Accentuating the positive – An Irishman’s Diary about how Ireland put the ‘Grate’ in Great Britain

'Greet Britain' could have been the standard pronunciation if not for the influence of speakers from this side of the water

To modern ears, “Greet Britain” could be a slogan for our neighbouring island’s tourism industry. But there was a time when it might have become the standard pronunciation for the name of the island itself. That it didn’t may, by an odd chance, have been due to the influence of speakers from this side of the water.

The context was another thing of greatness – the so-called “Great Vowel Shift” that changed the sound of many English words between 1350 and 1600. Before the shift, for example, “meat” was pronounced something like “mate”. After it, the “ea” sound became an “ee”, although the spelling remained unchanged, one of the countless illogicalities in the language today.

Of course "meat" is still pronounced "mate" in large parts of Ireland, albeit that, more often than not now, this is an ironic usage. But as I was writing here last week, on the subject of why "OP" (Original Pronunciation) Shakespeare sounds so strangely familiar, Hiberno-English preserved a real attachment to the older vowel sounds for centuries after they died out in Britain.

It’s only in living memory that most Irish people have stopped saying “dacent” (for decent), “aisy” (for easy), and “tay” (for tea). Indeed there are plenty of us who, moved to express gratitude for something in religious terms, will still say “Thanks be to Jaysus”.


But getting back to GB, there were notable holdouts even there against the “ea” to “ee” shift. Speaking of meat, the word “steak” was one. “Break” was another. And the aforementioned “great” stayed as it was too, although not, it seems, without an Anglo-Irish struggle.

According to PW Joyce in his English As We Speak It in Ireland (1910), there was "a long contest in the English parliament" over the word, which pitched Lord Chesterfield against a certain William "Single Speech" Hamilton.

Chesterfield, writes Joyce, had adopted the affected pronunciation “greet”, “saying that only an Irishman would call it ‘grate’”. But Hamilton, an Irish statesman who was considered an authority on language, led the defence.  And, adds Joyce (crediting another source, one Marlow Woollett), “the influence of the Irish orators finally turned the scale”.

“Single Speech” Hamilton was so-called because his maiden address was also either his last, or was unsurpassed in eloquence by subsequent ones. It must indeed have been a great speech, if not a greet one, to have had such influence.

But Joyce/Woollett speak of "orators". And Hamilton was a friend of Edmund Burke, who was known both as one of parliament's finest speakers and as a man who never lost his Dublin accent. So maybe the father of conservatism, as Burke is known, was also instrumental in saving the old pronunciation.

It's possible that either Joyce or Woollett, or both, were mixing up the debate's main protagonists. Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson has his subject remembering Lord Chesterfield as the one arguing that "great" should rhyme with "state", while a Sir William Yonge was said to have led the insistence that it rhymed with "seat".

In Johnson’s opinion, Chesterfield had been the finest speaker in the House of Lords at the time, while Yonge was the best in the Commons.  That they couldn’t agree on such a fundamental issue, he suggested, was reason why nobody could compile a dictionary of pronunciation, an idea he himself had considered and abandoned.

In fact, as Boswell just informed him, such a work had now been completed (although not yet published). It would eventually appear under the catchy title A Dissertation on the Causes of the Difficulties Which Occur in Learning the English Tongue, With a Scheme for Publishing an English Grammar and Dictionary, Upon a Plan Entirely New.

And hearing that the author was a Dubliner, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Johnson was indignant. "What entitles Sheridan to fix the pronunciation of English?" he asked.  "He has, in the first place, the disadvantage of being an Irishman."

In general, Johnson thought the idea futile, since you couldn’t carry such a book around with you. It would be like keeping your sword at home, he thought: “It is an admirable sword, to be sure.  But while your enemy is cutting your throat, you cannot use it.”

This was a somewhat exaggerated comparison.  Fierce as disputes among grammarians and phonologists can be, the grate/greet debate never involved throat-cutting, or any other kind of violence.  The matter was resolved peacefully, in time. And accidentally or otherwise, the Hiberno-English pronunciation prevailed.