How do You be Doing?

When does English sound like jazz?

When you’re Irish.

When I was a younger man I thought nothing of talking about my habits and routines in such terms:

I do be going to the park regularly.

I do be often working on Saturdays. 

If I were to translate that into more standard English, it would be:

I go to the park regularly.

I often work on Saturdays.

These latter sentences are in the present simple tense, which we use to talk about routines, habits, and general truths. So why would I choose a more convoluted form instead of something more… simple? Well, you can’t change where you’re born. Such a structure (I do be +-ing), while not so common anymore, was a common part of Irish English (or Hiberno-English).

The seemingly unusual structure is a direct translation from the Irish language (Gaelic) which contains something known as the consuetudinal present tense. This is a tense which is used specifically for present habits. Bím ag dul go dtí an páirc go minic, translated as directly as possible into English, would be I do be going to the park regularly. While the vast majority of Irish people now grow up with English as their mother tongue, in the 19th century people were transitioning from speaking Irish to speaking English, either as a choice in order to improve one’s social or employment prospects, or because the British-created education system forbade the use of the Irish language. Because of this situation, the Irish language had a strong influence on how Irish people spoke English, with many people importing the structure of Irish wholesale into English. There are other examples, which I’ll probably get into some other time, but I do be… is the most noticeable form. Particularly so when the main verb of the sentence is to do, and you get sentences like:

I do be doing a lot of work in the mornings.

Do you be doing that often, do ya?

And that’s why it sounds like jazz!

It does sound quite quaint and old-fashioned now, and most modern young Irish people wouldn’t use it, going for more standardised modern English with strong American and British influences, naturally enough. I wouldn’t expect them to use such structures anymore, but it is a shame how the unique forms of English which exist all around the world seem to be slowly fading away. I love the fact that English speakers can use very different forms inspired by many different languages, and still be mutually intelligible (generally). It’s hard to push against the evolution of language, and with the accessibility to information, and ease of global communication of the internet age, international standardisation is almost inevitable. Still though, it’s sad to the old forms become forgotten. Diversity is always going to be more interesting than uniformity.

Ní bheidh an leithéid ann arís.

 

12 thoughts on “How do You be Doing?

  1. The use of “after” is another interesting Irishism. “I’m after washing the dishes” in Hiberno-English means “I’ve just washed the dishes” in standard English. This seems to come from the Irish language as well (“Táim tar éis…”)

    But the one I used to baffle people with when I lived in the UK was “giving out” (complaining). I never even realised this was an Irishism before I got some funny looks for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I took me a long time to realise “I’m after doing the dishes” is solely Irish. And especially “giving out.” It seems so natural you assume everyone uses it, especially because there aren’t many direct equivalents (“telling off” or “scolding” maybe, but they seem much more formal). I see a lot of confused students asking about their host families talking about giving out!

      Like

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