Archive for May 6th, 2005

Speak English, Boy

Also in Seamus Heaney’s comments to Asturian newspaper La Voz De Asturias was a comment about the similarity between Irish and Asturian (also called Bable). He said that both were cases where the language of the land was not the lingua franca of the territory.

This got me thinking about the English language in Ireland as it is spoken and written now. It’s certainly not as ‘foreign’ a language here as it once was. More important, I sense a real shift in how Irish people use the English language.

Here is Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist:

‘The language we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.’

But that was written almost 90 years ago. It would be hard to argue that Irish people today are conscious to any similar degree of innate uneasiness with what is, for the vast majority of people living here, the mother tongue. I have never felt it, except perhaps when actually speaking with English people. Who’s to say though, that they didn’t feel something similar when talking to me?

Speaking English never seemed so easy. In the excerpt above, Dedalus is talking about speaking to his English Director of Studies. Irish people have less anxiety nowadays when speaking to people from England, America or anywhere else in the English-speaking world. Obvious differences do persist, particularly in accent and intonation, but the idea of the thick-accented, barely intelligible Paddy is anachronistic. Indeed, a large part of Irish economic success in recent years has been its English-speaking population.

At the risk of wild generalisation, I think it fair to say that over the last 90 or so years, with greater standards of literacy and the advent of telecommunications, Irish people managed to adapt the English language to their own particular ends, in the workplace and in the home. While Ireland remained a mainly rural country with agriculture-based economy, the speed of change was comfortable.

More recently, things have been different. I’ll focus on the workplace for this post.

In the labour market, there are ever-increasing numbers white-collar (or ‘business casual’ – the underlying working culture is the same), word-based jobs, where what matters is not really what you say, but how you say it, and this means that more and more people get enmeshed in all manner of deracinated lexical contortions in order to preserve themselves from the seething tensions of everyday office politics. What you need are ‘excellent interpersonal skills’, as the HR department might put it.

Continued economic growth, with greater emphasis on a services-based economy will continue to wreak immense changes on the way people use English here. As what people produce in the form of services becomes gradually less tangible, economic pressures will force increased amounts of statistical abstractions in order to measure performance. This in turn will mean people resorting to increasingly absurd, and ultimately alienating, lexical formulations (there is also the whole question of intonation and elocution, but that can wait for another day) in order to justify their worth to their employer.

Here are some examples I have recently overheard that illustrate what I am talking about:

‘Let’s not boil the ocean over this one.’
(No idea what this is supposed to mean. I think it might mean let’s not worry about it too much. Which begs a rather obvious question.)

‘I’m afraid we’re going to have to eat our own dogfood for a while.’(Don’t ask)

‘I’ll do my best, but I can’t promise you anything. As I always say, change is a constant variable’(One thing that certainly doesn’t change is this person’s repitition of this meaningless platitude)

‘We’re going to undergo a paradigm shift in the way we do things around here’ (The paradigm shift in question was brought about by a desk move from one floor to another.)

‘Myself and the rest of the team are laser-focused on getting this project to work’ (Note the gratuitous reference to advanced technology, as if the person in question had taken on the attributes of a highly specialised machine)

Blah blah synergies blah blah apples to apples shite blah blah arse helicopter views ad nauseam.

It’s a long way from ‘tomorrow I’ll be cutting silage.’

The point I wish to make here is that there is only so much bullshit a person can put up with before he starts reacting against this nonsense. And I believe that the reaction in Ireland may take the form of a popular (but by no means authentic) resurgence in some aspect of either the Irish language or English in its ‘Hiberno-Irish’ form. In the same way as TV and print media are starting to focus and promote trends in ‘downshifting’ (blech) i.e. moving back down the country to a more ‘rustic’ way of life, I foresee accompanying trends in language and literature.

The next big Irish bestseller novel could well be about a career woman who marries a big thick ignorant culchie who teaches her to speak bogger and live among his people.

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