Learning the language

IRE-Sligo sign copy4x6No, it’s not learning to speak Irish, a language many locals don’t speak either. But it would be nice if I learned its pronunciation rules, so I could speak some of the written words whose meanings I think I know.

As soon as I open my mouth, most people know I didn’t grow up nearby. But since Ireland’s traditional export has been its people and it has a tourism industry that profits from distant cousins searching for their roots, I’m usually treated with some degree of understanding, followed by curiosity and conversation when I tell people I live here now.

But that understanding is sometimes limited by language.

It’s not just what we say. How we say it matters more, much more. Our native accents carry the weight of both history and popular culture. No matter what we say or believe, as soon as we open our mouths people tend to pigeonhole us, just as we pigeonhole them. In other words, I’m getting tired of trying to explain the Donald. [A key part of Cork’s economy and culture is the influx of foreign students here for ESL. They learn a language unencumbered by the political baggage carried in British and American accents.]

While I’ve been aware of language-based biases through the years, I’m learning a lot more. If you remember the generic 1930’s films about street kids or the WWII flicks consciously including every possible white ethnicity in any platoon of GI’s, you’ll remember that Jimmy Cagney, Barry Fitzgerald and Pat O’Brien never pronounced a “th” when a “t” or a “d” would do. This accent became enshrined in an anglophile American culture as a lower class way of speaking, when it was simply one of many Irish dialects that crossed the pond. This cliché of pop culture was created by the film industry, which in those days was run by Eastern European immigrants, who spoke with their own thick accents.

Even within the US, anyone who’s travelled more than a few counties away from home is probably aware of different labels and euphemisms. Think pop, soda, tonic, cola and so on. And those who just don’t get it are still nice people. Really, they are. Bless their hearts.

Since I’m a bit further away than that, I’ve become used to asking for English to English translations. Reading menu-speak, a challenge even for native speakers in any country, is best done with a healthy dose of curiosity and humour, accompanied by a glass of wine. I’ve learned that jumpers have nothing to do with rooftops or dead batteries. They are, however, very useful on a chilly day. Trunks are for elephants, while boots are for cars. Hoover isn’t a dead president or a brand name, it’s a generic noun-verb for a vacuum cleaner. And so it goes. But this is the easy, fun stuff where I’m expanding my vocabulary by learning new words for things I think I’ve always known. But communication, what people mean when they say and don’t say things, takes longer. That’s where every culture is different.

While I think I’m getting the hang of things, I’m always learning something new, such as bankers and others wearing business suits speaking in clock time while doing things on an agricultural, seasonal time. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It just is. And I’m glad to learn.

And the nice thing about all this learning? I don’t know what’s next. It’s a different interpretation to the phrase living in interesting times. A former curse has become a blessing.

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2 Comments on “Learning the language

  1. So many times I’ve wanted to scrap it all and move to a thatched hut cottage, drink tea and listen to fairies. Did I capture all our American stereotypes? Lol. Loved reading this post. Ireland is on my list of places to see – soon!

    • You’ve pretty much nailed it, but don’t forget the pubs & pints, followed by driving on the “right” side of narrow, winding, stone wall-lined roads while wearing your just-purchased Aran knits!