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OK, here’s a little dilemma when writing crime fiction in English: what kind of English should you use?

The answer may seem obvious for US or British authors – simply set your spellchecker options to “English (US)” or “English (UK)” and off you go. For my books it ain’t so simple.

Spellings

My crime novels are mostly set in Ireland with Irish characters. My spellchecker is set to “UK English”, the kind of spelling generally used in Ireland, which my Irish readers would expect.

Nowadays, of course, you could spellcheck and produce two separate eBook editions for the UK and US markets.

Fine, but what about linguistic differences that go far deeper than a few spellings? Or minor differences in syntax between UK English (as in “I met him on Monday, he killed her on Tuesday”) and US English (“No, actually I met him Wednesday, he killed her Thursday”)?

General vocabulary

Take food. My central character, Moss Reid, is a foodie who happens to be a PI; he loves his grub. His philosophy in life is “eat, drink and investigate – in that order.” So he mainly uses British rather than American terms to talk about his grub – from his courgettes (not zucchini) to his biscuits (never cookies).

Fine so far, but he’ll also talk about specifically “Irish” food and drink, such as a sliced pan (a loaf of pre-sliced bread in rectangular prism shape), colcannonred lemonade (my first novel has an entire chapter on that) or Tayto crisps. His food is stored in a press (the Hiberno-English term for a cupboard or closet) or in the fridge (rarely “a refrigerator” in Ireland).

He never goes for “a few drinks” either. He goes for a pint. See? One pint, singular – which often descends into the plural because he could murder another one (i.e. could do with a subsequent libation).

In England, by contrast, poor Inspector Morse might drop into an Oxford pub (never a bar of course) – a pub called, say, the Eagle & Child, or the Trout in Wolvercote – for a pint of “real ale”. In Dublin, Moss Reid would have a pint or, if he’s broke that week, a glass (the Irish pub term for a half pint). And the hostelry would possibly obey a somewhat different naming convention – Hanlon’s, Mulligan’s, Nancy’s – and probably involve a pint or glass of stout rather than ale.

With the obvious exception of “pints”, my characters generally prefer metric to imperial units for food and drink, along with a plethora of Hiberno-English measurements such as the rake, feed or clatter. These mean “a lot”, “many” – as in “a rake of pints”, “a feed of drink”, “a few scoops“.

The crack

Was it George Bernard Shaw who said “England and America are two countries divided by a common language”? Forget “Brits” versus “Yanks” – Hiberno-English is way different again. It uses a rake (sorry) of “British English” nouns in peculiarly Hiberno-Irish ways:

  • A yoke is an all-purpose noun for objects, gadgets – particularly thingummyjigs whose names escapes you
  • The jacks are toilets / ladies / gents / the bogs (UK), the bathroom / restroom (US), or washroom (Canadian English)
  • The messages refers to the shopping – you “go for the messages”, i.e. go shopping
  • A ride doesn’t necessarily mean a journey involving a horse, bicycle or motorised vehicle
  • And I’m dying for a fag always confuses my American friends. It simply means someone has a craving for a cigarette

My characters are far more likely to say grand or great gas (fine or fun, as in “he’s a gas man altogether”) or even deadly rather than the American “awesome”.

In fact my second book “Black Marigolds” was initially going to be called “Deadly Christmas Jumpers“. It’s a play on the double meaning of “deadly” in Hiberno-English: a “deadly jumper” is a nice piece of clothing while a “deadly weapon” is not quite so nice after all. In fact it might be cat (awful).

Or take the word crack or craic: “a term for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation” (thank you Wikipedia). Hence phrases such as “mighty craic” or “the crack was ninety” (the ninety bit also referring to a popular ballad). That’s another Irish thing – “THE crack”. With a definite article. Hiberno-English likes to do that, adding a “the” where the American English or the British English often wouldn’t bother.

Loan words, politics and history

So my characters use an English that’s somewhat different even to British English. They occasionally slip in an Irish word or phrase such as slán (“goodbye) or, more importantly, use Irish-language loan words when dealing with official state titles – the Taoiseach (head of government),  (parliament), and, of course, the Garda Síochána (police force) or gardaí or plain guards (cops).

Leinster House” or “Kildare Street” is shorthand for the government or parliament – much as the USA or UK has “the White House”, “Downing Street”, “Westminster…

Other relatively new words in common parlance from the Irish political and economic scene – NAMA, Bertie-speak, the Galway tent – are just the latest layers on top of all the older shorthand and sayings from Ireland’s largely colonial history. Hiberno-English dances at the linguistic crossroads, and does a rake of linguistic borrowing and bending in its merry dance. Hence my characters use terms such as:

  • Acting the maggot – joking or acting the fool
  • Culchie – an unsophisticated rural person
  • Eejit, bollix – idiot
  • Gansey – a jumper or sweater (quite an important item in my second novel)
  • Gob – mouth (or sour face, as in “She had a right gob on her”)
  • Hooley – a party-type occasion (with mighty crack)
  • Mitch – play truant
  • Bowsies, gurriers, gougers – various nouns for rough or unruly elements
  • The mammy (note the extra “the”) – sometimes rather than plain “mother”, which would be too impersonal and old-fashioned; unlike “mom” (American)  or “mum” (British) that extra syllable of “Mammy” has a touch of softness and warmth, similar to “Maman” in French, and somehow more so than the mumsy “Mummy” in British English

Cultural reference-points are also quite different. Irish homes get US and British TV shows and know all about Oprah or Dr Who. But the media flow tends to be one-way: outsiders might know about U2 or Father Ted but wouldn’t have a clue about most Irish radio and TV, from Love/Hate to Mario Rosenstock or Miriam, or catchphrases such as Stop the lights (from a 1970s gameshow).

Sentence construction

Hiberno-English has another twist: sentence constructions that echo the Irish language (“Gaeilge”). For example, in Irish you can’t say “I have written another book” – there’s no “have” in Irish. Hiberno-English mirrors this with “I’m after writing another book”. This construction (“I’m after killing him”, “She’s only after losing four stone!”) is called the “hot news perfect” or the “after perfect”.

Or take the question “Is that yourself there?” The reply might be along the lines of “It is.” Since Irish has no words for “yes” and “no”, in Hiberno-English the verb in the question gets recycled:

“Are you going for a pint?”
“I am” (instead of plain “yes”).

“Is your iPad working?”
“It isn’t” (rather than a plain “no”). “Cos it’s banjaxed” (broken).

Hiberno-English likes conditionals (“She asked me would I help her” rather than “She asked me to help her”) and negatives (“This wouldn’t be the road to Skibbereen would it?”) and apparently empty words in conversations – like “like”, “know what I mean”, “so”, “sure”, “only”, “at all at all”. And, like Irish or French, it has both a second person singular (“you”) and second person plural (“youse“).

As the writer/poet Ciaran Carson puts it: “I write in English, but the ghost of Irish hovers behind it.”

Hiberno-English is a melting pot, with words and constructions from Irish, and archaic English words that fell out of use in British English (such as “crack”). It even fills in certain gaps in English syntax. For example, amn’t (as in “am not”) is taken for granted in colloquial speech and literature (James Joyce in Ulysses: “Amn’t I with you? Amn’t I your girl?”), yet regarded outside Ireland as ungrammatical.

“…the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced ‘I amn’t’ in the classroom
turned and said – ‘You’re not in Ireland now’.”
– Eavan Boland, “An Irish Childhood in England: 1951”

Dialogue

By now youse are probably wondering “Do the Irish speak English?” That’s also the title of a lecture by Professor Terence Dolan, the compiler of a Hiberno-English dictionary. Hiberno-English is “a distillation of the Irish character”, he says. “Irish people over the centuries have been oppressed, so therefore they don’t want people to know what it is they’re thinking or saying.”

Hence, he says, Hiberno-English is “devious to start with, and evasive”. A real bonus when you’re writing crime fiction, particularly dialogue.

Real-life conversations in Ireland have dozens of greetings (“How’s the crack?”, “How’s the form?”, “How’s she cutting?”, “How about ye?”, “Story?”), and are peppered with apparently redundant, semantically empty words like “like”, “you know”, “know what I mean”, “so”, “sure”, “only”, “at all at all”.

In addition, the Dublin accent often drops final consonants, vowels and syllables, and compresses words together – tha’, wha’, howrya (how are you), gis (give us). In that respect it has much in common with Scouse, and Irish people also have a ‘grá’ (fondness) for rhyming slang.

Without overdoing it, the dialogue in my books tries to give a flavour of all this. Maybe that’s breaking a textbook rule -as well as screenwriter John Yorke‘s sound advice: “Good dialogue doesn’t resemble conversation – it presents the illusion of conversation, subservient to the demands of characterisation and structure”.

But sometimes rules are there to be broken. Especially when you speak “broken English”.

Swear words and the weather

Finally we can’t avoid the questions of (a) how much swearing to include (the Irish do tend to use swearwords as punctuation marks) and (b) the feckin’ weather. Apparently Ireland has more words for rain than the Inuit have for snow, and only in Ireland would a light sprinkling of rain be described as a soft day.

The film version of ‘The Commitments’ runs for 113 minutes, during which the F word is used 145 times. Roddy Doyle’s original novel has approximately 300 instances. At times you’d swear the Irish use swearwords as punctuation marks – and that we are even more prone to them in our literature than our movies – or musicals.

A book about poet and translator Stephen Sartarelli (the English-language translator of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels) has the wonderful title “Does the Night Smell the Same in Italy and in English Speaking Countries?

In Ireland maybe an equivalent title would be along the lines of “Do We Be the Only Country in the World that has a Soft Day?”

At the end of the day, though, let’s not get too hung up on the differences. Readers notice those differences standing out when something is phrased in a way that wouldn’t be heard in their locale. But the strength and beauty of the English language is that it’s both global and local. It spans borders yet enriches itself through its sheer diversity, feeding on the linguistic and cultural differences from place to rainy place.

Right. I’m off to murder a pint.

(This is a longer, rough and unedited version of a guest blog post Marni Graff invited me to do for her website auntiemwrites.com)…

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