A Gnawin’ Sense of The Void

At times I wish I had studied linguistics, particularly phonetics, as it would give me with a more appropriate range of technical words to describe language-based phenomena that I frequently find interesting and diverting. Yet I doubt I have the temperament for it, as any attempts I have made to read up on the subject thus far have resulted in a glazing over of eyes at an early juncture.

One such phenomenon is the wide variation in the pronunciation of the word ‘nothing’, something that occured to me as I hurtled past a lorry trailer parked in a field adjacent to the Dundalk By-Paso last night. Painted on the side of the lorry was something like ‘Adams Must Go Controlled by RUC’. This put me in mind of an incident some years back, when I was working in a shop. A voluble local woman came in, and began to complain to me about her encounter with the RUC minutes earlier. They had submitted her to the injustice of checking to see if the thread of the tyres on her van was of the appropriate depth. It turned out that it was not, and she had been fined, or whatever it was that the RUC saw fit to do when faced with such infractions.

Rampaging amid the stacked cauliflowers and turnips, she shouted over to me that the RUC were “fuckin’ black bastards”, and “fuckin’ orange bastards” and that the general state of affairs was not good. This was further exacerbated by the actions of nationalist politicians, in particular Gerry Adams (the first IRA ceasefire had been recently announced), who, she aseverrated, was “nothing but a fuckin’ pig licker.”

What sticks in my mind about this series of observations, apart from the fact that it was in front of a couple of Protestants of my acquaintance, was her pronunciation of the word “nothing”, which one would write pseudo-phonetically as ‘naughan’, with that au bout de souffle sound made with a brief burst of air forced from the back of the mouth that begins to disippate after passing one’s front teeth, perhaps a variation on the that sound English people seem to find so hard to replicate, as in Gallagher.

This is in sharp contrast to the Dubliner’s pronunciation of the same word, which tends to rhyme with ‘mutton’, only the the ‘t’ sound is made with something resembling a glottal stop, although the trapping of air seems to take place not at the glottis, but further forward towards the front of the mouth.

It also contrasts sharply with the pronunciation of the people on this island most inclined to employ a glottal stop – the residents of North County Antrim, who, if I recall correctly, pronounce it in a way that sounds similar to ‘gnawin”.

It also raises questions about the pronunciation of nothing as ’nuffin’ on this island: this is a common mode of pronunciation in Britain (see ‘yoof culture’), but I have noticed quite a few people here, particularly younger people in the North, who are inclined to use the ‘ff’ sound instead of the ‘th’ sound.

Of course, this is not confined to the pronunciation of nothing, but to most words where -th is preceded by a vowel, as in the popular song ‘Wif or Wifout You’. One wonders if this practice is a recent import to these shores, or if the ‘ff’ sound is a substitute learned in childhood and maintained, since the -th sound requires the presence of front teef. If it is the latter, its persistence in later life is surely legitimated by its presence in popular shows broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Telefís Éireann and others.

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April 2006

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