It's Not Just a Dublin Accent, It's a Dublin Dialect

Frankie Gaffney

Frankie Gaffney is from Dublin. He's the author of the novel Dublin Seven (Liberties Press, 2015), and he's doing a PhD at Trinity.


People comment on what they call my “strong Dublin accent” a lot. Some remarks are complimentary, some are contemptuous. But I’m very proud of working-class Dublin’s renowned linguistic ebullience, so it doesn’t bother me. Apart from one thing – the phrase “Dublin accent” itself belittles how I speak. This is because it’s not just an “accent”, it’s a dialect.

The easiest way to explain what this means is by going through the different levels linguists use to analyse language. The first level is phonology. This is what people usually mean when they say someone has a particular “accent”, because a difference in phonology is a difference in the sounds we make when speaking. So you might say “sound”, and I might say “sowind”. We’re both saying the same word, we just “sound” different. And that’s all an accent is.

The second level is morphology. This is how words change depending on the circumstances they’re used in, so the way we attach suffixes to indicate plurals (dog changes to dogs, for example), affixes to indicate opposites (happiness changes to unhappiness) and so on. I remember a posh mate of mine telling me about a football match he’d played against a team from Cabra. One of these opponents shouted: “REF THAT FOUL WAS ONLY THREE FOOT OFF THE LINE!” My posh mate corrected him: “The plural of foot is feet.” Needless to say the youngfella was outraged and bewildered.

Anyway, the next level up is lexicon, the actual words we use. Now we really start to see how much more is involved in an “accent” than just how we pronounce things. So while you might say “house”, I’m more likely to say “gaff”. While you might say “that guy” I’ll say “yerman”, and while you might say “my father”, I’ll say “me oulfella”. It’s not just the sounds we make that are different, is it?

This becomes even more apparent at the level of syntax, which is essentially the way we arrange words into sentences. The order we put words in also contributes meaning. Take these two sentences: 1. Am I drunk? 2. I am drunk. Both are composed of the exact same words, one is a statement, the other a question, and we can tell this just from the order words come in.

Another word for syntax is grammar. The so-called “grammar nazis” are actually just pedants who moan about spelling and punctuation, not grammar. The real grammar nazis are more insidious. How many listeners were told off as kids for saying things like “me and Sarah” instead of “Sarah and I”? – which sounds stilted and contrived to my ears. Phrases like “I do be too busy” are also considered “wrong” by some parents, and, even worse, some teachers (they should know better).

I’d LOVE to go back to these teachers now and ask them to explain to me what exactly is “wrong” about the phrase “I do be too busy”. This is the habitual present aspect, and MOST languages have it! It just happens standard English lacks it, and the ingenuity of Dublin English compensates. The construction follows perfectly grammatical rules: I do be too busy, she does be too busy and so on.

How else should we convey the same message? I’m sometimes too busy? I’m often too busy? I habitually am too busy? They don’t quite mean the same thing, and they have to clumsily spell out using extra words what Dubs can say simply with word order.

The final level I’m going to mention is semantics, which means meaning itself. Confused? The same sentences can have different meanings in different dialects. So using standard English words perfectly grammatically, the phrase “I’d lash her” conveys a meaning in Dublin very distinct from its constituent parts – just as “I’m goin to batter him” doesn’t suggest smothering someone in eggs and flour.

One of the reasons people shouldn’t be so uptight about deviations from the standard, is that standard English itself isn’t fixed. There’s only one constant when it comes to language: change.

Using words like “jacks” for toilet, or calling someone a “pox”, may seem quintessentially Dublin, but Shakespeare used both. Hamlet slurs his uncle with an admonition to: “Begin, murtherer. Pox.” And in King Lear, the Earl of Kent says: “I will tread this unbolted villain into mortar and daub the walls of a jacks with him!” These words have fallen out of use in London and Stratford, but remain common currency among Dubliners.

Every dialect might not be able to claim such distinguished literary heritage, but wherever you’re from, take note and be proud of the richness and depth of your linguistic surroundings, and draw on the peculiar sounds, syntax and semantics to the fullest – but just remember – your dialect is more than just an accent.

Reader responses

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Scott De Buitléir
at 23 March 2016 at 10:45

This is probably one of the best opinion pieces on dialect and language that I’ve read in a long time. Some points are really interesting, especially the ‘I do be’ part. It comes from Irish; I’m too busy (táim ró-ghnóthach) versus I do be too busy (bím ró-ghnóthach) and it shows how despite how Dubliners and the Irish overall have made English their own, many of their dialects have strong roots in Gaelic syntax.

That being said, I’d question the accuracy of calling it a ‘Dublin dialect’. Patches of Dublin are home to the dialect described, but definitely not all. It’s neither a northside-only, nor an inner-city-only phenomenon, but it rather seems to be a class dialect, which is odd in some ways, but not unique to Dublin. Other cities have similar working-class ‘dialects’, including Belfast, Limerick, Manchester, etc. etc.. Working-Class Dublin Dialect? That sounds classist, and yet, I’m not sure if there’s an alternative term. I’m from a middle-class area of north Dublin, and my accent, while not ‘D4’, wouldn’t feature many (if any) of the Dublin ‘dialectal’ qualities mentioned in the article.

I’ll easily admit that a pet hate of mine is coming across poor grammar and spelling, but some qualities unique to Dublin English – like “get yizer coats” – enjoy a rare exception in my rulebook.

Pete
at 23 March 2016 at 15:20

Great article. Who knew Shakespeare called people a pox!

Sherdy
at 23 March 2016 at 18:31

@Pete: Hence the old saying: Vox pox!

Bríd
at 23 March 2016 at 19:10

This is a really interesting article and very true in many respects, my only gripe is that some of the examples given are not specific to Dublin and are used in many if not all parts of the country. ‘yer man’ and ‘yer one’ and ‘gaff’ are common throughout the country and we’ve no reason to think they originated in Dublin. Also the ‘do be’ and ‘does be’ thing comes from the original Irish difference between ‘bím’ and ‘táim’ so it’s actually often more common in quite rural areas around the country. No problem with the article but sometimes there’s an Irish and more specifically a Dublin tendency to claim things as our own [eg Barack Obama’s ancestral home of Moneygall], these things are not unique to Dublin, we all know what they mean.

Kevin Denny
at 23 March 2016 at 19:57

A very nice piece. Another nice borrowing from Irish is “I’m after doing..”
Terry Dolan’s dictionary of Hiberno English is a great source in this area.

shea
at 23 March 2016 at 20:34

Its not unusual that the accent is class specific. Can’t distinguish poor people by their religion or skin colour in this place. Middle class people needed something to justify their self preseption of superiority and particularly for their children an entitlement to privilege.

Working class people speak natural, yuppies put it on, and there is a sort of neutral rathfarnham accent that could fit in anywhere on this island.

Rose
at 23 March 2016 at 21:18

Its Baroom not bathroom
Come ear not come here
Howaye not hello
Doin not doing
Mornin not morning
Alri not alright
Nuttin not nothing
Get ou that garden = stop doing that
Leave it out, wait messing

Jess
at 23 March 2016 at 21:20

Eugene O'Leary
at 23 March 2016 at 21:51

I once worked on a ship with a captain who used to say that a Dublin docker was the only one who could stick the F word in the middle of another word e.g. “Someone robbed me motor-fu*kin-bike!”

SeánMacGC
at 23 March 2016 at 23:11

“Affix”!… Surely it should have been ‘prefix’? (An affix comprises the set of: prefix, infix, or suffix).

Interesting piece, if a little too Dublin-centric 😉

abcdef
at 24 March 2016 at 00:00

Bríd, although you’re right to say that does be comes from Irish. But you’re wrong to say that Dublin is “claiming” things that aren’t theirs. Although you will hear “does be” throughout the country, academically, it is actually a quoted feature of the Dublin dialect in particular. The author is right there. And, might I add, I see a tendency in all Irish to express such a “we” vs. “them” attitude all too often. The differences in dialect are real, but we’re all one people. No one is claiming anything from the other, no need to create a divide.

donnachadh
at 24 March 2016 at 02:23

It’s not just people in Dublin who say ‘I do be’. And it is more meaningfully explained by reference to the habitual present in the Irish language than by ‘Dublin ingenuity’. ‘Irish’, rember that, some Dublin people even spoke it once.

Sam Tranum
at 24 March 2016 at 08:11

@SeánMacGC: Hi SeánMacGC, glad you liked the column: we’re going be Dublin-centric here at Dublin Inquirer. It’s kind of what we do. We’re a local paper 🙂 –Sam Tranum, Deputy Editor

Philip Green
at 24 March 2016 at 11:48

Hugh Leonard observed that when someone says they are from Dublin (or London, or rome, or Ouagadougou) are are proud of it, then this is a coded way of saying that that particular city has the honour of being their place of birth.

Alex
at 25 March 2016 at 20:08

So ‘Me and Sarah’ sounds contrived and stilted. Consider ‘me and him went shopping’ I wonder why to people doing something together with the inclusion of the ‘and’ should change something so simple. If ‘I went shopping’ and ‘he went shopping’ are accepted and not considered contrived and stilted how does ‘me and him went shopping’ sound better? Maybe we should start to say ‘me went shopping’ or ‘him went shopping’ so as not to sound contrived and stilted so as not to upset Frankie Gaffney’s ears.

Frankie Gaffney
at 25 March 2016 at 21:19

@Alex: The reason the “and I” construction sounds stilted and contrived to me is because a lot of my contemporaries were taught explicitly to use it, and berated for using the formulation they had learned naturally – and were forbidden to say. Don’t worry about offending my ears, my ears and I will be grand whatever you choose to say.

Michael
at 26 March 2016 at 16:27

I love language, and I loved this article! Keep writing, please!

dave
at 29 March 2016 at 22:58

Hmm now you do realise King Lear is a stylised play in poetic form right?

BTW the unmentioned crack in your misty rose tinted glasses is the reality that in fact ugly expletives are what really form the backbone of the Dublin ‘dialect’ for the most part.

Frankie Gaffney
at 29 March 2016 at 23:54

@dave: Thanks for informing me of that, please refer me to your peer reviewed studies so I can learn more. Dunno what the jaysis fuck the form of King fuckin Lear has to fuckin do with anything though.

Seán Mac Ghiolla Phádraig
at 31 March 2016 at 09:44

Brilliant article, really well written, but have to agree with Bríd and Scott. Most of these idioms and little turns of phrases have more roots in Gaeilge than Shakespeare. Although being the stronghold of English rule in Ireland, Dublin was Gaelic once, you need only look at the place names around the city. The example of the ‘poor English’, as it’s called, of “Me and Sarah” most like comes from the literal translation of ‘Mise agus Sarah” rather than pure howaya Dub inginuity. And as previously mentioned before, Irish is one of those languages with a present habitual, but only in one verb, bí, to be, hence why we say ‘I do be’ and not anything else. But these twists of English are, unfortunately, not limited to Dublin. Although common in working-class Dublin, you’ll find that they’re more common with middle-class country people, and the further west you go, the stronger it gets.

Another interesting phenomenon that happens with English in Ireland and not just Dublin, is the evidence of the past habitual in everyday conversations, coming again from strong Irish roots of the aimsir ghnáthchaite, of ‘I used go’, ‘I used do’, ‘I used be’ being translated literally from the Irish ‘théinn’, ‘dhéanainn’ and ‘bhínn’. Left out from you article, I thought it worth a mention, as it is definitely not perfect English, and is most certainly an Irish thing that wouldn’t be heard anywhere else.

I’ll be the first to admit, however, that a fight between two Dubs can contain some of the most colourful language you could ever hear in your life.

North but south
at 12 April 2016 at 11:21

Great article although a lot of the words your reference, such as ‘jacks’ and ‘gaff’ wouldn’t be confined only to Dublin, they’d be Hiberno-English in general and spoke throughout the country.

Tiffin
at 12 April 2016 at 20:04

Interesting points, I also feel there is no enough respect for different dialects. As regards the using ‘me’ where grammarians say ‘I’ should be used, I had heard that the roots are in the French inheritance of English- the reflexive ‘me’ and that it is idiomatic but we have been taught to deny it.I tend to picture pointing at myself when I use it. Teaching kids to fear making the mistake leads to so many people saying ‘I’ in the wrong place, like ‘he met Sara and I’ which makes no sense, grammatically or idiomatically.

Dara
at 15 April 2016 at 11:42

@Seán Mac Ghiolla Phádraig: Heya Sean

Yeah big time, I’ve been making this it a dialect argument along with a few others for a long time but it takes independent publications and a lot of canniness to get shots of legitimacy with the academic credibility to back it up.
‘I’m just after me dinner’ or ‘I do be’ are both grammatically lifted from Irish right?

Suppose that’s what makes it a dialect, there seems to just be an aversion from the D4/Montrose contingent, no dialects please, we’re still a colony. Both trade wise and culturally.

You can check out my own columns over at [http://www.dublininquirer.com/201…

Dara
at 15 April 2016 at 11:47

@donnachadh: Exactly Donnachadh and that’s what makes it a dialect, these little grammatical quirks we kept safe.’I do be’ and ‘I’m just after my dinner’ as far as I know are lifted straight out of Irish grammar. Sure it’d be no fun otherwise, it binds as much as seperates us.

An I’m coming at this from a class view as ya can see from my pieces at .dublininquirer.com/author/dara-quigley/

Edel
at 20 April 2016 at 10:54

The variety of dialects and accents between working class areas and the increasingly bland, homogenised accent of the middle class regardless of where they hail from is also seen (heard) in England, probably to an even larger degree than here. Only working class people have interesting and discernible accents, the rest you wouldn’t know where they come from!

I’ve always thought that ‘true blue’ Dubs have a remarkable lexicon. Taxi drivers, people you meet on the street and examples such as Rashers Tierney in Strumpet City all have an amazing variety of vocabulary that you don’t seem to get elsewhere in the country (speaking as a culchie). Is it the education or wha? I’ve made this point before and others have pointed out that maybe it’s a city thing, people from Cork or Limerick displaying similar tendencies. I haven’t noticed it as much as in Dublin tho.

David
at 7 April 2017 at 07:40

Great article, is it possible to come up with a sentence which includes the words ‘you’, ‘yous’ ‘yiz’ and ‘yiz’r’? Thank you.

Anonymous commenter
at 28 January 2019 at 20:12

Barry Mc Dowell Very interesting article. Considering Dublin was one of the largest Viking settlements outside of Scandinavia and Norse was the spoken language for hundreds of years could it be that many of these phrases originate from Danish and Norse rather than Gaelic. For instance the "auld fella" in Danish is "Auld Fella"

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