People comment on what they call my “strong Dublin accent” a lot. Some remarks are complimentary, some are contemptuous. But I’m very proud of working-class Dublin’s renowned linguistic ebullience, so it doesn’t bother me. Apart from one thing – the phrase “Dublin accent” itself belittles how I speak. This is because it’s not just an “accent”, it’s a dialect.
The easiest way to explain what this means is by going through the different levels linguists use to analyse language. The first level is phonology. This is what people usually mean when they say someone has a particular “accent”, because a difference in phonology is a difference in the sounds we make when speaking. So you might say “sound”, and I might say “sowind”. We’re both saying the same word, we just “sound” different. And that’s all an accent is.
The second level is morphology. This is how words change depending on the circumstances they’re used in, so the way we attach suffixes to indicate plurals (dog changes to dogs, for example), affixes to indicate opposites (happiness changes to unhappiness) and so on. I remember a posh mate of mine telling me about a football match he’d played against a team from Cabra. One of these opponents shouted: “REF THAT FOUL WAS ONLY THREE FOOT OFF THE LINE!” My posh mate corrected him: “The plural of foot is feet.” Needless to say the youngfella was outraged and bewildered.
Anyway, the next level up is lexicon, the actual words we use. Now we really start to see how much more is involved in an “accent” than just how we pronounce things. So while you might say “house”, I’m more likely to say “gaff”. While you might say “that guy” I’ll say “yerman”, and while you might say “my father”, I’ll say “me oulfella”. It’s not just the sounds we make that are different, is it?
This becomes even more apparent at the level of syntax, which is essentially the way we arrange words into sentences. The order we put words in also contributes meaning. Take these two sentences: 1. Am I drunk? 2. I am drunk. Both are composed of the exact same words, one is a statement, the other a question, and we can tell this just from the order words come in.
Another word for syntax is grammar. The so-called “grammar nazis” are actually just pedants who moan about spelling and punctuation, not grammar. The real grammar nazis are more insidious. How many listeners were told off as kids for saying things like “me and Sarah” instead of “Sarah and I”? – which sounds stilted and contrived to my ears. Phrases like “I do be too busy” are also considered “wrong” by some parents, and, even worse, some teachers (they should know better).
I’d LOVE to go back to these teachers now and ask them to explain to me what exactly is “wrong” about the phrase “I do be too busy”. This is the habitual present aspect, and MOST languages have it! It just happens standard English lacks it, and the ingenuity of Dublin English compensates. The construction follows perfectly grammatical rules: I do be too busy, she does be too busy and so on.
How else should we convey the same message? I’m sometimes too busy? I’m often too busy? I habitually am too busy? They don’t quite mean the same thing, and they have to clumsily spell out using extra words what Dubs can say simply with word order.
The final level I’m going to mention is semantics, which means meaning itself. Confused? The same sentences can have different meanings in different dialects. So using standard English words perfectly grammatically, the phrase “I’d lash her” conveys a meaning in Dublin very distinct from its constituent parts – just as “I’m goin to batter him” doesn’t suggest smothering someone in eggs and flour.
One of the reasons people shouldn’t be so uptight about deviations from the standard, is that standard English itself isn’t fixed. There’s only one constant when it comes to language: change.
Using words like “jacks” for toilet, or calling someone a “pox”, may seem quintessentially Dublin, but Shakespeare used both. Hamlet slurs his uncle with an admonition to: “Begin, murtherer. Pox.” And in King Lear, the Earl of Kent says: “I will tread this unbolted villain into mortar and daub the walls of a jacks with him!” These words have fallen out of use in London and Stratford, but remain common currency among Dubliners.
Every dialect might not be able to claim such distinguished literary heritage, but wherever you’re from, take note and be proud of the richness and depth of your linguistic surroundings, and draw on the peculiar sounds, syntax and semantics to the fullest – but just remember – your dialect is more than just an accent.