The English Speech on Irish Lips

—The English settlers, when they emigrated to Ulster, carried with them the language of the seventeenth century. If we reflect for a moment, we shall see that it was the pronunciation of the time of Milton and Dryden which was transplanted into Ireland. The fact must be borne in mind that the English of that century was transferred into a country where the native speech and method of utterance were entirely different. This would of course cause some modification in the transplanted language, for English now came into contact with the Old Irish, and that upon Irish soil. English was, then, imposed upon the Irish, whose native tongue differed from that of their conquerors not only in its sounds, but also in its mode of utterance, and it was, therefore, naturally modified to a greater or less extent. In such circumstances a language changes in construction and idiom as well as in form.

When the Irish began to pronounce English they encountered difficulties, as, for instance, in the dental combinations exemplified in such a word as tthrash (Irish for trash), or in stthraitch (stretch), or in Satthirday (Saturday), or in scoundthrel (scoundrel). In his native speech the Celt trilled his r’s, and when he had to pronounce r in an English word he would trill it. But the practice of trilling the r (occasionally heard in American pronunciation) is decidedly un-English. There are still other differences than those of utterance. We must not lose sight of the fact that English transplanted upon Irish soil always remained an exotic, and never flourished there as it did in its own habitat in England.

Now, one can readily see, if one is at all conversant with linguistic principles, that the transplanted English would not develop and keep pace in its growth with the language on English soil. If Ireland had first been depopulated and then colonized by the English, the differences would have been very much less marked, even if they had existed at all. But that was not the case. Such conditions were much nearer being fulfilled here in America, when the Puritans came over to New England and settled, bringing with them practically the same English as that taken to Ireland (for the first Puritan settlement on Massachusetts Bay was made in 1628, which was about the time that the English colonists settled in Ulster). But the English language in America was not contaminated by contact with the Indian language, and so is to-day much nearer the mother tongue, as spoken in England, than the Irish dialect is ; and this is simply because the conditions here were entirely different. The language in America has had another development from that in Ireland, though they were both transplanted languages. But their environments were unlike, and hence the disparity they exhibit at present. The language of our rustics, however, betrays the affinity of the speech of the early settlers of America with that of the early settlers of Ireland. Witness here the coincidence of our vulgar chist (chest), ingine (engine), quair (queer), hade (head), afeard (afraid), weepin (weapon), kag (keg), rassel (wrestle), arrant (errand), deef (deaf), with the Irish pronunciation of these words.

There is one marked Hibernicism which has now passed far beyond the Irish dialect. Probably many of those from whose delicate mouths we hear it so frequently are not aware of its Irish origin. This is not intended by the writer as an impeachment of that charming pronunciation, nor is it made in a spirit of stoical indifference like that of Balthazar, the infatuated chemist in Balzac’s Search for the Absolute. When the beautiful eyes of his wife filled with tears as she pleaded with him not to sacrifice all his fortune and even herself in his search for diamonds, he ruthlessly exclaimed : “ Tears ! I have decomposed them ; they contain a little phosphate of lime, chloride of sodium, mucin, and water.” The Hibernicism in question is the pronunciation of gyirl, so widespread and carefully cultivated by delicate months in Virginia as to be considered the shibboleth of those “to the manner born.” (It is of course the prerogative of woman to change her mind, and her name too, if she so elects.) Other examples of this Hibernicism are cyart, cyarve, scyar, gyarden, gyarlic, gyuide, cyow, and nyow, which last approximates a feline note if littered in a falsetto. The Irish pronunciation of sure extends far beyond that jargon now. Perhaps the reader recalls the story of the good parson’s wife who twitted her husband about saying shore for sure, and who, when reminded that she pronounced the word the same way, indignantly replied, “ Why, to be shore I do not ! ”

It must not be inferred from what has been said that the English spoken in all parts of Ireland is uniform. On the contrary, it differs vastly, and varies with the locality. In some parts, indeed, English is not spoken at all. But where it is spoken it bears a marked resemblance, as we have seen, to the English of the times of Dryden and Pope, which has been fossilized by emigration. The “ brogue ” is due to the Celtic habit of utterance, and consists mostly in the intonation, “ which appears,” according to Murray, “ full of violent ups and downs, or rather precipices and chasms of force and pitch, almost disguising the sound to English ears.”