Irishisms in City of Bohane

March 11, 2018

He was back among the city’s voices, and it was the rhythm of them that slowed the rush of his thoughts. —Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

Kevin Barry’s award-winning first novel City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape, 2011) is an extravagant experiment in language, rich in Irish English slang and vernacular. It may take non-Irish readers a little while to tune in to its sounds and rhythms, but the rewards are considerable.

This post annotates a few items of linguistic interest in the book.

Divil a bit stirred in the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge.

Divil (rhymes with civil) is a common pronunciation of devil in colloquial Irish English. The idiom divil a bit has various emphatic negative meanings: ‘not at all’, ‘none at all’, and in Barry’s line, ‘nothing at all’.

Divil is such a frequent feature of traditional Irish English that P.W. Joyce, in English As We Speak It In Ireland, dedicated an entire chapter to ‘the devil and his territory’.

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How to pronounce ‘Celtic’

March 17, 2016

I don’t normally mark St. Patrick’s Day in any linguistic fashion, but this year I have a short article at Mental Floss about how to pronounce Celtic – is it /ˈsɛltɪk/ ‘Seltic’ or /ˈkɛltɪk/ ‘Keltic’?

Muiredach's High Cross, Monasterboice, County Louth, IrelandIn my own usage it’s both, depending on the context, but there seems to be a lot of uncertainty and debate over which is the ‘correct’ pronunciation. So I hope my article goes some way towards resolving the matter. Here’s a excerpt:

Celtic pronounced “Keltic” is an outlier in English phonology. Nearly every other English word beginning ce- has a soft-c sound: cedar, ceiling, cell, cement, cent, cereal, certain, cesspit, and so on (cello, with its “ch-” onset, is another anomaly). So it shouldn’t surprise us that “Seltic” was once overwhelmingly the norm. The now-dominant pronunciation “Keltic” is a modern innovation.

You can read the rest at Mental Floss, and feel free to leave a comment either there or below.

[photo by Adriao]

Do you take pains saying ‘painstaking’?

June 2, 2014

I don’t know when I first realised that painstaking – which means very careful, diligent and meticulous – is about taking pains. It’s obvious when you see it, but I didn’t make the connection when I first saw the word, and duly used and encountered it for a while before the etymology occurred to me or I read it somewhere.

Consider for a moment how you say the word, specifically the s in the middle. Do you voice it like a z, as in pains-taking, or is it an unvoiced, ‘soft’ s, as in pain-staking? Maybe you say it both ways? Or it could be borderline – it often seems so. I know the pronunciation of a sound can depend a lot on its neighbours, but I don’t have the phonetic savvy to establish precisely what’s going on here.

In any case it seems I’m not the only one to whom the word’s structure wasn’t initially glaringly obvious. When I asked on Twitter how people spoke it, most said they didn’t voice the s, and some were surprised (to put it mildly) to analyse it anew as taking pains. I’ve just put the full Twitter discussion up on Storify, if you’d like to take a look.

tibetan buddhist sand mandala

Tibetan Buddhist monks taking pains over a sand mandala.*

Curiously, there may be a UK/US difference here. British dictionaries tend to include the voiced-s pronunciation (or ‘z-form’) in their entries for painstaking, but some omit the unvoiced-s variant despite its popularity. Macmillan and Collins offer only the z-form, as does Oxford Dictionaries’ UK page – its US page has both.

Cambridge’s UK audio sample is clearly pains-taking, IPA /ˈpeɪnzˌteɪ.kɪŋ/, but its US audio is closer to pain-staking. Merriam-Webster has \ˈpān-ˌstā-kiŋ\ but its audio is (I think) ambiguous. The American Heritage Dictionary 4th ed. has the z-form only, but the 5th has both and notes that despite its etymology the word “often sounds as if it were made from pain and staking”.

So here’s a quick poll, to increase the sample size of this informal survey. Comments on how you say it and what your dialect is would also be welcome, as would phonetic analysis from anyone who has taken pains to learn those ropes.

* Photographer unknown. Please tell me if you can identify the source.

Haitchers gonna haitch

November 19, 2013

The oddly named letter H is usually pronounced ‘aitch’ /eɪtʃ/ in British English, but in Ireland we tend to aspirate it as ‘haitch’ /heɪtʃ/. In my biology years I would always have said ‘a HLA marker’, never ‘an HLA marker’. This haitching is a distinctive feature of Hiberno-English, one that may have originated as an a hypercorrection but is now the norm in most Irish dialects.

A search on returned 1,946 hits for ‘a HSE’ and 92 for ‘an HSE’ (HSE = Health Service Executive), excluding readers’ letters and three false positives of Irish-language an HSE ‘the HSE’. Even allowing for duplications, this shows the emphatic preference for aspirating H in standard Hiberno-English. Haitchers gonna haitch.

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Mergers and minimal pairs: a survey of accents

October 29, 2013

Warren Maguire, a linguist lecturing at the University of Edinburgh, has told me about a survey he’s conducting into accents of English in Britain and Ireland. It’s been running for a few years, and you can see some preliminary results mapped here.

Maguire is looking for more respondents, especially from Ireland, but you don’t have to be from Ireland or Britain to take part: though other varieties of English aren’t the main research focus, all information will be gratefully received. The more data, the better.

So if you have time, do answer the survey here. It’s not a test, and there are no wrong answers (so long as you’re honest!). It took me about 10 minutes, and it was fun. You’ll be given pairs or sets of words and asked if you pronounce them the same, or if they rhyme to you.

The survey is expected to be completed next year, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the results.

Grammatic innovation, dramatic pronunciation

May 29, 2013

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to report. First up, LOL slash grammar, knowmsayin? looks at recent innovations in how people use LOL and slash, among other terms:

Sometimes . . . existing words get repurposed, switching grammatical classes or incorporating new ones: verbs and adjectives are converted into nouns, and vice versa. This attracts predictable criticism, but it’s a thoroughly ordinary process; nounings and verbings are a large part of the everyday formation of new usages.

Other switches are more unusual.

Linguist John McWhorter has noted that the phrase (Do) you know what I’m saying? is not usually the question it might superficially seem to be,

but rather is “a piece of grammar, soliciting the same sense of empathy and group membership that LOL does”. Given its frequent informal use, the phrase is often compressed into a syllable or two for efficiency. If you search Twitter for nomsayin or knowmsayin, you’ll see how common this is.

I offer a brief synopsis of the broader implications for language (hint: harmless; positive), then the comments extend the discussion: OMG is cited as showing similar semantic drift to LOL, while dot dot dot and full stop are further examples of verbalised punctuation.

You can read the rest here.


I now pronounce you … Wait, how do I pronounce you? steps back from the recent pavlova palaver over the pronunciation of GIF, to look at other examples of phonological confusion and controversy – and do we place the stress on that word’s first or second syllable?

Macmillan Dictionary includes both pronunciations, and indeed the two forms are legitimate. This point is sometimes missed: people assume there can be just one right way, when in fact there is often more than one. Geography and register may be factors in whether a particular pronunciation of a word is perceived to be correct or appropriate.

A recent humorous article in the Irish Times commented on the social and religious aspects of pronouncing aitch in Northern Ireland. It prompted a flurry of letters on the subject, several of them condemning the proliferation of h-sounds in places the writers considered wrong – including the name of the letter itself.

Since I began with an anecdote from my school days, readers have joined in by sharing stories of pronunciation-related embarrassment and epiphanies (and, included in the post, one of violence). Feel free to add your own.

Two linguistic questions

June 14, 2012

1. By email, Colm O’Brien asks:

Where I used to say things like

“I think this is a good video:”

in IM conversations/on Twitter/etc, I’m now finding myself more likely to phrase it as

“I think is a good video.”

Is there a name for this kind of substitution — for using a link as a noun? I think it’s interesting because it can’t really be read out loud (especially for longer, more elaborate urls), and also because (unless I’m overlooking something) it only really works with yer moderd’n shtyle of electronic communication. I’m sure there’s probably some kind of older equivalent, mind, just not one I can think of. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

The question interests me, but alas, I didn’t have much of an answer for Colm. I said it was a kind of embedded direct referral, but that this was just me throwing words together and was not a technical term.

When we include a web link in online text, we can embed it in different ways and to varying degrees. For example:

A. I think this is a good video:
B. I think this is a good video
C. I think is a good video
D. I think this is a good video

Obviously D is what’s commonly known as hyperlinking. C is the construction Colm was wondering about. If anyone can suggest (or invent) terms for the practice, or describe what’s going on grammatically, I’d love to hear it.


2. An artist friend, Annie Silverman, regularly visits Ireland and Denmark, and spent a few years living in the latter country. She asks:

Do you know if there is a name for that small intake of breath that I have noticed some Irish people make and also Danish people make when they are listening and agree and want you to continue talking? At first it sounds like the person is surprised, but it is an affirmation that might be called a “completion probe” like a nod or “ah ha”.

I think I know what she’s referring to, but it’s not something I can remember hearing in a while. It sounds like something I’d call a prompt rather than a probe (and I would transcribe her “ah ha” as “uh-huh”).

On a Language Hat post about click consonants, AJP Crown made the following comment about the same or a similar phenomenon:

I wonder if it [the click] falls in the same linguistic category as the short loud intake of breath that some German & Scandinavian women (but hardly ever men) use, sometimes habitually, instead of saying “yes”.


Your thoughts on either matter would be much appreciated.

Update: Computational linguist Robert Eklund has a useful website about ingressive phonation and has described pulmonic ingressive speech as a ‘neglected universal’ (PDF).