I’ve lived in England for 24 years now. I haven’t lost my Irish accent but I do feel some of what constituted my Hiberno-English has been diluted over the years. My husband is well used to my expressions now and doesn’t bat an eyelid when I tell him he’s put the heart across me by giving me a fright. He understands that when I say it’s not off the ground he licks it, I mean that someone resembles his father. However, because people have grown used to me or because I’ve toned things down, it’s been a while since someone has had to ask me to explain something I’ve said.
The other day when I told a friend that I had been giving out stink about another person it was the first time in ages I had to explain what I meant. It got me thinking about the linguistic foibles peculiar to us all.
Some of them are attractive, some less so. (And I’ll deal with some peculiarly Irish ones in a moment. Get the retaliation in first, I say.) At a basic level, aren’t there some words you just absolutely hate? For reasons you can’t explain? Near the top of my pet hates is conurbation. Ugh! Can’t stand it. Something about the nasal quality of it. And nasal is probably on that list, too. Scuffle. Thugs. Scutch. My dad used to tease me at the tea table by putting these and other words into sentences: The thugs were scuffling on the scutch grass… Even now my stomach is churning at the sound of them.
This one isn’t a hate, but an observation. Have you noticed that nearly all American actors say Distric- Attorney? That’s right, without the final t in district. Go on, listen out next time you watch Law and Order or anything involving a court scene. The tee-less attorney will make an appearance. Bet you’ll hate me for pointing it out; you’ll hear it all the time now.
And English actors tend to say burgle-ry, instead of burglary. David Jason in Frost is a divil for it. Football commentators – particularly on Sky – all say subtitute, I kid you not. Listen out for it: s-u-b-t-i-t-u-t-e. No middle s. Another one you’ll hate me for!
And so to the elephant in the room: the Irish propensity for mis-pronouncing th. We don’t all say dis, dat, dese and dose, but quite a lot of us do, including our politicians, which is mortifying. When we do avoid the hard d, our pronunciation is not the same as an English person’s th, which comes from the tongue almost being placed between the teeth. Ours is formed more by the tongue against the middle of the back of the teeth, if that makes sense. None of this is scientific, but I think our version of the th comes from the way t and d are pronounced in Irish : there is no real difference between them.
Things become even more confusing when Irish people, in an attempt to be posh, mis-apply the soft th sound when t is more appropriate. There’s a certain Irish TV chef who insists on using it for the herb, thyme. Instead of saying time, she’ll pronounce the th as in thief. Ditto with the river that runs through London. Drives me crazy. As does a long-ago ex, who will not believe his name should be pronounced Antony, but insists on Anthony. You spell it that way, Tony, but you pronounce it as a t.
Of course, the opposite of this is the way rugby commentators – especially Sky, again - insist on pronouncing the home of Munster rugby as Tomond instead of Thomond. Sure, where would you be? And don’t get me started on the hang sangwiches beloved of many Irish people…
I don’t get the English way of pronouncing the ordinal numbers 5th and 6th. Is it a class thing? But I’ve heard posh and not-so-posh people say them the same way. What do you say when you see those numbers? If you’re English, I’m guessing you do that weird thing where you omit the middle f in 5th and change the x in 6th to a c or k: fi-th and si-k-th. I will go to my grave pronouncing that f and that x, as in fiFth and siXth.
(When I talk about “English” here, I am deliberately not widening things to include “British” foibles, as these will vary from place to place. But can someone please tell Americans – particularly “Friends” actors/scriptwriters – that there is no such thing as a “British” accent? They mean an English accent when they use the term “British” in that context. I repeat, there is no such thing!!!!!)
Don’t get me wrong, I embrace our differences, even if my toes might curl at times - as yours might at our peculiarities - but please, please, could you (English people) stop using the past participle after the verb to be? You know what I mean: I was sat there; we were stood at the door, etc. No, no, a thousand times, no. You were sitting, or standing there, in the middle of the act, en train de faire, as the French would have it, so you should use the present participle. If you want to get technical, put it down to the rule that says the verb to be takes the gerund, which is the ing” form of the word. And saying, I was/were (!) )stood there standing doesn’t make it better.
One last rant on the grammar/tense front: Americans do not know that the pluperfect, or past perfect, tense exists, especially when used in conjunction with the word, if. The correct usage is: if something happens (present tense) something else will happen (future tense.) If something happened (past tense) something else would happen (conditional tense.) If something had happened (pluperfect tense) something else would have happened (conditional perfect tense.) Native speakers don’t need to know that formula; we use it instinctively – except if we’re American. For the last example, they will use the conditional perfect for both clauses, as in: if something would have happened, something would have happened. It doesn’t make sense!!!! But they do it all the time. Don’t believe me? Just listen to any American film or television show and I guarantee you’ll hear it at least once. I’ve even heard well-known English actors in American shows use it. (You know who you are.)
All of which only goes to show that I probably watch too much television and that I shouldn’t start a sentence with “and”. I’ve left myself open to all sorts of challenges and charges now, haven’t I? Oh well, it’s been fun venting. Thanks for listening. Vive la différence, I say. (And if that’s the wrong accent on the e, it’s the only one my keyboard will do.)
Music for Dogs has been hibernating while I concentrate on the writing side of life. However, I will be doing the show in the new year, so keep an eye out for updates.
In the meantime, here is a listing of recent or forthcoming readings I’m involved in:
31st August. Verbatim, Montgomery , The Dragon Hotel
20th September Waterstones, Birmingham, with Room 204
6th October Shrewsbury Poetry, the Old Post Office.
7th, 10th, 11th & 15th October Foyer of The Studio, Birmingham Library, Room 204 pop-up events as part of Birmingham Literary Festival.
12th October Waterstones, Birmingham, Room 204 pop-up event
29th October Market Drayton Library (Drayton Arts Fest) Joint reading with Liz Lefroy.