Mom vs mam, and Americanisms in Irish English

I was recently approached by the Irish Independent newspaper for comment on the influence of American English and pop culture on Irish English speech.

The resulting article, by journalist Tanya Sweeney, focuses on the words people use to address their mother: mam, mum, mom, ma, and so on. It says the rise of mom in Ireland joins ‘other Americanisms that have now slipped into the lexicographical stream’.

The choice of a neutral and natural metaphor – that of slipping into a stream – is welcome, since this kind of linguistic influence is so often framed negatively, as a phenomenon of invasion or corruption. Americanisms are also regularly treated with condescension.

Map of Ireland showing Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) regions, which are marked in green and concentrated in patches along the west coast. The map also shows the location of the three Irish dialects corresponding to three of Ireland's four provinces: Ulster in the north, Connacht in the west, and Munster in the south.In Ireland we often say mam or its long form, mammy.* But the Irish words for these, mam /mɒm/ and mamaí /ˈmɒmi/, have an initial vowel sound more or less identical to that in mom. Those links point to Focló, which has audio files in the three main Irish dialects: Connacht (C), Munster (M), and Ulster (U).†

So the case of mom is tricky in Ireland, because that pronunciation could be from outside influence or – especially in western counties – it could be directly from Irish. Whatever its provenance, mom has a mid-Atlantic ring to many ears here, and the paucity of ‘mam’ cards is keenly felt in the run-up to Mother’s Day:

My quotes in the Irish Independent article are more general, and I reproduce the relevant paragraphs below. But if you’re reading this you’re likely to find the whole article of some interest. (If you can’t access it, there’s an archived version here.)

Yet some believe the American invasion is slightly exaggerated. “The American influence on speech patterns in Ireland is relatively strong because of the country’s outsize presence in films and TV and in digital culture, including social media,” observes language writer Stan Carey.

“But the effect is modest compared with how much people’s language is shaped by their family and peers. We just notice it more when it differs from our own or from traditional norms. Whenever there’s any social or cultural exchange, the influence works both ways. There are words and idioms in US English that were borrowed directly from Irish English decades or centuries ago.

“Some people’s accents are fairly stable over their lifetime, but mixed accents are more common now than they used to be — mostly because people move around much more, and most of that moving is from rural to urban areas.

“When we talk about Americanisms, neologisms, and language change in general, we tend to focus on pet hates, the words and expressions and pronunciations that annoy us,” Carey adds. “We may be troubled by the idea that our language, which is such an intimate part of our identity, is being homogenised or degraded. It’s a natural reaction.

“But languages change all the time, in every imaginable way — the only languages that aren’t changing are dead ones. And slang changes especially quickly.”

The line about mixed and stable accents is taken from a previous Irish Independent article I was quoted in (archived version here). Sweeney also spoke with a couple of linguists I recommended, and there’s some discussion of the importance for teenagers of experimenting with language.

One lexical difference cited is soda vs mineral. Soda is used patchily in the US, and I wonder too about mineral in Ireland. At sports matches as a child, I would hear traders call out, ‘Chocolate, sweets, and minerals’, and I used the word myself. But now I say soft drink or fizzy drink.


* One survey (n = 1,200) breaks it down as follows: 31% mam, 23% mum, 12% mom, 12% mammy, 4% first name, and there is considerable regional variation.

† Not to be confused with Irish English dialects or accents.

[image via Wikipedia]

17 Responses to Mom vs mam, and Americanisms in Irish English

  1. liamgrant65 says:

    soda vs mineral
    Growing up in NYC and spending every other summer in Ireland (mostly Cavan near the border), in the 70s and early 80s, I switched back and forth between soda in NYC (any fizzy drink) and mineral in Cavan (lucazade, orange soda, ginger ale). But a Coke was a Coke in both. On Aer Lingus, a soda was usually club soda.
    But, as you said, soda vs pop is a significant regional difference in the US.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You grew up with a range of possibilities, so! I appreciate the detail. I seldom hear ‘mineral’ any more, but it may still be the default in some places – or among traders at sports matches, for all I know.

      A ‘coke’ for me is any cola: usually Coca-Cola but also any other brand. I was surprised when I first saw it applied generically to soft drinks in several of the United States, as mapped by Joshua Katz.

  2. KA Spencer says:

    1. As regards “Mothers’ Day” that too is American – it should of course, be “Mothering Sunday”. “Mum” is the de-facto word in England, but I understand that “Mam” or “Mammy” is used by my Irish friends.
    2. As regards the Americanisation of English – it is a tragedy that Webster considered that the English Language as sustained by Johnson et al at the time, was much too complicated for the average American citizen (granted, it was not the native language of all of them) and set about throwin. g the baby out wth the bath-water. Thus ruining the precision, expression and richness of English and ignores spelling and pronunciation rules – just to mention a few of the issues!
    American so-called English ignores tenses, abuses and confuses nouns and verbs, assigns random meaning to established words, destroys the link between spelling and pronunciation. It also replaces hundreds of single words with several, reflecting a poverty of vocabulary (“get-go”=”start”; “any time soon”=”imminently” etc etc).
    I sympathise with the view from just a few miles across the water, but believe me it’s just as bad, if not worse, here in England!
    Write to your TV, Radio and Newspapers when these linguistic crimes are committed against your variant of the language, and let’s throw out the corruption!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Replacing single words with phrases does not reflect ‘a poverty of vocabulary’: if anything, it’s the opposite. And Webster didn’t ignore spelling and pronunciation rules: he just adopted and promulgated others – in many cases clarifying the link between spelling and pronunciation, at the expense of etymological continuity.

      Do you really believe that US English ‘ruins’ and ‘corrupts’ the language? It’s hard to imagine such a view being held by anyone who has attended to the country’s dialects beyond automatic dismissal based on pet peeves and parochialism. There is endless richness, variety, and creativity in US vernacular and literature for anyone prepared to acknowledge it. ‘Linguistic crimes’? ‘American so-called English’? Maybe you’re just trying to wind people up.

      • KA Spencer says:

        Just think about it, Stan. Of course it is likely that you’ll reject my critiicism as do many (but not all I’m pleased to say), mainly because you are probably American, and you neither know nor understand much or my argument.
        And yes, indeed I not only believe that US English corrupts and ruins the English language, but I know it. And you could know it too if you investigate the differences.
        (PS. How can replacing “any time soon” with “imminently”, be anything other than use of a wider vocabularly?)

        • Stan Carey says:

          Believe me, I have thought about it. I’m far more familiar with your outdated line of argument (if that’s what it amounts to) than you suppose.

          I thought you might have noticed the subtitle of this blog by now, since it’s over ten years since your first comment here. But thinking I’m American is another telling assumption.

  3. Yes! I hadn’t thought of the Irish connection, but I remember noticing years ago how “Mam” in a northern-English accent, “Mum” in a south London accent, and “Mom” in an American accent sound similar.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s an interesting convergence! When I searched Twitter for remarks about the lack of ‘mam’ cards for Mother’s Day, I noticed some from the north of England too.

  4. Carol says:

    Does the Irish word mammy rhyme with the name Sammy?

  5. astraya says:

    In your post you wrote “mam /mɒm/ and mamaí /ˈmɒmi/ … have an initial vowel sound more or less identical to that in mom” but in answer to Carol next above, you rhyme them with Sammy etc. If I saw mam by itself, I would assume (rhymes with Sam).
    In Australia, the standard form is mum (rhymes with plum).

    • Stan Carey says:

      I interpreted Carol’s phrase “Irish word mammy” to mean the Irish English word, since the Irish Gaelic word is spelled mamaí, as the post (hopefully) makes clear. Irish as a modifier does double duty in this respect.

      Similarly, I take your phrase “In Australia” to refer to Australian English; the many other languages in the country, regardless of their degree of standardization, would have other words for mother.

  6. Gavin Wraith says:

    The replacement of ‘father/mother/child’ by ‘mum/dad/kid’ in the British press I have always interpreted as a concerted effort to infantilize. Do others share this view?

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’d need to look into it more before taking a position – to base my view on data rather than an impression. I don’t know, for example, if it’s mostly a tabloid phenomenon and to what extent the longer words have been replaced.

      • Gavin Wraith says:

        You are right to do so. The only paper I read is the i, but my wife gets the Sunday Times for the big crossword. I find it loathsome, but then I am a prig. The point I was trying to make was that although all languages change, all the time, maybe there are new and more sinister forces behind this particular change.

        • Stan Carey says:

          If it is the case, it may not be a conscious change in language use so much as an automatic and attendant part of a more general mode of infantilization.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: