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4. Grammar

4.3 Structures to Denote Tense Aspects in Irish English

4.3.2 Present Habitual Aspect

Habitual aspect refers to “an action which occurs repeatedly” (Hickey, 2007: 213) whether in the past or present time. This chapter deals with the present habitual aspect and with the means it can be expressed by in Irish English. Hickey (2007: 213) divides present habitual aspect into a durative habitual, that “characterises a repeated action and which typically lasts for a certain length of time” (Dahl 1985: 95-102 qtd. in Hickey 2007), and an iterative habitual that “stresses the action”. In StE the habitual aspect can be expressed by means of the present tense forms – simple present for iterative and continuous present for durative - that are often accompanied by adverbs such as always, often, frequently, etc. (Hickey, 2007: 213). Besides standard forms, Irish English can express the present habitual aspect by other means.

According to Hickey (2005: 28, 2007: 214-232) these are:

a) the “suffixal –s on lexical verb stems” expressing the iterative habitual;

occurs in southern Ireland

I gets all mixed up with the buttons on the recorder. (Hickey 2007: 214-215) b) do (es) be expressing the durative habitual; occurs in southern Ireland She does be reading books. (Hickey, 2005: 28)

c) be (es) expressing the durative habitual; occurs in northern Ireland They bees up late at night. (Hickey, 2005: 28)

As regards the origin of the specific features of the habitual aspect in Irish English, the chapter only deals with the last two types because of the lack of information concerning the first type: as far as I am aware of, the first type of the habitual is only mentioned by Hickey (2005, 2007) who, in addition, does not offer any explanation of its origin.

Concerning the second type, Hickey (2007) discusses both possibilities of origin – superstratal and substratal. As argument for superstratal origin he states the text by John Michelburne called Ireland Preserved, or the Siege of Londonderry (1705). The habitual in the text is expressed by two different forms, namely by the form do + lexical verb which occurs also in the south-west England, and by do be + infinitive form. Hickey (2007) claims that the second form could be “intermediary” between the habitual do + lexical verb and the present-day Irish English form of the habitual does be + V-ing. He further explains,

The implication of instances such as a) above is that do + lexical verb had habitual uses in Early Modern Irish English. If this interpretation is correct, then the source of this do + lexical verb habitual would have been south-western British input to the east of Ireland which then spread to the rest of the country.” (220)

As for the be (es) habitual, Hickey (2007) sees the main problem in the fact that there are scarcely any written records of this form before the middle of the 19th century and may be possibly derived from the do (es) be habitual

“which had become established in other varieties of Irish English prior to this”

(Hickey, 2007: 226). Hickey also mentions that some studies state the possible Scots origin rather than Irish. This favours the fact that the feature occurs in the north of Ireland and Scots could have worked as an element “that continues a distinction from old English between generic wesan and habitual beon” (McCafferty 2007, qtd. in Hickey 2007: 227). On the other hand, there is not enough written evidence for such claims and in addition, this statement can also contradict the existence of the feature (although rare) also in the south of Ireland (Hickey, 2007: 231).

Filppula et al. (2008: 190) supports the substratal origin of both types – do (es) be and be (es) – when stating that there exist Irish parallels. For be (es) “the plausible source is the ‘consuetudinal’ (i.e. habitual) present of the early Modern Irish ‘substantive’ verb ‘be’, the 3rd person singular forms of which were bídh… and bí … ” (2008: 190). He also adds that the existence of the special form in the habitual aspect in the Irish language

can be used to explain why the Irish learners of English should have carried over this feature into their English; the adoption of be/bees/be’s as a habitual aspect marker would have been further facilitated by close phonetic resemblance between the Irish and English ‘be’ words…” (190)

As for the do (es) be form Filppula et al. (2008) states that although there is no direct parallel in Irish, the substratal origin cannot be excluded. He argues that the form in which auxiliary do is followed by be was never used in the earlier or dialectal form of English.

On the other hand, the early Modern Irish verbs had a so-called dependent form ending in –(e)ann, which was used for the present indicative of verbs and, as Bliss (1972) argues, had a syntactic distribution very similar to the uses of the auxiliary do in English: those contexts which in English required do required the dependent ending in early Modern Irish, and vice versa, with some minor exceptions.

(Filppula, 2008: 191)

However, Filppula et al. (2008) argues that this feature is only typical of a small group of other varieties (including Irish English) of English and Irish connection “is obvious for a large part of these varieties” (191). An argument supporting the substratal origin is also offered by Todd (1999): she uses both types discussed as extended present tense markers in Irish English on the basis of the Irish language. English distinguishes between such sentences as:

Mary is going to school. (Todd, 1999: 95) Mary goes to school. (Todd, 1999: 96)

“The Celtic languages, on the other hand, make a tripartite distinction … thus adding a nuance to the distinction made in English” (Todd, 1999: 96 – 97) as it is in the following examples:

Téann Máire ar scoil. Goes Mary to school. (Todd, 1999: 97) Tá Máire ag dul ar scoil. Be Mary at go to school. (Todd, 1999: 97) Bíonn Máire ag dul ar scoil. Be + habitual Mary at go to school. (Todd, 1999: 97)

This ability of the Irish language can be seen in Irish English which Todd (1999:

97) explains, “Irish speakers used to such fine distinctions, expected their English to provide similar nuances…” And while English distinguishes between two types of present tense, namely present simple and present continuous tense, Irish English has more possibilities:

Mary goes to school. (Todd, 1999: 97) Mary is going to school. (Todd, 1999: 97)

Mary biz/ bees going to school. (Todd, 1999: 97) – meaning regularity

Mary does be going to school. (Todd, 1999: 97) – meaning both regularity and habitualness

She further explains that the English language

is usually described as a Germanic language with a large Romance element… However, such constructions [i.e. forms of present simple and continuous tenses] are not a feature of Germanic or Romance languages and, although Old English developed the ability to use ‘progressive structures’, the development does not seem to have occurred in other Germanic dialects. (Todd, 1999: 98)

Todd (1999) sees as an interesting fact that out of the languages spoken by

“Anglo-Saxons, Latin-using clerics, Vikings and Norman French” it is only English that makes this grammatical distinction “but is a marked feature of the Celtic tongues” (98). She (1999: 98) asks a question whether it could be “that English speakers borrowed such a distinction from the Celts, who previously lived throughout Ireland and Britain.”

To sum up, from the argumentation above it can be concluded that a certain amount of a substratal influence on Irish English has to be admitted.

4.4 Irish English Use of Prepositions

The use of prepositions is richer in Irish English in comparison with standard uses: prepositions occur in structures which are obsolete or not used at all in StE; however, on the other hand, they reflect the parallel usage in the Irish language. Indeed, the Irish English prepositions are another area where is

a clear substratal influence. This feature is generally agreed to be based on the Irish parallel,

There is also general consensus among HE scholars that the prepositional of HE reflects to a great extent the corresponding Irish usages… The heavy leaning on Irish is explained by the special role that prepositions play in Irish syntax.” (Filppula, 1999: 218)

In the following sections 4 types of prepositions are discussed: a) on, b) in, c) with and d) of. Although this grammatical structure is also dealt by Hickey (2007), the categorization of individual sections is based on Filppula (1999) who describes the phenomenon in greater detail.

4.4.1 The Preposition


Filppula (1999) explains that Irish English on has several functions as its counterpart ar in Irish. Table 6 identifies four categories where on occurs in Irish English (Filppula, 1999: 219):

Table 6 Categories of non-standard occurrences of on in Irish English

The origin of the first structure can be explained comparison of an Irish sentence with an Irish English one: bhuail Seumas mo ghadhar orm with James struck my dog on me, “where on me corresponds to the Irish prepositional pronoun orm and means to ‘to my detriment, in violation of my right’” (Joyce, 1910/1988: 27, qtd. in Filppula 1999: 220). The third type can also by directly derived from an Irish parallel, namely from the Irish idiom cé’n t-ainm atá ort?

with a meaning What name is upon you? (Bliss, 1979: 309, qtd. in Filppula 1999: 221). Further he (1999: 222) explains, that the sentence stated in 3) has a “‘theme-rheme’ structure” placing “the (typically) personal ‘logical’ subject …

11Dativus incommodi – “the dative denoting a person to whose … disadvantage something is


To imply a disadvantage of some kind or another from the point of view of the referent (also known under the heading ‘dativus incommodi’11 (Hayden and Hartog, qtd. in Filppula 1999: 219))

Someone took three hundred pounds on him. (Hickey, 2007: 247) 2.

To express various physical and mental sensations, states or processes, most often negative, often used with be, go and come

…in America is quite = the climate is fright on you. New York is a fright in the heat now. (Filppula, 1999: 220)


To expres some type of possession or another, often ‘inalienable’ type, expressing an inherent physical or other inherent property of the referent

… But I can’t think the name that was on him. (Filppula, 1999: 221) 4.

Miscellaneous non-standard uses of on

… So anyway didn’t the lots, the lots fell on Shanahan, he had to go.

(Filppula, 1999: 222)

in the position of the rheme … and cast in the form of a prepositional phrase in direct imitation of the corresponding Irish pattern … StE favours the opposite strategy…”. The fourth type has often very similar meaning to ‘dativus incommodi’ as in the cases mentioned above.

Concerning the origin, the examples of the fourth type can be found in some southwestern BrE dialects (Filppula, 1999: 223-224), however, all the remaining uses were found only exceptionally or not at all in the BrE dialect corpora. Consequently, he concludes that these usages of ‘on’ have “roots in the corresponding Irish system”. Another evidence of the Irish origin of non-standard uses of ‘on’ Filppula (1999: 224) states the existence of similar patterns in HebE.

4.4.2 The Preposition


Under this heading there are stated seven types of specific uses of the preposition ‘in’ in Irish English which shows Table 7 (Filppula, 1999: 226-231).

Table 7 Categories of non-standard occurrences of in in Irish English

From the categories above, it is obvious that most of the uses is connected with the prepositional phrase ‘in it’ which has its Irish parallel ann meaning ‘in-it’ or ‘in existence’ in Irish and thus Filppula (1999) concludes, that especially the categories “with the pattern ‘in it’ in its existential and other related meanings” are based on the Irish parallel. Although some occurrences of the phrase are also found in Filppula’s BrE dialect database, however, he (1999) explains that there is a vast difference between the frequencies of occurrences in corpora from IrE dialects and in combined corpora from BrE

1. To denote concrete location in some place

…There was acres and miles of land just for to live in it. (Filppula, 1999:


2. The notion of location in the metaphorical sense, i.e. existence There used to be a hotel in it. (Hickey, 2007: 247)

3. The focus on the presence of somebody or something in some place

… well, I didn’t know them. I wasn’t in this part of the world, when they were in it. (Filppula, 1999: 228)

4. To express some inherent quality or property of something

President Kiely’ could have been shell-shocked, you know? And that was, this was the kink that was in him… (Filppula, 1999: 229)

5. To denote an involvement

Mrs. F: And then it sort of died out, and then the man that was in it, a certain Defoe that was in it, he sold the licence, you see. (Filppula, 1999: 229)

6. Use of ‘in’ instead of some other preposition

But they = they killed a few lads in = in = that day. They saw ‘em runnin’, like, = an’ they shot ‘em. (Filppula, 1999: 230)

7. Use of ‘in’ in connection with the verb ‘live’

… That was desperate … they lived in hard work. (Filppula, 1999: 231)

clarifies some of the usages of ‘in’ instead of some other preposition: in Roscommon dialect ‘in’ can be used “in connection with psychical sensations”

(Henry, qtd. in Filppula 1999: 230); further ‘in’ can stand for ‘into’ which is possibly caused by the lack of distinction between ‘in’ and ‘into’ in Irish.

Concerning the seventh category, Filppula (1999) believes that it may be based on some Irish parallel, but he has no evidence for this.

4.4.3 The Preposition


The situations where the preposition with is used a non-standard way in IrE shows Table 8.

Table 8 Categories of non-standard occurrences of with in Irish English

1. To express the duration of a state or an activity

Hugh Curtin is buried with years… (Filppula, 1999: 232) 2. To express agency in passive constructions

And it … was sold on err = with an auctioneer. (Filppula, 1999: 234) 3. To indicate the means or instrument with which an action is performed

… He must have got hit with a car or something, I think. (Filppula, 1999: 234)

4. To express the cause of a state, event or action

… he could hardly free the teeth = from each other with the cold.

(Filppula, 1999: 235) -> because of the cold 5. To denote possession and physical attributes

The money is with them. (Filppula, 1999: 236) -> they have plenty of money

All the specific uses above can be derived from the Irish preposition ‘le’

denoting temporal meaning, agency, instrumentality and causality. Filppula (1999: 237) states that “the temporal and causal ones are most likely due to direct influence from the corresponding Irish prepositional patterns.” The agentive and instrumental uses have also superstratal parallels in earlier English. However, on the basis of his survey Filppula (1999) he found no occurrences in the last EModE subperiod of the Helsinky corpus and scant occurrences in BrE dialects, which as he claims is an argument against superstratal influence. The use of ‘with’ in the last category is according to Henry and Moyland (qtd. in Filppula, 1999: 236) derived from the possessive use of Irish ‘le’.

4.4.4 The Preposition


Filppula (1999) focuses on the ‘attributive of’ which he describes as “the connection of ‘of’ to form a certain kind of NP structure consisting of two nouns joined by ‘of’. The first noun, although most often itself modified by an adjectival attribute, assumes the function of a kind of adjectival attribute to the second noun with a clearly intensifying force” (238)

There was two Learys and two Murphys, Lawlor, Curtis and Hehir; seven men.

And by all accounts they were all big giants o’ men.

Filppula (1999: 238) says that although this feature of ‘of’ can be also seen in other dialects in the British Isles, in Irish English it “appears to be particularly well-developed and productive…” Joyce (1910/1988: 42, qtd. in Filppula 1999: 239) offers the Irish parallel in the form of construction such as

‘amadán fir’ meaning ‘a fool of a man’ and adds that “it is far more general among us, for the obvious reason that it has come to us from two sources (instead of one) – Irish and English.” Moylan (1996, gtd. in Filppula 1999: 239) states that many of the functions of ‘of’ “are consistent with those of Ir. ‘de’”

such as in amadán de shuine meaning ‘a fool of a person’. To support the Irish origin of this feature Filppula states the existence of the pattern in Hebridean English.

All in all, from the discussion above is obvious that Irish again played an important role in formation of this type of usage of ‘of’ which is especially supported by the presence of a similar pattern in HebE and by the existence of an Irish English equivalent.


Irish English generally adopted many features from Irish – whether phonological, linguistic or stylistic ones. The study offers an account of few peculiarities of the Irish English grammar. It explains that the formation of these special structures was caused by the influence of the Irish language which has played an important role in lives of the Irish. The thesis discusses nuances in distinguishing between several perfective aspects that Irish English enables thanks to the substratal influence. Further it shows an extensive use of the prepositions to convey certain meanings: in StE it would be seen as incorrect, however, a nearer look at the Irish system explains such treatment of the prepositions. Similarly, the thesis clarifies the Irish overuse of the definite article and what is called unbound reflexives. Although in many of the cases concerned a possible superstratal influence can be argued, there still is a strong evidence for at least reinforcing substratal influence.

The aim of the paper was to reveal the way the Irish speak and at the same time to explain a reason of a non-standard usage of English which is a hundreds of years lasting influence of the Irish language.


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