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Misconceptions about Irish English



1) The Irish pronounce the th in thinker like the t in tinker.

This is generally untrue. In non-vernacular speech in the south of Ireland a strict distinction is maintained between a dental [ṯ] (as in Swedish tala ‘speak’ or Italian notte ‘night’) and an alveolar [t] (as in English tall or not) so that the words thin and tin are not homophones. The Irish are very sensitive to the shift from dental to alveolar stop and they regard the use of the latter in the THIN lexical set as a sign of strongly vernacular speech.

In northern Ireland the ambi-dental fricatives of more standard English are found so that thanks is [θæŋks]. This fricative is sometimes found as a spelling pronunciation with southern speakers in word-final position.

2) The slit t of Irish English, as in kit, is (i) the same as English s, (ii) a type of affricate, (iii) a flap.

No. What is commonly called ‘slit t’ is an apico-alveolar fricative produced by not quite touching the alveolar ridge with the tip of the tongue. This sound is found in positions of maximal openness, e.g. word-finally before a pause or intervocalically as in pit and pity. It is not found syllable-initially in stressed position which explains the contrast between Italy [ɪṱɪli] and Italian [ɪˡtæliən] and it is not found before a further consonant, even if it is in the coda of a syllable, compare but [bʌṱ] and button [bʌtṇ].

The s sound in Irish English is the same as elsewhere in English, i.e. it is a lamino-alveolar fricative formed with the blade of the tongue near the alveolar ridge for friction. This means the slit t and English /s/ are not identical sounds. Acoustically, the slit t could be compared to the realisation of /s/ in those languages – like Greek, Spanish, Dutch, Finnish – which do not have a distinction between a blade /s/ and a grooved /ʃ/ (the contrast in English between sue and shoe). In languages such as those just mentioned the /s/ sound is generally realised as an apico-alveolar fricative, i.e. as the same sound as the slit t of Irish English.

An affricate involves a stop with a fricative release as with the first sound in German Zeit ‘time’ /tsait/. This sound is very different from slit t in Irish English.

A flap is made by tapping the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge as in American English butter [ˡbʌſɚ]. Such a flap is found increasingly in southern Irish English, especially among young urban females, but it is not equivalent to [ṱ] as it only appears intervocalically. This sound is also found intervocalically in many varieties of northern Irish English.

Slit-t can be transcribed phonetically by placing a caret under a t. The shape of the caret suggests the tip of the tongue which does not make contact with the alveolar ridge.


The symbol shown above ( ) is also available in the UniCode set of computer symbols for PCs. The value is ṱ. The corresponding fricative has the value ḓ.

This transcription was first introduced in Hickey (1984) and has been used by the author since in many publications (see Hickey 1996 for further discussion).

The slit t is also found in Liverpool English (Hickey 1996) and in Newfoundland (Hickey 2002b), in both cases due most probably to the influence of Irish immigrants.

Weak Segments in Irish English (Hickey 2009)

3) Irish English is noted for having an alveolar /l/ in all syllable positions.

Up until recently this has been true. But part of the New Pronunciation (see section on Dublin English) has been the introduction of syllable-final velarised [ɫ] as in meal [mi:ɫ]. This has spread rapidly and is now established usage for all younger speakers in Ireland who share the New Pronunciation.

4) Irish English is noted for open realisations of back vowels.

Again this has been true until fairly recently. But because of the dissociation from local Dublin pronunciations which fashionable speakers practised in the capital, a raising of back vowels began to spread and is now almost universal among younger speakers.

A word like toy is now pronounced /toi/ and goat is very similar to Received Pronunciation goat, i.e. [gəʊt].

5) The vowel in the PRICE lexical set, English /ai/, is pronounced with a centralised onset (schwa).

This is a stereotype of Irish English and has been represented in writing using oi, as in the woild Oirish. The schwa onset implied here does occur on the east coast, especially in colloquial Dublin English, but it is not found in supraregional varieties of Irish English, nor does in occur in all local varieties, e.g. on the west coast of Ireland [ai] is a normal realisation for all speakers.

6) Irish English has a ‘dark’, velarised /r/

Once more as a reaction to this pronunciation a retroflex /r/ has become common (much as in American English, but probably not in imitation of this).

For more information on the phonology of Irish English, see the discussions in the author’s sound atlas of Irish English, Hickey (2004a) and the overview article Hickey (2004b). Further references are contained in Hickey (2002a) and in the update section of the author’s homepage.


1) The Irish say youse to address more than one person.

Not quite true. You will hear youse as a colloquial form, alongside yez. But the non-stigmatised ‘neutral’ form is ye, the archaic form for you-plural in English which has been retained in Irish English (yez, pronounced with a long /i:/, is a combination of this ye and the plural -s just as youse consists of you + -s).

2) All the Irish use structures like He’s after breaking the glass and They do be out fishing in the summer.

The non-standard syntactic structures of Irish English show a distinct distribution in terms of stigmatisation. For instance, the after-perfective is very common and found across all sections of the speech community. The habitual with do + be is quite stigmatised, however, and only used by non-local speakers when imitating strongly vernacular speech.

A further aspectual type, which is not stigmatised, is the resultative perfective realised by the word order Object + Past Participle as in He has the work done. This word order implies that the person in question planned to do the work and has now completed it. The word order He has done the work does not imply the prior intention and could be used when to the surprise of another person, the individual in question has actually done the work. The semantic contrast of these two types is exploited continuously in Irish English.

3) The Irish use multiple negation liberally.

Not quite true. So-called negative concord (the negation of all negatable elements in a clause) is found in Irish English, e.g. He’s not interested in no cars. However, this is strongly vernacular and avoided in non-local speech.

4) The Irish use unbound reflexives abundantly.

Unbound reflexives are cases where there is no antecedent (as there is in standard usage like He shaved himself before breakfast). These occur sparingly in Irish English because they smack of stage Irishism which most modern Irish people think is only pandering to foreign notions of outdated Irishness. Nonetheless, in unguarded moments you will find Irish speakers producing sentences like Himself is not in today. In this case the unbound reflexive means something ‘like the boss’, ‘the person in charge’. This usage is also found in the feminine, e.g. Can I speak to herself for a moment?, i.e. to the lady of the house, owner of a shop, etc.

For more information on the syntax of Irish English, see Filppula (1999) which is the only monograph on the subject to date, see also Filppula (2004) for an overview. Chapter 4 of Hickey (2007) contains an in-depth discussion of grammar and traces possible Irish or English dialect sources for specifically Irish English features. Further references are contained in Hickey (2002a) and in the update section of the author’s homepage. In particular, see the articles by Karen Corrigan, Jeffrey Kallen and Kevin McCafferty.


There are lots of loanwords from Irish in Irish English.

Quite untrue. There are very few indeed. To understand this one must consider the language shift situation from about the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. During this period adult speakers of Irish learned English as a second language in order to improve their social position (they were in fact actively encouraged by their political leaders to abandon Irish). Because of the negative view of Irish during previous centuries speakers avoided borrowing elements from the lexicon which, as an open class, always has high awareness for speakers. The same is not true for phonology or syntax which is why more influence from Irish can be seen on these linguistic levels.

The non-standard words in Irish English are as often regional or archaic English words as they are Irish. Items like chisler ‘child’ or mitch ‘play truant’ reflect earlier English usage. A few established loans from Irish can nonetheless be quoted, e.g. bother, from Irish bodhar ‘deaf’, dig ‘to understand’ from Irish tuigim ‘I understand’ or Tory from Irish toraithe ‘outcast’.

For more information on the vocabulary of Irish English, see Dolan (2012), Ó Muirithe (1996) or Share (2008). On northern Irish English lexis, see Macafee (1996) or Todd (1990). Further references are contained in Hickey (2002a) and in the update section of the author’s homepage.

Finally, one should say that many of the conceptions about Irish English are indeed correct. The Irish do not generally distinguish between shall and will, they overuse the definite article, e.g. He likes the life in Dublin, they use the present for the present perfect, e.g. I know him for six years now, they use be as a verbal auxiliary, e.g. They’re finished the work now, they use the continuous in imperatives, e.g. Don’t be teasing your brother, etc.


Dolan, Terence P. 2012 [1998]. A dictionary of Hiberno-English. The Irish use of English. Third edition. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Filppula, Markku 2004. ‘Irish English: morphology and syntax’, in Kortmann et al. (eds), Vol. 2, pp. 73-101.

Hickey, Raymond 1984. ‘Coronal segments in Irish English’, Journal of Linguistics 20: 233-51.

Hickey, Raymond 1996. ‘Lenition in Irish English’, in Alison Henry, Martin Ball and Margaret MacAliskey (eds) 1996 Papers from the International Conference on Language in Ireland. Belfast Working Papers in Language and Linguistics, 13. Belfast: University of Ulster, pp. 173-93.

Hickey, Raymond 2002a. A Source Book for Irish English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hickey, Raymond 2002b. ‘The Atlantic edge. The relationship between Irish English and Newfoundland English’, English World-Wide, 23:2, 281-314.

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

Hickey, Raymond. 2004.b ‘The phonology of Irish English’, in Kortmann et al. (ed.), pp. 68-97.

Hickey, Raymond 2007. Irish English. Its history and present-day forms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hickey, Raymond 2009. ‘Weak segments in Irish English’, in: Donka Minkova (ed.) Phonological Weakness in English. From Old to Present-day English. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 116-129.

Kortmann, Bernd, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton 2004. A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Macafee, Caroline (ed.) 1996. A concise Ulster dictionary. Oxford: University Press.

Ó Muirithe, Diarmuid 1996. Dictionary of Anglo-Irish. Words and phrases from Irish. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Share, Bernard 2008 [1997]. Slanguage — a dictionary of slang and colloquial English in Ireland. Third edition. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Todd, Loreto 1990. Words apart. A dictionary of Northern Irish English. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe.