Friday, October 11, 2013

The Language Barrier

When I first decided to emigrate to America, the least of my concerns was language. I was aware that the English spoken in America was somewhat different to the English spoken in Ireland, but I had watched American movies and TV programs all my life and knew what those differences were. I also understood the accents and knew the different spellings of many of the words. I would have no difficulty with language. At least, that is what I thought.

One of the first unexpected problems arose not because I could not understand the Southern accents, but many Americans could not understand mine. And I had not taken into consideration the effort it takes to remember, in normal conversation, to substitute the American words for the words that flowed naturally out of habit. Then there was the numerous words I didn't realize were interpreted differently and finally, it had not occurred to me that Americans did not know that they spoke a different language and therefore they assumed when I spoke the English I was used to, that I was also using the language they were used to. As you can imagine, many misunderstandings arose as a result. And many still do from time to time.

Also unexpected was the fact that many words were used differently from state to state. Add to the different usage and interpretation of normal English words, the slang words that carried totally different meanings on either side of the Atlantic. However, the most difficult thing of all, is the step beyond the difference in sense of humor, probably the underlying reason that a sense of humor is so different from country to country; that is, the way we interpret, not just words, but abstract meanings to the way in which these words are used in conversation.

This is such an abstract idea, it is very difficult to describe in words. An example would probably be more useful. An Irish person might say "its been years since I saw you last", when in fact they mean "its been 4 weeks since I saw you last". An American would take "years" to mean more than 104 weeks, at the very least. Then there is the differences in the mixture of cultures, nationalities and religions encountered in America, compared with that in Ireland (though Ireland is becoming more cosmopolitan now). In Ireland it would be completely acceptable to say "Bless you" if someone sneezes. In America, it could quite conceivably be insulting to say this to someone.

On the other end of the scale, intonation and content is of great importance when interpreting speech in Ireland. Many words could be considered affectionate or insulting depending on the intonation. For instance, to call someone a 'bitch' in America is considered a huge insult, under any circumstances. In Ireland it can be an insult, but is rarely considered very offensive, and frequently it is actually an affectionate term; "you're a silly little bitch", in a soft voice, with a smile would be taken as affectionate; "you nasty bitch!", in raised or angry tones, with a frown, would be offensive, but not fatally so. To call someone stupid in Ireland is to express irritation at something they did or said which was not very sensible and is frequently ignored as irrelevant. To call someone stupid in America is to express a firm belief that they are moronic or simple minded, and is very offensive.

The following are words that immediately come to mind, I will add to this list as I remember, or become aware of, more.

lift elevator
pavement sidewalk
path sidewalk
road pavement
tarmac blacktop
bum bag fanny pack
bum fanny
fanny pussy
pissed drunk
angry pissed
biscuit cookie
scone biscuit
sweets candy
lift ride
clothespeg clothespin
queue line
zed (Z) zee (Z)
toilet restroom
mineral soda
garden yard
yard 3 feet - or - farm yard
chips french fries
crisps chips
flat apartment
boot trunk
bonnet hood
chemist pharmacy
randy horny
buggy or pram stroller
bedside locker night stand
message errand
(supermarket) trolly cart