Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Drama of Speech

Recently, I've been aware of just how much is happening when two people talk.

First of all, the very first words they utter make a choice-- the choice to speak in whatever language they use. Since I've been trying to improve my Irish, and since I've become more concerned about the fate of Irish, I've realized just how naturalized this choice has become. It's taken for granted. "Speak English!" means, "speak plainly". "Good plain English" means good plain speech, or good plain writing. Nobody would think of putting an improvised bilingual sign on a broken photocopier or vending machine.

The sad fact is that, every time an Irish person opens their mouth-- except to drink Guinness, of course-- they are ratifying their own colonization, they are choosing the loss of their own culture. And I feel uneasy writing that, because it sounds left-wing and Postcolonial Studies, and because I hated Irish language zealots for talking like that all my life.'s true! Thousands of times every single day, Irish people choose to perpetuate the legacy of their own subjection. That includes me, of course.

Now and again, the shame of this strikes me so powerfully that, for a moment, I resolve to speak and read nothing but Irish, as far as I can. However, that swiftly passes.

The fact that I speak and write the best English in Ireland, and the worst Irish, is a contributing factor.

I once visited an Italian town called Merano which is sixty per cent Italian speaking and forty per cent German speaking. Or maybe it's the other way around. Anyway, it seemed very strange to me that daily conversation was conducted in two different languages. The visit was quite stressful and brief, so I didn't have much time to observe the social dynamics, but I really do wonder...what happens? When you walk into a shop, do you have a good idea which language the shop assistant is going to use? It must be a very different atmosphere. Or maybe it's not, and people get used to it.

Another aspect to the drama of speech is the continual evolution of language. All the time, words and phrases are coming into vogue, or passing out of usage, or changing their meanings, and so forth. It's literally happening as we speak.

I'll also mention an interesting intellectual puzzle (to me, anyway) which I've mentioned before. What on earth makes us choose one synonym over another? For instance, if we want to say someone is good at something, we might say proficient, skilled, accomplished, well up, adept, capable, or we might use many other terms. What makes us choose one rather than another, in the instant?

I'm sure there are many more aspects to the drama of speech, of language use. You could probably write hundreds of pages analyzing a five-minute conversation!

1 comment:

  1. The AngloSaxons were a dominant power for centuries; over Dublin certainly, over the rest of the Ireland partially in ebb and flow. Things can't be lost in a few generations. The tragic thing would be if people stopped trying. And, yes, I'm that stopped trying, but I'm not living there, I'm afraid