Characteristics of Irish-English Grammar

Blarney Castle illuminated by green light in County Cork, Ireland

(Carrigphotos / Getty Images)

If you celebrate St. Patrick's Day with plastic pitchers of green beer and rousing choruses of "Danny Boy" (composed by an English lawyer) and "The Unicorn" (by Shel Silverstein), you may be roaring just about anywhere in the world on March 17—except Ireland. And if your friends insist on hollering "top o' the mornin'" and "begosh and begorrah," you can be pretty sure they're not Irish.

Needless to say, there are countless stereotypes about how Irish people and Irish Americans act and speak, and these generalizations and clichés are not only offensive, but they can be damaging when they cause people to miss out on knowing more about a strikingly dynamic culture.

So what do you actually know about Irish culture? Irish customs and traditions, especially Irish speech, are well worth studying. Irish-English is particularly fascinating, a complex and vibrant version of English with countless grammatical idiosyncrasies that set it apart from other dialects.

What Makes Irish-English Special?

The English language as spoken in Ireland (a variety known as Hiberno-English or Irish English) has many distinctive features, none of which should be confused with your friends' Celtic clichés or the Hollywood brogues of Tom Cruise (in Far and Away) or Brad Pitt (in The Devil's Own).

As examined by Markku Filppula in The Grammar of Irish English: Language in Hibernian Style, Irish-English grammar "represents a unique combination of elements drawn from the two principal partners in the contact situation, Irish and English," (Filppula 2002). This grammar is characterized as "conservative" because it has held on to certain traits of the Elizabethan English that shaped it more than four centuries ago.

There are also many distinctive features of Irish-English grammar that have to do with its rich vocabulary (or lexicon) and patterns of pronunciation (phonology).

Characteristics of Irish-English Grammar

The following list of Irish-English characteristics has been adapted from World Englishes: An Introduction by Gunnel Melchers and Philip Shaw.

  • Like Scottish English, Irish English has unmarked plurality in nouns indicating time and measure—"two mile," for instance, and "five year."
  • Irish English makes an explicit distinction between singular you/ye and plural youse (also found in other varieties): "So I said to our Jill and Mary: 'Youse wash the dishes.'"
  • Another characteristic of Irish English is nominalization, giving a word or phrase a noun-like status that it doesn't generally have, as in "If I had the doing of it again, I'd do it different."
  • A direct borrowing from the traditional Irish language (also known as Irish Gaelic or Gaeilge) is the use of after in noun phrases such as "I'm only after my dinner."
  • Like Scottish English, Irish English often uses progressive forms of stative verbs—"I was knowing your face".
  • Another salient feature is the use of sentence tags initiated by "so," as in "It's raining, so it is."