Thursday, April 21, 2011

Culture Share: Ireland - An Ear for Language by Joshua Ramey-Renk

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Joshua Ramey-Renk discusses language habits in Ireland.

An Ear for Language - They speak English here. Don’t they?
by Joshua Ramey-Renk

I recently spent a year and a half living in Dublin, Ireland, living among people who, like me, grew up speaking and writing the same language I do. Or so I thought.

While there, I had a chance to interact, mingle, and absorb many of the unique twists on language that the Irish use and which sound so foreign at first but after time become second nature. In fact, some of them became FIRST nature, and I found many of those same twists and changes crept unconsciously into my writing and had to be edited out later. Of course, the tricky part is recognizing that they’ve crept in in the first place. And it wasn’t just my writing, my spoken vocabulary changed as well.

These language shifts had three major types: Spelling, “Britishism vs. Americun” and Irishisms. Here are a few examples of each.


It’s no great thing for an American writer who is also a wide reader to recognize that “colour” is the same as “color”, or that tires come with a “y” to become “tyres”, which touch the “kerb” instead of the “curb”. But when you realiSe that you should have realiZed something and spell check doesn’t help, you’ve started to go native.

And let’s not get started with the liberal use of the possessive apostrophe. It’s mine, it’s your’s, and it is it’s own rule in much written material. I include this under spelling because I was never able to figure out if the construction was official or not.

The chilli peppers in Dublin were so spicy they needed an extra “l”, but there are plenty available after students enrol in school. Unless they’ve already enrolled.

And what chance does a foreigner have when the Glendalough Hotel is near the Glendaloch Hostel, or the you get off at the Balally tram stop to visit Ballawley park?

Britishisms v. Amurican

I use the term “Britishism” advisedly. Implying that they are still under the linguistic thumb of the British Monarchy is a fighting argument for most of my Irish friends, but I have a pass because I drink a lot of Guinness and always stand my round at the pub. These are things that go beyond mere spelling and address more of the way language is used differently among our cousins across the pond. I think they are as common in the 26 counties of the Republic as they are in the six of the (“occupied”, some would say) North.

I found the largest differences in surprising places. I’m not a sport-type, but I do believe that San Francisco is a good baseball team, whereas the Gaelic Athletic Association would claim that Cork are a good side for the hurling. Similarly, while I visit a doctor at the hospital in the US, when I was in Hospital over Christmas for a kidney stone, Doctor’s opinion was paramount and both he, and the location, were devoid of either definite or indefinite articles. But both did get capitalized.

The things I found creeping into my writing, and speaking, the most were everyday expressions that replaced their more barbaric American counterparts. I stopped calling people on their cell phones and began ringing them on their mobiles. I no longer waited in line, but I did queue for a long time. And lastly, when my wife and I argued over something we stopped saying “Don’t you think..?” and began up-scaling the argument with “Would you not agree..?”


These were expressions and words that I started using which, on investigation, were pure Irish gold. That is to say, unique to the island, sometimes based on particular Irish-Gaelic language usage, and occasionally involved leprechauns.

When I was told by a colleague that they were after having a meeting with the CEO, I suggested that they should knock on his door because I had seen him in his office. I got an odd look, and was asked “Why would I do that? I just met with him.” Oh. I’m told that this version of “I just had a meeting…” comes straight from the Irish Gaelic usage.

At some point in my stay, I stopped talking about “my wife” and began telling people what “Herself and I” had done over the weekend. I stopped visiting the restroom and started hitting the jacks, which is a country expression that I blame on my good friend Lorcan D. for sticking me with the first week we worked together. And my favorite four-letter word became the more socially acceptable “Feck”.

Traveller’s advisory: Don’t ask an Irishman what they think about leprechauns. Apparently belief in such creatures is for the Plastic Paddies who buy souvenir trinkets to send to their American cousins. Or those claim to have seen them but who have drunk too much Guinness and are totally locked.

At the pub, I wouldn’t refer to “that guy”, but could point out that “yer man” had showed up again and was harassing the bar staff. And that cute woman at the bar? Well, yer wan is married and it’s best to stay away. Good enough for me, since Herself wouldn’t approve of it anyway and she’d be giving out to me the rest of the night, which is much worse than being scolded or nagged.

Lastly, I was never sure if I was supposed to “Come here to me now” and pay attention or “Go away!” because I had said something surprising. I blame both of these additions to my vocabulary on the linguistic stylings of Michael H., but he’s from Galway so that’s a whole different story.

I’ll be straight up and say that I’m not a linguist. Any or all of these observed language differences may be based on something completely different that I understand, and my adopted usage itself could be completely flawed. All I can say is that I’m an observer, a writer, and like all writers, to some degree I’m a chameleon. I listen, I write, and when I edit I have to look at strange new vocabulary that has snuck into my sentences and wonder “Just how the feck did that get in there?”

Joshua Ramey-Renk
lived for a year and a half in Dublin, Ireland, before relocating back to California’s Bay Area - but you're still likely enough to find him with a pint at an Irish pub!