Aerial view of Belfast

Accents and dialects of Northern Ireland

From 1609 onwards, British settlers started to arrive in Ireland in increasing numbers, bringing the English language with them. Find out more about the diverse influences and distinctive sounds that characterise English in Northern Ireland.

The Plantation of Ulster that began in 1609 was a planned process of settlement aimed at preventing further rebellion among the population in the north of Ireland. This part of the island was at that time virtually exclusively Gaelic-speaking and had shown the greatest resistance to English colonisation. From the early 17th century onwards, Irish lands were confiscated and given to British settlers – or ‘planters’ – who arrived in increasing numbers, bringing the English Language with them. Large numbers of settlers came from southwest Scotland and thus spoke a Scots dialect, while the remaining settlers came predominantly from the north and Midlands of England. By 1830, for instance, Londonderry had a population that was 25% Scots, 25% English and 50% Irish.

Diverse influences

For some considerable time the colonists remained surrounded by Gaelic-speaking communities in County Donegal to the west and the counties of Louth, Monaghan and Cavan to the south. Thus English in the northeast of the island developed in relative isolation from other English-speaking areas such as Dublin, while the political situation over the course of the 20th century has meant that Northern Ireland has continued to develop a linguistic tradition that is distinct from the rest of Ireland. Scots, Irish Gaelic, 17th century English and Hiberno-English (the English spoken in the Republic of Ireland) have all influenced the development of Northern Irish English, and this mixture explains the very distinctive hybrid that has emerged.

Distinctive sounds

Speech in the whole of Ireland is for instance rhotic – that is speakers pronounce an <r> sound after a vowel in words like farm, first and better. The pronunciation of this <r> sound is, however, much more like the sound we hear in an English West Country accent than the ‘tapped’ or ‘rolled’ <r> sound we associate with Scottish speakers. On the other hand the vowel system of Northern Irish English more closely resembles that of Scottish English, rather than the English of England, Wales or the Republic of Ireland. Pairs such as pull and pool are often homophones, boot frequently rhymes with foot and phrases such as good food are pronounced with vowels of equal length in Belfast and Glasgow, for instance, but not in Dublin, London or Cardiff. Many speakers – particularly older speakers in rural communities – retain pronunciations that are a throwback to much older, conservative forms of English, such as inserting a <y> sound after an initial <k> or <g> in words like car and garden, such that they sound a little like ‘kyarr’ or ‘gyarrden’. Northern Irish English also has a very distinctive intonation pattern and a broad Northern Irish accent is characterised by a very noticeable tendency to raise the pitch towards the end of an utterance, even if the speaker is not asking a question.

As in Scotland, some speakers claim to speak a dialect (or language, depending on one’s point of view) that traces its roots back to the earliest Scottish settlers – Ulster Scots. Ulster Scots has been recognised by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and, although there was no attempt to classify it as a language in the Good Friday agreement of 1998, Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch (The Ulster Scots Agency) was established and the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 includes a commitment to ‘enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, culture and heritage’.

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  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

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