Thursday, 10 November 2011

‘I’m after giving her some flowers’

The following article comes from a special issue of English Today which focuses on Irish English in Today’s World.

Map of counties in Northern Ireland and Eire


The expression in today’s title might not make sense to a lot of readers but if you’re from Ireland then the likelihood is that it sounds very familiar and you’ll know that it means that the speaker has probably given somebody some flowers quite recently to the time of speaking.

Researcher Karen Corrigan is an expert on Irish English and she explains some of the variety’s grammatical features and how they have arisen. She emphasises the fact that Irish English emerged as a result of historical contact between Irish speakers and settlers of regional Scots and English vernaculars. This contact situation makes it difficult to determine whether the resulting grammatical structure a) has been influenced by the indigenous Irish language, b) derives from features that were in the English varieties spoken by the Scots and English settlers or c) whether innovations emerge as a result of the contact situation itself. Corrigan discusses three features of grammatical variation in Irish English and illustrates that all three processes are likely to have been involved.

The first feature is referred to as the ‘After Perfect’, like the example in the heading. It is sometimes also called the ‘Hot News Perfect’ and this is because it can be used to describe a recent event but one that has nevertheless been completed. The structure is formed by combining a form of the verb be with the preposition after followed by the continuous form of a verb e.g. he’s after breaking the window which has the same meaning as he’s just broken the window in standard English. The origin of this feature has been subject to considerable debate but the evidence points to it being a ‘calque’ or ‘loan translation’ because it is a literal translation from the same structure that exists in Irish.

The second feature is the use of double modal verbs e.g. I might could do that (to mean ‘I might be able to do that’). This structure does not occur in Irish and does not therefore derive from this source. It did, however, occur in Northern and Scottish varieties of English at the time when large numbers of these settlers arrived in Ireland and it is considered that this is how it came to be part of Irish English. Furthermore, it is only in those regions of Ireland where large numbers of Scottish and Northern English migrants settled that this feature exists today, namely the Ulster Scots areas of Counties Down and Antrim.

Finally, Corrigan talks about two special types of relative clause found in Irish English. The first is seen in ‘I’ve a cousin a nurse, she lives in Ederney’ where the word ‘she’ refers back to ‘cousin’ and seems to be used instead of a relative pronoun such as ‘who’. The second type is demonstrated by the example ‘you’ll see a wee clock in the window and it goin’ yet’ which has the meaning of ‘you’ll see a wee clock in the window which is still going’. She argues that these two strategies are generally used in more complex relative clauses and that there are parallel uses in both Irish and earlier forms of English. She also finds examples of such constructions in other contact varieties of English and in other languages such as French and Brazilian Portuguese. On this basis, she argues that the structures cannot simply be traced to either Irish or earlier English sources but have emerged in line with linguistic universal principles.
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Corrigan, K. 2011. Grammatical variation in Irish English. English Today 106. Vol.27/2: 39-46.
doi:10.1017/S0266078411000198

This summary was written by Sue Fox

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