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  The pragmatics of Irish English

In recent years the level of pragmatics has been given increased attention by scholars working on English in Ireland. While grammatical and phonological issues were in the foreground with studies in the 1980s and 1990s the shift to issues surrounding language use is noticeable from the early 2000s onwards. This reorientation is particularly obvious among young scholars, for instance those working in the University of Limerick, who used corpora they were compiling to advance our knowledge of the specific pragmatics of Irish English. The ICE-Ireland corpus, compiled by Jeffrey Kallen and John Kirk, has also been examined from a pragmatic perspective and a pragmatically tagged version of a part of the corpus has been prepared by John Kirk.

Pragmatic considerations also came to be highlighted by scholars working within the framework of variational pragmatics, which considers varieties of pluricentric languages such as English and Spanish and examines the differences in pragmatics across regions and countries where these languages are spoken. For samples of this work, see the contributions to Volume 6.4 of Intercultural Pragmatics.

The pragmatics of your native language is acquired in early childhood as part of socialisation, i.e. when you become part of the surrounding society you acquire not only the structure of its language but also how to use this language in specific social contexts. Thus you learn how to carry on conversations, how to address people, how to take turns when talking, when and when not to remain silent, the verbal humourof the society and, importantly, the special uses and particular settings of general words. These parameters of language use vary across societies and are embodied in their pragmatics. Even when the language is the same, the pragmatics can be different, e.g. the English, Scottish, Americans, Australians, South Africans - and the Irish - all use English in different ways although the words and grammar may well be the same. In addition, if more than one language is spoken in a country or region, then these languages will generally share their pragmatics because all the inhabitants of a country or region tend to use language in a similar fashion irrespective of which language they may speak on any given occasion. In the Irish context this means that the pragmatics of both the Celtic language Irish and the varieties of English in Ireland are very similar. You can download the following text to read about this matter further.

Pragmatics or Irish and Irish English

Some prominent pragmatic features of Irish English are the following:

Use of ‘like’

While ‘quotative like’ has spread rapidly throughout the anglophone world, including Ireland, in the past few decades, there is a much older and more established use of like in vernacular varieties of Irish English in both the north and south of the country. This is ‘focuser like’ which is frequently found at the end of a sentence, end of clause or at a pivor point between two clauses. The following are a number of recent studies on like in Irish English.

Amador-Moreno, Carolina P. 2012. ‘A corpus-based approach to contemporary Irish writing: Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s use of like as a discourse marker’, International Journal of English Studies. Special Issue A New Approach to Literature: Corpus Linguistics. 12.2: 19-38.

Clancy, Brian 2011b. ‘Do you want to do it yourself like? Hedging in Irish traveller and settled family discourse’, in: Bethan L. Davies, Michael Haugh and Andrew J. Merrison (eds) Situated Politeness. London: Continuum, pp. 129-146.

Corrigan, Karen P. 2015. ‘“I always think of people here, you know, saying ‘like’ after every sentence”: The dynamics of discourse-pragmatic markers in Northern Irish English’, in: Amador-Moreno, Carolina P., Kevin McCafferty and Elaine Vaughan (eds) 2015. Pragmatic Markers in Irish English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 37-64.

Höhn, Nicole 2012. ‘And they were all like What’s going on? New quotatives in Jamaican and Irish English’, in: Marianne Hundt and Ulrike Gut (eds) Mapping Unity and Diversity World-Wide: Corpus-Based Studies of New Englishes. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 263-290.

Nestor, Niamh, Caitríona Ni Chasaide and Vera Regan 2013. ‘Discourse “like” and social identity – a case study of Poles in Ireland’, in: Bettina Migge and Máire Ní Chiosáin (eds), New Perspectives in Irish English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 327-354.

Schweinberger, Martin 2013. ‘The discourse marker LIKE in Irish English’, in: Bettina Migge and Máire Ní Chiosáin (eds), New Perspectives in Irish English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 179-202.

Use of ‘sure’

As a discourse marker indicating reassurance or appealing to agreement with the speaker, sure is common in vernacular varieties of Irish English and has been examined in the following studies.

Amador-Moreno, Carolina P. and Kevin McCafferty 2015. ‘“Sure this is a great country for drink and rowing at elections”: Pragmatic markers in the Corpus of Irish English Correspondence, 1750-1940“, in: Amador-Moreno, Carolina P., Kevin McCafferty and Elaine Vaughan (eds) 2015. Pragmatic Markers in Irish English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 271-292.

Barron, Anne and Irina Pandarova 2016. ‘The sociolinguistics of language use in Ireland’, in: Hickey (ed.)Sociolinguistics in Ireland. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 107-130.

Use of ‘now’

The temporal adverb now acts in Irish English as a hedging device or to indicate the end of an exchange, e.g. There you are now. That’s all you need. This parallels usage in Irish (see Raymond Hickey 2015. ‘The pragmatics of Irish English and Irish’, in: Carolina Amador-Moreno, Kevin McCafferty and Elaine Vaughan (eds) Pragmatic Markers in Irish English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 17-36) where the adverb anois ‘now’ is found in similar contexts. Whether this is a transfer from Irish English or the source of the Irish English usage is impossible to say, not least because there is no firm linguistic evidence on the use of anois ‘now’ in Irish in previous centuries.

Clancy, Brian and Elaine Vaughan 2013. ‘“It’s lunacy now“: A corpus-based pragmatic analysis of the use of ‘now’ in contemporary Irish English’', in: Bettina Migge and Máire Ní Chiosáin (eds), New Perspectives in Irish English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 225-246.

Migge, Bettina 2015. ‘Now in the speech of newcomers to Ireland’, in: Amador-Moreno, Carolina P., Kevin McCafferty and Elaine Vaughan (eds) 2015. Pragmatic Markers in Irish English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 390-407.

Use of ‘grand’

The use of grand to indicate approval of something That‘s a grand job they did on the roundabout or to reassure someone in an exchange Listen, you‘re grand the way you are is especially Irish and is a feature which seems to have arisen in the latter half of the nineteenth century going on the textual record for Irish English. Nowadays the use of grand is ubiquitous in spoken Irish English.

Hickey, Raymond 2017. ‘The pragmatics of grand in Irish English’, Journal of Historical Pragmatics 18.1.

Requests and offers

Exchanges among participants in Irish English discourse are predicated on the pragmatics of reassurance: agreement between participants is highly valued and pragmatic makers which highlight this are common, especially in situations where action on the part of one or both participants is pending. These and other issues are discussed in the following two studies.

Barron, Anne 2008. ‘Contrasting requests in Inner Circle Englishes. A study in variational pragmatics’, in: Martin Pütz and J. Neff van Aertselaer (eds) Contrastive Pragmatics: Interlanguage and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 355-402.

Barron, Anne 2011. ‘Variation revisited: a corpus analysis of offers in Irish English and British English’, in: Joachim Frenk and Lena Steveker (eds) Anglistentag 2010 Saarbrücken: Proceedings. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, pp. 407-19.

There are two book-length publications on the Irish English pragmatics, the first by Anne Barron and Klaus P. Schneider (The Pragmatics of Irish English, Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2006) and the second by Carolina P. Amador-Moreno, Kevin McCafferty, Elaine Vaughan (Pragmatic Markers in Irish English, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015).


For more information, see the section on Pragmatics in the module Research Trends.