You Don’t Speak English, You Speak American


When I was 23, I packed two suitcases with as many clothes as I could and headed over to Ireland for a one year Working Holiday Authorisation in Dublin. Two years on and I’m still here with a great job, a lovely little house, a fine Irishman, and a growing identity crisis involving my beloved homeland and my adopted one.

In a country so rooted in tradition, values, and a sense of overwhelming community, attempting to dig a life for myself as an outsider wasn’t easy at all. Known worldwide for its warm hospitality and friendliness, I struggled with establishing relationships with the people around me that contained any emotional depth and understanding. Civil and polite conversations were mainly civil and polite — a characteristic comparable to American Southern Hospitality — with no way to discern where friendliness ends and friendship begins.

I immediately tried to blame these faults on language, for I quickly learned that getting lost in my own mother tongue wasn’t nearly as fun as getting tripped up by the vocabulary of a foreign one. ‘That guy over there’ suddenly became ‘yer man over there’ and a night of ‘fun at the bar’ turned into a night of ‘good craic at the pub’. Adopting this new vocabulary was tempting, so I began using words like ‘press’, ‘feck’, and ‘voucher’. But to this day, I can’t bring myself to use phrases like ‘the day that’s in it’, ‘donkeys years’, and — my personal favorite — ‘ye’ because instead of feeling a bond to my adopted culture, I just end up feeling like a fraud. Though there is a great place in the international English dictionary for the word eejit. Nothing really cuts to the point of “you’re a stupid arrogant bastard” than “you’re a fuckin’ eejit.’ Try it sometime.

A visitor to Irish shores should never underestimate the influence of the Irish language. While only a fraction of the population uses Gaelige everyday, it is still the declared language of Ireland and enjoys a position as the constitutionally recognized national and first official language of the Republic. For instance, the police force is formally known by the official title of Garda Síochána na hÉireann or “Gardaí” which roughly translates to “Guardians of the Peace of Ireland” or simply “Guardians” respectively. But some Irish words really don’t have any way of translating directly to English and some of the Irish speakers I’ve met find it truly difficult to express their feelings and emotions in English. The Irish use an expression “to give out” (Irish: “tabhair amach”) when they mean to “scold” or “chew someone out.” This phrase is one of many that the Irish tried as best they could to Anglicize and now it’s permanently caught between translation and non-foreign foreignism.

The real whiplash comes when a word is thrown into conversation with no warning. The word ‘craic’ was adopted from Old English and is used to describe a kind of adult fun incapsulating gossip, banter, and a general happy atmosphere. An activity or shopping list can be finished off with “sin é” — a word I was convinced for a few weeks was some form of Irish brand of cleaning product but learned rather embarrassingly that it was a quick and swift way to say “that’s it!”

With the adoption of schadenfreude, incognito, and esprit d’escalier, the English language is no stranger to borrowing words from other languages. But there’s something unique and wonderful in the Irish language’s perseverance and the determination of its speakers to carry the torch for the sake of the Irish identity, culture, and future. This language and dialect is one of the many things that bonds the Irish people together. But to outsiders, it comes across as a cultural boundary surrounding a community that cannot be approached without an Irish past.

Then there’s the sneaky role of religion. Despite a number of people who claim the country has moved past its arguably theocratic past, the Catholic church still has a firm hold over the country and its government. Divorce hasn’t even been legal for twenty years. Abortion is illegal except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. I daydream about raising a family here but I find it hard to imagine my future son or daughter getting rejected from a public school simply because they weren’t baptized in the Catholic church.

Besides language and religion, the Irish have a sense of community and identity that I’ve never seen in a nation before. This feeling of community is what I love most about living here even though it’s has taken me two years to find my own space. I have come to terms with the idea that Ireland may never truly feel like home but I have realized that Dublin has a great feeling of fraternity and an overwhelming sense that there will always be someone there to have your back if you need it. But as true as this may be, it is also a city that will kick you when you’re feeling up; it will rain, the bus will be full, the train will be late, and the big city will keep on moving with no regard as to whether or not you’re moving with it. It is a city surrounded by tradition but isn’t afraid to plunge head first into the future. And that’s one of the reasons I’m so happy here.

Taking absolute joy in the small, wonderful parts of our lives is one of the best things I’ve learned from living here. A day of sunshine is a reason to celebrate even if that celebration involves something as small as a quiet lunch on a park bench, the wrong turn to the long way home, or that one week in the summer when the kids get to play in the park every afternoon. The Irish have an incredible way of acknowledging the bad while celebrating the good. And it doesn’t take an Irish passport or a crash course in Hiberno-English to understand that life has its ups and downs, but it all depends on how we look at it.

image – Al Higgins