Synge pp 60-83 | Cite as

The Development of Dialect

  • Nicholas Grene


It was while at work on The Aran Islands in 1900–1 that Synge first learned to write the language of his plays, and by 1902 when he completed his first peasant plays the basic structure of the dialect was established. From then on, during the period he was working on the comedies, he was always on the look-out for words and phrases which he could use as a playwright, and his notebooks nearly all have a sprinkling of Anglo-Irish idioms. Many of these do reappear in the plays — so many, in fact, that it seems as if Synge’s well-known boast was justified: ‘In writing The Playboy of the Western World, as in my other plays, I have used one or two words only, that I have not heard among the country people’ (Plays II p. 53). However there were also phrases which he invented, and when he entered these in his notebook he was careful to distinguish them from those he had actually heard by signing or initialling them. Thus for example, in a notebook used on his visit to Kerry in 1905, we find, ‘“That seven thousand + seventy devil may play goals with your scull” J. M. Synge.’


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  1. 2.
    See Alan Bliss, ‘A Synge Glossary’, Bushrui (ed.), Sunshine and the Moon’s Delight, p. 301, for the relative frequency of unusual vocabulary in the plays. He shows that The Playboy has many more ‘unique’ words on average, Riders has much fewer, and all the other four plays about the same proportion.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For example, P. W. Joyce, English As We Speak it in Ireland (London, 1910) ch. XIII, or M. Traynor, The English Dialect of Donegal (Dublin, 1953).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Not so unobtrusively, however, as to escape the notice of T. R. Henn, who senses something ‘false’ about both the ‘moon of May’ and the ‘visage of the stars’. See The Plays and Poems of J. M. Synge (London, 1963) Introduction, p. 15.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Douglas Hyde, Love Songs of Connaught (London, 1893) p. 43.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Ibid., p. 41.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Jiro Taniguchi, A Grammatical Analysis of Artistic Representation of Irish English (Tokyo, [1956]), Nicholas Newlin, The Language of Synges Plays — the Irish Element, Doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania (1950). I am very grateful to Dr Newlin for permission to use his unpublished research findings.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    P. L. Henry, An Anglo-Irish Dialect of North Roscommon (Dublin, n.d.) ch. VII. Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Alan Bliss, ‘The Language of Synge’, J. M. Synge: Centenary Papers, 1971, ed. M. Harmon (Dublin. 1972) p. 48.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Lady Gregory, Seven Short Plays (Dublin. 1909) p. 145.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Ibid.. p. 56.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Ibid., p. 15. (A souper is someone who was converted to Protestantism by the proselytising power of the soup-kitchen.)Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Sean O’Casey, Collected Plays, Vol. I (London, 1949) P. 218.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    The point has filtered down to Gussie Fink-Nottle, who complains of the script for the Pat and Mike cross-talk which Bertie Wooster gives him: in describing the incident [Pat] prefaces his remarks at several points with the expressions ‘Begorrah’ and ‘faith and begob’. Irishmen don’t talk like that. Have you ever read Synge’s Riders to the Sea? Well, get hold of it and study it, and if you can show me a single character in it who says, ‘Faith and begob’, I’ll give you a shilling. P. G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season (Penguin, 1957) p. 88.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    Maire Nic Shiublaigh and Edward Kenny, The Splendid Years (Dublin, 1955) pp. 42–3.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    Grattan Freyer, ‘The Little World of J. M. Synge’, Politics and Letters, Vol. I , no. 4 (1948) 11.Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    T. S. Eliot, Poetry and Drama (London, 1951) pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    P. L. Henry, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, Philologica Pragensia, Vol. 8 (1965) 204.Google Scholar

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© Nicholas Grene 1985

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  • Nicholas Grene

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