On a rainy autumn day in 2015, Christophe Coupé was exploring the city with a friend when they crossed the bridge to the north side, asked a guy for directions and discovered a whole new world of sound.
The guy’s accent was different to those around where Coupé lived in Dundrum, he says. “The intonation sounded different and the vowels too.”
“I was really surprised by the sheer difference between the north side and the south side,” says Coupé, a French linguist, who was studying at the time at University College Dublin (UCD).
He read up more – which only made him more interested. “I think it’s fascinating that there can be so many different ways of speaking,” he says.
Coupé left Dublin in the late spring of 2016.
But now he is back for another taste of Dublin’s stew of sounds, interviewing those who live here with all sorts of accents for his thesis for his PhD at the Linguistics Research Center, a research lab hosted at the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Lyon.
The idea of identity and what accents reveal about who somebody is and who they aspire to be is central to his research, says Coupé. “There is this strong sense of identity that you try to convey with your accent.”
Coupé wants to find out when accents are a burden or a vehicle for success in today’s Dublin, and when people modify their accents – or set out to lose them altogether.
“We never think about the language without thinking about the people who speak it. That’s why the question of identity is central in my research,” he says.
Different Kinds of Belonging
Coupé speaks English without a French accent. That’s intentional, he says. He practised suppressing it so that most people couldn’t trace it back to France.
He doesn’t want to sound too French, he says. “I can’t really explain it, but I think it’s related to the question of wanting to belong.”
“I think that’s why I changed my accent over the years. I wanted to say, ‘Oh, I’m closer to Ireland in terms of the way I speak,’” he says.
For some who have moved to Dublin from other places, deciding whether or not to try to change accents to fit majority accents in the city can be fraught.
Coupé says that he is looking to interview Dubliners “who were born in Ireland, raised in Ireland” living in all parts of the city.
And he’s looking to interview migrant kids who went through the Irish education system, he says.
That means people like George Njeri. The 18-year-old, who spent part of his childhood in Kenya and now lives in Coolock, says his mother once caught him speaking fast on the phone to his friend.
“She called me from my bedroom, and she told me I sounded funny,” says Njeri.
He says that he used to do it to fit in too but his mum said he should stop. “She told me, ‘Don’t change anything, just talk in the normal way you talk,’” says Njeri.
He hadn’t changed his accent as much as ramped up the speed of his usual speech, though, he says. He thought everyone around him talked faster, and he wanted to keep up.
Njeri laughs about that now. “I don’t think it’s a good way because I’m trying to impersonate them,” he says.
Coupé, the French linguist, says that in linguistics, that’s called not accommodating.
“You don’t accommodate to somebody else’s speech because you want to convey your own identity,” he says.
A 2017 study by researchers at UCD and at Australia’s University of Melbourne focused on Polish Dubliners, and how they understood and responded to the dominant Irish accents they hear, compared to what might, albeit problematically, be called “standard” English – in other words, standardised British or American accents.
The paper captures how varied migrant responses can be to Irish-accented English and how those responses relate to the degrees of accommodation into mainstream Irish identities, and the protection of other identities – while acknowledging how that may change, too, over time.
One participant prided themself on learning Irish accents, saying that in their view it allowed them to better understand the viewpoints of those they spoke to.
Another took pride in the Polish lilt of their speech. It was necessary to tone down an accent “to make oneself understood” to some extent, “but that any further modification is a betrayal of one’s true cultural roots and origins, and appears inauthentic”, they said.
Another adjusted her standardised English a little to an Irish-accented English, but overall kept with the standardised English she had learnt back in Poland, which, the researchers suggest, she considers more prestigious.
When it comes to the notion of identity, Irish linguist Raymond Hickey wrote that a recent linguistic identity dilemma in the city began “on the fashionable south side”.
A new accent emerged out of the economic growth of the Celtic Tiger era, one viewed as made-up.
It’s described as spoken by “only people who are pretending to be something they aren’t; not authentically linked to any particular place”, said a 2011 paper published in Anthropological Quarterly by University of Pennsylvania researcher Robert Moore.
It’s known as the “D4” accent, short for Dublin 4, which includes affluent areas of the south side like Donnybrook and Sandymount.
Hickey has documented the accent transformations and vowel massages Dublin has undergone since the Celtic Tiger era.
The D4 accent, Moore wrote, represents wealth and sophistication, but it became the subject of withering media castigation for stealing the countryside’s authentic twang when it spread beyond Dublin.
The moral panic around – and attacks on – the D4 accent and those who used it, echoed attacks by Irish cultural nationalists between the mid-nineteenth century and independence on the use of the English language itself in Ireland, Moore wrote.
Some media commentators gave a gendered edge to their rebuke, saying that it’s mostly country women who go up to Dublin, master the D4 accent to sound posh, and once under the influence of alcohol, their “true identities” emerge.
Moore criticised these media pieces and online commentary as policing young women’s speech to force outrage and induce moral panic about a newly emerged Dublin accent.
It compares it to a similar backlash in Sweden when young Swedes began to speak in “Rinkeby Swedish”, a sort of accent developed by the country’s immigrants that was initially stigmatised andperceived as the product of “inadequate exposure to Swedish social networks”.
But it was suddenly made trendy by young Swedes who wore it “as a badge of urban ‘cool’ and negative prestige”, Moore writes.
Although the moral panic around the spread of the D4 accent wasn’t about immigrants, Moore says, it came when the country was shapeshifting to become more cosmopolitan due to the economic boom. It signified fear of change, it says.
However, past resistance to change, seen in the campaign against the D4 accent, has died down today.
It is now replaced with a desire for the world to acknowledge and accurately represent those changes, says Nicholas O’Riordan, who studies accents in film at University College Cork.
The Irish accents in the film Wild Mountain Thyme drewsharp criticism from the press and from social media users, but O’Riordan says that had little to do with accents.
It was more about “the type of representation, the ruralism, the kind of romanticism of the kind of landscape representation, all these types of familiar tropes”, he says.
Irish accents heard in the Wild Mountain Thyme are not necessarily wrong because no accent is wrong, says O’Riordan.
The idea that those accents are wrong implies that there is one standard Irish accent, he says.
Instead, the backwardness associated with Irishness in the film is what vexes a nation that wants the world to know that it’s modern and thriving, he says.
A Bit of Everywhere
Matthew Tallon, a comedian and writer in the city, who grew up in Lucan, is constantly told that his Dublin accent sounds American.
“It gets pointed out to me, whenever I’m talking to people, the vast majority of time, if I meet somebody, they assume that I’m American,” he says.
Tallon has lived in Chicago for six months. But his parents spoke a neutral Dublin twang, he says, and he never developed a strong local accent.
Watching American films and stand-up comedy possibly inspired his accent too, says Tallon. “I would consume an awful lot more American media than I would Irish media.”
O’Riordan says younger Dubliners accused of having full-blown American lilts carry a bit of everywhere in their speech, and that accurately represents modern-day Dublin.
“I’d be reluctant to say American accents because this accent is often being theorised as having definitely some markers of the American accents, but there are Australian markers or possibly some British kind of contemporary markers,” he says.
“I think more than taking on an American accent, it’s a part of the process of losing features of your own accent, rather than taking other accents.”
Coupé says that revealing how he’ll evaluate their twangs might prejudice his research, he says. “I don’t want people to prepare. I want them to come with an open mind.”
[UPDATED: This article was updated on 23 September 2021 to remove contact details for Christophe Coupé as this stage of his research is now done.]