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  Dublin English

Contemporary Dublin
Varieties of Dublin English
Features of local Dublin English
The New Pronunciation
Gender and language change
Dublin and London - a tale of two cities
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N.B.: For more detailed information and analysis, check out the website Variation and Change in Dublin English.


Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland, located on a bay on the centre of the east coast of the country. The city can trace its origin at least back to the Viking settlement there (before 1000 AD). The name is an Anglicisation of Irish Dubh Linn, ‘black pool’. There is a second name Baile Átha Cliath ‘town at the fortified ford’ which is used in Irish rather than Dubh Linn. The present-day city has a population of over one million, including outlying towns which have been incorporated into the metropolitan area. About one third of the population of the Republic of Ireland lives in Dublin or its immediate environs. On the map below the localities are indicated for which there are recordings in the book Dublin English. Evolution and Change (Hickey 2005), see next branch in tree on left.



The English language in Dublin has been spoken since the late twelfth century when the first settlers came up from the south-east where they had landed around 1169. The first few centuries form the first period which lasted up to around 1600 and which in its closing phase was characterised by considerable Gaelicisation outside the capital and within. Despite this resurgence of native culture and language, English never died out in the capital and there are some features of colloquial Dublin English which can be traced to the first period.

The seventeenth century in Ireland marks the beginning of the second period and is characterised chiefly by the re-introduction of English on a large-scale. This happened in the north of the country with a steady influx of immigrants from the Scottish Lowlands who were to form the base of the later Ulster Protestant community. In the south, many new English settlers came as a result of plantations and land confiscations under Oliver Cromwell in the mid seventeenth century.

Documentation The records of Dublin English are slight and before 1600 they consist mainly of municipal records which here and there betray the kind of English which must have been spoken in the city. For an historical background to present-day speech one must look to the elocutioner Thomas Sheridan (the father of the playwright) who in 1781 published A Rhetorical Grammar of the English Language with an appendix in which he commented on the English used by middle class Dubliners, the ‘gentlemen of Ireland’ in his words, which he regarded as worthy of censure on his part.


Title page of Thomas Sheridan's A rhetorical grammar of the English language.

Sheridan’s remarks are a valuable source of information on what Dublin English was like two centuries ago. Among the features he listed are the following (the phonetic values have been ascertained with reasonable certainty by interpreting his own system of transcription which is decipherable and fairly consistent).

1) Middle English /ɛ:/ was not raised to /i:/. The pronunciation [ɛ:] can still be heard in Dublin in words like tea, leave, please. Of these, the first is still found as a caricature of a by-gone Irish pronunciation of English. Hogan (1927: 65) noted in his day that the non-raised vowel was rapidly receding. Today it is somewhat artificial; the pronunciation is also found in the north of the country, where equally it is a retention of an earlier value.
2) A pronunciation of English /ai/ from Middle English /i:/ as [ei] is found, though it is uncertain whether Sheridan means this or perhaps [əi] which would tally better with what is known from present-day Dublin English.

When discussing consonants Sheridan remarks on ‘the thickening (of) the sounds of d and t in certain situations’. Here he could be referring to the realisation of dental fricatives as alveolar plosives as found in colloquial forms today. There is no hint in Sheridan of anything like a distinction between dental and alveolar plosive realisations, which is an essential marker of local versus non-local speech today.

SOFT lengthening

Educated Dublin English usage was established in the second half of the nineteenth 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 notable 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 nineteenth 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.

Outside of 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 nineteenth 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 twentieth 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.

Contemporary Dublin

Like any other modern city Dublin shows areas of high and low social prestige. The city 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. The suburbs, which have increased dramatically since the sixties, 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 about 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 Donybrook (see map above) enjoying highest status. This is the area of 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. Indeed this number gave the name to a sub-accent within Dublin English known as the ‘Dublin 4 Accent’, now usually 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 and Ballymun, the only suburb in Ireland with high-rise flats and which is associated with adverse social conditions.

Varieties of Dublin English

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 Dublin culture. This group then subdivides into a larger, more general section which I label ‘mainstream’ and a smaller group which rejects a confining association with low-prestige Dublin. 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 is the set of vowel shifts which represent the most recent phonological innovation in Irish English. This is not suprising as Dublin is a typical location for language change given the following features. 1) The city 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 fashionable Dublin English diverge from those in local Dublin English, indeed can be interpreted as a reaction to it. This type of linguistic behaviour can be termed local 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 [pʌɔta] 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].

Because of the low rhotocity 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 being an adoption of southern British standards of pronunciation.

2) 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 south-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].

3) 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 fourteenth 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:


4) 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 fifteenth 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.

The New Pronunciation

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 currently in progress in the capital. Dublin has recently gone through a major sound change which started not more than 15 years ago and which has led to a considerable gap between strongly local forms of Dublin English and those 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 popular 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.



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 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 Dublin English. However, one or two are still confined to Dublin. For instance the long vowel in lost (see section on SOFT lengthening above) and that the merger of the horse and hoarse pronunciations (open and closed long mid back vowels) which does not normally occur outside the capital.


Finally, markers from the pronunciation and grammar of local Dublin English are listed along with those features which do not have marker status and which are found in more supraregional forms of Irish English (both within and outside of the capital).


Gender and language change

It has been noted repeatedly by linguists that women tend to use more standard forms of language than men. But there is another valid observation which seems paradoxical in this light: when language change is taking place then women seem to be the vanguard of such change. This can be illustrated clearly by considering change in present-day Dublin English. As suggested above, the new pronunciation of English was probably triggered by dissociation from local Dublin English accents by individuals in the city enjoying the new prosperity and status of Irish economic success. Two features of the recent changes are relevant to the present section. The first is the diphthongisation of the vowel in GOAT and the second is the retroflex realisation of /r/. The GOAT vowel has been developing a central starting point, very different from the back or low initial position for traditional Dublin English. Equally the retroflex /r/ – [ɻ] – can be seen as a movement away from the low rhoticity of vernacular Dublin English. The figures below are from recordings made by the author for the book on Dublin English (Hickey 2005). They show a clear preference with females for the new pronunciation.


Of the three variables shown in the table above, GOAT diphthongisation and R-retroflexion are paired features of the new pronunciation of Dublin English. The values for T-flapping form a special case. Only about a third of women had this feature but over two-thirds of men. In origin, T-flapping is a male vernacular feature and found with the local male speakers in the recordings made by the author but it is not attested for mainstream Dublin English. T-flapping is a feature which is now spreading from males to females so that the values given above and shown in columnar form in the following graph may not apply for very long to advanced Dublin English.


Findings like those above have been reached in many investigations of language change in different countries. The question of interest here is why women are at the forefront of ongoing change? One explanation which connects this fact with a greater use of standard forms of language by women has to do with power. Individuals with relatively little power compared to others, have a higher sensitivity to aspects of social behaviour which can give them more power. Where a language/variety is fairly stable and there is a standard, using this standard confers more power on women speakers by increasing their relative social status, however slightly. In a situation where a language/variety is changing, as in present-day Dublin, participating actively in this change – indeed pushing it somewhat – also confers power on women because the change is something which has status associated with it, especially in Dublin where it is motivated by dissociation from those vernacular speakers who do not have much social clout.

Dublin and London - a tale of two cities

The following link will load a PDF file of an article on Dartspeak and Estuary English. A comparison is offered there between the forms of advanced metropolitan speech in the capitals of Ireland and England, highlighting the similarities and differences between them.

   Dartspeak and Estuary English


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