‘Cork’ is the name of both the city and the surrounding county. The moniker itself is an anglicised version of Corcaigh (phonetically pronounced ‘kar-kee’). The so-called ‘capital of the south’ is known for its stunning scenery, its colourful history – its nickname is ‘The Rebel County’ – and of course its distinctive and unusual accent.
The Irish accent generally is regarded as one of the world’s most pleasant to listen to. Type ‘Irish accent’ into Google and one of the first suggestions it throws back is, ‘Irish accent attractive’. While there are many different Irish accents the ones with which English people are usually most familiar are the Northern accent, and what I (sarcastically) refer to as ‘Leprechaun’.
The timbre of the Northern accent is quite harsh, almost like a Glasgow accent, and depending on one’s age can be recognised as the voice behind the balaclava on the TV during the dark days of the IRA’s bombing campaign. If you are younger, you will more likely recognise the accent as that of actor, James Nesbitt or TV presenter, Patrick Kielty.
Until fairly recently, the ‘Leprechaun’ accent tended to be used as stage Irish or comedy Irish. It’s a mongrel creation of exaggerated Dublin pronunciation (“Dis iz dee roight way” = This is the right way), invented affectations which no Irish person ever actually uttered (“Ah Begorrah, Top o’dee maaaarning!” – apologies, I have no translation to offer for this one), and various religious blasphemies. In complete fairness, Irish people do have a bit of a fondness for using the Lord’s name in vain, but perhaps not at the frequency that English 70s TV sitcoms liked to suggest.
Here’s a truly awful example of this accent from the Two Ronnies. I’m not making a comment about the humour or otherwise of the sketch. You might find it funny, you might not. It’s purely the accent in which they’re speaking that interests/irritates me.
The Cork accent is accepted as being out on its own.
It has a sing-songy, up-and-down, almost musical sound to it. Irish comedian, Tommy Tiernan does a (sweary) routine in which he describes it as ‘like listening to tinkers trying to speak French’. This comment may make more sense to anyone who has listened to the characters in TV’s Big Fat Gypsy Wedding programmes and can imagine them all having a French lesson.
Here’s a great example of the real accent from Cork native, Cillian Murphy. (“ … derell be clean shoes on yaar karpz …” = there will be clean shoes on your corpse.) Unusual and distinctive, isn’t it?
Tommy Tiernan in the above linked sketch even compares the accent to a West Indian or Creole accent. In this clip of Bob Marley talking about cannabis. I apologise if anyone is offended by his view but it’s the only decent example I could find. At about 22 seconds into the clip, when Bob tells us “ … herb is important …”, the rhythm of his speech is, to my ear, pure Cork.
West Indies and Caribbean natives also often use the word ‘boy’ in their speech, meaning generic ‘man’ or ‘guy’, and pronounce the word, ‘bwoy’ or ‘boi’. Cork people do this too. As I stepped off the plane at Cork airport one of the first things I saw was an advertisement for local cafe advertising its premium-double-monster-burger which it calls, “the Cork Boi” such is the ubiquity of the phrase.
Incidentally, as I was searching for links between the Cork and West Indian accents, it appears that Tommy and I are not alone as lots of other people, including academics at University College London look like they’ve arrived at the same conclusion!
So what are the main features of the Cork accent then? I would say:
- Cork natives speak fast. Very fast. There are few breaks for air, and the sentences and words run into each other. (“Well are you well yerself now that’s grand will you have tea now let’s sit is the milk there now?” = Hello. How are you? That’s great. Would you like a cup of tea? Shall we sit here? Is there milk already on the table?)
Note – “Well” tends to be used by Irish people generally as a filler which can mean anything, including ‘hello’ (‘Well!’) ‘how are you’ (‘Are you well?’ Or just ‘Well?’), or ‘I’m doing okay at the moment’ (‘I’m well’, or again just, ‘Well!’), in response to an enquiry.
- Words like ‘both’ and ‘oath’ have a specific pronunciation – so both = boat and oath = oat.
- Goat, rope, and hope become gaaaaaawt, raaaawp, and haaaaawp.
- Similarly, ‘top’ and ‘lot’ sound like ‘taaawhp’ and ‘laaawht’.
- Cork utilises its own diphthong sound, so that names such as ‘Charles’ or ‘James’ become Char-less and Jame-ez, film becomes fillum, and million becomes milly-unn.
- Another feature when listening to Cork natives speak, particularly older people, is a particular speech pattern which goes something like this:
Q: Would you like a cup of tea?
A: I would.
Q: Do you take sugar?
A: I do.
Q: Is it lunchtime yet?
A: It is not.
- Note the absence of a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. This is because there are no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the Irish language! The lack of usage of them in the modern dialect is probably a legacy of when, particularly in some of the more rural parts of Cork, people would have spoken Gaelic and used similar responses to questions instead of just yes and no.
These are just a few general observations but, for those of you who have not yet had the chance to hear it, I hope it will give you a flavour of how distinctive it is. Is it easy to understand? No … it’s not the easiest (even I struggle a little and I grew up listening to it!) but once you get used to it, it’s an attractive rich expressive way of speaking of the kind that you don’t really hear much anymore. As people move around more, and pop culture becomes more all-pervading we seem to be losing some of these regional beauties, and hearing them so clearly is quite rare.
So, with the continual and not-likely-to-disappear-anytime-soon march of technology, is the Cork accent a vanishing treasure? Well, surprisingly, if my observations are anything to go by, no it’s not. I spoke to plenty of people over the weekend, including some young relatives, and their accents are as strong as ever. Happily, it sounds like that even in these days of media driven homogenised Americanised speech, The Rebel County continues to march to the beat of its own drum, and defy the trend. The Cork accent isn’t going anywhere soon, boi!
Note: I am an Educator with practical experience of speech and pronunciation. I do not claim or hold myself out to be a linguistics expert. The above are simply my observations, and should only be taken as such! I’m always interested other people’s thoughts so please feel free to (nicely) disagree with me if you want to.