The lovely Caroline from Second Hand Shopper put out a call yesterday for writers and bloggers to have a go at writing guest blogs for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog about their English. I felt very inspired by this, having both taught English and being very interested in language in general.
As most of you probably know, I'm from Northern Ireland. Or, Norn Iron as we like to call it at home. Although English is my native language, I was lucky enough to be able to learn Irish (Gaelige - rather than the Scots Gaelic. They are similar, but separate languages) and studied the language all the way to A-level. Moving to England to come to university here, and subsequently becoming an English teacher, made me love and value my own language and idiolect even more, which is what I'm going to have a go at writing about today.
This online dictionary of Northern Irish usage might be useful to you in reading this entry. In fact, I contributed to this!
I think Northern Irish English is a very rich, highly expressive, and very funny language. Although Gaelige has become very rare outside of the political 'jailtacht' use (former terrorists who learned how to speak Irish in prison) it has had a lasting effect on the way we speak and the phrases we use. A good example of this would be in describing someone who was in a bad mood. You might say they had "an oul head on them" and this construction comes from the Irish way of describing emotion. To say that you are angry you say "Tá fearg orm" - there is anger on me. I particularly like this construction because I think it reflects the way in which moods and feelings are often fleeting, they settle on you or you wear them, and then they move on.
As with any regional dialect, the most interesting words and phrases are often the most insulting ones. Lots of people have a giota beag (small bit) of Irish, and that small bit is usually 'Póg mo thóin' (kiss my ass) I think Northern Irish English has a real richness and humour in insults as well. I always enjoy hearing someone being described as a dose - "Isn't Kevin's wife an awful oul dose?" means exactly what you would imagine, she's as much fun as a dose of salts, or she'd put you to sleep like a dose of something strong. The great English insult "She had a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp" never quite took off in NI but we have a good variety of similar insults. A fairly indecipherable but pointed one is "She has a face like a fur hatchet" and one I've heard used often to describe someone looking glum or sour is "He had a face on him like a well-chewed chip". I'm not going to even attempt to find a provenance for those expressions but I think their meanings are fairly clear!
As most of Ireland is still very rural, a good deal of our language comes from the agricultural life. The word 'Culchie' is a well-used one in both Norn Iron and The South/The State/The Free State (all various ways for NI people, especially those of us on the border, to describe the Republic of Ireland) but its meaning in Northern Ireland is a little bit different. In the South it's a good deal more insulting, referring to anyone from outside of Dublin (see this episode of the wonderful Soupy Norman to get an idea of how insulting it can be.) In NI, the term is usually more affectionately meant and refers to country people. In Northern Ireland we're all country people, though, so it really isn't very offensive at all. It's unclear where exactly the word comes from. It could be from the Irish 'Coillte', to describe people living in the woods, or it could just be from the word 'agriculture'. There isn't really a clear translation for this word, but "Ye big Culchie ye!" can be used to describe anyone who doesn't live in a town.
I'll bring this to an end by giving all of you non Norn Irish folk some of my favourite NI words and phrases. Nic is English, and every time he has visited my family in Tyrone (yes, they are Culchies!) he has picked up some new words and phrases to enjoy. He's trying hard with the accent as well! Here are some that he has learned, and some of my favourites.
Quare - this is used in a variety of ways, but usually as a superlative e.g. "That's a quare nice car you've got there, is she an '09?" or "He's the quare lad" or "That's a quare day, isn't it? The sun's splitting the trees, so it is!"
'Bout ye? - This is a standard NI greeting. You can precede it with the word 'Well' if you like e.g. "Well, our lad, 'bout ye?"
Tayto crisps have sort of adopted this as a slogan recently, and Nic is the proud owner of a 'Bout ye?' t-shirt!
Boke - this is one of my all-time favourite words, and it means to vomit, e.g. "Holy god, I was so blootered last night I boked all over myself". I like to use it as an expression of disgust as well, and I'm not alone in this - "Did ye see that Sherrie Hewson on 'Come Dine With Me'? BOKE!" In some parts of Northern Ireland you can describe a boring or offensive person using the word 'boke' e.g. "He's a dry oul boke, so he is" but this isn't something I would say. I might describe someone as "A dry shite", though, and that's roughly the same.
Eariwig/ Earywig - an earwig. I don't know why we put the extra letter into it. You can also use this as a synonym for eavesdrop e.g. "I caught that sleekit wee bitch eariwigging on me."
Slippy-tit - this one isn't all that common, but I love it anyway. It means someone who is sneaky, or can be used to describe someone who is trying to wheedle something out of you e.g. "He was slippy-titting about trying to get out without me noticing"
Hoke - to root around for something e.g. "Hi Grainne, wid you quit hoking around in there!" A friend once asked my Daddy "Here Eugene, have you ever been caught bin-hoking?". Daddy said no, and the friend retorted "You must be wild good at it then!"
One final thought aboout how we speak our language in Northern Ireland. We love adding things on to the end of sentances:
"That's a brave nice day, hi!"
"Aye, she's a great going wee car, boy!"
"And she was late to meet me, but!"
"I'm away to get my messages, so I am"
"I'm not being charged, ampninat?"