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Review of  New Perspectives on Irish English

Reviewer: Terence Odlin
Book Title: New Perspectives on Irish English
Book Author: Bettina Migge Máire Ní Chiosáin
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): Irish
Issue Number: 25.2527

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“New Perspectives” brings together several papers presented at a conference in Dublin in 2010, and it constitutes the second book on Irish English published by Benjamins in its series Varieties of English around the World. In the preface the co-editors Migge and Ní Chiosáin explicitly compare the contents of “New Perspectives” with the earlier volume, “Focus on Ireland” (edited by Jeffrey Kallen and published in 1997), noting that the new volume makes more use of corpora and more comparisons of Irish English with other varieties. Both of these observations are accurate, as is another concerning terminology: “Irish English” is the routine term used in the volume to refer to the variety, which has also gone by other names including “Anglo-Irish” and “Hiberno-English,” the latter term often appearing in the 1997 volume. Whatever the designation, Irish English remains a prominent topic in research on global varieties of English, and indeed another characteristic of the volume seems significant: 16 chapters in contrast to the 12 in Kallen’s volume, a difference that suggests that linguists’ interest in the variety is robustly growing.

Migge and Ní Chiosáin have organized the volume into five areas as they describe in the preface: social variation, syntax and semantics, pragmatics, corpus research, and identity issues. The four chapters on social variation all focus on urban settings but look at diverse topics: phonology and syntax in relation to age and gender in Dublin English (Karen Corrigan, Richard Edge, John Lonergan), segmental phonology and generational change in Galway City (Anne Peters), schwa epenthesis and generational change in Galway City (Karin Sell), and rising intonation patterns in Belfast (Jennifer Sullivan). Corrigan et al. look at several morphosyntactic structures such as the complementation pattern having both “for” and “to” as in “I went to the shop for to get bread,” along with certain phonological rules such as the phonetic realization of /t/ as [r], as when “what” is pronounced [war]. Analyzing results from both production and judgment tasks given to several working-class informants, Corrigan et al. found less variation by age or gender than some recent research has claimed. Even so, as the authors note, the “for-to” pattern showed a real generational difference, with older informants using it more and believing it to be more common in Dublin than younger informants did. The chapter by Peters makes a stronger claim about inter-generational change. For example, older interviewees showed greater use of a high front lax vowel in pre-nasal environments when pronouncing words that the younger speakers pronounced with a mid front lax vowel in “French” and “them,” although Peters acknowledges that the sample size (four individuals) urges caution about the conclusions. The corpus used by Sell, with 35 participants, presents a clearer picture of generational change in the frequency of epenthetic schwas, as where “film,” for instance, is pronounced as a two-syllable word. Younger speakers in Sells’ corpus did show some use of epenthetic schwas but less than older speakers did. In contrast to the other three chapters in this section, Sullivan’s study does not address variation in social groups but rather the ontogeny of the structural pattern: the rising intonation found so often in Belfast English. Not surprisingly, then, Sullivan’s chapter is the only one to present evidence from instrumental phonetics. Her conclusion is that Belfast rising intonation is motivated more by pragmatic than by phonetic factors.

Two of the four chapters on mophosyntax involve modals: one a study of modal progressive constructions in Irish and British English (Markku Filppula), the other a study of time reference in modal constructions (Marje van Hattum). Another chapter in the section also considers verbal structures, in this case the range of perfect constructions used in Newfoundland, where many Irish settled (Sandra Clarke). The fourth chapter compares the use of “it”-cleft sentences in Irish English and other varieties (Kalynda Beal). Fippula’s study of four corpora (two of British and two of Irish English) considers the frequency of modal progressive constructions as in “... they’d be trying you” (in the particular context, the “they” refers to church authorities). The results indicate that while modal progressives are not absent from any of the corpora, they are more frequent in Irish English, especially in a corpus of traditional speech. Somewhat similarly, Clarke’s study compares corpora of separate communities whose founders were speakers of British, on the one hand, and Irish English on the other. As in Filppula’s study, there were sizeable differences in the use of certain structures, most notably the “after” perfect, a well-known marker of Irish English speech (e.g., “She’s after mowing four times this week” = “She has mown four times this week”). Even so, there was not a remarkable inter-communal difference in the use of another well-known Irish English construction, the medial perfect (e.g., “I haves the old curtains closed” = “I have closed the old curtains”). A sentence in the title of van Hattum’s chapter illustrates well the kind of structure her study focuses on: “A cannot get a loan for more than six years now” (= “I have not been able to get a loan for six years”). Van Hattum uses Reichenbach’s approach to tense to analyze such instances, but she also considers instances such as “… when you might done it” (= “when you might have done it”), which she analyzes as a case of a deleted “have” auxiliary. Beal’s chapter on “it”-cleft constructions uses sub-corpora from India, Singapore, Jamaica, and Canada as well as one from Ireland, all part of the International Corpus of English. The frequencies of clefts in the so-called colonial English varieties are similar enough, Beal argues, to suggest a convergence process which can explain the productivity of “it”-clefts not only in Irish but in the other varieties.

The chapters on pragmatics consider a wide range of topics: the use of “like” as a discourse marker (Martin Schweinberger), vocative expressions (Bróna Murphy and Fionna Farr), the use of “now” as a discourse marker (Brian Clancy and Elaine Vaughn), and the Irish English responsive system, including the use or non-use of “yes” and “no” (Gili Diamant). The investigation of vocatives by Murphy and Farr relies on the Limerick Corpus of English and three smaller corpora; their results indicate sizeable variation in the use of vocatives by younger versus older speakers and by males versus females. The address form “lads,” for example, was used the most by younger males although young and middle-aged women also employed the term rather frequently. Informal contexts proved especially conducive to using this and certain other address forms. Age differences also figure prominently in Schweinberger’s analysis of the use of “like”; in general, younger people used the form as a discourse particle much more than older people did. However, differences in use according to gender were not so remarkable, and the variation between younger and older speakers proved much greater in some syntactic environments than others. For instance, there was less of a frequency gap between older and younger speakers in the use of “like” in clause-final environments in comparison with the gap between older and younger speakers in their use of “like” in clause-initial contexts, where younger speakers employed the form far more. Clancy and Vaughn also focus on a discourse marker, in this case “now,” and they detail a sizeable difference between Irish and British English. In effect, uses such as “It’s lunacy now” prove far more frequent in Ireland than in Britain. The difference is all the more remarkable, since Clancy and Vaughn also compared the two regional varieties for use of “now” in temporal and presentative contexts, yet they found no major frequency difference between the varieties in such contexts. Irish English has long been considered to be a variety in which “yes” and “no” occur relatively infrequently, and Dimant’s study looks closely at this characteristic and its putative source in the Celtic substrate. In cases such as the response to the question “Were you ever on a wake?” “I was” (without a “yes”), there is a close parallel in the Irish examples that Diamant gives. Even though responsives such as “yes” and “yeah” do appear in some of the corpus material that Diamant studied, traditional speech often relies simply on a response using the subject and verb given in the question.

As summaries of several chapters above indicate, corpus studies are the norm in this volume. Even so, two other chapters give special attention to the corpora themselves: one with a focus on methodological issues involving a diachronic corpus of letters (Kevin McCafferty and Carolina Amador-Moreno) and the other on a new corpus of Irish English in Argentina (Carolina Amador-Moreno). The diachronic corpus has material spanning over two centuries from about 1700 to the early twentieth century. However, the largest concentration of letters comes from a narrower time range, from the late eighteenth century onwards. McCafferty and Amador-Moreno show the usefulness of the corpus for tracing the increasing frequency of progressive constructions over decades. Amador-Moreno’s chapter on immigrant letters from Argentina is exploratory, looking at general structural characteristics of Irish English to be found without a statistical analysis. Traditional forms such as the habitual verb phrase in “There does be a mixture” appear in the corpus, and Amador-Moreno surmises that the rural environment where many immigrants lived tended to conserve traditional forms.

Of the two chapters on identity issues, one is arguably the most different from all the others in the volume, considering as it does attitudes, not structures, and the attitudes analyzed are those of immigrants to Ireland from other countries (Bettina Migge). The immigrants whom Migge surveyed came from many places including the U.K., continental Europe, Nigeria, India, the USA, and Australia. Different immigrants faced different degrees of linguistic adjustment with non-native speakers reporting, not surprisingly, initial difficulties in understanding the English of Irish people. On the other hand, immigrants from the UK showed the most ambivalence about using decidedly Irish characteristics in their speaking, in contrast to native speakers from other regions. The final chapter resembles Schweinberger’s study (summarized above) in that it offers a sociolinguistic analysis of the discourse marker “like” (Niamh Nestor, Catríona. Ní Chasaide, and Vera Regan), but in this case, the individuals whose speech was studied had all immigrated to Ireland from Poland. Despite their common national origin, however, the individuals varied considerably in their uses of “like.” Although every individual used the word in some ways, not all employed it as a discourse marker; moreover, older immigrants did not use it very much, while some--but not all--younger immigrants used it a great deal. As in Schweinberger’s study, the use of discourse “like” also varied by syntactic environment: clause-medial instances of the form proved less frequent than clause-initial and clause-final instances. Nestor et al. see the distributional differences as possible correlates of social identity, especially whether the frequency of “like” in specific environments marks an individual as integrated within the local community.

Even while a number of chapters show overlapping interests (e.g., modal verb phrases), “New Perspectives” achieves a good balance between longstanding concerns such as the origins of Irish English and new ones such as the significance of recent immigration for ongoing changes in the dialect. That said, there remains much in various chapters that researchers will ponder and, in some cases, probably challenge for years to come. The widespread reliance on corpus analyses no doubt shows a methodological advance in the quantity of data that can be analyzed, yet at the same time, the exact significance of the masses of data remains as problematic as evidence from earlier, less extensive sources. Filppula thoughtfully addresses such concerns in the case of his study of modal progressives. He acknowledges three possibilities for why those structures proved especially frequent in Irish, as opposed to British, English: 1) simple chance in the particular data samples; 2) the outcome of processes in contact Englishes not restricted to the Irish context but rather seen also in other colonial varieties such as American or Australian English; 3) a more specific outcome due to Celtic substrate influence during the intensive contact between speakers of Irish and speakers of English in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Filppula offers arguments against both the first and second explanations although the latter seems to him more plausible than the former, if not as credible as the third.

Whether or not other researchers agree with Filppula’s conclusion in his analysis of the modal progressive, they too have to address the concern that the data sample collected in any corpus really does result in an accurate picture of the variety. Beal’s chapter on “it”-cleft constructions, for example, has to assume that that the pragmatic contexts are roughly the same both qualitatively and quantitatively in all the corpora which she compares; without such similarity across corpora, the figures on “it”-cleft uses in any variety may reflect a frequency or infrequency of the pattern that does not really characterize the particular dialect as a whole.

Other methodological concerns also advise caution in taking some authors’ conclusions at face value. Clarke, for example, contends that her evidence offers no reason to view the medial perfect as a result of Irish substrate influence. It may well be, as she argues, that superstrate influence offers a more credible explanation for the medial perfect in Irish English either in Ireland or Newfoundland. Yet however much a vernacular from Britain may have contributed to the growth of the medial perfect, there remains the possibility of substrate influence as well. That is, early bilinguals whether in Ireland or Canada may have made what Weinreich (1953) called interlingual identifications between the Irish medial perfect and an English vernacular pattern common among monolinguals. Such identifications would constitute convergence, a.k.a. positive transfer. While there are methods in the study of second language acquisition to identify convergences (e.g., Jarvis 2000), they normally require comparing how two different native language groups, one having a structure similar to the target, the other not having that structure. Such comparisons have sometimes succeeded in demonstrating the likelihood of positive transfer, but, unfortunately, a comparison of bilingual populations having different native languages is not possible in the Irish English context. On the other hand, it is conceivable that some future SLA study would will be able to make such a comparison, if a non-Celtic language could be found having a structure similar to Irish. Unlike in Germanic and Romance languages, there is no lexical equivalent in Irish to English “have;” rather, there is a possessive construction in which the possessed is the subject and the possessor is marked by a prepositional phrase and in which there is a perfective verb co-occurring with an auxiliary somewhat similar to Spanish “estar”). This type of possessive construction is not typologically rare, but the challenge will be find a contact situation involving a language with the construction as well as languages with a verb like “have.” Unless such a study is done, the controversy over the medial perfect seems likely to remain unresolved.

Whatever the uncertainties over specific empirical issues, there can little doubt that the vast majority of studies in “New Perspectives” will contribute significantly to future work on Irish English. The volume has much to offer students of language contact, pragmatics, urban varieties, and corpus linguistics.

Jarvis, Scott. 2000. Methodological rigor in the study of transfer: Identifying L1 influence in the interlanguage lexicon. Language Learning 50. 245-309.

Weinreich, Uriel.1953. Languages in contact. The Hague: Mouton.
Terence Odlin is the author of several studies of language contact, including contact in the Celtic lands. He is an emeritus faculty member at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.