Thursday, December 16, 2010

Separated by a Common Language

You can get very spoiled, as an English-speaker, many places that you travel in the world.  If you don’t want to try to learn any of the local language (whatever it is), your odds of finding someone who speaks yours are better than if your native tongue was, say, Afrikaans.  It’s the language of business, and of tourism, in much of the world, and vast numbers of people in other countries aspire to learn what I grew up speaking; I even met other backpackers in South America from non-English-speaking countries that had learned English specifically to travel (instead of learning Spanish – they figured English would be more useful for speaking to other backpackers, and it would take them more places in the world). 

(And thank God I grew up speaking English, that’s all I can say.  I can’t even begin to imagine trying to learn it as an adult – it’s got to be the most illogical and pernicious perverse language on earth.  I wouldn’t stand a chance if I hadn’t learned it by osmosis when I was too young to know how tricky it is.)

But the thing travel teaches you in addition to just how useful knowing English can be is that English isn’t just English.  It’s Aussie, and Canadian, and Kiwi, and Irish, and Scots, and (God help us) American, and it isn’t even consistent across any one of those countries.  Oh, sure there are some national consistencies (if you hear someone talking about being on “pogey”, wearing a “tuque”, asking for a “double-double”, or showing off his “Molson muscle” while buying a “two-four”, you’ve got a Canadian), but even in my own country it changes:  a Newfy sounds about as much like me as I sound like an Aussie, and Albertans twang like they belong in Texas.

And some of those versions of English?  Good luck trying to understand them!  Edinburgh (my first stop in Scotland) wasn’t so bad; some of them sound delightfully easy-to-understand Scottish, but many sound more English than the English because of their private-school educations (would you think, listening to him, that Tony Blair is an Edinburgh boy?). 

As I went further north and west, though, things started to change.  And, interestingly, people started to recognize my accent as Canadian more readily (I don’t think I was mistaken for American, ever, outside of Edinburgh); one woman told me that Canadians sound like Scottish people trying to sound American.  (I think it was supposed to be a compliment.  Anyway, she likes our accents.)

I thought I was really out of depth with the Scots accent when I arrived on the Isle of Lewis, as I listened to people talking on buses and on the streets, and couldn’t make out a word that they were saying.  I clued in, finally, that I was actually hearing Gaelic (not English); something like 60% of the population of Lewis is fluent in Gaelic and it’s used as an everyday language.  Street signs are bilingual, with Gaelic displayed in bigger, more prominent font; you hear Gaelic spoken in shops, on television, on radio, everywhere.  (And I learned it’s pronounced “GALL-ic”, not “GAY-lick”, for the Scots version.)  Their accents in English were noticeably stronger than the east coast, but I could still (mostly) understand them.  Skye and Oban weren’t too bad, either.

Then I got to Glasgow.

Did you know that Glaswegian is another language?  It’s not just an accent, my friends, it is way beyond that.  They have their own vocabulary and pronunciation and phraseology that often bears little resemblance to English as it’s spoken elsewhere in the world.  Read this, for example, and tell me what you think it means: 

Ah hink yoo're huir uv a bonnie. Dae ye want tae gang fur a bevvy?”

I heard this from a Glaswegian in a bar.  It means, more or less, “I think you’re cute, can I buy you a drink?”  (I had to ask him to write down what he said so I could share it here later – it took about four tries before I finally got the gist of what he was actually asking, so maybe not the most successful chat-up line ever.)

I can’t quite make heads or tails of what exactly renders it so unique.  One thing they do, though (along with other West Coasters) is something I’d previously thought was distinctly Kiwi they turn “i” into “u” when they pronounce it.  For example:  minute” comes out something more like “munnet”, and “fish and chips” is (you guessed it) “fush and chups”.  (They don’t sound much like Kiwis, otherwise, but perhaps that explains where that particular Kiwi quirk originally came from.)

Then, just when I was kind of getting the hang of Weegie-speak and actually able to talk to people without saying “Pardon me? What did you say?” every other sentence, I crossed over the sea to Ireland.

Wow.  Belfast is another strange little pocket of language, too.  The cute wee Irish boy (from elsewhere in the North) working in my Belfast hostel told me they have a “Wa-wa” accent so called because every non-Belfast person listening to them has to keep saying, “wha’? wha’?”  (as in “Pardon me? What did you say?”)

Things have calmed down, language-wise, outside of Belfast, and I’ve been able to understand people.  You can’t help but get lots of practice in the Irish accent, as people will talk to you, unprompted, everywhere you go.  Seriously, just stay still for a few seconds next to a person in a small town in Ireland and I guarantee they’ll be deep in conversation with you shortly thereafter; this is a very friendly country.

I’m not proficient enough yet in the subtleties of Irish English to tell you how the North differs from the South, or the east from the west; perhaps I’ll just have to come back.  If nothing else, I have one burning question to settle:  if I had to pick one or the other, would I choose to listen to a cute Scottish boy, or a cute Irish one?  The jury’s still out on that one.

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