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Ask a Native; or The Hiberno-English Variant

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

Start finishing up down here before you're after getting soaked!

A while back, an interesting sentence toured my social media. It was introduced as such:

Reminds me of the time I was sitting at a covered table outside the local pub just as it started raining. A Filipino lad working there, who was still struggling with English, was doing a job outside and the owners who was upstairs opened a window and shouted down to him: Start finishing up down there and come in out of the rain before you’re after getting soaked! He just looked at me, defeated, and said “Everything opposite!”

The person who shared this anecdote captioned it with: ‘Its a wonder anyone understands our Hiberno English tbh’.

This post sent me on a three-days long syntactic rabbit hole. I thought I would share.


The focus of the anecdote here is the owner’s instruction and how odd it would sound to non-Irish ears: ‘Start finishing up down there and come in out of the rain before you’re after getting soaked!’.

Why would it be considered unintelligible by a non-native? Let us start with the syntax. In the story, the Filipino lad comments: “Everything opposite!”. Dissecting the sentence, we have the words: up/down, in/out (of) [1], before/after. All are individual - and indeed opposite - prepositions. Technically, this entire sentence is about 35% preposition: for 17 words, 6 of them, working as pairs. Such ratio and conceptual symmetry seem unbelievably rare in the wild and it is quite fun to look at it from the ‘opposite’ point of view:

Start finishing up down there and come in out of the rain before you’re after getting soaked!

However, while most of these little words are indeed sorted as prepositions in the dictionary, they are not being used as such here. It is most obvious that some of these prepositions are part of another group of words, i. e. two phrasal verbs (‘finish up’, ‘come in’) and an adverbial phrase (‘down there’). This justifies the amusement caused by the anecdote. English natives, although they won’t immediately put a name on it, will have a strong intuition of which word goes with which. Simply put, native speakers know their syntax - even if not all of them will go to the rather masochist extent of studying it. A native [2] speaker will easily sort the syntax as follows (at least for the first part):

Start finishing up down there and come in out of the rain […]!


Here’s for some syntax. Now, let us close in on the ‘Irish’ side of the sentence, referred to as ‘Hiberno English’. To me, the biggest Irish flag here was in the second part: ‘you're after getting soaked’. One does not have to live in Ireland long to become familiar with that one: 'to be after doing something' is ‘to have just finished it’. Brewer's Dictionary of Irish Phrase & Fable informs us it is especially used in Munster (south-west region of the country). If I were to venture so far as using it in a sentence, I would probably say something around the lines of ‘I'm not hungry, I’m just after getting lunch’. On the other hand, the first section of that sentence didn’t feel specifically Irish to me. Lexical items such as ‘to finish up’, ‘down there’, ‘come in’ and ‘out of the rain’ simply don’t appear to have a use that is specific to Hiberno-English. Maybe it is about the combination of all of them, together in a sentence?

Because I am not native to Ireland, I cannot fully rely on my intuition here. This is why, after a few days of munching on that utterance, I did what I should have done in the first place: I went to a Hiberno-English speaker and friend.

That person made two precious remarks. The first one was that they ‘just wouldn’t say something like that’, especially the ‘before you’re after’ part. They would have probably gone with ‘[…] come in out of the rain or you’re after getting soaked!’. I was rather disappointed to hear that; I had been playing with that ‘35% preposition sentence’ for a couple of days at this stage. Now, that did not necessarily mean that it wasn't possible for that sentence to exist. Someone else might have said it. However, hearing someone question that phrasing is significant: a native’s intuition has a lot of weight in linguistics. I became uncertain about my analysis. Additionally, there was the second remark. A much more cynical one, but rather noteworthy. If this was an anecdote told by someone on social media, there was a fair chance that it was not true.

There went three days of my week.

I think that person is right. If this utterance sounds ‘a bit off’ to a native, then I'd say the likelihood of it being a false story greatly outweighs the one of this sentence being uttered. I’d wager the person who wrote it heard something being said that wasn’t too far off. When writing it down, they were moved by the Spirit of Conceptual Symmetry, and switched a few words here and there to make it prettier.

A waste of syntactical analysis, then.


And yet. However. Notwithstanding [3].

With a slight step back, that sentence is still worth noticing. Not for its content, but for the attention it gets [4]. That people enjoy discussing Irish linguistics isn’t really big news: there are enough YouTube videos ranking actor’s attempts at performing ‘Oirisch accents’, comedians impersonating them, tutorials, and so on. What is important here, I find, is that we’re talking Hiberno-English phrases. Not accents. We are talking about language features that might only be understood by Hiberno-English speakers, for a display of linguistic pride that I find not only refreshing but liberating.

It is often emphasised that Irish culture is alive and well in the world. But when it comes down to the language itself - Irish - we tend to hit a wall. The language (and its people) have suffered famines and invasions for hundreds of years, and is quickly disappearing as a result. The Irish government’s attempts at reviving it are - arguably - failing. This phenomena is well discussed and documented.

Most times, my enquiries about Irish are met by locals with shrugs of guilt and a sorry smile: few speak it, and for many, it is a rather bad memory (“tough and boring subject in school"). It is hard to see Irish people beat themselves up for not knowing Irish, when there are so many more factors that contributed to this situation. The unfortunate narrative of ‘failing at our own language, shame on us’ seems to be a heavy and unfair burden indeed.

This is why seeing a genuine enjoyment and pride of Hiberno-English is most welcome: a happy celebration of Irishness and its linguistic variant. Authentic or not, this anecdote is a great conversation starter for a much needed discussion about a language, and the ownership of that language by its people.

Thursday 27 January 2022

traduction anglais irlandais translation hiberna-english Irish-English

Kerry artist Ciaraíoch's on point illustration on Irish people and the Irish language.


[1] The word 'out' by itself in not necessarily a preposition, but in this case 'out of' is used as such, an 'adverbial phrase' of sorts.

[2] I want to argue that most people with an even basic use of English will do the same.

[3] I got a thesaurus for Christmas.

[4] This particular story was rewarded with about 1,800 likes and well over 200 shares on Twitter. See also r/Ireland on Reddit, with threads discussing Irish phrases that can be obscure to foreigners.

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