How to speak english with an irish accent

Written by jason belasco
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Come here, boyo, let's not misunderstand each other: You're not going to be able to sound like a Dubliner by the end of this article. Many have tried, many have failed: Brad Pitt in "The Devil's Own," Val Kilmer in "The Ghost and the Darkness," Richard Gere in "The Jackal" and Tom Cruise in "Far and Away." God almighty, they were all bollocks! But it's not just the lads - the colleens are useless too, like Julia Roberts in "Michael Collins." But it's obviously worth trying; these notables were all too aware of the increased sexual allure of those of the Hibernian (that is, Irish) persuasion. And that accent is a powerful tool. How else do you think men with the dreadful faces of Bono and Stephen Rea could come to be considered sex symbols?

It's all in the voice, and we're here to pimp you out to whomever it is that you're hoping to impress. We'll give you some vital pointers on how to tap into the emerald vein of charming and lyrical elocution. Obviously, the first thing to learn is how the phonemes sound differently in the Irish vernacular, so you can work on pronouncing your words like a native. But perhaps something more important to bear in mind is that it's not just the way Paddies say things, it's what they say. To sound convincingly Irish, you'll need to add a new lexicon to your vocabulary. And, of course, you're going to need to do some drills along the way to practice your technique.

Master the Irish Sound

We obviously don't have time here to go word-by-word through the dictionary, pointing out how Irish folk say things differently. In fact, even if we did have the time, we'd never arrive at a consensus--they say a true Irishman can tell the difference between 32 Irish accents. That's one accent for all of the counties in Ireland. Indeed, people from the North of Ireland sound far more English than those from the South (compare Gerry Adams with the Pogues), and Dubliners sound different from both (listen to Bono). So we're going to extrapolate some of the broader rules that govern the Irish patois. Then we're going to give you some cultural references to study and some drills to practice.

Soften your vowels

When the Irish make fun of Yanks, it's generally by elongating their phonemes and turning their vowels into long sounds, kind of like the way most Americans make fun of Texans. In fact, if you want to imagine how you sound to a European ear, just think of your stereotypical 1800s southerner. That's you. Eww, right, time for a change.

Perhaps the best example of how vowels in the Irish argot are softer is contained in the schoolhouse recitation of the alphabet. American kids begin it "aye, bee, see . . ."; Irish kids begin it "ah, bee, see . . . ." Let's begin with perhaps the first phrase you'll utter in your Irish disguise: "How are you?" That's should come out: "Ha-ware-ya?" Oh, and just as a general note applicable to all our phonetic guides, don't separate the syllables into separate beats--slur it all together like natives: "Hawareya?" So from an Irish mouth, you'll hear far less differentiation between the very distinct "o" sounds of "how" and "you." They both sound more like "ah" than they would from an American larynx. Also note that in this particular example, the "a" in "hawareya" is actually long, like the "a" in "bake." That's because the pronunciation of the "a" is generally the reverse of the U.S. accent. For another example, the word "arse" in Irish (meaning "bootie") is pronounced soft ("ah-rs"), while in the U.S., we just say "ass." And before we forget, the proper answer to "Hawareya?" is not "Good" or "Fine," but "Grand"--or if you are particularly well, "Grand Altogether."

Here are some other examples of the phenomenon. "Tomato" should definitely lose its long vowels, so it's "tamahtoe"--definitely not "toemaytoe." "Basil" should be "bahsil"; not "baysil." With these two words alone, you can create a strong illusion of Irishness--particularly if you eat at an Italian restaurant.

This might be a good time to mention that, to capitalise on the sexual cachet of having an Irish accent, you don't need to sound like a bad caricature--very few Irish people sound rampantly Irish. And unless you spend years practicing, you're not going to be able to master the skill well enough to pull it off completely. Instead, what you'll want to do is merely slip a few potent Irishisms into your speech here and there, thereby playing the easier role of someone whose Irish accent is simply waning after years in America, rather than a Mick fresh off the boat. So, for example, if you simply bring your target to a restaurant and are sure to ask whether the pasta contains "tamahtoe" or "bahsil," you will have already triggered the Euro alert in your potential amour's mind. This restrained version is easier to pull off and more believable--and less risky.

We've shown you how to soften your o's and a's, which are the chief variants for Irish speakers. But here's how to do the i's. The Irish will say "v-ih-tamin" not "v-eye-tamin"--with the "i" sound from "if" not "hike."

Harden your consonants

The converse rule applies to consonants--to sound more Irish, you'll want to harden yours, not soften them. Think about it: One of the first things you'll notice about the speech pattern of Europeans--even if their accent has faded--is that they sound like they are enunciating much more clearly than Americans. The best way to improve your enunciation is to focus on your consonants. A classic theatrical exercise for improving the clarity of actors' voices, which need to be projected well into a crowded house, is to emphasise consonants. The human ear learns much more about a word from its consonants than from its vowels. This is why we abbreviate words by simply deleting most of the vowels.

The American trait of slurring consonants is most obvious with compound expressions: coulda, woulda, shoulda, wanna, gonna. Although some versions of the Irish dialect certainly do slur things--particularly when lubricated with th'auld elixir--the easiest rule for you to learn is to clip your words into distinct entities. So focus on turning those expressions distinctly into "could have," "should have," "would have," "want to," "going to." A good way to practice this elocution is to read aloud, aspirating loudly on each consonant. Pretend as though you're trying hard to be heard down a long distance telephone line. Generally, Irish folk sound clearer than Yanks. It all comes from emphasising the consonants.

Lyricize your inflection

This is perhaps the most difficult lesson to teach a foreign ear, but we hope that, simply by mentioning it, we'll alert you to the sound so you can work on it. One of the biggest differences between languages is the rhythm and tone of delivery. We all know that you can tell a question by hearing the raised inflection at the end of the sentence--so even if you're chatting with someone on a cell phone and losing them in a tunnel, you can still parse out the questions from the statements by the inflection. This same phenomenon of varying pitch accounts for the very different feel of many languages and accents. The Irish accent is very commonly described as lyrical. What that really means is that a typical sentence sounds more musical and sing-songy than American English.

Now, we can't convey to you they precise way an Irish person would deliver any possible sentence, but by telling you to listen for this varied inflection, we can give you a tool for practicing your Irishness. Rather than simply hearing an Irish accent and feeling exasperated at how different it is from your own, you can break it down into the differences of vowel, consonant and lyricism.

A phoneme drill

So how will you convert this new found awareness of distinctive Irish sounds into a mastery of the accent yourself? Practice, my child, practice. And aside from hiring your own personal dialogue coach, we think that one of the best ways to practice is to emulate the voices of Irish folk from movies. Grab yourself copies of some of these movies:

"The Butcher Boy" "Circle of Friends" (except Chris O'Donnell) "The Commitments"

Watch these flicks with a tape recorder handy and recite each line in your own attempted Irish accent into the box. When you are speaking, focus on the three portions of speech that we have emphasised: soft vowels, hard consonants and lyrical inflection. Then play the tapes back and listen to your attempts. We are fairly sure you'll be really lousy at first, but that's fine--this is a skill like any other, and you'll just have to keep working on it. Remember, there are plenty of people who do acquire this skill--hell, Daniel Day-Lewis sounds like a Brit naturally, but just check out his skills in "The Boxer" and "In the Name of the Father." He's as Irish as Paddy's goat in those movies.

Adopt the Irish Spelling

When we speak of adopting the Irish Spelling, we are not referring to Tori's long-lost twin. Rather, we suggest that for you to really pull off the Irish persona, you not only need to sound different, but also convey an air of Irishness through your writing. And since writing is the perfect medium for crafting letters of affection to whomever you are trying to impress, you'll want to slip a few choice Gaelic signposts into your missives. One of the most confusing things for people who go to school in foreign countries is the rampant use of spelling variants among the various styles of English. The upside of this confusion is that you can dress yourself up in this foreignness by adopting some of its key incarnations. Here are the top three modifications.

Adding the U

For some weird reason, those across the pond love to clutter up the clarity of lexicography by dropping in unnecessary u's all over the place. Most commonly, this vestigial vowel gets added after an "o" and before an "r." So the Irish, influenced too much by the Brits, use "our" instead of "or" in scads of words. Here are some examples:

armour, behaviour, colour, favour, honour, humour, parlour, savour

Don't get complacent, though: "Glamour" is spelt with the "u" in American English. But we think you can pretty much add a "u" to any terminal "or" construction, because if you get it wrong, you can simply protest, "Sorry, love, I just got confused with all the queer variations." You're home free, kid.

Changing the Z

Another good blanket rule for making your written English appear more Irish is to use an "s" rather than a "z" when using the "ize" construction. We'll summarise it to you with these examples:

crystallised, industrialised, memorise, realised, recognised, specialised

You get the idea. Pretty much any word that uses an "ize" can be Irish-ised by changing it to "ise"; and, remember, if you get it wrong, you can simply protest confusion at all the variations. The truth is, it is very difficult to keep them straight, and how's a poor Irish lad or lass like yourself ever going to get it right all the time?

A spelling drill

There are a number of ways to improve your knowledge of Irish spelling, and we heartily encourage you to build up a store. With just a few changes here and there, you can set yourself apart from any other date. The primary repository of all British and Irish variations in spelling is the Oxford English Dictionary--but don't fret, we're not talking about the monstrous 20-volume set. You can buy one-volume versions of the OED, and any time you need to look up a word, check there first. You'll quickly happen across many variations in spelling that fall outside our two basic rules.

The best way to learn these spelling variations, though, isn't to start thumbing through a dictionary--you'll be bored to tears and never learn anything that way. Instead, just pick up some of that great Irish literature and dig in. There's a boatload of it out there, and it's great stuff. Just read anything by James Joyce, Frank McCourt, Roddy Doyle, Seamus Heaney, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw or Pat McCabe. If there's one thing the Irish kick ass at, it's writing, and they have the Nobel, Booker and Pulitzer Prizes to prove it. There's nothing like reading a great story to expose you to an army of spelling variations, so dig in. And be sure to jot down any curiosities you find--you'll need them later.

Learn the Irish Vocabulary

A final difference between the way Irish people communicate and the way Americans do is through variations in diction. Almost all amateur imposters overlook this very important distinction between the two schools of speech. To illustrate, think of someone affecting the typical Valley Girl voice: "like, totally, speaking this way dude--I mean, fer sure, right?!" In that one nauseating sentence, you can immediately identify the caricature; not from the accent (no one spoke those words to you), but simply from the words themselves. People from different regions not only sound different, but actually use a different vocabulary of words. You cannot successfully put on an Irish accent simply by mastering the different tonalities and inflection of the Irish; you must also adopt their lexicon.

If an Irishman is asked how he's doing, for example, he's likely to reply, "Grand." When was the last time you heard an American say "Grand" unless he was referring to £650 or a piano? We'll give you a quick glossary here of choice Irish words for a variety of settings, but this space is nowhere near big enough to cover all you'll need to learn. So review this list, and we'll then point you to other good sources to expand your store even further.

We've dedicated our limited space to the three topics most prevalent in Irish interlocution: general chats, anger and food.

The general chat

Em: This is the word Irish folk use when pausing to think. It takes the place of the "um" and "uh" that Americans prefer. This two-letter word alone will radically alter your perceived Irishness if you can learn to use it pervasively and unconsciously. This is perhaps the single most commonly used expression in speech, so with this one change alone, you can drastically alter your accent.

Cheers: This word is obviously a drinking toast, but more importantly, it is an-all purpose, aloha-like tool. You can use it to thank people, to greet them and to say goodbye. Work it in liberally.

Lad: Any male, though usually one of whom you're fond; when pluralised, it can be used to describe a group of males and females.

C'mere: Literally, "come here," but it is really just an opening expression that means "listen," or even just "hey." So if you ever want to get someone's attention, or to begin almost any sentence, bust this out. C'mere, do you follow?

Right: This is another all-purpose expression of determination or clarification. "Right, is that a gin and tonic for you and a pint for your friend?" or "Right, you'll be coming home with me then?" If you don't open with "C'mere," this is your other option.

Fag: A cigarette. This is an important one; be sure to get it right.


Bollocks: Literally, testicles, but much more pliant. Perhaps most famously used on the album "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols!" So it's "Don't get kicked in the bollocks," but also, "The atmosphere in here is bollocks" or "Her old boyfriend was a right bollocks" or "That [item lacking in credibility] is bollocks!"

Bastard: Not simply a child born out of wedlock, but also an adjective of angry frustration: "Where's my bastard coat?"

Fla: To copulate. The noun is "a ride."

Eejit: Idiot, but harsher.

Langer: Penis. Or a male who acts like one. A variant of this also means to be inebriated: "I'm langered."

Knacker: Literally, to convert a horse into glue, but more conventionally, just very tired, exhausted.

Wanker: Penis. Like a langer, but less extreme-sounding (much like "prick" in English).


Chips: French fries. Though in Ireland, they're more like steak fries: lovely and thick, slathered in grease and unbelievably tasty.

Crisps: Potato chips. Usually available in two flavors: cheese 'n onion or salt 'n vinegar.

Bangers: Sausages. Thicker and curvier than hot dogs, and almost always fried or deep-fried, sometimes even in batter (if you can imagine).

Mash: Mashed potatoes. This usually accompanies bangers.

Fry: A collection of pretty much anything that can be fried, usually for breakfast. So if you're proposing a fry, you'll need to contemplate eggs, bacon (rashers), bangers, black pudding (blood sausage), white pudding (more blood sausage), mushrooms, tomatoes, and the like. Basically, it's a heart attack on a plate, but delicious.

Biscuit: Something more like a cookie than the southern item. To be taken with tea, usually.

Peckish: The feeling of hunger.

Clearly, we cannot arm you with all of the charming Irish trappings you will need to effectively pass yourself off as a Hibernian. But these phrases should tide you over until you have a chance to read plenty of Irish poetry, which will disgorge plenty of idioms to you. In the meantime, check out Resources for a few good websites that span the bridge between American and British. As much as it galls us to say so, learning the Britishisms is fairly close to learning Irish.

As you go forth to apply yourself to this most worthy of pursuits, bear in mind the words of that immortal Irish bard, G.B. Shaw, who reminds us that "Ireland and America are two nations separated by a common language." Okay, so he said England and America, but we'll take some artistic license.

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