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The Irish For: Brexit and the rise of Hiberno-English

With the United Kingdom set to leave the European Union this year, it’s time for Hiberno English to become the official language of the EU, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

This the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every week, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

2019 HAS ARRIVED and barring an unprecedented act of cross-party political heroism-  or an entirely unprecedented act of kicking the can down the road – it will be the year of Brexit.

If you’ve been following the Nuacht on RTÉ or TG4, you’ll have heard them refer to this event as Breatimeacht – a literal translation of Brexit.

The carelessness of this word in English is both frustrating and prophetic – it is obvious in hindsight that the implications of a land border with the Republic never crossed the minds of people who use the terms ‘the United Kingdom’ and ‘Britain’ interchangeably.

This is why some Irish speakers call Brexit Sasamach (Sasanach + amach, English + outside) instead.

Language and Brexit

One way in which the European Union will change after Brexit is in the realm of language.

The lack of a single, official language of business – specifically, picking one of the big languages over the others – has been a sore point throughout the history of the European institutions and has contributed to its reputation of being indecisive and bureaucratic.

Fortunately, Sasamach creates an opportunity for the EU to re-evaluate its approach to linguistic policy and ordain English as the first language of business in the institutions. Not the English of Britain though, that would be ridiculous once they are gone.

Hiberno-English, the version of English spoken in Ireland should be the vernacular of the EU. The more you think about it, the more you’ll realise that this makes perfect sense.

Global English Doesn’t Come From England

The reason English is the most powerful second language in the world isn’t down to the efforts of the Oxford Dictionary or the way it’s taught in Stoke on Trent.

It’s down to the lyrics of Swede Max Martin and Colombian Shakira, the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the stilted phrasing in Japanese computer games.

Then there’s also the small matter of some very influential countries that use English as a first language, including the USA, Canada and Australia. 

The decision by the United States to use English was not taken lightly and one of the conditions of its acceptance was a distinct approach to spelling (e.g. color, realize).

Since then, other English speaking countries have adapted their own dictionaries to record the specifics of how that language is used there.

These can cover humorously local terms, like Canadian loonies and toonies, for one and two dollar coins, or struth in Australia. The dictionaries collate the local uses of mainstream words t00 – like when the Australians say thongs for flip-flops. 

Ireland Needs Its Own English Dictionary

We generally think of Hiberno-English as an adorably wacky uncle of a language – a sleeveen here and a yurt there, a splash of thin English paint over a lumpy Gaelic undercoat.

But Irish people understand words like tribunal, bailout and referendum in a particular way based on recent history which cannot be explained by a relationship to the Irish language.

These understandings are not recorded in any dictionary because Ireland doesn’t keep such a record. This is posterity’s loss – meanwhile deadly meaning good, is listed as Australian slang in some dictionaries.

Hiberno-English Is Utterly European

The words of Beckett (Anglais? Au contraire), Joyce and Heaney are a literary tradition entirely consistent with the ideals of the European Union – horrified by war, baffled by the arbitrary lines that divide nations but open to the treasures of other cultures.

The spoken English of Ireland is the resource of a world power that has evolved to meet local circumstances as required – like the European Union, it is micro and macro, foreign and local at the same time.

The Joys of Hiberno-English

European English is a mess. Take for example ‘the non-compliance of a proposal for a legislative act with the principle of subsidiarity represent at least a simple majority of the votes allocated to the national Parliaments in accordance with the second subparagraph’ – nobody speaks like that in real life, and nobody would miss such inelegant prose.

On the other hand every Autumn, thousands of Spanish students return to Madrid and Seville to delight their English teachers with colloquial phrases, like “ah, stop”, “come here to me” and “I will in me hoop”.

And after 2019, Ireland will see a sharp rise in European second and third level students coming here to learn the real English of the EU. So perhaps it is time to make it official and create an Irish Dictionary of English, a real living European language – that everyone can use and enjoy. 

Darach’s new book, ‘Craic Baby: Dispatches From A Rising Language’ is published by Head of Zeus and available in bookshops now.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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