Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

3.2. Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Eric A. Anchimbe (University of Munich)

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The do be form in contemporary Hiberno-English: An implication for grammatical transformations

Tamami Shimada (Kyoto University, Japan)


1. Introduction

This study discusses a contemporary phase of language change in the contact-induced variety of English spoken in Ireland, namely Hiberno-English (HE). Hiberno-English ‘is the name given to the language of everyday use in Ireland, a mixture of Irish and English’ (Dolan: xix). This variety maintains some elements derived from the Irish language, as well as certain other contact-induced features that are retained in the grammatical system of contemporary HE. It is an undeniable fact, however, that HE is today exposed to major Englishes, Standard English among others. The do be form, which is fossilised in the present southwest variety, denotes the habitual aspect. This habitual category is assumed to be inherited from substratum Irish. This study, based on text sources and fieldwork undertaken in southwest Ireland, portrays linguistic properties of the HE do be form and what is happening to this grammatical component in the context of language change.


2. Languages in Ireland: Irish and English

In Ireland today, English, not Irish, is the language of everyday communication. Language shift from the indigenous Irish to English is almost complete, one of the critical factors having been the settlements in the 17 th century. Even though the English language was first brought to Ireland around the time of Anglo-Norman Conquest in the 12 th century, a critical factor in the language shift from Irish to English, which actually began in the 17 th century, was English settlements including the Cromwellian scheme of 1653 (Hindley 1990). The language shift was accelerated in the 19 th century by the National Education System in 1831 and the Great Famine in the late 1840s. The English language in Ireland was thus cultivated through long-term contact between the Irish substratum and English superstratum.

According to Article Eight of the Constitution of Ireland, Irish as the ‘national language’ is the first official language, while English is recognised as the second language. Even though Irish is the first official language and plays an important role as a cultural and national symbol, there are nowadays no Irish monoglots.(1) Irish is, in general, regarded as a language to be learned in schools and preserved as part of the cultural heritage. A respondent, who happens to be a native speaker of Irish in the fieldwork I conducted in 2005 in a Gaeltacht (an Irish speaking community) in the Dingle Peninsula summarised the status of Irish and of the language situation in Ireland thus:

The Irish language is an identity badge. Whether people want it or not, that’s another question. [...] All the experiences of Irish people and community is hidden in the language. I feel if we lose the language, we lose the connection with our past and our experiences. We lose the connection with landscape and nature.

It seems that maintaining the Irish language fulfils a significant role in reflecting the Irish identity. It is also important to note that this identity vigorously constructs linguistic practices in everyday communication in HE. This language, which is a long-developing product that has been grafted onto a Gaelic-Irish stem, manifests certain elements from the Irish language.

2.1. English in Ireland: Hiberno-English (HE)

When considering the nature of HE and how its grammar has been shaped over the years, it is necessary to bear in mind its historical development. To quote Bliss (1972: 63), HE is ‘based on the English of the mid-seventeenth century’, which was ‘acquired, gradually and with difficulty, by speakers of Irish; and in the process of their acquisition of it they modified it, both in pronunciation and in syntax, towards conformity with their own linguistic habits’. With such a development and with consistent patterns retained in this language, for example the do be form discussed in this paper and more productively the ’tis(~it is)... construction, it is appropriate to regard HE as an independent synthesis of English and Irish, rather than simply as a derivation from Standard English. Filppula (1999: 1) significantly states, ‘what makes the study of Hiberno-English dialects particularly intriguing is their historical background: they are a product of a unique linguistic situation involving long-standing contact between two languages’. Because of this long-standing contact in different geographical areas that have different linguistic and social backgrounds, it seems that HE can hardly be studied on the assumed premise of homogeneity nor described without reference to regional variation. Rather, HE should be divided into local varieties. The do be construction is one of the typical cases of such regional variations.(2) In the southwest of Ireland, as far as contemporary usage is concerned, such patterns as ‘habitual be’ and ‘do+Verb’ may not serve as habitual markers, although these patterns are on the other hand attested in the Northern HE varieties by Henry (1957: 170) and Harris (1986: 176). In northern varieties, there are such examples as:

Even when I be round there with friends I be scared. (Belfast [cited by Harris (1986: 176)]),
He never be’s sick or anything. (Belfast [ibid.]),
He does help us. He does plough the field for us. (Leitrim [ibid.]),
They be shooting and fishing out at the Forestry lakes (Roscommon [Henry (1957: 170)].

It is important to note, especially when the focus is the current situation of HE, that this vernacular is changing, or is perhaps threatened, through its progressively strong exposure to other major Englishes and comes under pressure from the normative force of Standard English. This paper continues by giving a grammatical sketch of the do be properties based on data collected from John B. Keanes’s play scripts published in 1960-70s, and thereby focuses on Southwest Hiberno-English (SwHE), i.e. a variety of HE spoken in the southwest part of Ireland, especially in the Co. Kerry and Co. Cork.(3) This sketch will be followed by fieldwork-based observations and by a discussion of some implications of grammatical transformation with reference to earlier studies regarding the genesis of the do be grammatical component.


3. The ‘do be’ form in Southwest Hiberno-English

The do be form, generally speaking, seems to be moving towards an ‘out of use’ status, if we look at the contemporary situation. It may be true, however, that the majority of the HE speakers, both urban and rural, even including the younger generations, have a certain recognition or competent knowledge of the relationship between the do be form and its function. In SwHE, do be (~ing) functions as a habitual marker that does not receive prosodic prominence in this do and be sequence. The do be form, where do and be are stuck together, seems to be fossilised in contemporary SwHE, since the be, if it appears alone without do, cannot be interpreted as habitual.

a. We do be praying for you in our prayers, whenever we get the notion to kneel.
b. *We be praying for you in our prayers, whenever we get the notion to kneel.
‘We usually/always pray for you in our prayers, whenever...

In SwHE, (2a) denotes the habitual aspect, while (2b) is an unmarked version of (2a) and (2c) is used on an occasion when the speaker needs to express identification focus on the VP head.

a. We do be praying for you in our prayers. [Habitual]
b. We pray for you in our prayers. [Unmarked statement]
c. We pray for you in our prayers. [VP focus marking]

The habitual aspect in past tense is expressed in (3c), but not in (3b) where the information of the tense is amalgamated with do.

a. We do be prayingfor you in our prayers.
b. *We did be praying for you in our prayers.
c. We used (to) be praying for you in our prayers.(4)

3.1. A sketch of the do be construction based on John B. Keane’s literature in the 1960-70s

The following description of the SwHE do be is based on Keane’s plays published in the 1960-70s.(5) T he most dominant pattern of the do be sentences is the do be V-ing, while there are other patterns in the SwHE play texts, such as do be AdjP, (AdvP~AdvRelP) do be.

(4) D'you see th' oul' cock salmon thatdo be hidin'in the deep hole of the river. [SIV 25]

(5) Sure, even if I talk to any good-looking fella in the bar, himself does be mad jealous. [FLD 31]

(6) Did you ever notice the way people do be when they're talkin'? [HHM 2]

The do in the SwHE do be form behaves similarly as the do-support in question formation and in negation. Note that there are no tokens of the negation in my data while (7c) is judged as grammatical by the speakers.

a. They do be thinkin’like us.
b. Do they be thinkin’like us?
c. They don’t be thinkin’like us. (attested)

The examples in (7) displays the auxiliary property of the do in this SwHE form, along with (8). Tense is not amalgamated with the do. It is important to note that it is not until this Aux do is followed by be that it functions as the habitual marker in the dialect, that is, it is used in a pattern: do be {V-ing, AdjP, AdvP, φ }.

a. We do be prayingfor you in our prayers.
b. *We did be praying for you in our prayers.
c. *We willdo be praying for you in our prayers.

The do be form, in relation to the so-called periphrastic do, is generally said to express habitual aspect. Examples taken from Keane’s literature basically confirm this, but further examination of the occurring condition would gives us a more explicit description of the meaning of the do be form and its usage. First, there are examples that clearly express the recurring activity of the object as in (9) and (10).(6) This use will be called ‘habit do be 1 ’.

(9) 'Tis not aisy, a-girl, to kill you! You have the appearance of a small one, a young one. We do be praying for you in our prayers, whenever we get the notion to kneel. [SIV 21]

(10) Why do you be always singin' that oul song? Where did you pick it up, anyway? [MYM 1]

Importantly, in addition to this do be 1 , there are a number of examples where the do be form appears in a predicate expressing the inherent property of the object. This ‘inherent property’, henceforth labelled as do be 2 , refers to a stated quality that belongs naturally to the object. This do be 2 can be distinguished from the do be 1 which predominantly refers to iterative actions and events which take place repeatedly. It is interesting to note that a number of examples found in Keane’s play scripts are of the do be 2 type, while this function is not attested by present SwHE speakers.

(11) Will you open it or you'll drive me to Gleann na nGealt where your own equals do be. [SIV 39]
Gleann na nGealt where your own equals are (Gleann na nGealt is known to be the place where your own equal are)’

(12) 'Tis a wonder you took your backside from the table where people do be eating. [SIV 3]

(13) Have you no knowledge of the way a woman do be the night before? [SIV 38]

Significantly, SwHE do be occurs in relative clauses, often following after an NP+where, the way (including how). This kind of clause, appended to a head NP, defines an inherent property, offering a complementation of the antecedent. In (11) a place name, Gleann na nGealt, is specified in the relative clause, similarly in (12) the inherent property of ‘the table’ is specified in the clause. This do be 2 type tends to occur in a clause followed by the antecedent ‘the way’, which is seen in (13).

3.2. ‘Do be’ today

As mentioned earlier, contemporary SwHE speakers in general have competent knowledge of the form-functional relation of do be. However, in natural speech in a given dialect, it would be undeniable that the do be form is becoming obsolete. This relative decline of the do be form may be understood from a socio-linguistic viewpoint. SwHE speakers are aware of the linguistic characteristics that indicate Irishness and those that symbolise Standard English patterns of speech. This can be illustrated from my fieldwork from 2002 onwards with some reference to earlier questionnaires.(7) To describe the do be construction as it is today, and thus to explicate the socio-linguistic meaning of do be, this awareness of ‘Standard’ needs to be taken into account.

Some of the comments I received when investigating the do be constructions with HE speakers/consultants are cited below to illustrate their socio-linguistic awareness and attention to this stigmatised feature.

No, no. ’Tis bad grammar. You don’t say it. (Listowel, age 50s, female)

Not everybody knows that it is wrong. So accepted. Many people who use it don’t realise it’s incorrect. (Cork, 30s, male)

Small amount of people would say...It’s wrong, bad, obsolete... (Listowel, 50s, male)

The impression I would have is, yes, the person is... The age of the person is important. If ’tis an old person, I would smile and ’tis condescending smile. [...] I feel superior. [...] but if ’tis the things when my pupils in the school said to me, I would correct them, you know, and would say ‘no, that is not correct’. (Cork, 50s, male)

People who say it mostly got very little chance to go to school through poverty in the past. Now in 2004 Ireland is a rich country and you will not hear it at all. (Listowel, 70s, female)

It is fairly clear that speakers have readily-accessible knowledge or images of ‘Standard’, which are most likely constructed from normative school grammar instruction and other ‘models’ of English.(8) It is assumed that this construction was in active use until the 1950s-1960s, but today is in relative decline, taking on unfavourable social connotations associated with its conspicuous non-standardness. A feature that is once labelled as ‘bad grammar’, and what is more, as ‘not-well-educated’ or ‘for poor people’, draws speakers’ excessive attention which hinders the speakers from using this ‘stigmatised’ feature.(9)


4. The ‘do be’ formation and implications for its transformation

When we look at the do be construction from the viewpoint of language contact and postcolonial language change, the issue of its evolution and development becomes glaring. This issue will be briefly addressed here with reference to the earlier studies (Joyce 1910 [1988], van Hamel 1912, Bliss 1972, Kallen 1985, 1986, Harris 1986, Filppula 1999, Hickey 2000). Based on these studies, it can be accepted that the do be form is primarily motivated by the habitual category of the Irish language, since the Irish substantive verb ‘be’ has a particular form denoting the aspect, clearly seen in the ending -(e)ann (cf. Bliss 1972, 1979). It seems likely that the do be form results from a re-interpretation of the periphrastic do of the early modern English, which in Hiberno-English is juxtaposed with be, to mark habitual, durative, or generic aspect (cf. Kallen 1985). It is likely that periphrastic do forms that were semantically empty in the input variety of English were functionalised in HE because of a habitual grammatical category in the Irish substratum (cf. Hickey 2000). ‘Speakers in an interlingual context functionalise elements in the target language for their own ends’, as Hickey (2000: 113) significantly illustrates by the term ‘usurpation’.

The co-occurrence of do and be, according to the literature, did not emerge before the mid-nineteenth century, while there are several examples of the so-called periphrastic do found in earlier texts, for example in John Michelburne’s Ireland Preserved, which dates back to 1705 (Filppula 1999: 138). The do be form may well have developed later, that is, after the establishment of the periphrastic use of do for denoting the duration/habitual meaning. It is appropriate to note that do first co-occurred with any kinds of verbs including be. The auxiliary do-insertion was, in short, used to express aspectual information. The following examples are cited from letters written in the mid-nineteenth century.(10)

(14) My dear son when I do get your letter, all the neighbours do run to see what account do be in it. [1861 / TCD 10435-20]

(15) I do be disputing with my mother... [1857 / TCD 10435-15]

(16) I do be sick every year at this time but I was not prepaired [sic.?] anytime until now. [1863 / TCD 10435-21]

The crucial part of the formation is the process of associating the superstratum word do with a substratum functional category of the habitual aspect. Hypothetically, the need for this aspectual category which corresponds to that in the Irish system motivates HE to establish a form with the Irish-equivalent function. The do-periphrastic was adopted after the model of superstratal English and was functionalised in order to perform the Irish-corresponding aspect. In present SwHE, however, it is necessary for be to join to do so as to express this aspect. It seems that in the developmental process the Aux do so often co-occurred with be, and that this co-occurrence was so diffused that be is used in cases where the do+V pattern was used in the earlier stage. The fossilised do be form is currently the sole device that functions as an aspectual marker expressing habit or inherent property. The device of do-insertion, which was once established in the formative stage, is no longer in use. This is illustrated by (17).

a. He do be eating inside in John B’s.
b. *He do eat inside in John B’s.
(Expected meaning: ‘he usually eats in John B’s’)

This fixation of do to be may have paved the way for the association of the do be form with a social category via the language speakers’ excessive attention to the form. The fixed pattern is easy to be picked out, and no sooner is it recognised as ‘something’ by a group of people than it takes on ‘some’ meaning that exists in the outer world of language. In case of do be, the form is associated with non-Standardness and moreover stigmatised, as illustrated in 3.2.


5. Conclusion

This paper has been concerned with the development of the SwHE do be form and has described its meaning with particular reference to Keane’s play scripts. It is suggested that the co-occurrence of do be was, in the first stage, possibly in the mid-nineteenth century, one of the predicates that were formed by associating the superstratum word do with a substratum functional category of habitual aspect. My fieldwork-based observations, along with the Keane corpus, confirm that the do be form today is fossilised. In other words, the single Aux do no longer functions as a habitual marker in a given dialect. Keane’s play scripts reveal that there are two types of do be, which I have termed in this paper ‘habit’ do be 1 and the ‘inherent property’ do be 2 that is exclusively used in relative clauses, often following a NP where, the way (including how). From my fieldwork-based examination, however, it could be suggested that the do be 2 usage converges with the unmarked present. Further analysis is required concerning these two semantic categories, both from diachronic and dialectological perspectives.

If we examine the formation of the do be grammatical system with reference to its postcolonial context, then it could be understood as a dynamic process of ‘appropriation’ (Mercer 1988: 57),(11) where a supersaturatal lexical item do having syntactic properties of the Auxiliary was reanalysed and associated with an aspectual category in the newly created language of Hiberno-English. Functional categories, in which the habitual aspect is included, are closely linked to cognition, since functional categorisation is, as it were, a mouthpiece of how people divide the world and articulate its shape by means of language. It is likely that the cognitive sphere of language, which the Irish substratum language encompassed, was not easily stemmed by the advent of the coloniser’s language. Language in a postcolonial context appropriates the master-code in its own manner for its own end. This hybridising process can be well illustrated in the case of formation of the device for denoting habitual aspect.

This contact-induced association between form and function takes root in the grammatical system and is transformed automatically, or autopoietically, in its own closed system as time passes. This can be seen in the current process of fossilisation of the do be form, where Aux periphrastic do, which once served as a habitual marker, was diffused to the extent that do+V became marginalised with the growing dominance of do be patterns such as do be {V-ing, Adj, φ }. This dominance has gradually fostered establishment of the do be form as a marker of habitual aspect. In the course of time, this fossilised form, being exposed to the outer-linguistic world, is tested against the criterion of ‘Standard’, which speakers of a given language construct by comparing their English with ‘mainstream English’ probably as a result of the permeation of education and media culture. Their awareness is constantly reflected in the language they speak everyday and may shape the language as it is.

© Tamami Shimada (Kyoto University, Japan)


I wish to express my gratitude to SwHE speakers, especially to Elise Harris and Mary Keane, and to people I have met in Cork since 1998 and in Listowel since 2003. I am extremely grateful to Dr Elisabeth Okasha in University College Cork and to the Clifford and Keane families for their guidance, support and encouragement.


(1) According to McCloskey (2003: 63), estimates of the number of native speakers who live in the Irish-speaking communities range from a low of 15,000 to a high of 30,000. Children are bilingual from an early age even in these communities.

(2) There are a number of studies on the habitual marking in HE at different times and in different areas, which allows variants employed for the aspectual presentation (e.g. Joyce 1910 [1988], Henry 1957, Kallen 1985, 1986, Harris 1986 , Filppula 1999).

(3) This variety may be characterised not only by the recentness of contact with the Irish language but by people's awareness of this contact, as seen in a laconic phrase by John B. Keane (1928-2002), a playwright going by the name of 'Kerryman': 'English Words... But the Accent is Irish' (The Ram of God and Other Stories, 1991: 35).

(4) 'Used' and 'used to' are both found in SwHE. These examples may be noteworthy: I used always walk where the swans were before I went away [MYM 33] ; She used be doin' a line with a schoolmaster's son. [MYM 25] ; Used you and the boys laugh at us? [RES 40].

(5) HE examples cited in this paper are drawn from Keane's plays below with their abbreviations. SIV = Sive (1959); HHM = The Highest House on the Mountain (1961); MYM = Many Young Men of Twenty (1961), FLD = The Field (1966); RES = The Rain at the End of Summer (1968); and CHT = The Chastitute (1981).

(6) The term 'object' here is not used in the grammatical sense but refers to the nominal referent.

(7) The questionnaires (N=103, ten open-ended questions, conducted in 1999, the respondents mainly living in Cork) include such questions as: What is "good English"?, Which do you think describes your language better, 'English' or 'Irish English'? (If you find other names, please write it down.), Do you think there are some differences between your English and others?, Please list expressions or phrases that you regard as Irish English.

(8) The word 'Standard' in quotation marks indicates that it is constructed in a speaker's mind through everyday linguistic practice and interaction with the outer world. See Milroy and Milroy (1998: 19) for the ideological quality of a standard language. The notion of 'Standard' exists in all language users. The 'Standard' potentially entertains properties as the unchallenged legitimate authority, which education and its inculcating dispositions impalpably cumulate (cf. Bourdieu 1991). In addition to this inevitable legitimacy of 'Standard' that any language as social medium entails, English in Ireland, being taught and learned, placed itself in the position of 'target language' that learners should acquire, and this may force HE speakers to adopt a learner's mentality. This mentality makes the legitimacy of 'Standard' fundamentally guaranteed and the awareness of 'Standard' is obvious in HE speakers. Such situations are common in other postcolonial contexts.

(9) It is not intended that the do be form is and will be entirely lost in this dialect. There are SwHE speakers/consultants who have a descriptive system of this grammatical component. The characteristic where speakers are aware of its unfavourable social connotations may obtain covert prestige (cf. Labov 2001 'The nonconformity hypothesis').

(10) The letters are written by an Irish family's mother and daughter, Nancy and Bridget Oldham from Rossmore, Co. Cork (TCD MS 10435: Oldham Papers, Department of Manuscripts Trinity College Dublin). Examples (14) and (15) are already cited in Filppula (1999: 139).

(11) 'Across a whole range of cultural forms there is a "syncretic" dynamic which critically appropriates elements from the master-codes of the dominant culture and "creolises" them, disarticulating given signs and re-articulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.' (Mercer 1988: 57).


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3.2. Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront

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