Friday, March 7, 2014

Irish sayings and the English language

One of the things I love about Ireland, being Irish, and growing up in Dublin, are the sayings we have. I thought everyone understood them, but apparently not. Actually, I did point out in an earlier blog, that I discovered that there is a major language barrier between Ireland and the US, a slightly lesser one between Ireland and the UK, but an equally large, but different, one between the UK and the US.

I remember moving to London (England) when I graduated school, and being fascinated, once I started to understand the actual words they were saying, by the sentences they put together. For instance: 'Weren't half a laugh' - pronounced (loosely) 'Wern' hawf a lawf' - meaning? isn't it obvious? 'It was very funny'.

One of the incidents that struck a chord with me was when my grandson returned to France after a 6 week stay with us in Texas, 'improving' his English. And in fact, improve it he did. However not only did he return home with a pleasant Texas accent, an unpleasant collection of Texan words not necessarily ideal for an 11 year old, but a very much better grasp of English in general. However, when he returned to school and the English teacher who had obviously only had an academic, UK English, training in the language asked the class what the English equivalent for the French 'Madam' was, he was eager to display his newly learned skills. She allowed him to respond and he immediately said 'Ma'am' - the sad thing is that he was correct, however she didn't know enough English to realize that and told him he was wrong. I am happy to say he had enough confidence to know that he was correct, and enough sense to stop arguing with her fairly quickly. The English do use the term Madam, or the shortened version Ma'am, and it is widely used in the southern states of America, and in particular in Texas. She was looking for the response Mrs, however that is only used in English when coupled with a last name. Except of course in the English spoken in Ireland, particularly in the inner city in Dublin, where any married woman was addressed as 'Mrs' e.g. "Hello Mrs, would you like a lift?" ( a lift meaning to be transported somewhere in one's car) - the more you try to explain the English Language, the more muddled it becomes. I wonder how any none native speaker manages to learn it.

Because of course there is a lift meaning an elevator, and you have to take the entire sentence in context. No elderly person, scuttling down the street is going to offer another elderly woman an elevator, therefore in that context, we know they mean to be transported somewhere in a car, or way back in the 1950s perhaps on the back, or even the crossbar, of a bicycle. Not unheard of, and not necessarily refused.

One saying that came to mind recently was 'One arm longer than the other'. And I hasten to add that the Irish, generally speaking, are like any other race in that their arms are pretty much the same length as each other, that is to say one person has two arms that are approximately the same length -  here again you can see a non native speaker's difficulty. But in the context of this particular saying, apparently when you are going to a party one arm suddenly shrinks and the only way to arrive with both arms the same length (approximately) is to be sure that one hand (that on the shorter arm) is not empty. Mostly the way we manage to achieve that is with a bottle, or if we are certain our hosts are non-drinkers (clearly not Irish) or they are children, flowers or sweets (for my American readers that is candies).

Even to this day, it is a very strong tradition, when visiting someone's home for the first time, for a party, a meal or just a semi formal gathering, we never arrive with one arm shorter than the other.

both arms approximately the same length