Hiberno-English: The English Language in Medieval Ireland

Áine McGlynn

Copyright 2004

Establishing a foothold

In the twelfth century, a motley crew of invaders arrived in Ireland. Among them, at least three languages were spoken; Anglo-Norman, English and Flemish. As a language of prestige and administration, Norman French, gained purchase in Ireland with the establishment of churches, monasteries and town centers. However, as a means to best reach a largely illiterate and Irish speaking population, the vernacular language, Irish, was quickly adopted and Norman French and Latin were consigned to use in ecclesiastical settings, in law literature, and town statutes. This became problematic to an English population growing quickly in numbers over the succeeding century. Norman French and Latin were familiar to this Anglo population, and upon Norman French’s surrender to the Irish vernacular in even ecclesiastical and judicial settings, it became necessary for English to establish itself as the written language as a first step to taking over the Irish vernacular.

At the height of Anglo-Irish extension in the early fourteenth-century, the only significant creative work composed in Anglo-Irish emerged. What have been called the Kildare poems, a manuscript of forty-eight items, sixteen composed in English, represent both the distinctiveness of Anglo-English, and the tenuous position of English in Ireland at the time. Angela Lucas, the most recent editor of the manuscript, suggests that authorship can be attributed to various Franciscans, and that the book would have been used as a sermon, or preaching aid. The poems are full of Irish particularities as Jeremiah J. Hogan points out; the stress is usually on the final syllable, consonants are nearly always written with an h to reflect Irish aspiration, as well as an early dropping of final e. Hickey argues however, that it is a possibility rather than a fact that these aforementioned orthographical particularities indicate that the Kildare poems were influenced by Irish. In support of the possibility he makes observations similar to Hogan's, but focuses more on morphological reasons rather than phonological ones for the particularity of the orthography. For instance, rather than merely suggest that word initial h is indicative of Irish aspiration, Hickey maintains that it is indicative of the grammatical rules of Irish that place an h in "he third person singular feminine of the possessive pronoun in the plural of nouns"(226). The Irish affixation of h to English words such as able, oak and old, suggests a confusion among Anglo-Irish writers as to when and where in English the ungrammatical h is affixed to words. There is evidence for both Irish influence and for English innovation in the Kildare poems, a fact which suggests that the writers were native Irish speakers attempting to use a standardized form of English in composing the only creative Anglo-Irish work of the period. The lack of any subsequent creative endeavors composed in Anglo-Irish during the medieval period suggests that English was failing to establish itself as the language of choice for the spreading of ecclesiastical values. This task benefited more from the use of the vernacular. The literate population engaged with texts from England which were translated into Anglo-Irish. These translations evidence particularities of Anglo-Irish and further suggest the disconnect between the language of the English population in Ireland and their English cousins. The main distinctions of Anglo-Irish that the Cambridge History of the English Language points out are the variation between <w> and <v>, the use of <t> in place of <th>, and of <th> for <d>, and finally the unexpected presence, or lack, of a <d> on the endings of words such as blyne, "blinde", or sermonde, "sermon".

Fighting a losing battle

To counter an English population increasingly speaking Irish exclusively, and a lack of creative Anglo-Irish literary spirit, the Statutes of Kilkenny were drafted in 1366. These were the first attempts on the part of the English to hold onto Ireland for the benefit of England. The statutes decreed that Irish should not be spoken, English landholders and associates of the church must speak English, and Irish custom, dress, and sport were to be avoided. The scarcity of Anglo-Irish writings suggests that attempts to secure English as the vernacular would have to contend with a population unwilling to surrender Irish, French or Latin. The Statutes of Kilkenny are clearly evidence that a nationalizing England was trying to protect against the encroachment of Irish cultural elements on an Anglo-Saxon identity still tenuously defining itself. This weak attempt at preventing the use of Irish in Ireland proved futile. By the fifteenth-century the English language was all but extinct outside of the area surrounding Dublin, known as "The Pale". Towns such as Dublin, Galway, and Waterford, struggled to maintain English as the language of day-to-day usage. The towns, though typically English in organization, architecture and law, were by no means isolated from the rural Irish population. Irishmen who agreed to follow the laws of the towns were admitted as citizens but nevertheless, brought their language with them. By the end of the medieval period, there are numerous reports written back to England by visitors to Ireland decrying the refusal on the part of the landed English to speak anything but Irish or broken English. These townlands, outside of the Pale, were home to a population that increasingly chose to use Irish as their daily language while having only a limited knowledge of English. As Middle English turned into Modern English, the English that the Irish inhabitants managed to speak began to seem antiquated to the ears of newly arrived English settlers. The process of re-gaelicization that occurred at the end of the medieval period saw Irish language and custom sweep across the country and overwhelm English peasants and parsons who departed the countryside for the familiarity of the Pale, and in some cases returned to England. By the end of the fifteenth-century, not only was Hiberno-English antiquated, and infused with Irish vocabulary, phonology and syntax, it was downright scarce. By the time Cromwell established the sixteenth-century plantations, Modern English was imposed on a population of Irish speakers to whom any semblance of modern or standardized English was largely unknown. For this reason it is difficult, though not impossible, to trace evidence of Middle English in modern Hiberno-English.

The Dublin exception

Because of its situation on the east-coast of the island, and the constant presence of a Kingly representative, Dublin and the surrounding Pale never experienced the extinction of English as did the rest of the country. Rather much like what happened in England, English became standardized and gradually modernized so that in Dublin-English there remains traces of Middle English. It is fair to say that the language of every day usage towards the end of the medieval period was a composite of new Midlands forms grafted onto older Hiberno-Irish, and that combination being influenced by Irish from all parts of the country. Raymond Hickey cites a number of examples in Modern Hiberno-English that evidence an unbroken line back to Medieval Hiberno-English. The breaking up of long vowels in monosyllabic words with /j/ or /w/, as in [klijen] clean, or [kuwel], cool, as well as the high rounded u in Dublin, suggest features that characterize older forms of Irish English. In terms of syntax, two particularities of Dublin Hiberno-English both old and modern are the use of the resultive perfective as in the sentence She has the cake made, and the habitual perfective, as in She bees feeling ill. The resultive perfective has sources in Irish syntax as well as in older English syntax. As for the inflected be, Hickey suggests this is related to the archaic usage of beon in OE. The examples that Hickey cites are not exclusively true of Dublin English, but perhaps are features that spread back out from Dublin into the second wave of English speakers in Ireland.

For Further Reading

Bliss, Alan. "Language and Literature" The English in Medieval Ireland. Ed. James Lydon. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1984.

Hickey, Raymond. "Dublin and Middle English" Studies in English Medieval Language and Literature Eds. Peter J. Lucas and Angela M. Lucas. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2002.

-----------------"The Beginnings of Irish English" Folia Linguistica Historica. (1993) 14, 1-2: 213-238.

-----------------"The Computer Analysis of medieval Irish English" Tracing the Trail of Time. Eds. Raymond Hickey, Merja Kyto, Ian Lancashire, Matti Rissanen. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997.

Hogan, Jeremiah J. The English Language in Ireland. Dublin: The Educational Company of Ireland, 1927.

Kallen, Jeffrey K., "English in Ireland" The Cambridge History of the English Language. Robert Burchfield Ed. Vol. 5. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Lucas, Angela M. Anglo-Irish Poems of the Middle Ages. Dublin: The Columba Press, 1995.

Moody, T.W. and F.X. Martin. The Course of Irish History. Boulder CO: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1995.

Vennemann, Theo. "On the Rise of 'Celtic' Syntax in Middle English" Studies in English Medieval Language and Literature. Eds Peter J. Lucas and Angela M. Lucas. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2002.