The Grammar of Irish English: Language in Hibernian Style

By Markku Filppula | Go to book overview

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INTRODUCTION

Dialect grammar, here understood in a wide sense as referring to the syntactic, morphosyntactic and also discourse-structural properties of any given dialect, has until quite recently been among the least favoured subjects in dialectological and sociolinguistic studies. In trying to explain ‘why dialectologists have fought shy of syntax’, the late Professor Ossi Ihalainen, one of the pioneers of the study of dialectal English grammar, points out two main reasons for this state of affairs: first, many dialectologists believe that syntactic differences between English dialects are not significant enough to warrant much syntactic analysis; second, research in this area has been held up by the lack of sufficiently large databases (Ihalainen 1988: 569). Ihalainen’s article, and indeed, his work on dialectal syntax as a whole, constituted an apt reply to the view expressed some years earlier by another great dialectologist, the late Martyn F. Wakelin, who on one occasion had described dialectal syntax as an ‘unwieldy’ object of study (Wakelin 1977: 125). Fortunately, the last few years have witnessed a clear change of attitudes among dialectologists, and this has resulted in a rapid growth of literature on the grammar of regional dialects (see, e.g. Trudgill and Chambers 1991; Milroy and Milroy 1993). This in itself is proof that there are differences between the grammatical systems of English dialects which need to be described and explained. Although there is still a shortage of generally available databases, the development of computer-assisted research techniques has made it possible to build machine-readable corpora, which enable a systematic study of, and comparisons between, considerably larger databases than before.

Among the regional varieties which have become the object of fresh interest are the dialects of English spoken in the Celtic lands, including what will in this study be termed ‘Hiberno-English’, i.e. Irish English (see the discussion on terminology in section 3.5). What makes the study of Hiberno-English (henceforth abbreviated as HE) dialects particularly intriguing is their historical background: they are a product of a unique linguistic situation involving longstanding contact between two languages which, though both members of the Indo-European language family, display typological and structural differences in some central areas of their grammars, including the systems of word order, the article system, the tense and aspect systems, the role of prepositions, and the information structure of the clause. On the other hand, there are significant similarities and structural overlaps even in the mentioned areas. Many of the dissimilarities and similarities are reflected in various ways in the linguistic outcome of the contact, namely HE dialects, which have preserved their distinctive nature up to the present day. First described in any detail at the beginning of this century by scholars such as Mary Hayden and Marcus Hartog (1909), P. W. Joyce (1910/1988), A. van Hamel (1912), and Jeremiah J. Hogan (1927/1970), the grammar of HE passed into near-oblivion as an academic object of study until P. L. Henry’s thorough account of the spoken dialect of North Roscommon (Henry 1957). Another couple of decades passed in silence before a new wave of interest arose from the 1970s onwards along with descriptions of HE grammar by Alan J. Bliss (see e.g. Bliss no date, 1972, 1979, 1984a), Michael V. Barry (e.g. Barry 1981, 1982), and Lesley and James Milroy (e.g. L. Milroy 1980; J. Milroy 1981), who were soon followed by others.

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