Blog post written by Kevin McCafferty based on an article in the latest issue of English Language and Linguistics
The decline of first-person shall in Ireland, 1760–1890
The Irish just don’t use first-person shall, and they never have. They’ve always said Will I close the window? and We will be there soon. That’s the consensus of grammarians and other commentators from the eighteenth century onwards. And linguists who have studied Irish English in recent decades agree that shall is virtually non-existent in the English of the Irish. So ingrained is this view that the decline of shall in North America – which is now affecting British English, too – is even attributed to the influence of Irish immigrants.
This study uses the Corpus of Irish English Correspondence to look at shall/will usage in Irish English over a period of 130 years. Contrary to the grammarians’ accounts, shall was the predominant form with first-person subjects in eighteenth-century Ireland. The present-day situation, with only will being used in Irish English, did not emerge until late in the nineteenth century. This was not unique to Irish English: comparison with Canadian English shows this shift happening at roughly the same time in both varieties, raising questions about the role of the Irish in the decline of shall in North America.
We suggest that the change from shall to will in Irish English might have be due to simplification during the process of language shift. Also, since first-person will was retained in nonstandard varieties even in England long after shall was established in the standard language, increased use of will might have arisen as a result of growing literacy and the colloquialisation of English: as more texts like letters were produced by members of the lower social strata, their more nonstandard or vernacular usage made it into writing. The shift to first-person will that is apparent in Irish English would then be the outcome of language shift and greater lower-class literacy.