Pardon Me?

I’m down in Bristol for the weekend, ‘the West Country’, as it is known. It’s a big region, taking in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, the city of Bristol and Gloucestershire. That area associated with farming, clotted cream teas, apple orchards, cider and slow moving men in gumboots saying, ‘Ooh arr, me lover,’ in cartoon-like, pirate speech. I’m one to talk. At least up in Scotland I’m a near relation. Down here they struggle to follow my Ulster-Scots tones and sayings. Have you ever experienced it when you are having a face-to-face conversation with someone and there is a split second time delay between responses as they struggle to interpret what you’ve just said? Like it used to be when you made the Christmas phone call to the American relations in the 1980s, and it never quite flowed because of the slight time gap between speaking and hearing. It happened to me yesterday. I got that look, head slightly tiled to one side, brow furrowed with a perplexed look that said, ‘Pardon me?’ I realised that words, phrases and an accent that might be understood up north, are more foreign to the ear down here.

Long live regional accents and the colour and humour that comes with them. I love how a country so small can have such a wealth and range of regional inflections and intonations. I understand the need to modulate in order to be understood, but how sad if we were to modulate in order to bring sameness, uniformity or standardisation. It’s the Ulster-Scots accent I know best, having grown up with its musical tones lilting in my ears. An accent particularly alive and well in County Antrim, from whence hails a ‘true’ story my dad loved to tell.

Maggie, from out the Broughshane Road in Ballymena, had come into the Cottage Hospital to have her baby. She had an old maiden aunt, Rose, who lived down Kernohans’s Lane, and came at visiting time to inspect the child. She had knit up a wee cardigan, white, covering all bases. “Ach, a wee boy. That’s a relief,” says Rose to Maggie, “and what are you for calling him?” “Nathan,” the proud mother answered, only for her bewildered aunt to declare, “Ye cannae call him Nathan, you hae to call him something.”

Down in Country Armagh my friend’s dad is famous for his sayings. His declaration on the workshy neighbour is, “Sure he wouldn’t work on batteries.” Disapproval for the daughter who likes a lie in the morning is expressed with the back-handed compliment, “Well, it’s not a bit of wonder you’re good looking,” and the idea that life’s path is pre-determined becomes, “If you’re born to be hanged you’ll never be drowned.” A broken heart, blown out of all proportion, is put back into perspective with the comforting prediction, “There’ll not be a word said about it the day you’re getting married.”

This morning I’m at M.’s house and we’ve been herding weans out the door to get them to a birthday party. The youngest one’s a wee skitter, his head’s cut, he away out with no coat on, he’s wile thran, a heart scald. Come to think of it, I cannae mind where I left my coat. I’m wondering if I left it in the car last night. We’re going for a wee dander once we get red up and I’ll be foundered if I don’t find it. It’s baltic out there.

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