Tipping the balance: tracing Irish English features in Settler Colonial English in Western Australia

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference paperConference paper


The question of the influence of speakers from Ireland on the early formation of Australian English (AusE) has divided linguists. On one hand, Trudgill (2004; 1986), Hickey (2003), Horvath (1985), Troy (1991), and Taylor (2001), among others, have robustly asserted that such AusE syntactic features as second-person plural pronoun youse/yez and utterance-final but are of Irish origin; on the other, corpora-based investigations of selected syntactic features by Burridge & Musgrave (2014) and Musgrave & Burridge (In press) find that while Irish speech is often stereotyped or lampooned in written accounts, there is insufficient evidence of such features occurring in naturally generated text to enable them to be attributed to IrE. Ransom (1966) and Moore (2008) both comment on an apparent lack of Irish input to the early formation of AusE vocabulary, the former suggesting any such effects would have been mediated through earlier Irish migrations to England (1966: 51) and the latter citing heavy stigmatisation of the variety (2008: 90-91), while historians of Irish ethnicity give voice to frustration at what they perceive as erasure of their heritage from the documentation of AusE—Lonergan (2003) suggesting that an ‘Anglo-centric’ historical approach has ignored evidence of Irish language in the lexicon, and Whitaker (1998) referring to ‘lexicography as genocide’. As speculation continues around whether often sketchy syntactic and lexical evidence may or may not amount to a ‘smoking gun’, Trudgill (1986; 2004), Kiesling (2004) and Mitchell (1993) have all bemoaned a dearth of investigation at the phonological level, and Burridge & Musgrave (2014) conclude their analysis with a declaration that they would be ‘delighted’ to see exploration of possible IrE phonology in AusE. Accordingly, recent research has found evidence of IrE phonological features in texts from below written by speakers born in the Colony of Western Australia in the mid-to-late 19th century (Author details 1).

This paper builds on this recent phonological evidence and explores the Western Australian data further to find examples of possible morphosyntactic fingerprints of IrE already canvassed by Burridge & Musgrave (2014), such as it-clefting (Example 1) and subordinating and (Examples 2 and 3). These are discussed alongside further possible signs of Irish syntax, such as syncretised past-participle/preterit forms (Examples 4 and 5). In the spirit of Mitchell’s (2003[1993]) exhortation for a historical study of AusE which engages deeply with cultural, historical, social, political and literary disciplines, this evidence is then considered within the frame of other texts, such as a memoir by the grandson of the last Fenian convict to remain in Western Australia (Talbot, 2005), two generations on from the speakers of the original data in the same region, who recalls his grandparents using basic vocabulary from the local First Nation language, Nyungar. This suggests intense contact between Irish migrant families and Aboriginal communities, possibly also manifest in parallel occurrences of putative IrE features in Australian Aboriginal English (Author details 2). Drawing a judicial analogy, a case is made here to lower the standard of proof from ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to the ‘balance of probabilities’, where the cumulative weight of evidence would surely tip the scales in favour of recognising an Irish ‘founder effect’ (Mufwene, 2001) in Australia’s language ecology.


1) the neighbours used our Road the mail traveled this way its the Road today links up with Caves Road (BK, F, b. 1875)
2) I will want all hands and cook tomorrow (BK, F, b. 1875)
3) We were having a hard Battle to make ends Meet & we a big family to keep (BK, F, b. 1875)
4) Mother and I done a little needlework and a lot of talking (EA, F, b. 1861)
5) father went & seen them again (BK, F, b. 1875)


Author details 1
Author details 2
Burridge, Kate & Musgrave, Simon (2014). It's Speaking Australian English We Are: Irish Features in Nineteenth Century Australia. Australian Journal of Linguistics 34(1): 24-49.
Hickey, Raymond (2003). Rectifying a standard deficiency: Second-person pronomial distinctions in varieties of English. In Taavitsainen, I. & Jucker, A. H. (Eds.), Diachronic Perspectives on Address Term Systems. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 343-374.
Horvath, Barbara M. (1985). Variation in Australian English: the sociolects of Sydney. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press.
Lonergan, Dymphna (2003). An Irish-centric View of Australian English. Australian journal of linguistics 23(2): 151-159.
Mitchell, A.G. (2003[1993]). The Story of Australian English: Users and Environment. Australian Journal of Linguistics 23(2): 111-128.
Moore, Bruce (2008). Speaking our language: the story of Australian English. South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford University Press.
Mufwene, Salikoko S. (2001). The Ecology of Language Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Musgrave, Simon & Burridge, Kate (In press). Irish Influence on Australian English. In Hickey, R. (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Irish English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ransom, W.S. (1966). Australian English: a Historical Study of the Vocabulary 1788-1898. Canberra: Australian National University Press.
Talbot, Len (2005). Nannup: a place to stop and rest. Carlisle, Western Australia: Hesperian Press.
Taylor, Brian (2001). Australian English in interaction with other Englishes. In Blair, D. & Collins, P. (Eds.), English in Australia. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 317-340.
Troy, Jakelin (1991). ‘Der mary this is fine cuntry is there is in the wourld’: Irish-English and Irish in late eighteenth century Australia. In O’Brien, J. & Travers, P. (Eds.), The Irish Emigrant Experience in Australia. Dublin: Poolberg Press. 148-180.
Trudgill, Peter (1986). Dialects in Contact. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Trudgill, Peter (2004). New-Dialect Formation The Inevitability of Colonial Englishes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Whitaker, Ann-Maree (1998). Lexicography as genocide: the Irish influence on the Australian language. Australian Celtic Journal 6: 65-72.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAustralian Linguistic Society Annual Conference 2023
Place of PublicationAustralia
PublisherThe Australian Linguistic Society
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2023
EventAustralian Linguistics Society (ALS) Conference 2023 - University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
Duration: 29 Nov 20231 Dec 2023


ConferenceAustralian Linguistics Society (ALS) Conference 2023
Abbreviated titleALS2023
Internet address


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