English as we speak it in Ireland/I

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Our Anglo-Irish dialectical words and phrases are derived from three main sources:—

First: the Irish language.

Second: Old English and the dialect of Scotland.

Third: independently of these two sources, dialectical expressions have gradually grown up among our English-speaking people, as dialects arise everywhere.

In the following pages whenever a word or a phrase is not assigned to any origin it is to be understood as belonging to this third class:—that is so far as is known at present; for I have no doubt that many of these will be found, after further research, to be either Irish-Gaelic or Old English. It is to be also observed that a good many of the dialectical expressions given in this book as belonging to Ireland may possibly be found current in England or in Scotland or in both. But that is no reason why they should not be included here.

Influence of Irish.

The Irish language has influenced our Irish-English speech in several ways. To begin with: it has determined the popular pronunciation, in certain combinations, of three English consonants, t, d, and th, but in a way (so far as t and d are concerned) that would not now be followed by anyone even moderately well educated. The sounds of English t and d are not the same as those of the Irish t and d; and when the people began to exchange the Irish language for English, they did not quite abandon the Irish sounds of these two letters, but imported them into their English, especially when they came before r. That is why we hear among the people in every part of Ireland such vulgarisms as (for t) bitther, butther, thrue; and (for d) laddher (ladder), cidher (cider), foddher, &c. Yet in other positions we sound these letters correctly, as in fat, football, white; bad, hide, wild, &c. No one, however uneducated, will mispronounce the t and d in such words as these. Why it is that the Irish sound is retained before r and not in other combinations—why for instance the Irish people sound the t and d incorrectly in platter and drive [platther, dhrive] and correctly in plate and dive—is a thing I cannot account for.

As for the English th, it may be said that the general run of the Irish people never sound it at all; for it is a very difficult sound to anyone excepting a born Englishman, and also excepting a small proportion of those born and reared on the east coast of Ireland. It has two varieties of sound, heard in bath and bathe: and for these two our people use the Irish t and d, as heard in the words given above.

A couple of centuries ago or more the people had another substitute for this th (in bathe) namely d, which held its place for a considerable time, and this sound was then considered almost a national characteristic; so that in the song of 'Lillibulero' the English author of the song puts this pronunciation all through in the mouth of the Irishman:—'Dere was an ould prophecy found in a bog.' It is still sometimes heard, but merely as a defect of speech of individuals:—‘De books are here: dat one is yours and dis is mine.’ Danny Mann speaks this way all through Gerald Griffin's ‘Collegians.’

There was, and to a small extent still is, a similar tendency—though not so decided—for the other sound of th (as in bath):—'I had a hot bat this morning; and I remained in it for tirty minutes': 'I tink it would be well for you to go home to-day.'

Another influence of the Irish language is on the letter s. In Irish, this letter in certain combinations is sounded the same as the English sh; and the people often—though not always—in similar combinations, bring this sound into their English:—'He gave me a blow of his fisht'; 'he was whishling St. Patrick's Day'; 'Kilkenny is sickshty miles from this.' You hear this sound very often among the more uneducated of our people.

In imitation of this vulgar sound of s, the letter z often comes in for a similar change (though there is no such sound in the Irish language). Here the z gets the sound heard in the English words glazier, brazier:—'He bought a dozhen eggs'; tis drizzhling rain'; 'that is dizhmal news.'

The second way in which our English is influenced by Irish is in vocabulary. When our Irish forefathers began to adopt English, they brought with them from their native language many single Irish words and used them—as best suited to express what they meant—among their newly acquired English words; and these words remain to this day in the current English of their descendants, and will I suppose remain for ever. And the process still goes on—though slowly—for as time passes, Irish words are being adopted even in the English of the best educated people. There is no need to give many examples here, for they will be found all through this book, especially in the Vocabulary. I will instance the single word galore (plentiful) which you will now often see in English newspapers and periodicals. The adoption of Irish words and phrases into English nowadays is in great measure due to the influence of Irishmen resident in England, who write a large proportion—indeed I think the largest proportion—of the articles in English periodicals of every kind. Other Irish words such as shamrock, whiskey, bother, blarney, are now to be found in every English Dictionary. Smithereens too (broken bits after a smash) is a grand word, and is gaining ground every day. Not very long ago I found it used in a public speech in London by a Parliamentary candidate—an Englishman; and he would hardly have used it unless he believed that it was fairly intelligible to his audience.

The third way in which Irish influences our English is in idiom: that is, idiom borrowed from the Irish language. Of course the idioms were transferred about the same time as the single words of the vocabulary. This is by far the most interesting and important feature. Its importance was pointed out by me in a paper printed twenty years ago, and it has been properly dwelt upon by Miss Hayden and Professor Hartog in their recently written joint paper mentioned in the Preface. Most of these idiomatic phrases are simply translations from Irish; and when the translations are literal, Englishmen often find it hard or impossible to understand them. For a phrase may be correct in Irish, but incorrect, or even unintelligible, in English when translated word for word. Gerald Griffin has preserved more of these idioms (in 'The Collegians,' 'The Coiner,' 'Tales of a Jury-room,' &c.) than any other writer; and very near him come Charles Kickham (in 'Knocknagow'), Crofton Croker (in 'Fairy Legends') and Edward Walsh. These four writers almost exhaust the dialect of the South of Ireland.

On the other hand Carleton gives us the Northern dialect very fully, especially that of Tyrone and eastern Ulster; but he has very little idiom, the peculiarities he has preserved being chiefly in vocabulary and pronunciation.

Mr. Seumas MacManus has in his books faithfully pictured the dialect of Donegal (of which he is a native) and of all north-west Ulster.

In the importation of Irish idiom into English, Irish writers of the present day are also making their influence felt, for I often come across a startling Irish expression (in English words of course) in some English magazine article, obviously written by one of my fellow-countrymen. Here I ought to remark that they do this with discretion and common sense, for they always make sure that the Irish idiom they use is such as that any Englishman can understand it.

There is a special chapter (iv) in this book devoted to Anglo-Irish phrases imported direct from Irish; but instances will be found all through the book.

It is safe to state that by far the greatest number of our Anglo-Irish idioms come from the Irish language.

Influence of Old English and of Scotch.

From the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion, in the twelfth century, colonies of English and of Welsh-English people were settled in Ireland—chiefly in the eastern part—and they became particularly numerous in the time of Elizabeth, three or four centuries ago, when they were spread all over the country. When these Elizabethan colonists, who were nearly all English, settled down and made friends with the natives and intermarried with them, great numbers of them learned to use the Irish language; while the natives on their part learned English from the newcomers. There was give and take in every place where the two peoples and the two languages mixed. And so the native Irish people learned to speak Elizabethan English—the very language used by Shakespeare; and in a very considerable degree the old Gaelic people and those of English descent retain it to this day. For our people are very conservative in retaining old customs and forms of speech. Many words accordingly that are discarded as old-fashioned—or dead and gone—in England, are still flourishing—alive and well—in Ireland. They are now regarded as vulgarisms by the educated—which no doubt they are—but they are vulgarisms of respectable origin, representing as they do the classical English of Shakespeare's time.

Instances of this will be found all through the book; but I may here give a passing glance at such pronunciations as tay for tea, sevare for severe, desaive for deceive; and such words as sliver, lief, afeard, &c.—all of which will be found mentioned farther on in this book. It may be said that hardly any of those incorrect forms of speech, now called vulgarisms, used by our people, were invented by them; they are nearly all survivals of usages that in former times were correct—in either English or Irish.

In the reign of James I.—three centuries ago—a large part of Ulster—nearly all the fertile land of six of the nine counties—was handed over to new settlers, chiefly Presbyterians from Scotland, the old Catholic owners being turned off. These settlers of course brought with them their Scotch dialect, which remains almost in its purity among their descendants to this day. This dialect, it must be observed, is confined to Ulster, while the remnants of the Elizabethan English are spread all over Ireland.

As to the third main source—the gradual growth of dialect among our English-speaking people—it is not necessary to make any special observations about it here; as it will be found illustrated all through the book.

Owing to these three influences, we speak in Ireland a very distinct dialect of English, which every educated and observant Englishman perceives the moment he sets foot in this country. It is most marked among our peasantry; but in fact none of us are free from it, no matter how well educated. This does not mean that we speak bad English; for it is generally admitted that our people on the whole, including the peasantry, speak better English—nearer to the literary standard—than the corresponding classes of England. This arises mainly—so far as we are concerned—from the fact that for the last four or five generations we have learned our English in a large degree from books, chiefly through the schools.

So far as our dialectical expressions are vulgar or unintelligible, those who are educated among us ought of course to avoid them. But outside this a large proportion of our peculiar words and phrases are vivid and picturesque, and when used with discretion and at the right time, give a sparkle to our conversation; so that I see no reason why we should wipe them out completely from our speech so as to hide our nationality. To be hypercritical here is often absurd and sometimes silly.

I well remember on one occasion when I was young in literature perpetrating a pretty strong Hibernicism in one of my books. It was not forbidding, but rather bright and expressive: and it passed off, and still passes off very well, for the book is still to the fore. Some days after the publication, a lady friend who was somewhat of a pedant and purist in the English language, came to me with a look of grave concern—so solemn indeed that it somewhat disconcerted me—to direct my attention to the error. Her manner was absurdly exaggerated considering the occasion. Judging from the serious face and the voice of bated breath, you might almost imagine that I had committed a secret murder and that she had come to inform me that the corpse had just been found.