Page 3 - Irish English

The influence of the Irish language on how the Irish pronounce certain words is also quite evident. For instance it is not uncommon to hear butther (butter), laddher (ladder), wardhrobe (wardrope), thrue (true), etc. with the ‘t’ and the ‘d’ both being sounded as they would in the Irish language. “Dis, dat dese and dose” (this, that, these and those) can be heard in many parts of Ireland with the ‘th’ replaced by the Irish ‘d’ sound, and in words like ‘tirsty’ (thirsty) and ‘fate’ (faith) the Irish ‘t’ sound is spoken instead of the ‘th’. To the trained ear, there is a marked difference between the substitution of the Irish ‘d’ in the pronunciation of these words and the substitution of the English ‘d’. This difference can be explained by comparing the formation of the consonants in the two languages. In both Irish and English, the‘d’ is pronounced like the ‘t’ except for the use of the vocal cords. In Irish each has a broad sound when the nearest vowel in the word is ‘a’, ‘o’ or ‘u’, and a slender sound when the nearest vowel is ‘e’ or ‘i’.

To form the broad sound in Irish as in ‘dún’ (doon) and ‘tú’ (too), the front of the tongue is placed up against or very close to the teeth ridge and touching the back of the teeth. For the slender ‘d’ and ‘t’, the process is similar except for the position of the lips and the fact that the sound has a trace of the ’y’ sound at the end of it as in ‘teach’ (tyahk) and ‘dearg’ (DYAR-uhg).In English, the‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds are formed by the action of the blade of the tongue against the teeth ridge causing the mouth passage to be completely blocked, and as the pressure of breath or voice behind the blockage increases, it is suddenly released to form these plosive sounds.‘Shtop’, ‘shticks and shtones’ (stop, sticks and stones) would be considered by many as a rather rough form of speech but the real reason is that the Irish sound as in words like ‘sneachta’ (SHNUKH-tah) is used instead of the English sound. ‘Tay’ (tea) and ‘kittle’ (kettle) are other examples of the influence of the Irish language on day-to-day speech.

It is said that the life of a people is pictured in their speech which can be defined as a national or regional language or dialect or a certain people’s characteristic manner of speaking. Australian English, for example, has its own regional variety of the language with its own characteristic manner of speech which can be explained, though not entirely, by considering pronunciation, slang and colloquial terms and expressions and intonation patterns peculiar to it.  The same can be said of Irish English but then that’s only part of the story.  Here we have also the situation where the native language has a lasting influence on all aspects of the adopted language from vocabulary and pronunciation to the very structure of the language.

At the turn of the last century, John Synge who was one of the leading dramatists of the Irish national theatre was persuaded by his friend William Butler Yeats to visit the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, and study its people.  It was a rather primitive wind- bitten life, but in the joys and sorrows of the people Synge found a deep strain of poetry.  He listened carefully to the musical speech of the islanders, and then wrote his play Riders to the Sea in 1904.  It is the tragedy of a mother who loses her men folk one after another to the sea.  There are few more powerful and flawless dramas than this little one in its lilting, rhythmic prose that captures the symphonic quality of the appeal to the ear in the phrasing of the speech of its characters.  This same quality is a distinct feature of his other play of the Aran Islands, a comedy entitled the Playboy of the Western World.  It is also an enduring feature of Irish English as a direct result of the very significant influence of the Irish language on spoken English.  Such expressions as –


There was he sitting … Bhí sé ina shuí - verb + subject + modifier
It's a fine day that … Is brá on lá é sin
It's not much I have … Ní mórán atá agam (use of negative)
Curse this for a pen … An mallacht ar on rud seo mar pheann
That you may do well … Go n'éirí an t-ádh leat.

"There does be school", "I do be at my lessons", and "I am after finishing my meal" are other common examples of regional variations of Irish speech that can be traced back to Irish.

When Patricia and I were in Ireland in 2004 for the Clan Coleman reunion, I noted the following words and expressions that were part of my cousins' speech:

Daft … Don't be daft! (silly)
Grand … Sure I'm grand (okay or fine)
Getting along famously … Having a great time together.
It was fierce (amazing) altogether
We had a glorious (fantastic) time there
It's having me on you are (just kidding)
'Twas a mighty (great) night.


The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary contains quite a few words of Irish and Irish language origin, in fact more than its lexicographers acknowledge declaring the origin of some of these words as unknown or obscure. The following list contains some of the more familiar ones as well as a few rarely heard outside Ireland:


English Language Word Irish Origin Meaning
banshee bean sídhe – fairy woman A female spirit whose wail portends death in the house.
bard bard Any of an ancient order of minstrel-poets who composed and sang verses usually to the harp celebrating the achievements of chiefs and warriors, recording historical events and traditional lore.
ben beann – a mountain peak Common in Ireland and Scotland.  (I could see the Twelve Bens in Connemara from where I lived in south Mayo.)
bog bogach or bog – soft Wet spongy ground, peaty soil.
boreen or bohereen bóithrín – diminutive of bother (road) Small country road or lane.
boycott From the surname “Boycott” – Captain Boycott, an agent for an absentee English landlord, Lord Erne, at Loch Mask in County Mayo. In September 1879, a campaign against Boycott who ignored the demands of the tenants was effectively orchestrated by Father John O'Malley of The Neale. It was he who suggested to James Redpath, special correspondent of The New York Herald, the term 'boycotting' as being easier for his parishioners to pronounce than 'ostracisation.
brogue bróg – shoe Earlier, it meant a strong outdoor shoe.
brogue Perhaps from bróg A strongly-marked regional (esp. Irish) accent.
callow Originally from the Latin ‘calvus’meaning ‘bald. Low-lying land liable to be flooded.
colleen cailín – girl Usually referring to an Irish girl
craic An Irish spelling of the word ‘crack’. The craic (fun and entertaining conversation) was great.
eejit An Irish form and pronunciation of ‘idiot’ It’s a real eejit you are to go there.
galore From the Irish ‘go leór’ For the Irish enough was a lot and more than most people had.
gob The Irish word ‘gob’ Beak or mouth.
gobshite Irish compound of ‘gob’ and ‘shit’. An ignorant loud-mouth.
Keen(ing) From the Irish ‘caoin’ – to cry To wail mournfully at wakes.
loch From the Irish ‘loch’ A lake or arm of the sea.
leprechaun From the Irish word ‘leipreachán’ In Irish folklore, a small usually mischievous being of human form, often associated with shoemaking and buried treasure.
poteen From the Irish ‘poitín’ – small pot Bootleg alcoholic drink often distilled from potatoes.
shebeen From the Irish ‘síbín’ – illicit whiskey An illicit drinking place.
shenachie or sennachie From Old Irish ‘senchaid’ A professional recorder and reciter of family or traditional history and genealogy. In Modern Irish ‘seanchaí´- story-teller, historian.
sheogue From the Irish ‘sióg’ Fairy.
shite Euphemistic Irish pronunciation of ‘shit’.  
smashing From the Irish ‘is maith é sin’ (ismohayshin) That’s good.
smithereens From the irish ‘smidiríní’ Little pieces.
tilly From the Irish ‘tuilleadh’ It means an additional quantity or article as a gift from the vendor.
whiskey From the Irish ‘uisce beatha’ Water of life

Well might it be said that the life of the Irish people is pictured in their speech which is more than words; it’s to
be found all around and it’s part of what they are.

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