Come here till I tell you about ‘till’ in Ireland

Till (= until) has an extra sense in Irish English that means something like “in order that” or “so that [someone] can…”. A doting relative, upon meeting you after a long absence, might say “Come here till I see you”, which means “Come closer so that I can look at you properly”.

Raymond Hickey, in his essay Southern Irish English, gives the example “Come here till I tell you.” This common expression can invite a listener who is within earshot to move physically closer, but it doesn’t always: it can also serve simply to announce an item of discourse, to prepare an audience’s ears for something of interest or significance, e.g.:

Come here till I tell you what happened this morning.

Used this way, Come here till I tell you is like a longer version of Old English Hwæt! (Hark!, Lo!, Listen!, etc.; literally What!), signalling the beginning of a story, albeit usually shorter than Beowulf. Some speakers run “Come here till” together so it sounds like “C’meertle”.

T. P. Dolan has a nice entry in his Dictionary of Hiberno-English, in which he says till reflects the wider meaning of go /gʌ/ — the corresponding conjunction in Irish — and the idiom behaves “as if it were an adverbial clause of purpose”.

You can see how it works in the literary examples he provides:

Where is he till I murder him? (James Joyce, Ulysses)

Come here till I embrace you. (Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot)

Tell me who’s to blame will yeh til I tear his friggin’ head off. (Billy Roche, A Handful of Stars)

Come here till I comb your hair. (Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes)

And a few more from Google Books:

“You killed my brother,” said the giant; “come here, till I make a garter of your body.” (J. M. Synge, The Aran Islands)

“Och, captain, avick! och! och! come here till I eat you!” And she flung her arm round Robinson’s neck, and bestowed a little furious kiss on him. (Charles Reade, It Is Never Too Late to Mend)

Give me yer blissin’ till I go away to push me fortune. (Seumas MacManus, ‘Twas in Dhroll Donegal)

The MacManus line is one of several illustrative examples included in Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English.

P. W. Joyce reported in 1910 that this till (“in order that”) was used in many parts of Ireland. Certainly it was familiar to me growing up in the west, and I still hear and use it from time to time.

Updates:

Elizabeth McGuane loves the turn of phrase Come here till I tell you, and adds the related Come here to me and Come here to me now till I tell you. Ronan Delaney believes it’s “all down to that full Irish construction Gabh i leigth anseo go… or roughly Goile’nseo go…”

John Byrne says C’mere till I tell you a question is an “old Limerickism”, while Sally Tipper says the post got her thinking about the “northern English use of while to mean till“, as in “I’ll not be back while late”; she can’t vouch for all contexts, so maybe a native can shed light.

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32 Responses to Come here till I tell you about ‘till’ in Ireland

  1. This was really interesting to me because I’m planning to study in Ireland for a month starting in June. So thanks for posting this. :)

  2. Jonathon says:

    Interesting. So is this somewhat analogous to the use of “after” in recent past constructions, where an Irish construction is essentially literally translated into English?

  3. I’ve just scanned all the Irish-influenced song lyrics in my collection trying to find an example. I’ve come up blank, except perhaps for one, and I’m not sure about that one.

    You know how when people write the lyrics to their own songs inside album covers they don’t always write down word-for-word what they actually sing? Well, there’s a point in the song Across the Water by Jimmy Gregory where he sings, “so [that] we can be together once again” (I’ve bracketted “that” because it appears in some refrains only), but what’s printed in the album cover is, “till we can be together once again“. I’m not sure what to make of this, because neither version seems to be what is literally meant, but arguably it suggests that “till” and “so that” are interchangeable.

    The full chorus: “So carry me across the dark old water. Guide me safe into the harbour. In your love I will find shelter (so that / till) we can be together once again.

    @Jonathan Speaking of which, a few months ago I shared an anecdote with Stan that perhaps merits wider circulation. My father had just phoned a taxi and said, “I’m after booking a taxi for tomorrow”, meaning, “in order to book a taxi for tomorrow”. It amused me to know that in Ireland it would mean something different, but more than that, it was an example in the wild that confirmed the ambiguity that I perceived when I first learnt about the Irish “after”. (As you know, confirmation is always welcome in linguistics.)

  4. dawninnl says:

    Interesting that you specify this usage in Hiberno English, I am used to this in Fife, Scotland, too.

  5. Stan says:

    Amelia: You’re welcome! I hope you enjoy your stay here. If you’re interested, you’ll find more posts on Irish English in the archives.

    Jonathon: That seems to be the general conclusion regarding how the idiom arose in Irish English. When I began looking into it I found that its history and usage were a lot more complicated than I would have expected. For example, in old texts it often refers to the future; and it seems there’s a similar construction in Welsh. So I’ll try to blog about it sometime.

    Adrian: I’m not sure what to make of that example. (At first I assumed it was a romantic song, then I thought it was about love of one’s homeland, then I thought it might be an allegorical song about religious faith.) Whatever the lyric’s intended meaning, it does seem to point to a degree of interchangeability between till and so that, as you inferred.

    On song lyric discrepancies, an interesting example I came across in my student days is the difference between the band version and the piano version of the Red House Painters’ Mistress: the former has “I’ve had enough of these / brutal beatings and name callings”; the latter has “I want a piece of these / brutal beatings and name callings”. The inconsistency itself becomes part of the sad story.

    Dawn: That is interesting! Thanks for letting me know. I specified Hiberno-English because that’s what I’m familiar with, but there are many parallels between the areas’ dialects.

  6. Great stuff as ever Stan. I dud think that putting boy (or is that biy!) in there would make it sound utterly Corkonian!

  7. Pat McClay says:

    As with Dawn I recognise something similar in Scotland – e.g. Come here t’ (ae) I see you. Strangely never thought about it before.

  8. korystamper says:

    The OED calls this this particular use Scottish and Irish, and dates it to an 1881 glossary of Scots English. That it predates the 1881 glossary is clear.

    It’s interesting to me that “till” was chosen to represent the Irish conjunction–there were similar (prepositional) uses of “till” in Middle English and Old English, particularly in the north, but nothing like this in Modern English. Makes me wonder just how far back this particular use of “till” really goes.

  9. I’m from Newfoundland, Canada and we (many of us, anyway) are familiar with a similar usage of ’till’. My grandmother used to use “Come here till I see you” in that affectionate “Come over here so I can get a good look at you” sort of way.

    As well, if you’re in a fix of some sort and someone is coming to help you, they might say, “Stay where you’re at till I comes where you’re to”. I hear this as “Stay where you are until I can get there, too” or as “Stay where you are until I can find you” in the case that you’re lost, in the woods, in the dark (which actually happened to me, once. Ahem.).

  10. Stan says:

    Jams: Thank you! You’re dead right about biy, biy.

    Pat: Thanks for confirming it. Funny how easily we overlook the strangeness of idioms familiar to us.

    Kory: That’s really interesting. Sadly, my knowledge of Irish and the language’s history is nowhere near strong enough for me to hypothesize about this.

    gravitas&giggles: Ah, so it has made its way across! This pleases me. I have an online friend (“Irish by birth, Newfoundlandler by avocation”) who writes about the two places’ respective dialects sometimes. Stay where you’re at till I comes where you’re to… is a modern wonder of prepositional persistence. I hope you weren’t lost in the woods in the dark for long.

  11. Claude says:

    In French, le “jusque” is so “normal” that I wouldn’t even think how strange it might sound to foreign ears. “Viens ici que je t’embrasse jusque j’en meurs de souffle! or Reste là que je te vois jusqu’à mes yeux soient pleins de toi!”

    What an interesting post. It’s always so much fun to visit you. Thanks, Stan!

  12. Re update, I am intrigued by John Byrne’s claim that “C’mere till I tell you a question” is an old Limerickism, and feel there is only one suitable way to test this.

    Come here till I tell you a question,
    Said an old man for Limerick destined.
    As I walk to my home,
    Tell me, how would a poem
    ‘Bout an old man from Limerick be best done?

    (Note complete absence of any pair of lines that actually rhymes.)

  13. Stan says:

    Claude: The most normal of idioms can become very strange when considered literally, as an outsider might! And thank you; it’s always a pleasure to see you.

    Adrian: I like it! The absence of perfect rhymes allows for more imaginative lines. Ogden Nash was a master of near-rhymes and forced rhymes, and I’ve never minded it in the least.

  14. John Cowan says:

    There was a young fellow from Bees,
    Who was stung in the neck by a wasp.
         When asked “Does it hurt?”
         He replied, “No, it doesn’t.
    It would have been terrible if it had been a hornet.”
       —W. S. Gilbert

  15. Stan says:

    With my apologies to Mr Gilbert:

    There once was a poet from London
    Who tore rhyming customs asunder.
    Was there chaos? What, never?
    Well, hardly ever!
    The longer you ponder the wander.

  16. John Cowan says:

    Here’s a brief article about Scotch-Irish features in Appalachian English, including this one.

  17. jaycarax says:

    Brilliant stuff.

    We’ve been running a blog about Dublin life and culture called ‘Come Here To Me!’ for just over two years now.

    http://comeheretome.wordpress.com/

    All the best.

  18. Stan says:

    John: Thank you! I had no idea the “needs washed” construction had been traced to Scotch-Irish.

    jaycarax: Thanks for stopping by. I’ve bookmarked Come Here To Me! and will explore it properly soon.

  19. Erin Roof says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. Being American, I had no idea about this use of “till.” How interesting! Love your blog. . . .

  20. [...] [PDF] on East Tennessee grammar, which John Cowan shared in a comment to my recent post on Hiberno-English till. The article’s author, Michael Montgomery, is one of the people behind MultiMo: The Database of [...]

  21. Stan says:

    Thanks very much, Erin! You’d probably get some funny looks if you tried this till in America, but don’t let that put you off.

  22. [...] how words get into the dictionary. On his own blog, Mr. Carey told us about another nuance of the word till and that we might could dig some multiple modals. Kory Stamper deliberated on irregardless and the [...]

  23. Douglas says:

    From “The Butcher Boy” (or “The Butcher’s Boy”):
    “She went upstairs to go to bed,
    And calling up her mother said,
    Bring me a chair till I sit down,
    and a pen and ink till I write down.”

  24. Stan says:

    Thanks for that example, Douglas. I like it.

  25. saranome says:

    [...] Come here till I tell you about ‘till’ in Ireland [...]

  26. I became familiar with Irish ’till’ = “so that I may” via my wife (from Dublin) and a work colleague (from Belfast), so if there were any doubt, it certainly seems to be geographically widespread.

  27. Douglas Nicholas, author of SOMETHING RED says:

    On lyric inconsisency in “Mistress”:

    Consider the possibility of a misspelling in whoever wrote the lyric notes: “I wanted a peace of (from) these brutal beatings etc.”

    “peace” not “piece”

  28. The modern Limerick city version is “Come ‘ere I tell ya”.

  29. [...] 1. Come here till I tell ya. [See my post on this Irish use of till.] [...]

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