Review of A Sound Atlas of Irish English
Date: Mon, 11 Jul 2005 14:54:30 +0100
From: Carolina Amador
Subject: A Sound Atlas of Irish English
AUTHOR: Hickey, Raymond
TITLE: A Sound Atlas of Irish English
SERIES: Topics in English Linguistics 48
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
Carolina P. Amador Moreno, Department of Languages and Cultural
Studies, University of Limerick, Ireland.
This exceptional volume, consisting of a book and a DVD, is an
important addition to the work on the English spoken in Ireland.
Studies of this variety have concentrated mainly on vocabulary and
syntax. As far as the lexis is concerned, a general look at the large
body of dialect word lists in Ireland reveals an interest in Irish English
lexicon dating from 1557 onwards. On the other hand, the study of
Irish English syntax has given interesting scholarly results in the fields
of historical linguistics, second language acquisition and creole
studies, to quote but a few theoretical frameworks. In comparison with
the domains of grammar and syntax, it can be safely stated that the
phonology of Irish English has been much less productive from the
academic point of view.
Hickey's Sound Atlas of Irish English contains data gathered from
nearly 1,200 speakers. The recordings provide a representative
overview of the sound features of the English spoken in contemporary
Ireland. It covers both genders and all ages (with particular attention
to the younger generation).
The book is structured into eight sections:
Section I deals with the analysis and collection of data, which took
place between the mid 1990s and 2002. The origins of the project, as
explained by the author in "Background to A Sound Atlas of Irish
English", go back to an earlier investigation of Dublin English in the
1980s, which concentrated on the "Dublin vowel shift" (Hickey 1999b).
The method employed for data collection in this earlier survey of
Dublin English (a variant of Labov's 'rapid and anonymous interview')
was then replaced by a more structured system of data collection
whereby informants read a set of short sentences, a short paragraph
or a list of words anonymously (included in section II). In this section,
the author also briefly discusses issues of representativity,
organisation of the recordings and minimisation of background noise.
In the subsection entitled "Analysing the recording exchanges" the
author explains how informants were approached, and emphasises
how, in order to provoke cooperation, a especial effort was made to
show little social distance, minimise intrusion, and encourage
informants to participate in the survey.
Section II provides a general introduction to the history and
development of the English language in Ireland. It contains a brief
overview of the main dialectal divisions, accompanied by two
illustrative maps that can also be found in the DVD. After a short,
perhaps oversimplified, description of the linguistic history of Ireland,
the author goes on to analyse the most salient pronunciation
characteristics of the varieties of Southern Irish English which occur in
1) the transition zone from south to north, 2) the East Coast, 3) the
South-West and West, and 4) the Midlands. The subsection dealing
with the varieties of Northern Irish English opens with a discussion of
the terminology used to refer to the language(s) of Ulster. A
contrastive analysis between northern and southern Irish English then
concentrates on equivalents of ambidental fricatives, dentalisation of
alveolar stops before /r/, allophones of alveolar plosives, pallatisation
of velar plosives, off-glides, unstressed vowels and vowel quantity. A
table suggesting possible sources for key phonological features of
Irish English is also offered after a summary of the different research
positions taken by scholars when debating the role of contact in the
origin of these features.
The features of urban English in Dublin (with a distinction between
local and "fashionable" or "new" Dublin English), Belfast and Derry are
discussed here at length, with an emphasis on Dublin English and the
spread of the new Dublin accent. To make the data easily comparable
to that of other varieties of English, Hickey adapts Wells' system of
lexical sets (Wells 1982) to cover not only vowel values but also
consonants. He then includes two useful tables containing five
columns with a small selection of the most representative varieties:
one for vocalic sets, one for consonantal sets. Both tables are
followed by a few remarks derived from the data, which arose during
The lexical sets, sample sentences and free text referred to here can
be easily accessed on the DVD by means of a Java application which
allows users to browse through the data. As explained by the author,
the sound files can be recognised thanks to a pattern with specific
references indicating the origin of the informant, gender, age, etc. The
file names of recordings also contain a reference to the size of the
location the informant comes from. The last subsection deals with the
most salient features and indicates in which sound files those features
can be accessed.
Section III contains detailed, user-friendly instructions and information
about the software for the atlas data. At the outset, two options are
offered to access the sound files, maps, images, additional data and
different programmes: by using the Java version on the DVD (which
requires no installation), or by installing the Windows software from
the DVD and then launching it from the hard disk of a PC (which can
be a bit more complex to use than the Java version if installation is not
carried out properly). Instructions are offered to both PC and Apple
Macintosh users. The contents of the DVD are explained in this
section, which helps users make the most of the data available in the
The remainder of the book is dedicated to technical notes (Section V),
a glossary of computer terms (Section VI), a timeline for Irish English
(Section VII) which takes the Kildare Poems as a starting point and
ends at Terence P. Dolan's new edition of the Dictionary of Hiberno-
English (2005), and a list of terms related to Irish English (Section VIII).
The DVD contains useful information about the varieties of Irish
historical development, current distribution, etc. It abounds with data
that can be compared and analysed in many different ways. The "map
with transcriptions" node from the "Sound Atlas first approach" branch,
which is displayed in the Java version of the DVD, for instance, allows
users to listen to the lexical sets explained in Section II of the book.
This option gives users the opportunity, for example, to compare the
realisation of the WATER set with the GET set across regions. The
lexical set realisations can also be heard by locality: the node "lexical
sets" in the "Sound Atlas - recordings" branch shows a map of the
localities where recordings were made; by clicking on the number
shown in the map, one can hear a representative speaker from this
area reading a sentence with the different lexical items. Additional
material on Dublin English from different parts of the city also shows
different pronunciation patterns of relevance to linguistic change in
Also available in the DVD is an option that shows statistics for different
parameters of the recordings. The charts and tables provided in the
last option of the "Sound Atlas - information" branch of the Java atlas
software contains information on speakers by province, location sizes,
gender and age spread, recording type and files by province.
Of particular interest to researchers and students of Irish English is
the node "Survey of Irish English Usage", a survey which shows
speakers' acceptance or rejection of certain sentences. The survey,
carried out by the author parallel to the collection of sound recordings,
covers the areas of morphology and syntax. Information on the
methodology used, the processing software and morphosyntactic
features of Irish English contained in the questionnaire is discussed by
Hickey in Section IV of the book as well.
System Requirements: Windows PC: Pentium PC, Windows
2000/2003/XP, at least 128MB RAM, DVD-ROM Drive, 16 Bit
Soundcard, XVGA (1024 x 768 resolution). Apple MAC: OS 9 or
higher, 16 Bit Soundcard, at least 128MB RAM.
This book, written by a well-respected and certainly prolific expert in
the field, constitutes an exhaustive study of the English spoken in
contemporary Ireland. Both the content and its format, with multimedia
support and audio data, represent an invaluable resource for those of
us with research and teaching interests on Irish English.
One of the main merits of the volume is the thorough investigation
carried out by the author in trying to capture variation. The author
should certainly be praised for the fieldwork that has gone into the
production of this Sound Atlas.
At the phononological level, it describes and explores features so
genuinely Irish such as rhotic /r/, the voiceless labio-velar /hw/, often
heard in words starting with an initial wh- (whale, why, etc.),
epenthetic /ə/ in the pronunciation of words such as "farm" or "Colm",
the realisation of medial T as H, as in the pronunciation of the
word "Saturday", or the realisation of apico-alveolar fricative [ţ] of the
GET lexical set.
The Survey of Irish English Usage is an excellent introduction to the
morphology and syntax of Irish English, and it also provides
researchers with interesting results regarding the current degree of
acceptability of certain Irish English structures. The digital processing
of Barry's Tape-Recorded Survey of Hiberno-English Speech, a
project which started in the 1970s in Belfast and remains incomplete,
also deserves praise, given that it makes this survey available to the
research community. The digitisation of the tapes recorded by Barry's
team nicely complements Hickey's work and allows for a comparison
If one had to find something to criticise, the conflations and
simplifications concerning the historical background and past research
done on the study of Irish English are somehow disappointing. Whilst
the brief description of the History of Irish English (both in the book
and DVD) is very useful as way of introduction for anyone unfamiliar
with Irish English, I feel this could have been expanded even for the
benefit of those new to this variety. Although the author makes
reference to other work also published by him (e.g. Hickey 2002,
2003) where other bibliographical references and a more
comprehensive account of the formation of Irish English are offered, it
would have seemed appropriate to deal with the historical background
of this variety in more detail. Some debatable omissions in the use of
sources concern Odlin's work on the mechanisms of language
transfer, which, together with Filppula's important research (e.g.
Filppula 1999), has also contributed to a better understanding of
transferability in the context of Irish English (see Odlin 1989, 1991,
1992, etc.). The work of Fenton (1995/2000) or Robinson (1997) is
not mentioned either in the section dealing with Ulster Scots. It must
also be noted that the reference to Labov's work on page 1 should
read 1966, as in the references at the end of the book, and not 1996.
While the term Hiberno-English, sometimes used as a synonym of Irish
English in studies dealing with this variety, would be familiar to
researchers in the field, its inclusion in the glossary would have been
helpful to those without prior knowledge, especially since it appears in
the book and the DVD when referring to the work of other authors
such as Dolan.
The restrictions imposed on the methodology used for the collection of
data in the initial Dublin survey are mentioned by the author at the
start of the book. However, letting informants know that they are being
recorded also entails the restriction of the observer's paradox,
whereby the very act of recording data creates a situation in which
those data can be falsified by the fact that the participants are
conscious that they are being recorded. The fact that they were asked
to read as well might have caused some speakers (who we presume
are all natives from the area tested) to change their accent into what
they may think is a more clear way of speaking English, but, of course,
there are ethical concerns involved in the gathering of audio
recordings which destroy the spontaneity of speech, and this is
To sum up, the book constitutes an excellent tool not only for the
scholars or students interested in Irish English, but also for the study
and the analysis of some of the fundamental issues that are still being
discussed in Dialectology and Language Variation and Change. It is
also a useful tool not only for those involved in the teaching of
varieties of English around the world, Sociolinguistics, and Language
contact, but also for drama students who may be interested in working
on the speech of an Irish character.
Dolan, T. P. (1998/2005) A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Dublin: Gill
Fenton, J. (1995/2000) The Hamely Tongue: A Personal Record of
Ulster-Scots in County Antrim. Newtonwards: Ulster-Scots Academy
Filppula, M. (1999) The Grammar of Irish English. Language in
Hibernian Style. London and New York: Routledge.
Hickey, R. (1999) Dublin English: Current changes and their
motivation, in Foulkes, P. and G. Docherty (eds.) Urban voices.
London: Edward Arnold.
Hickey, R. (2002) A Source Book of Irish English,
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hickey, R. (2003) Corpus Presenter: Software for Language Analysis
with a Manual and A Corpus of Irish English as Sample Data.
Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.
Labov, W. (1966) The social stratification of English in New York City.
Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Odlin, T. (1989) Language Transfer: Cross-linguistic influence in
language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Odlin, T. (1991) 'Irish English Idioms and Language Transfer', English
World Wide 12:2, 175-193.
Odlin, T. (1992) 'Transferability and Linguistic Substrates', Second
Language Research 8: 3, 171-202.
Robinson, P. (1997) Ulster-Scots. A Grammar of the Traditional
Written and Spoken Language. Northern Ireland: The Ullans Press.
Wells, J. C. (1982) Accents of English. 3 vols. Cambridge: University
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Carolina P. Amador Moreno is a graduate from the University of
Extremadura (Spain), and the University of Ulster (Northern Ireland).
She holds a European Doctorate in English Studies. She was Vice-
President of the Spanish Young Linguists Association (AJL) from 1998
to 1999, and she currently lectures in the Department of Languages
and Cultural Studies in the University of Limerick (Ireland). Her
research and teaching interests include sociolinguistics, dialectology,
bilingualism, stylistics, discourse analysis, second language
acquisition, and corpus linguistics. She has several publications
related to the English spoken in Ireland.