Thursday, April 21, 2011

Culture Share: Ireland - An Ear for Language by Joshua Ramey-Renk

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Joshua Ramey-Renk discusses language habits in Ireland.

An Ear for Language - They speak English here. Don’t they?
by Joshua Ramey-Renk

I recently spent a year and a half living in Dublin, Ireland, living among people who, like me, grew up speaking and writing the same language I do. Or so I thought.

While there, I had a chance to interact, mingle, and absorb many of the unique twists on language that the Irish use and which sound so foreign at first but after time become second nature. In fact, some of them became FIRST nature, and I found many of those same twists and changes crept unconsciously into my writing and had to be edited out later. Of course, the tricky part is recognizing that they’ve crept in in the first place. And it wasn’t just my writing, my spoken vocabulary changed as well.

These language shifts had three major types: Spelling, “Britishism vs. Americun” and Irishisms. Here are a few examples of each.


It’s no great thing for an American writer who is also a wide reader to recognize that “colour” is the same as “color”, or that tires come with a “y” to become “tyres”, which touch the “kerb” instead of the “curb”. But when you realiSe that you should have realiZed something and spell check doesn’t help, you’ve started to go native.

And let’s not get started with the liberal use of the possessive apostrophe. It’s mine, it’s your’s, and it is it’s own rule in much written material. I include this under spelling because I was never able to figure out if the construction was official or not.

The chilli peppers in Dublin were so spicy they needed an extra “l”, but there are plenty available after students enrol in school. Unless they’ve already enrolled.

And what chance does a foreigner have when the Glendalough Hotel is near the Glendaloch Hostel, or the you get off at the Balally tram stop to visit Ballawley park?

Britishisms v. Amurican

I use the term “Britishism” advisedly. Implying that they are still under the linguistic thumb of the British Monarchy is a fighting argument for most of my Irish friends, but I have a pass because I drink a lot of Guinness and always stand my round at the pub. These are things that go beyond mere spelling and address more of the way language is used differently among our cousins across the pond. I think they are as common in the 26 counties of the Republic as they are in the six of the (“occupied”, some would say) North.

I found the largest differences in surprising places. I’m not a sport-type, but I do believe that San Francisco is a good baseball team, whereas the Gaelic Athletic Association would claim that Cork are a good side for the hurling. Similarly, while I visit a doctor at the hospital in the US, when I was in Hospital over Christmas for a kidney stone, Doctor’s opinion was paramount and both he, and the location, were devoid of either definite or indefinite articles. But both did get capitalized.

The things I found creeping into my writing, and speaking, the most were everyday expressions that replaced their more barbaric American counterparts. I stopped calling people on their cell phones and began ringing them on their mobiles. I no longer waited in line, but I did queue for a long time. And lastly, when my wife and I argued over something we stopped saying “Don’t you think..?” and began up-scaling the argument with “Would you not agree..?”


These were expressions and words that I started using which, on investigation, were pure Irish gold. That is to say, unique to the island, sometimes based on particular Irish-Gaelic language usage, and occasionally involved leprechauns.

When I was told by a colleague that they were after having a meeting with the CEO, I suggested that they should knock on his door because I had seen him in his office. I got an odd look, and was asked “Why would I do that? I just met with him.” Oh. I’m told that this version of “I just had a meeting…” comes straight from the Irish Gaelic usage.

At some point in my stay, I stopped talking about “my wife” and began telling people what “Herself and I” had done over the weekend. I stopped visiting the restroom and started hitting the jacks, which is a country expression that I blame on my good friend Lorcan D. for sticking me with the first week we worked together. And my favorite four-letter word became the more socially acceptable “Feck”.

Traveller’s advisory: Don’t ask an Irishman what they think about leprechauns. Apparently belief in such creatures is for the Plastic Paddies who buy souvenir trinkets to send to their American cousins. Or those claim to have seen them but who have drunk too much Guinness and are totally locked.

At the pub, I wouldn’t refer to “that guy”, but could point out that “yer man” had showed up again and was harassing the bar staff. And that cute woman at the bar? Well, yer wan is married and it’s best to stay away. Good enough for me, since Herself wouldn’t approve of it anyway and she’d be giving out to me the rest of the night, which is much worse than being scolded or nagged.

Lastly, I was never sure if I was supposed to “Come here to me now” and pay attention or “Go away!” because I had said something surprising. I blame both of these additions to my vocabulary on the linguistic stylings of Michael H., but he’s from Galway so that’s a whole different story.

I’ll be straight up and say that I’m not a linguist. Any or all of these observed language differences may be based on something completely different that I understand, and my adopted usage itself could be completely flawed. All I can say is that I’m an observer, a writer, and like all writers, to some degree I’m a chameleon. I listen, I write, and when I edit I have to look at strange new vocabulary that has snuck into my sentences and wonder “Just how the feck did that get in there?”

Joshua Ramey-Renk
lived for a year and a half in Dublin, Ireland, before relocating back to California’s Bay Area - but you're still likely enough to find him with a pint at an Irish pub!


  1. "I am after X" as a form of past tense is indeed from the Gaelic. Also in Gaelic there are no words for Yes or No, and the briefest you can come to it is to say "It is" and "It is not," which curiously are two distinct words: tá sé vs. níl sé. Better is that you repeat the verb of the question in affirmative or negation. Better still, you answer a question with a question: "Are you after eating?" Ans. "Is not the plate empty before me?" FDR once asked NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker: "Jimmy, why do you Irish always answer a question with a question?" Walker responded, "Do we, now?"

    There is no verb for "have", so possession is expressed by 'to be at'. "John has the book" becomes "The book is at John."

    Another peculiarity, which would not cross over to English, is that there are two sets of numbers: one for counting things, another for counting people.

    Sure, a strange folk they are. And even on such a small isle, there are differences between the Munster, Connaught, Ulster, and [much more Anglicized] Dublin region.

  2. Thanks so much for your comments and insights, OFloinn! I thought you might have some great things to add. I appreciate you stopping by to contribute.

  3. No matter what, it is fun. I picked up all my Dublin Irish idioms from the Internet, so they're probably pretty dated by now.

  4. Great observations, OFloinn-the numbers thing explains a few other patterns I didn't understand.

    Bruce, I bet a lot of them are still current, as long as they aren't teenslang...a subset of Dublin Irish found primarily at Diceys Bar...

    Juliette, thanks again for the inivitation to contribute!

  5. Just a couple of points...

    Did Oscar Wilde not make a relevant comment to this discussion about the english language in The Canterville Ghost?

    I would also suggest "Celtic english" or "Irish english", rather than "Britishisms": the last time I checked, Ireland was its own country, under noone's thumb (except maybe the banks), and has earnt the right to be referred to as such. And Gaelicised english is also spoken in Scotland... the cultural differences that underpin our use of the english language in this part of the world are not cosmetic, despite our proximity to England. Do we speak english out of necessity? or good manners? or as a result of langauge choices made by ancestors? Perhaps a combination. But having done this for a couple of centuries doesn't make us or our language usage British by default.

    Sure, the English (and all those who speak the language) can be seen as a strange folk by us in the North and the West - we're just fine, thanks! - it just depends on your core cultural perspective, I guess.

    Glad you enjoyed the craic. I enjoyed reading your perspective. Ádh mór oraibh.

  6. Anonymous, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you might be interested in contributing something to the culture share yourself - both resident and insider perspectives are welcome here, and the pieces naturally reflect the experiences and background of the posters. If you feel you would like to contribute, do feel free to contact me.

  7. Juliette, it's Fiona, and you know where to find me (all hail the Internet!) I posted as Anonymous because I don't have a profile or a url and the real world kicked off as I was writing this... so I think it's time for that chat of ours :-)

  8. Hi, Fiona. I definitely think you should write a post for the Share. :)

  9. A little late reading the post, but thank you. This was fun and interesting.