. ‘Development and change in Dublin English’, in: Ernst Håkon Jahr (ed.) Language Change. Advances in Historical Sociolinguistics. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter, pp. 209-243.

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

Hickey, Raymond 2005. Dublin English. Evolution and Change. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Myers, Kevin. 2000. From the Irish Times Column ‘An Irishman’s Diary’. Dublin: Four Courts Press.