Among prescriptivists, the Irish have long had a reputation for not following the rule requiring a distinction between shall with first-person and will with other grammatical subjects. Recent shift towards will with all persons in North American English – now also affecting British English – has been attributed to the influence of Irish immigrants. The present study of data from the Corpus of Irish English Correspondence (CORIECOR) finds that Irish English has not always preferred will. Rather, the present-day situation emerged in Irish English between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. This important period covers the main language shift from Irish to English, and simplification in the acquisition process may account for the Irish English use of will.
In eighteenth-century Irish English, shall predominated. Comparison with other colonial Englishes of the period – US English (Kytö 1991) and Canadian English (Dollinger 2008) – and with north-west British English (Dollinger 2008) shows broadly similar cross-varietal distributions of first-person shall and will. Irish English shifted rapidly towards will by the 1880s, but was not unusual in this respect; a similar development took place at the same time in Canadian English, which may indicate a more general trend, at least in colonial Englishes. It is thus doubtful that Irish English influence drove the change towards first-person will.
We suggest the change might be associated with increasing literacy and accompanying colloquialisation (Mair 1997; Biber 2003; Leech et al. 2009: 239ff.). As Rissanen (1999: 212) observes, and Dollinger corroborates for north-west British English, will persisted in regional Englishes after the rise of first-person shall in the standard language. Increased use of will might have been an outcome of wider literacy leading to more written texts, like letters, being produced by members of lower social strata, whose more nonstandard/vernacular usage was thus recorded in writing. There are currently few regional letter corpora for testing this hypothesis more widely. However, we suggest that, in nineteenth-century Ireland, increasing literacy may have helped spread first-person will as a change from below. The shift to first-person will that is apparent in CORIECOR would then result from greater lower-class literacy, and this might be a key to understanding this change in other Englishes too.