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The morphology of Irish English


Second person plural pronouns

In the area of morphology, the main non-standard feature in Irish English is the distinction between second singular and plural personal pronouns (Hickey 1983, 2003, Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1994). This is obviously a conservative trait of vernacular forms of Irish English, certainly when one considers the retention of the older second person plural nominative pronoun ye which is quite acceptable in mainstream varieties. There are two further forms for the plural both of which arose through regular plural formation: youse < you + {S} and yez < ye + {S}. The latter forms are stigmatised and more typical of strongly local varieties of Dublin English. Youse and yez can be taken to be productive formations reached by the morphological analysis of other regular plurals. In historical forms of mainland English these seem not to be attested and, for instance, do not occur in such extensive corpora of late Middle / early Modern English correspondence as that compiled by Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg (see Nevalainen 1997) nor do they occur anywhere in the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts (Kytö 1993). These non-standard nominative forms also occur in the possessive, e.g. yeer [jir], yer [jər]. They are attested in written Irish English at least since the middle of the 19th century, for instance in the plays of Dion Boucicault. The pronunciation of the second person plural pronoun moves along a cline from a full [ji] vowel through a more centralised realisation, [jɪ], to a schwa [jə]. Examples: What are ye at, ye lazy fecker? Will yez give over the larking and get on with the job?(Dublin English Recordings, DER).

Epistemic negative musn’t

Another feature of morphology which would seem to have arisen through regular extension of an existing structure is the occurrence of epistemic negative must, e.g. He musn´t be at home now (DER), where the negative is modelled on the positive whereas in standard English the former is expressed using can’t, i.e. He can’t be at home now.

Demonstrative them

When considering non-standard features of a particular variety, the relative uniqueness of traits must be addressed. This can be seen clearly with the non-standard use of the oblique personal pronoun them as a demonstrative, e.g. Them forms we got in the post (DER), or with singular nouns after numerals, e.g. He paid twenty pound for the meal (DER). These are such widespread features of non-standard English that they can in no way be taken as indicative of Irish English although they are widely attested there and are found in literary representations.

Preterite done and seen

Another example of this type of feature is to be seen in the reduced number of verb forms in Dublin English. The most common occurrences are with the verbs do and see which regularly have the preterite done and seen respectively, e.g. He done some work, She seen her friend out with yer man (DER). These are widely found in other varieties of Irish English, including those in the north of Ireland (Henry 1995, 1997) and are of course found in many varieties of English outside of Ireland (Cheshire 1993; Lass 1993). The tokens for this kind of reduction may be slightly more numerous in vernacular Irish English, especially in Dublin, for instance, it extends to throw and take as well, e.g. She thrown her arms around her, He’s took her away from mi mother (DER). The suppletive preterite of go, went, is also found as a past participle, e.g. I’ve never went there in my life (DER).

Negation of auxiliaries

In spoken English a negative phrase, such as I am not, is reduced to two forms by the first two merging together, i.e. I’m not. When the negative phrase occurs in a question, i.e. when one is dealing with an underlying am not I, then there is variation in the contracted surface form across varieties of English. In Irish English, especially in the south, a contraction of am and not as amn’t is frequently found, e.g. Amn’t I leaving soon anyway? The contracted form Aren’t I occurs in less vernacular forms of speech, e.g. Aren’t I right after all?


Anderwald, Liselotte 2004. ‘Local markedness as a heuristic tool in dialectology: The case of amn’t’, in: Kortmann et al. (eds), pp. 47-68.

Cheshire, Jenny. 1993. ‘Standardization and the English irregular verbs’, in Stein and Tieken-Boon van Ostade (eds), pp. 115-134.

Henry, Alison. 1995. Belfast English and Standard English. Dialect Variation and Parameter Setting. Oxford: University Press.

Henry, Alison. 1997. ‘The syntax of Belfast English’, in: Kallen (ed), pp. 89-108.

Hickey, Raymond 1983. ‘Remarks on pronominal usage in Hiberno-English’, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 15: 47-53.

Hickey, Raymond 2003. ‘Rectifying a standard deficiency. Pronominal distinctions in varieties of English’, in: Irma Taavitsainen and Andreas H. Jucker (eds), Diachronic perspectives on address term systems, Pragmatics and Beyond, New Series, Vol. 107. Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp. 345-374.

Hickey, Raymond, Merja Kytö, Ian Lancashire and Matti Rissanen (eds) 1997. Tracing the Trail of Time. Proceedings of the Conference on Diachronic Corpora, Toronto, May 1995. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Kallen, Jeffrey L., ed. 1997. Focus on Ireland. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kortmann, Bernd (ed.) 2004. Dialectology meets Typology. Dialect Grammar from a Cross-Linguistic Perspective. Berlin: New York.

Kytö, Merja. 1993. Manual to the Diachronic Part of the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts. Helsinki: Department of English.

Lass, Roger. 1993. ‘Proliferation and option-cutting: The strong verb in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries’, in Stein and Tieken-Boon van Ostade (eds), pp. 81-114.

Nevalainen, Terttu. 1997. ‘Ongoing work on the Corpus of Early English Correspondence’, in Hickey, Kytö, Lancashire and Rissanen, eds., 81-90.

Stein, Dieter and Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, eds. 1993. Towards a Standard English, 1600-1800. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid 1994. ‘Standard and non-standard pronominal usage in English, with special reference to the eighteenth century’, in:Stein and Tieken-Boon van Ostade (eds), pp. 217-242.