How English Changes in Everyday Life – Belfast English and its Derivation from Standard English

Having studied English for more than 10 years, I didn’t expect communication to be difficult during my stay abroad in Northern Ireland, although I was a bit afraid of the accent I would be confronted with. When I finally arrived in Belfast at the end of January, I had to take a taxi from the airport to the university campus. This was my first interaction with locals and their accent. The taxi driver started a conversation with me right away, but I literally understood nothing and even asked myself whether he was actually speaking English. He spoke very fast, made use of a lot of idioms and used the word ‘wee’ like three times in one sentence. I asked him several times to repeat what he had just said, but after a while I was so exhausted that I ended up nodding in the hope that he wouldn’t realise that I didn’t understand anything. This first confrontation with the heavy and fast Belfast accent was very frightening for me and I expected my university courses to be very difficult. But luckily, this first impression deceived.
It took me some days to figure out that there is not just one ‘Northern Irish accent’ but that the accent is very dependent on which area of Northern Ireland people are from. Especially people living in rural areas, where most taxi drivers come from, are difficult to understand. I had no troubles at all to follow my lecturers or communicating with my classmates. The only challenging part was the different pronunciation of Standard English words (e.g. the word ‘face’ [feɪs] is pronounced [fe:s]) which made it difficult to understand the word in some contexts. Now that a few months have passed by, I am able to understand the accent quite well in everyday life although I still struggle sometimes with certain taxi drivers. But even native speakers (international students from the US and Canada) seem to have trouble in understanding them, which really reassures me. In the past three months, I learnt a lot of idioms and local expressions such as the word ‘wee’ which is a former diminutive and means ‘small’. Nevertheless, it is used in sentences of any kind as a ‘marker of politeness’ and does not mean anything at all. For example, if you order burrito the seller is likely to say ‘Do you want sauce with your wee small burrito?’ although its size is huge. At first I perceived the use of ‘wee’ as a very annoying habit as it is kind of a ‘nonsense’ word that could be left out without making any changes to a sentence. My view changed after observing its use for a while when I recognised that Northern Irish are not so direct in their speech as Swiss are and usually make longer sentences to express their view (it seems more polite to them). Living in Belfast for nearly three months now, I catch myself every now and then unintentionally using the word myself. Another difficulty I had to face with was the word ‘ish’. Although I looked it up in several dictionaries, I didn’t find out about its meaning. Finally, I found a blog entry which explained that the former derivational affix -ish became a free morpheme in urban language and can now be used independently. Instead of asking ‘Do we meet around eigthish?’ they are likely to ask you ‘do we meet around eight, ish?’ which seemed quite weird to me at the beginning. Since I made some research on this topic, I am more aware of its use and it always attracts my attention when somebody uses it and in which context. Regarding my own communication, I experienced that people easily understand me and even if I don’t know a word, I am able to circumscribe it or look it up quickly in an offline dictionary. Locals are usually very understanding and help you find the word you are looking for. For example, I was trying to rent a grill for a barbecue a week ago, but the woman at the counter didn’t understand the word ‘grill’. She was asking me repeatedly whether I mean a ‘barbecue’ and I said yes, I want to rent a grill to make a barbecue. It took me quite a while until I found out that Northern Irish use the word ‘barbecue’ as a metonymy for grill and that we were both speaking about the same thing.

A bit different is my communication with other international students if we failed to express something in English. That’s when we usually switch to another language both of us are able to speak. For instance, I started communicating in Latin with my Italian flatmate as it is a kind of lingua franca for both of us. Nevertheless, I often look up the ‘missing’ words afterwards as this is the only way to extend my vocabulary. Knowing other languages such as German, French, and Latin in addition to English is a very helpful skill for communication in this regard. It gives me the confidence of always being able to express myself, regardless in which language, verbally or non-verbally. If communication fails on all verbal levels, I usually google for a picture to support my point.

In the last few months I not just learnt that there is always a means of communication available to me but also that communication is not only speaker based. The receiver of the message is equally important and it facilitates your communication very much if your counterpart is helpful and understanding. What is more, communication does not always need to be comfortable. For instance, I asked other international students, whose native language is English, to correct me as this is the only way for me to improve my English. Although it takes some willpower to correct another person, probably out of the fear to be perceived as ‘wiseacres’ or because it could offend the counterpart, this obstacle has to be overcome for the benefits of the other interlocutor. Only if I am aware of the mistakes I made I will be able to avoid them in the next conversation. It is thus not only uncomfortable for an interlocutor to correct another speaker, but also for the person who is being corrected. Hence, it requires a certain effort to get out of one’s own comfort zone for the good of a higher goal: the improvement of language skills. Having this in mind, it changes also my attitude towards foreigners and international students at home. I know now how I have to change my language towards non-native speakers for facilitating communication, like speaking more slowly, avoiding idioms and building easier sentences. I lost a lot of inhibitions in communicating in English and I am much faster in writing and reading than before. This is a very important skill for any future job as English is the main lingua franca used nowadays. Lastly, once you have managed to understand Belfast English, you will understand every kind of English which provides me with a lot of confidence for future communication.

Corina Liebi

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