Learning to Speak Like a Local, Norn Ireland Edition

Moving to Belfast, I reckoned, would involve some culture shock. More potatoes, more rain, more swearing. But it couldn’t be that different. After all, in Northern Ireland, they still spoke English. It wasn’t like I would have to master an entire new language along with a set of new cultural rituals (Note: always, always buy your round at the pub. If you don’t, you may be described using all sorts of colorful words). But after spending a few months with folks from all across Northern Ireland, I still find myself needing to ask for translations on almost a daily basis. In Northern Ireland – read Norn Ireland – my native tongue has become unfamiliar, foreign, ready to trip me up with counterintuitive pronunciations, local slang, and nonsensical colloquial phrases.

The only Irish words I’ve picked up so far have been “slainte” and “saiorse,” which mean “cheers” and “freedom,” respectively. But my education in the finer points of the Northern Irish “English” is proceeding apace. What I have learned thus far: Crisps are chips, and chips are French Fries but fatter. Unless the crisps are made of corn and get along well with guacamole; in that case, you can also refer to them as chips. Never tell someone that you like his pants. Or otherwise infer that you wish it were warm enough to not wear pants. Or spend a good ten minutes gushing about your new softshell, water resistant pants and how great they are for rock climbing. Over here, pants means underwear. Everything we would consider to be pants goes instead under the name of “trousers.” Asking, “What’s the craic?” or “How’s the craic?” does not signify that you are curious about someone’s cocaine habit. Craic: n. fun, a good time, a good show. This often times can be substituted with “banter.” A wee dander has nothing to do with your scalp, but instead involves setting off with friends for a walk on the rare sunny afternoon. Going for a dander can entail having the craic, but not necessarily so. Use “wee” whenever possible. If the sentence calls for an adjective, then “wee” is a viable option. It has little to no correlation to physical size.

Out on Giants Causeway for a wee dander

And then I have had to fine-tune my pronunciation. During my first few weeks, the Belfast accent left me smiling and nodding my head in a complete state of incomprehension. But I have since learned that vowels are shorter here; whole syllables can be swallowed and go unmissed. A shower, with its two-beat extension, is boiled down to the monosyllabic “shour.” The same goes with power (“pour”), hair (“herr”), and the worst offender, mirror (“meer”). Now when I try to assess whether someone is from here, I usually ask them to say the phrase, “power shower.” Works like a charm. There are the usual culprits: tomato and tomato, banana and banana. All of my climbing friends think it is hilarious when I pronounce route as if it rhymed with “out.” (Which it does.) They say root.

Colloquial phrases still leave me at a loss. When someone is falling-down drunk, you can describe him as “steaming.” Or as a steaming demon, if you make sure to say those two words as if they rhyme. To be angry is to be raging. Perhaps at the antics of your steaming friend. When folks ask, “Is that you?” they are not trying to identify you. Yes, it is you. What they really want to know is, are you done with your pint or your chip?

There is much still for me to learn. Just a few days ago, I was informed by a kind soul to avoid using the word “spunky” over here, for reasons that I will not lay out in this publicly available blog post. And I can only hope that the highway goes both ways and that my American phrases are wearing off on my friends in Norn Ireland. At the moment, my biggest project is to convert them to the functionality of the “y’all.” Thus far, only my friend Conor is showing much enthusiasm for it. Unfortunately, he keeps trying to use it in place of the singular “you” form, which causes me all sorts of headaches. But so far, I find myself just enjoying the exchange process. It’s been great craic.

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