It’s interesting traveling to a foreign country where English is the primary language. You might assume that communication won’t be an issue, but the different accents and slang can at times make you wonder if you’re speaking the same language at all.
Case in point, in October I traveled to Northern Ireland to meet my friend Bernadette. She was born in Northern Ireland but has lived on the Isle of Man off the coast of England for about thirty years. When we chat on the phone, I often miss a few words here and there until my ears have become attuned again to her lovely manner of speaking.
I flew in early to spend a couple of days exploring Belfast, then met Bernadette at the airport. She rented a car and we drove to her sister’s home in the countryside outside the city of Omagh, not far from the village where the sisters grew up. Breda and her husband Aidan stayed in that area, raising three children and building a successful contracting business. We had been invited to spend the week at their beautiful home on rural Tattykeel Road, situated amid a panorama of hills called Pigeon Top.
I fell in love with Breda and Aidan immediately. Warm, welcoming, hospitable and funny, I quickly realized how lucky I was to be their guest. In the evenings we’d sit in comfy chairs facing the toasty Aga stove in their kitchen and talk and laugh until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.
We arrived on Friday evening and on Saturday Breda took Bernadette and me back into Belfast to shop at St. George’s Market and to visit her daughter, Aideen, who is a doctor in the city. The ladies were talking about Breda’s younger daughter, Rosie, who lives in New York, and Breda commented on a funny incident that had happened recently to Rosie and the Gays she works with in Brooklyn.
Huh. I was surprised that she’d call out the sexual orientation of Rosie’s coworkers, but there was nothing homophobic about the story and we quickly moved on to another topic.
Sunday evening Breda and Aidan took us to a pub in downtown Omagh to hear some Irish music (a request I’d made of Bernadette before the trip). I’m going to try to insert two sound clips in this post because the music was incredible. The musicians were just local men, not professionals, who turn up on a Sunday night to jam at this pub for the fun of it – and for a few free pints.
We grabbed a small table in the back and next to us was a much larger one ringed by a group of seven or eight boisterous young men. These burly fellows were having a grand time and the second audio clip will be of them talking to each other. Listen to this:
Now, I was right next to them and I think I only caught every fifth word or so. That’s the strong Northern Ireland accent!
When I leaned over to tell Breda I planned to record them, she laughed and said something like, “Oh, those Gays are surely having a fine old time this evening, aren’t they?!”
I’m thinking, what? How does she know? Not to stereotype here, but these guys wearing jeans and football jerseys and slamming beers strike me as typical heterosexual jocks. But this is Northern Ireland. What do I know?
On Monday night Aidan left us after dinner to go to band practice. He plays the saxophone in a group that I think was started in their church. They play tunes like you’d hear at a football game, I guess. Aidan said “marching music,” and I asked, like John Phillip Sousa? He said yes.
At bedtime Bernadette, Breda, and I were sitting around the stove gabbing and I commented on how long band practice is.
Breda replied, “Oh, sometimes Aidan likes to go out to have a drink with the Gays after practice.”
Um, what? I’m wondering if there’s a contingency of homosexuals in the band, or if perhaps Aidan enjoys going to a local gay bar on Monday nights.
At this point I’m just a bit surprised at how many gay people this family comes across, and am somewhat puzzled by why Breda so casually points it out every time the opportunity arises. By this time I think she’s adorable and would be sad to think she’s prejudiced.
Sometimes it takes a while for the penny to drop with me. By Tuesday evening when the four of us are drinking our coffee after dinner and yacking around the Aga, when Breda refers yet again to some Gays she serves on the board with at the Credit Union, I finally hear it.
Breda is saying GUYS. It’s the accent.
I broke out laughing and the others turned to me, eyebrows raised. When I was able to stop laughing long enough to explain what I’d thought she’d been saying, we all cracked up.
For me, “guys” sounds like GIZE. For Breda, it’s GAZE. And for Aidan and Bernadette, it was somewhere in between the two.
Since so many people all over the world are exposed to American accents on television, in the movies, and in music, our pronunciation doesn’t often surprise them. Perhaps a deep Southern accent might throw them, but heck — sometimes I miss a word pronounced with a strong Southern accent, too. For the most part, people in other countries may be entertained to hear a real person speaking with an American accent, but it’s not unfamiliar.
But when you’re traveling abroad – whether to Ireland or England or Australia or to any other English-speaking country, don’t be surprised if you have a harder time comprehending the locals than you’d expect. When in doubt, ask for clarification, or you may come to conclusions that aren’t quite as accurate as you’d think!
Happy holidays, you GIZE!