In the sixteenth century, around the same time that Shakespeare’s marvelous compilation of plays and sonnets appeared, England decided that Ireland should become ‘proper inhabitants’ of the Empire.
It, therefore, made a decree banning all those aspects that were redolent of Irish culture. That edict included everything from Irish dress and – I kid you not – hairstyle, to, above all, the practice of speaking the native language, Gaelic.
The Irish responded with no little annoyance, and so England, being in control, decided that whether the Irish disliked it or not, they would speak English only as the official language.
In my father’s time as a schoolboy, learning English was compulsory, no Gaelic allowed. My great-grandfather’s recollections of his schooldays were handed down through the years. In his time, there was a device called a tally stick: every time a scholar used a Gaelic word that was still in vogue in the home, he or she was forced to wear a stick round the neck, one notch for very time it used a banned word. When when the tally stick was full, students would be punished in accordance with the number of notches.
In the three hundred years since the English language was forced upon the Irish populous, the English tongue has changed dramatically. According to those who study the evolution of speech, Shakespeare, if he returned, would recognize but one word out of every eleven. That is not just the result of new words being added, but also because of official changes in the structure and grammar of the English language.
Probably the most significant of all those changes is known as The Great Vowel Shift. Ye all doth know ye’er vowels, to wit, a e, i, o, u, as Shakespeare might intone, but back then you wouldn’t have an idea what was going down. Vowel sounds had a habit of being pronounced differently in various parts of the kingdom, but none created more diversity than did the diphthong.
You remember the diphthong. No, it has nothing to do with one of those skimpy garments you might see in balmy days by the seaside. A diphthong is where two vowels come together in a word. Like meat or cream, for example.
Now, in Shakespeare’s time, all around Warwickshire and the kingdom as a whole, a word that had the pair of vowels lying beside each other was pronounced the opposite way as it would be now, or if you like, the other way around. For example “meat,” which has the diphthong lying cozily in the center, was pronounced as “mate.” And “cream” was pronounced was “crame,” “seat” was “sate,” “beat” was “bate,” “heat” was “hate.”
Between 1350 and 1600, the pronunciation of the English language was standardized. In a process called The Great Vowel Shift, all Middle English long vowels changed their pronunciation, setting those vowels on a course towards the way we pronounce them today.
But the Irish were having none of it. What they had learned in Shakespeare’s time was continued from generation to generation. I grew up in a rural part of western Ireland where the Bard’s pronunciation was still in full flow. It seemed as if it emerged from the cradle, having learned the rudiments in the womb.
I was mocked by teachers in a boarding school for having the vulgar word sounds of the countryside. “Where are you from, Nestor?” “West Limerick, Father.” “Ah, that explains it. Tell you this, sonny boy. If you don’t correct yourself that sort of talk will be bate out of you.”
But the language of my cradle would never leave me. It occasionally went underground in some more cultured and adverse environment, but once I returned to my native place it came forth free as if I had never left.
I had then the full pronunciation assembly. Diphthongs and vowels, sequential or otherwise. My father had them and his father before him. All five generations of the Nestor dynasty. All the teachers in the primary school spoke and taught in the Shakespearean way. Here are a few examples of how we phrased and pronounced things:
“Gower there and bring in the spare sate from the yard” meant, “go out to the yard and bring in the spare seat.”
"I’m so cowld that I can’t eight my lunch" was saying “I’m so cold that I can’t eat my lunch.”
And “will someone close the dure,” was asking "would someone close the door."
An inspector would come from time to time and a lengthy, whispered discussion would take place at the teacher’s desk.
The teacher kept on shaking her head. Our way of speaking, our reverence for the language we learned from the cradle, was the nearest thing to Gaelic, which the English outlawed.
Perhaps we added a pronunciation or two to what was given us by sword and edict. Or more than that, perhaps we set the pronunciation sound to lilt and pace as if it emerged from a musical score. That was our forte, what was willed to us from tone and rhythm of the old tongue.
So it wasn’t just ae or ea, which in beat and seat became bate or sate. Hardly a sentence was composed that didn’t have a throwback to the time when the English language was imposed upon us. Cold became cowld as in “I’m freezing with the cowld.” Bold became bouled, as in, “Aren’t you the bouled little brat.” And sometimes the ancient craft soared into a concoction of diphthong cadence that even Shakespeare himself might have applauded, and might have made an aside from the morose Dane, or a line from Brutus exhorting his fellow conspirators to win the day at Philippi.
In our way of talking, words were mashed together, letters were emaciated by the power of high-minded vowels. It wasn’t alone that the mighty diphthongs with their two-sided power ruled the day. The O’s were prominent, so were the U’s and between them they created another language that the disciples of The Great Vowel shift could understand. Such, they may have said, was language following its own momentum. The O’s and the U’s were abroad.
Willie Hanley was a great follower of the O’s and U’s evolution, though the pair had been in situ long before he was born. Willie was a butter-maker in the local creamery. He was also the hurling team manager, whose corps of players had always languished in the lower reaches of competition. On the day of the match, when we were playing Newbridge or Nantenan, hardy lads all, he would line us up against the thorn hedge where we had togged out and tell us to stand up straight. Then with a raised fist pumping the air he would attempt to put fire in our bellies because the opposition were hardly lads.
In the present Queen’s English, what he wanted to say was that we should go out and go in to them hard. But in a full flow sentence, the O’s and the U’s, the I’s and the E’s came together in memory of a time before the Great Vowel Shift, that same language that my father spoke and his father before him. What Willie said was:
“Gout lads and goin tomb!”
Tom Nestor is a writer living in County Offaly. For almost forty years he wrote a column in the Limerick Leader - My Life and Times - about the Ireland that he grew up in during the fifties and sixties. It ran from 1964 to 1998. That column became the basis for two works of memoir, published by The Collins Press, titled "The Keeper of Absalom's Island" and "Talking to Kate."
*Originally published in August 2016. Updated in May 2023.