Monday 9 February 2009

“Sorry, I don’t speak Irish!” “But I’m talking English, ye eedjit!”

foot-in-mouth-cartoon
“You on holiday?”
All I’ve done is say hello to a bloke in a tiny shop in Galway City. Do I look like I’m on holiday? It’d be nice to think I looked as relaxed and happy as an aimless tourist, but I don’t. Sorry, but today I decided to leave my Kiss Me Kwik hat back at the house, oh and call me crazy, but in Ireland I prefer to wear my Union Jack underpants inside my jeans.
No, he doesn’t think I look like a tourist. He just managed to spot a funny accent.
And so for the eighty three billionth time, I run through an exchange that has been so practised and prepared over the last 17 years it now feels like yet another performance of a short play.
“No, I Live here.”
“Oh, do you?”
”Yep, arrived 17 years ago. Born in London, lived all over the place.”
“Oh, because I didn’t really detect any London in your accent.”
“Well, there’s all sorts mixed up in there. A bit of cockney, Yorkshire, California, and if I’m drinking too much whiskey and talking to a farmer from Carna, Connemara as well.”
“Oh! I see.” he says, dropping his eyes as if slightly embarrassed, and who could blame him? I’m not proud of the way my accent wobbles with the wind, but there’s precious little I can do about it.
Somewhere deep in my noodlebox lurks a powerful insecurity that tells my voicebox to make the same noises as those talking around me. I don’t know if it’s linked up to the Jewish gene that seeks to aid my survival by keeping my head down, not being too visible, loud or different in any way.
Hmm, cancel that thought, seeing as I’m spouting away in this Noble Rag, and there’s that photo of me up at the top of the page.
So if it’s not about assimilation or survival, maybe it’s just my rather pathetic attempt to be liked.
As far as my conscious mind is aware, I feel no need to talk like you, but oops, I did it again! I can hear myself turning into an American as I chat to the backpackers in the pub; there’s an Ulster crescendo coming out of me as I talk with my friend from Fermanagh; posh plummy public school tones tumble forth as I speak to my mum in the phone; my Norf Lundern credentials gurgle through the beers as I talk footie with my old Chelsea mates from over there.
After three months of working with down-to-earth lads in a garage in Australia, my Pommie accent had all but disappeared. Home-grown taxi drivers have long been the greatest arbiters of their nation’s identity, so when one of Melbourne’s finest turned round to me and exclaimed
“Chroist! Ya don’ saaarnd loike a Pom!”
I was truly taken aback. Like the Irish, Australians are rarely in a rush to pay an Englishman a compliment, let alone acknowledge them as one of their own, so I knew my mimicking skills must be in overdrive.
It’s not a particularly admirable skill to have, but there are benefits to this subconscious vocal vacillating, not the least of which is a heightened ability to spot how people react to different accents.
Even though Americans invariably think more highly of the Irish than they do of the English, upon hearing a posh English accent their jaws drop, their saliva glands shoot into surf mode, and their eyes look up longingly, imploring you to take them back to your country estate and rescue them from their humdrum existence.
Strangely, the Irish also respond in a positive way to the most polished of English accents. Over the years, I’ve noticed that if I have a favour to ask of an Irish stranger, I’m much more likely to be trusted if I come over all rather splendidly gushworthy and lardi-dar blue blood, than mix it up wiv a bit of Eastenders street blag, innit.
I remember being shocked to the core a while back, whilst food shopping in Dunnes, when some geezer who sounded like the bastard son of Prince Philip and Winston Churchill came over the supermarket tannoy to advise Irish shoppers of the week's special offers.
Why? Why on earth would the Irish want price advice from somebody who sounds like the evil absentee landlord who burned their great granddad's barn to the ground?
Accents evolved so that we might easily identify our kinfolk, but they don’t seem to help others identify us back. While I lived in California, my English accent was constantly mistaken for Australian. It made no difference if I gave it London Large and came over all Phil Mitchell, they still thought I was a sad bad very physically-challenged surfer from Sydney.
When I got back to Ireland I made a terrible mess of things. Sitting on a barstool chatting with a charming barmaid called Kerry, I thought it reasonable to ask her if she came from the Kingdom. Raising her eyebrows with shock and disdain, she put her hands on her hips, threw back her head and with pride announced that she came from Texas, that I should never forget it, and that maybe I’d drunk enough.
Trouble was, y’see, finding myself suddenly back in the Haemorrhoid Hisle, I mistook that strong seam of the Irish within the American accent for the real thing!
Mind you, that tale withers in comparison to the cock-up I made when I first moved to Connemara. Eager to establish myself at the local pub, I sat at the bar for many hours drinking, I er I mean investing in my rural future.
Anyway, all around me I heard an alien language, voices peaking troughing laughing and shouting words I understood not a bit.
I felt sure that given time, I’d pick up the local lingo, and knew from experience that if I sat there long enough, with a smile on my face, some kind soul would reach out and engage me in conversation.
Sure enough, a few pints later, one of the older farmer gents turned to me and asked what sounded to me at the time like:
“Didjagh kafoolly higheeloor jubblish?”
To which I replied as politely as I could:
“Sorry, but I don’t speak Irish!”
Instantly came the reply:
“Neither do I ye feckin eedjit. I’m talking English to ya!”

3 comments:

vinny warren said...

that's very funny. i emigrated from galway to the USA years ago. so i know of what you speak. i remember once being at a shopping mall in Hollywood CA and hearing what was clearly the voice of expat London sarf london working class gal. she was interacting with the sales clerk at a baby clothing store. and i listened with great interest as her accent drifted upwards socially till i thought she was going to start ordering beheadings. and guess what? it worked.

i couldn't resist bursting the bubble by asking what part of london she was from in my thickest paddy accent.

Charlie Adley said...

Nice one Vinnie! And sometimes accents make no difference. In Barcelona I went out with a lass from Barnet, Norf London , who spoke Spanish and Catalan with the broadest of cockney accents, and everyone understood her perfectly. Considering she was the Director of Studies at International House TEFL school, it was just as well they did!

Lady Chuckles said...

Cool post :)
Accents are great! I've always been teased for my accent though even in school. While learning English in school I was the only student who had a British accent. I was teased a lot, but I'd prefer that over broken English with a Swedish accent attached to it.
Things has changed since, though. My English accent is all gone and instead I'm gaining a bit of an Irish accent from hanging out with my boyfriend. It's great :)