One of my pet linguistic topics is Irish English dialect, which I explored at length in an essay a while back. Here are 10 words, usages, and grammatical features characteristic of English as it’s used in Ireland.
Links point to previous blog posts with more discussion on usage, origins, and so on.
1. Grand is a popular adjective/interjection in Ireland to express modest satisfaction, approval, wellbeing, or simply acknowledgement. It’s handy for understatement and not overdoing one’s enthusiasm, but in certain situations it can be a biteen (see below) ambiguous.
2. –een is a common suffix, borrowed from Irish –ín /iːn/, normally applied to something small, endearing, or beloved. It’s often appended to loved ones’ names: Nora → Noreen. You may know it from Irish words that spread internationally, like boreen, carrageen, shebeen, or smithereens.
3. A culchie is someone from the Irish countryside (or a small town or village), especially from a Dubliner’s point of view. It began as a derogatory stereotype – think hick or bumpkin – but it’s now often used as an affectionate tribal badge. There are a lot of theories about its origin.
4. Haitch /heɪtʃ/, not ‘aitch’, is how Irish people pronounce the letter ‘h’. Historically this shibboleth carried a lot of cultural and political baggage, as well as attracting grumbles (and worse) from linguistic purists. It’s on the rise in British English.
5. Codding is joking or fooling. It can be transitive (I’m only codding you) and intransitive (I’m only codding). There’s also the nouns cod ‘joke, hoax’ and codology, with the learned suffix –ology added by some codder. As far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with fish.
6. Do be, be’s: These are ways to mark habitual aspect in Irish English. Maybe because Irish has a form of habitual be, Irish people, when English was forced on them, devised ways to convey it, including ‘do be’ and ‘be’s’: The cat does be [or be’s] out rambling most nights.
7. Bold has a special sense of ‘naughty, mischievous’ in Irish English, often in reference to children. In my experience it’s more common than the standardized English sense of bold = brave, daring, though the distinction isn’t always clear-cut. Irish dána straddles the two senses.
8. The cut of you: The cut of someone is an informal idiom that refers to a person’s state or appearance, which typically has something obviously wrong with it. It can be the speaker themselves: Look at the cut of me! The tone is usually critical in an amused vein.
9. Ye, youse, and yiz are second-person plural pronouns used all over Ireland; ye is favoured in the west, but I use youse too. We inflect and affix them to fit our needs: yeers, youse’ll, yizzer (= plural your, via yiz). I’d be lost without them, y’all. (We can’t use ye that way.)
10. On foot of is a more formal phrase that means ‘as a result of’ or ‘on the basis of’. It’s not heard much in everyday speech but is routine in legal/managerial contexts and journalism, particularly crime and business reporting: The FTSE slumped on foot of US jobs news.
My previous set of Irishisms featured the after perfect, amn’t, bulling, cnáimhseáil, feck, fierce, fooster, notions, oxter, plámás, sleeveen, and till. The first collection featured acushla machree, asthore, cat, give out, hames, moryah, smacht, thick, and yoke.
Some of these occur in other dialects – ‘haitch’ in Australian English, for example – but they all mark Irish English and collectively help characterize the dialect. I’ve made notes on a couple of other Hiberno-English usages and hopefully will get around to them next year.
Stan, I see that back in 2016 you answered the question I was going to ask today, about youse and yez (or yiz) in American speech. As in my NY/NJ youth: “Whaddayiz wanna do?”
I like that eye dialect, Michael. It seems we exported words as an inevitable but sometimes overlooked result of exporting people.
Great to see you posting again :)
I lived in Ireland, Galway and Dublin between 1987 and 97. All the above are familiar except I don’t remember hearing do be. Grand and bold in the Irish sense became part of my own vocabulary.
Thank you! Ten years is long enough to pick up a few local expressions. I like the idea of you bringing some with you for the long run =)
I feel a nod should be given to the Irish expression that always precedes complete chaos, destruction and disaster – “Sure, it’ll be grand!”
Definitely. There’s a slew [another Irish word] of those, lent nuance through pragmatic markers like “Ah shur”, “Arra”, and “musha”, Maybe most famously there’s “Feck it sure it’s grand”. It’s like a whole way of life.
Hi Mr Carey. I had a bad experience with WordPress and no longer have an account to post from, but I always find these posts interesting, and I heard most of those words growing up in NYC with my “culchie” parents. ________________________________
Hi Peter – please, call me Stan. It’s nice to think of these words circulating in NYC.
I’m sorry you had trouble with WordPress. It can be finicky.
I must admit to cringing whenever I hear “haitch”, but I also cringe whenever I hear “zee”.
PS I try very hard not to …
At least you try! But why do those pronunciations make you cringe?
I remember that during the so-called troubles, even `wrong’ spelling could spell doom: Haitch = Catholic.
Yes. Someone told me they were beaten up for saying it ‘wrong’.
When I was growing up in Belfast in the 1980s/90s, there were stories of people being stopped in the street and being told to say the alphabet (because the letter A was also a shibboleth – on the whole, Catholics tended to say “ah”, while Protestants said “ay”). I’m sure these were at least in part apocryphal, but equally sure that there was a grain of truth – people did indeed have very finely-tuned senses for identifying “which foot you kicked with”.
It’s grim. I can well believe how sensitive people became to the different patterns, verbal and otherwise.
“Stand over” is definite Irishism too, instead of “stand by” or “stand behind”. To an Australian ear “stand over” means to intimidate, like a thug is a “stand-over merchant”.
That’s an interesting example. The ‘postpone’ and ‘supervise’ senses of the phrase are probably used everywhere, but I didn’t know about the ‘intimidate’ use.
I hope all’s well.
Was it in one of your posts I read about the Irish usage ‘a scissors’?
Either way, I was wondering whether this singular / plural mix might extend to other things considered pairs. Might ‘a waders’ be heard, for example?
I don’t think I’ve written about that, Ed, but I found some relevant discussion in the comments of Lynne Murphy’s post about premises. I’ve never heard ‘a waders’.
Yes, heard (pronounced to rhyme with aired, not herd) all of these growing up in the Bronx raised by two new immigrants. And poor Sister Patricia, teaching first grade, trying to get a class that was one third (rhymes with turd) first generation children, NOT to pronounce the letter as “haitch”, was amusing in its way.
Thanks for letting me know. I’m surprised that a couple of them made it across. Poor Sister Patricia would have had an easier time just accepting the variation, but I suppose that just wouldn’t do.
“On foot of” has been used at the highest legal level in the UK, by the late lamented Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore, former LCJ of Northern Ireland, in para 1 of his 2020 (UK) Supreme Court decision in R v Gerry Adams.
Thanks for that. Notable too that the OED’s first citation is from the Journals of the House of Lords in 1812.