How the Irish, like, speak now?
The Irish accent is changing fast: the ‘Dort accent’ has been replaced by upspeak and ‘globish’ inflections. At the forefront of the linguistic evolution are Dubliners, the middle classes and young women
The next time you hear a group of schoolchildren talking, take a moment to tune in to their accents. Is it possible to tell what part of Ireland they come from? What do you think are the influences on their speech patterns? Do they actually sound Irish, in a way that our grandparents would have recognised?
The global entertainment industry, instantaneous digital communications, social change and economic pressures are changing the way we Irish speak English.
There’s nothing new about this; our relationship with the English language has been richly ambiguous and contradictory for many centuries. But, if anything, the pace of change seems to be accelerating as regional differences are flattened out and a homogenised, largely American form of spoken English takes hold.
Raymond Hickey is professor of linguistics at the University of Duisburg and Essen’s Institute for Anglophone Studies. For decades he has been studying how the Irish speak English.
He says there are always periods when there is a transformation in the way we talk, and other times when things remain relatively static.
He points to the last 25 years as a time of rapid social change. “People thought they were rich and trendy,” he says of the boom years, which he believes were the direct cause of a more ostentatious way of speaking – the much-derided “Dartspeak”.
But things have moved on considerably since then, Hickey says. “At the start of the boom you had things which have since disappeared. You don’t really hear people saying ‘Dort’ anymore, for example.”
Paul Howard agrees. The creator of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly was the first to take “roysh”, “loike” and “fock” out of the mouths of the rugby-playing classes and put them on a page. He’s currently writing the foreword for a new edition of the very first Ross book, The Miseducation of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, and notices significant changes in speech patterns over the years since it was published in 2000.
‘Every sentence ends with a question’
The most obvious was the arrival in the early 2000s of the high rising terminal, also known as upspeak, whereby every sentence ends with an upward inflection, so it sounds like a question ?
“What’s really surprised me is that adults have started to talk like that now,” says Howard.
“Micheál Martin talks like that. It’s become the language of media discourse, which makes sense because it’s constantly looking for affirmation. It’s pleading for you to nod and agree with what I’m saying.”
Where did upspeak come from? Some say Australia, others point to the Valley Girl speech patterns of 1970s southern California, which in turn drew on surfing and skateboarding subcultures (most obviously in the relentless sprinkling of the word “like” across every sentence at every opportunity).
There’s no doubt that Americanisms are becoming more prominent in our language. It’s not just in the Lego Movie that everything is awesome these days. Howard recalls a student coming up to him after a talk he gave in UCD.
“She said ‘Oh my God, I love your books. They are so awesome.’ I asked if she had any problems understanding the books, being from America. And her friend said ‘Oh she’s not American, she’s from Douglas.’
“She wasn’t a dummy,” Howard says. “She was smart, studying pharmacy. She had just decided she wanted to speak with that accent, because she liked it. Young people are much less self-conscious about that than [people of my age] were. I know if I’d gone to school with an American accent, I’d have been frogmarched from the building.”
Hickey points to accent changes such as the growing use of the flat “t” in “party” (so it sounds like “pardy”). Some of this can clearly be put down to changes in pop culture, which is much more Americanised, or at least couched in an Americanised “globishness”, than it was 20 years ago.
“I suppose our exposure to American culture and that homogenised teen accent is far more than when I was a kid, watching Grange Hill,” says Howard.
But there’s something else going on. That young woman from Douglas was comfortable with adopting an accent she liked, as if it were an outfit or a hairstyle. In an age when most people produce a version of their own lives for public consumption on social media, does your accent become part of that role-playing process?
“There is a sense in which people decide to project their own personas, and to have control over that,” says Hickey. “People are very conscious of their accent now, of their voice being heard and how it comes across,” says Howard. “Maybe it’s part of that obsession with self. I think people define themselves more now. I’m this kind of a person, this is how I talk and this is how I dress.”
It’s interesting that the two examples Howard gives are of people from outside Dublin. The changing accent is by no means confined to the capital, though it is usually where changes first occur.
Twenty years ago, journalist Kevin Myers wrote in The Irish Times about the slow death of the local regional accent. “I recall with horror the convent schoolgirl in Kerry who thought I was complimenting her when I told her I could detect no trace of a Kerry accent,” he wrote. “Soon, the ability to speak Dort will be the cherished ambition of every upwardly mobile child in the land. It is an appalling prospect and I have not the least idea how to stop such popular cultural movements.”
The capital effect
In an essay, Hickey points out that Ireland is a highly centralised country with almost a third of the population living in the Dublin metropolitan area, which outweighs all the other cities put together.
“Most prestigious organisations are located in the capital, as are the government and the national radio and television service, along with three universities and numerous colleges,” he wrote. “For these and other reasons, the status of Dublin English is greater than that of any other city or region in the country.
“In the context of the recent changes, this has meant that the new pronunciation has spread rapidly to the rest of the country. For all young people, especially females, who do not identify themselves linguistically with their own locality, the new pronunciation is their phonological norm.”
The result is a mode of speech spread out from the capital and increasingly adopted as a standard around the country.
In years gone by, a very significant part in this was played by RTÉ, says Hickey. “For a long time Ireland was a special case, with one channel based in Dublin 4. And the people who worked there would have had a self-perception of being the most sophisticated in the country.”
Before the current proliferation of media players, this dominant broadcaster had a huge influence on speech patterns throughout the country.
Trying to sound English
Similar patterns were evident elsewhere. In Britain, the highly clipped diction known as received pronunciation (RP) gradually fell out of favour in the 1960s and 1970s. It was replaced by a less formal speech pattern, popularly known as Estuary English, which was heavily influenced by Cockney – Jamie Oliver is a typical exponent. These days, RP has not only disappeared from the BBC; not even the younger members of the royal family use it anymore.
In Ireland, we never had RP, as such. But BBC English had an influence. If you listen back to RTÉ archive recordings from 40 or 50 years ago, you can clearly hear its influence on the newsreaders and continuity announcers of the day.
“Charles Mitchell had a nice, plummy south Dublin accent, which didn’t sound very Irish at all,” says Hickey of RTÉ’s popular newsreader of the 1960s and 1970s.
“Going further back, there used to be a thing called the Rathmines accent, which looked more towards England. Listening now to recordings of James Joyce and Seán O’Casey, it’s extraordinary how English they sounded.”
The idea that to be posh you had to sound English is a longstanding one that hasn’t entirely gone away. Why else would so many voiceovers on ads for financial products and expensive cars sound more Anglo than Irish?
“We had speech and elocution classes in school,” says Paul Howard. “They brought this posh woman in once a week to teach all us kids from council estates in Ballybrack how to speak like a posh English person. Of course we went out the door and forgot about it, but the aspirational thing then was to sound like an English person.”
The social pretensions of the aspirational Dublin middle classes were being lampooned by the likes of Maureen Potter long before Ross O’Carroll-Kelly put on his first pair of rugby boots.
Two decades on, that original Dart accent sounds like the last gasp of old-fashioned Dublin Anglophilia. If it looked anywhere for inspiration it was to the “Okay, yah” verbal stylings of Thatcher-era Sloane Rangers.
“There’s something about those very Dorty accents that they’re very strangulated, they’re not free,” says Andrea Ainsworth, dialogue coach at the Abbey theatre. She says that speech has become much less formal in recent years, reflecting social changes which go well beyond Ireland.
The real Dublin
But what about the “real” Dublin accent, the working-class accent which, according to Hickey, goes back several centuries at least?
“The local Dublin working-class accent has been very stable for a long time,” says Hickey, who distinguishes between the traditional local accent and non-local “advanced” English, spoken by the middle-class, where all the changes are happening. He describes that process as dissociation as it is motivated by the desire of speakers to hive themselves off from vernacular forms of a variety spoken in their immediate surroundings.
The public idea of what a Dublin accent sounded like used to be largely based on the theatrical voices of Jimmy O’Dea and Noel Purcell. It was a self-conscious, oratorical, sometimes self-mocking way of speaking, something you can hear also in recordings of Brendan Behan. It seems to be slowly disappearing.
“I love that accent,” says Howard wistfully. “I love Imelda May. I used to talk like Imelda May.”
He points out that there’s a tradition of mockery of West Brit accents that runs up to the present day with comedians such as Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly. He also talks about a particularly Dublin way of speaking in public.
“It’s that thing, when you hear Roddy Collins talking on radio, every consonant is enunciated. I know Roddy, and when I talk to him, he talks completely differently. I would have a bit of that, where my mother told me to make sure to pronounce my Ts.”
How Saoirse Ronan talks
Roddy Collins’s formalised speech on radio is at odds with the latest trends, as dialogue coach Andrea Ainsworth notes. “One thing about the younger generation of film actors is they are much more casual,” she says diplomatically, when I ask about some of the accents in the recent RTÉ series Rebellion, which seemed jarringly contemporary to me.
Ainsworth’s job is to work with performers to perform a text in a way that is both true to the writer’s intention and meaningful to a contemporary audience. That’s always a balancing act.
As some have pointed out, Saoirse Ronan’s accent in Brooklyn hews closer to 21st-century south county Dublin than 1950s Enniscorthy, but that works perfectly well for the purposes of the drama.
The actor’s own Dublin accent came in for some heckling lately, but seems, to me anyway, to be a perfectly reasonable way for a young Irishwoman in her 20s to speak in 2016.
Saoirse Ronan’s changing accent is proof of an important truth. Our accents are not governed only by social trends and external influences. They are ultimately personal to their users, who may alter them at will. Many people adjust their accents to fit their circumstances, sometimes several times in the course of a day.
Certain left-wing TDs who attended fee-paying Dublin schools now have accents designed to fit better with their political position. This is sometimes seen as somehow inauthentic or shallow. But most of us do it at some stage.
“We start off talking like our parents. We end up speaking like our peers,” says Ainsworth.
How important is social class? “The whole thing about class is you define it for yourself,” says Hickey. “You decide what class you are. And it has broadened out a lot. The established middle class where I grew up in Waterford were incredibly snobbish and superior. The working class could never get a loan from the bank, or move beyond their station. That’s changed a lot now.”
So it seems as if several things are happening simultaneously. One is an ongoing adjustment in the Dublin middle-class accent since the late 1980s. Another is the adoption of that accent by an increasing number of younger people around the country.
Add to that an increase in prosperity and a dramatic rise in the number of people entering third-level education. Finally, you have an all-pervasive globalised mass media which trades in a homogenised, informal American English.
“I think what the Celtic Tiger did was it took huge numbers of people like me,” says Howard. “And it processed them into people who speak with this total abdication of an accent. Which is nothing, it’s a nowhere accent. I suppose my accent is nowhere at the moment, which reflects my own circumstances.”
My bland accent
Howard’s accent and mine are now pretty similar – bog-standard, middle-class and blander than bland. He and I did meet many years ago, when both of us were still at school.
“I almost needed subtitles to understand you then,” says Howard. “But you do seem decidedly less posh now. Maybe I know more people like you and it’s less of a novelty.”
The Hiberno-English of the future will not be decided by middle-aged men in any case. The agents of change, says Hickey, are young women. They’re the ones who pick up on new styles in language as they do in fashion. They’ll try things on for size, keep some bits and discard others.
So does this mean that Irish English will disappear under a wave of homogenisation? “The answer is no,” says Hickey. “They’re not adopting American accents, they’re adopting certain elements of speech.”
Language and accent are powerful signifiers of national and regional identity, economic and educational status, and sometimes of beliefs and values. Language is also fluid and ever-changing.
Changes in how people around us speak can be unsettling. “People have been complaining about language decay for at least 1,000 years,” says Hickey, who is sanguine about the changes happening now. “Language is overladen with all these emotions, but it’s really not all as bad as people think.”
So don’t panic. Keep talking. And keep changing.