Hiberno-English on the rise

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Krišjānis Kariņš has been in the news a lot recently, but this was special.

Naomi O'Leary, "The curious case of the Latvian prime minister’s Irish accent", The Irish Times 12/21/2022:

Subhead: Brogues to be found in unexpected places as Hiberno-English on the rise since the departure of Britain from the EU

On his entry to Prague Castle to join a summit of European Union leaders, Latvian prime minister Krisjanis Karins was accosted by the bank of waiting journalists.

“What do you think about the price cap?” one reporter asked him, looking for a comment on the issue of the day.

In an unmistakably Irish accent, Karins replied: “A price cap on gas, if that could be achieved, would be grand.”

I shared a clip of the incident on social media and it quickly took off. “If you close your eyes, he could be a school principal in Tipperary,” one user marvelled.

Here's the clip that Ms.O'Leary shared:

And more from the Irish Times article:

“His father Weeshie Karins hurled for Piarsaigh’s,” another joked. “He’s obviously from the Kenmare Karins. I knew his father.”

I experimented, playing the clip for friends without letting them see who it was. “That’s an Irish politician,” one insisted. “He sounds like a local councillor.”


The phenomenon is not confined to Latvia’s head of government. I recently met a Brussels-based Swedish journalist who sounded like a native of Westmeath. I asked her if she was married to an Irish person or had lived in the country. “No, sure I just have loads of Irish friends, like,” she demurred.

I was determined to get to the bottom of the Latvian leader’s brogue.

Young Krisjanis was actually born in Wilmington, Delaware, where his parents had moved during Soviet times. He spent summers in the old country, moving back permanently in 1997.

The first clue to his possible sensitivity to accents is that he studied linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, gaining a PhD for a thesis on the rhythm and intonation of the Latvian language.

I made it my mission to ask him about this issue of vital importance in person.

As the European leaders gathered once again in Brussels last week, I waited for Karins at the spot where the arriving leaders take a few questions from journalists, if the mood takes them, in front of a row of national flags.

A media scrum formed on Mr Karins’s appearance. “Do you have understanding of the position of Germany and the Netherlands?” one journalist roared at him. “Do you understand the concerns of Poland holding up funds to Ukraine?”

“Is granting Bosnia EU candidate status a way of stopping Russian influence there?” another demanded to know.

I raised my voice above the din. “You have a slight Irish accent, could you explain why that might be?” I cried.

For a moment the Latvian prime minister seemed a little thrown. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he told me.


But according to one Brussels insider, it isn’t just an Irish accent that Karins has picked up – but a Kerry one.

Because both their surnames begin with K, for 10 years as an MEP in the European Parliament Karins sat beside Seán Kelly, the Ireland South MEP.

“We had great chats. He’s a good character, a good friend, actually,” Kelly told me.

“Occasionally there’d be a function on that we’d be supposed to attend. We’d say to each other: we’ll skip the speeches now, we’ll go for a little drink ourselves, and then we’ll go and join them for the dinner.”

Karins visited Kelly’s native Killarney at one point and the two walked the Gap of Dunloe. “I can understand why he has a bit of a, hopefully a Kerry accent, and some of the colloquialisms.”

It’s all mounting evidence for the increasing dominance of Hiberno-English in the EU, now that the Brits have departed.

And Kelly’s work is not done yet. Just last week, he says, an Austrian MEP asked him to explain what he meant by calling someone “a bollocks”.

“She said, what’s that?” Kelly said, creasing with laughter. “Now she’s using it.”

Ms. O'Leary's tweet, from October 7:

And a few of the many responses:

Krišjānis Kariņš was one of the first students I worked with after I came to the University of Pennsylvania in 1990. His 1996 dissertation was on The Prosodic Structure of Latvian, and he's also an author of three LDC datasets from 1997: the CALLHOME German Lexicon, the CALLHOME German Transcripts, and the CALLHOME Egyptian Arabic Transcripts.

Linguistics students have succeeded in many professions outside of academia, but as far as I know, Krišjānis is the only one who has found employment as a prime minister.

[h/t Breffni O'Rourke]



  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 22, 2022 @ 9:59 am

    As I probably mentioned on a prior thread, PM Kariņš is the same age as I am, and we grew up a few miles apart from each other – graduating the same year from different public high schools in the same school district. I don't believe I ever met him growing up, but we must have had dozens of mutual acquaintances (including my own diaspora-born Latvian-American high school classmate who like him moved back to the Mother Country in the Nineties). I can't recall anyone our age who grew up in that corner of Delaware in that generation, including those of ethnic-Irish ancestry, who had the slightest hint of any Hibernianism in their idiolect.

    Obviously people's pronunciation/lexicon can drift in adulthood, and his return to Latvia as an adult puts him in the position of essentially being an L1 Anglophone who does not use English as his primary day-to-day language, which maybe makes his ideolect more vulnerable to drift based on new adult associations/contexts?

    I would be more curious if his current idiolect retains any "tells" of Delaware Valley regional pronunciation (e.g. the notably fronted GOAT-vowel that adorns my own idiolect although there are lots of other potential candidates). Get some of Labov's grad students to listen to a bunch of recordings of the Prime Minister and suss that out!

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 22, 2022 @ 10:07 am

    In related aging-Delawarean news, at least one of PM Kariņš' high school classmates from back in the day has also previously been featured on Language Log: Aniruddh Patel (currently of the Tufts Psych Dep't), whose work has I think been featured in several posts, including this one: https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=820

    Prof. Patel and I hung out together with some frequency when we were in 6th grade and lived within a few blocks of each other, but I fell out of touch with him after my family moved to a different house a few miles away the following summer, such that we then went to different junior high and high schools within the same district.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    December 22, 2022 @ 11:19 am

    a thesis on the rhythm and intonation of the Latvian language

    Before I actually read the thesis, let me mention that "rhythm and intonation" is an understatement – Latvian has three tones that it distinguishes on every syllable with a long nucleus (long vowel, diphthong, or vowel + /n m l r/). Stress is always on the first syllable.

  4. Laura Morland said,

    December 22, 2022 @ 5:49 pm

    For what it's worth – having been married to an Irishman (who requested that his ashes be tossed off the westernmost tip of County Kerry, by the way, which we did) – when I first listened to the clip, Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš' pronounciation of the word "grand" sounded to me like an American speaking Hiberno-English.

    I was therefore not surprised to read that he'd grown up in the U.S. I *am* surprised that the commenters in the Irish Times didn't pick up on the vowel in "grand," for I'm sure that a "school principal in Tipperary" would pronounce it differently.

    P.S. What's the historical basis for the "three tones" in Latvian? Is it in any way similar to Swedish?

  5. David Marjanović said,

    December 22, 2022 @ 6:23 pm

    What's the historical basis for the "three tones" in Latvian? Is it in any way similar to Swedish?

    Not at all. In terms of how the system works, it's a feature of syllables, not of words, so different syllables in the same word can carry different tones (unlike even in Lithuanian, which allows only the stressed syllable to carry a tone); in terms of origins, the tones don't come from lost syllables but from lost consonants and consonant distinctions (plus complex later developments) – sometimes they're quite useful in reconstructing Proto-Indo-European, in fact.

  6. David Marjanović said,

    December 22, 2022 @ 6:41 pm

    Oops, you specifically asked for the historical basis. (Sorry, it's past bedtime.) I recommend starting here; further down on the page is a glimpse of the full horrifying complexity.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 23, 2022 @ 10:56 am

    @Laura Morland: maybe I don't have a good intuitive sense of the sound of "American speaking Hiberno-English," but his vowel in "gas" struck me as NOT sounding like the typical Northern-Delaware suburban pronunciation he would have been raised with, although not clearly some other accent I could pinpoint. To the extent that e.g. the Latvian word for gas is cognate (or whatever you call it when two languages have borrowed the same international-scientific-lexicon word of whatever ultimate origin) but has a different vowel than any variety of AmEng, that could explain that, though. His "grand" also sounded a bit off (from a Northern-Delaware POV) but not as notably as his "gas" even though I guess both words technically have the same vowel.

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    December 24, 2022 @ 9:31 pm

    I doubt any perceived Irishness in his speech has to do with that vowel, the quality of which is rather generic (I think the difference in the two words can be attributed to pre-fortis clipping). It is rather the general intonation and this use of the word 'grand' (which is, of course, dialect and not accent, but people widely conflate the two). The unusualness of a non-Irish person sounding like that probably makes it more salient that such a matter otherwise would be.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  9. Dara Connolly said,

    December 25, 2022 @ 8:48 am

    While I agree with Laura Morland that the "typical" midlands accent would have a long front vowel in gas and grand, and that the g in gas would tend to be palatalised, accents in Ireland vary greatly with social class and level of education. To me, PM Kariņš could definitely pass for an Irish person based on that short clip.

    I deliberately say "long" front vowel because my own observation is that vowel length is phonemic in (some accents in) Ireland, with words like "cant" and "can't", "ant" and "aunt" being distinguished by vowel length, rather than by vowel quality as they would be in southern England.

  10. Breffni said,

    December 26, 2022 @ 4:11 am

    Dara, I agree with you about long vs short [a] in Irish English, and I’d add to your list (short vs long respectively): (atomic) mass / (Catholic) mass; matter / Mater (Dei, Dublin hospital); laggard / lagered (drunk), and also your own name: I know females called long-a Dara and males called short-a Dara (or Dar(r)agh). I’d be interested to know if that’s a distinction you make.

  11. Andrew Usher said,

    December 26, 2022 @ 6:21 pm

    The distinction corresponds, then, as I already figured, so the English TRAP/PALM, but the lexical incidence is different; in particular, there are more words having the long vowel, and not very predictably. And I'm sure not all of Ireland is consistent with it…

  12. Dara Connolly said,

    December 28, 2022 @ 2:55 pm

    Wow Breffni, you've come up with some really good examples there. Absolutely spot on, and I'm glad as a non-linguist that I wasn't completely barking up the wrong tree.

    As for my own name, I am a short-a Dara and I hadn't noticed that girl-Dara's are pronounced differently!

  13. per incuriam said,

    December 29, 2022 @ 8:22 pm

    It should be noted that, while the Latvian PM's "grand" may sound Irish, he seems to mean by it something quite different from the Irish sense of the word.

    And even if the idiomatic usage were right, the register would still be way off – it's hard to imagine an Irish PM in the same context talking about things being "grand".

    So it looks like we may have to wait a little longer for that "Hiberno-English" dominance of the EU.

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