A couple of days ago I tweeted this:
Below is the image included in the tweet, in case it doesn’t appear above. It’s from a recent poll by UK research firm YouGov in which 2018 people in Britain were asked how attractive or unattractive they found 12 accents in Britain and Ireland. In this post I want to address the poll and some of the responses to it.
Some news outlets are calling them “the twelve main accents of the British Isles”, but that’s not what they are. YouGov also uses the term British Isles to refer to both Britain and Ireland, and though the phrase is often intended simply as a geographical descriptor, it’s politically loaded so I avoid it.*
On to the poll results. I found them a little surprising. RP (Received Pronunciation) is up there, as you’d expect, but a long way off the accent judged most attractive: ‘Southern Irish’. This phrase proved contentious in the replies to my tweet, many of which were along the lines of: ‘Oh, do we all have one accent now?’ or ‘What on earth do they mean by Southern?’
These are fair objections, and the first one could also apply to Northern Irish, Welsh, and others. (Also, given the prevalence of Estuary English its exclusion is curious.) But a small, quick survey like this is always going to simplify, generalise, and mislead by omission. Southern Irish was presumably chosen to distinguish it from Northern Irish.
It’s not an unheard-of classification. Séamas Moylan adopts it matter-of-factly in his fine historical review Southern Irish English (Geography Publications, 2009), describing it as the variety “spoken in the part of Ireland roughly coterminous with the Irish Republic (Donegal being the most obvious exception)”. He abbreviates it SIE throughout.
Raymond Hickey’s map of Hiberno-English dialect regions may serve as a helpful point from which to consider the lumping–splitting axis of Irish accents (though it concerns dialect, which encompasses grammar and vocabulary as well as pronunciation).
For a small country, Ireland has tremendous accent diversity. There are huge differences between the accents of, for example, Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Waterford, Limerick, Mayo, Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal, and the midlands. And any area can be further subdivided by those with a good ear for this.
If you asked a group of British people (many of whom would never have visited or travelled around Ireland) what they thought of each of the above accents and others besides, I suspect most of them would struggle to answer. Ireland’s abundant regional accents just aren’t familiar to people who aren’t Irish or Irish-ish, or who haven’t spent significant time here.
Here are the counties, for reference. I’m in Galway on the west coast:
As Ben Trawick-Smith writes at Dialect Blog, in his helpful overview of Irish accents:
The problem is, Ireland in some ways has too many varieties of English to easily classify into smaller sub-areas. Take Dublin, for example. It seems there are as many accents in that city as there are people, and many of these accents are wildly different from each other. These differences are found in many parts of Ireland, where it often seems that every village has a totally different way of speaking from the one next door.
(Tip: Read the comments at Dialect Blog, but not on the YouGov page.)
Just how granular can we go with accent differentiation? Try this:
To return from splitting to lumping: What British people have in mind when asked about the ‘Southern Irish’ accent is open to speculation. I don’t think the survey had an audio/video element. An Irish accent to most people outside Ireland is probably something like those of Sinéad O’Connor, Brendan Gleeson, or Colin Farrell – Dublin-ish. Cillian Murphy and Roy Keane, from Cork in the south south, are exceptions in having fairly well-known Irish accents from outside the Pale.
I like most Irish and British accents, and there are some (like Scottish and Donegal accents) that I’m especially partial to. Feel free to share your favourites or your thoughts on the survey in a comment below. This PDF has the full survey results, with more detail on how the answers break down demographically.
A few more tweets of interest since the post went up:
* I should have tweeted Britain + Ireland or UK + Ireland instead of British Isles + Ireland. Ireland can refer either to the island, including Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK), or to the Irish state, often called the Republic of Ireland. It’s all quite complicated and somewhat beside the point here.