An Incomprehensible Isle

The sheer variety of regional accents and colloquialisms within Ireland is astounding. When you compare the sing-song accents of Cork or Kerry to the low dour voices of Ulster, or the slang heard on the streets of Dublin to that in the small towns of Connacht it is difficult to believe that they all originate from an island with a population that is less than that of the city of London. Any outsider who hears a Waterford native refer to a ‘summer drink’ (An ice pop) or a Galwegian threaten to ‘creel’ (beat or otherwise injure) somebody will realize the massive extent to which Ireland is separated by a common language. Of course, examples of this occur in every nation and I’ll never claim that other English-Speaking countries such as Britain, America or Australia don’t have a wide variety of regional expressions. What is particularly noticeable however, is the lack of a common slang amongst Irish teenagers or young adults for common things or practices. When an American says they were ‘making out’ with somebody, the meaning is understood by virtually everyone. In Ireland however, there are several phrases referring to the same thing. ‘shifting‘, ‘meeting’ and ‘getting with’ all refer to exactly the same thing but most people would exclusively use one of them, which one of them usually being determined by geographical location. Even as a younger child I was often confused to hear pupils of other schools refer to games such ‘Red Rover’ and ‘World Cup’, only to find that they were the games I knew as ‘Blue Peter’ and ‘ Copies’. Despite being only a few miles apart, we were using an entirely different language on the playground.
I have an entirely speculative and untested hypothesis as to why we have such a great variety of slang on this island. I believe that is related to the dominance of our popular culture by foreign media particularly from America, Britain and to a lesser extent Australia. It is a controversial idea to suggest that the mass media aids the survival of regional culture but it is only in nations such as Ireland that this is taking place. Within America the popular culture is almost entirely dominated by domestic productions. Hollywood films and network television have aided in the formation of a common slang used by young people across the nation. A teenager in Wyoming, although being vastly separated from the centres of the US media in New York and Los Angeles, still recognizes the characters in his favourite films and shows as being his countrymen. To use the same general slang with such elementary terms as ‘making out’ seems natural. For a person anywhere in Ireland however, using such terms appears false and artificial. British terms fare little better. To the best of my knowledge the only region of the country in which the term ‘mate’ is commonplace is in County Laois- in my mid-Connacht homeland any Irishman using the phrase would be met with puzzled glances. This is despite British television, music and print media being widely consumed in Ireland and substantial cross-migration between our two islands. So if we do not pick up foreign slang from our consumption of foreign media, why have we not formed common set of terms of our own? For the simple reason that there is no universally consumed mass media for such terms to spread by. There are remarkably few domestically produced fictional television programmes or films which are widely viewed by the young people of Ireland. Every town or county develops its own phrases and they do not often spread. Some terms do manage to travel out of their home area- an example being the escape of the term ‘legend’ from South Dublin- but their progress is slow. The playground games I mentioned earlier are a good example of this- we only ever heard of them in person, never through any television programmes or films. The games which we shared in common with the characters of American cartoons, we called by the same name- ‘tag’ for example. It is because of our heavy consumption of foreign media that people in towns fifty miles apart find each other mutually incomprehensible during certain conversations, while it is due to America’s cultural dominance that Americans thousands of miles apart have a much closer set of slang terms.
There is however a change occurring in the slang used by young Irish people. Formerly regional phrases are spreading outside of their native territory and becoming commonplace across the country. In my opinion two factors are responsible for this. One is the increased number of people in third-level education since the introduction of free fees in 1995. Naturally this leads to increased contact between young people from all over the country- During my own time in NUI Galway I became friends with people from Louth, Wexford, Kildare and Limerick all the while unknowingly adopting aspects of their dialect while they adopted many aspects of my own. A second and more surprising element in the increasing uniformity of Irish slang is the internet, specifically social networking such as Facebook. Although it does little to convey pronunciations Facebook can spread slang terms to people who have rarely left their hometown. An example is the term ‘naggin’ meaning a two hundred millilitre bottle of whiskey or more commonly vodka. Naggins have become an ubiquitous part of Irish youth culture, representing a cheap way to get drunk quickly and a easy method of smuggling drink into pubs or clubs. The term itself however, has only recently become universal- previously there were other names used such as ‘quarter-bottle’ in Donegal (Despite the fact a naggin does not contain a quarter of any other common size of spirits bottle). The internet, primarily through humorous Facebook pages, has managed to spread the term and make it a massive part of youth culture, a feat which would already have been achieved by cinema or television in most other countries. So with increased interaction between the youth of all parts of the country and increased spread of so many slang terms across county lines, will we eventually see the demise of our many accents and dialects? To quote every Kildare person I have known, ‘that’s debatable’.

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