Language barrier? Don't the Irish speak English?

By Carol / June 14, 2016 /

International travel can be a challenge, especially if you don’t speak the local language or do so minimally. One of the advantages to traveling to Ireland is that they speak English, right? Yes and no. My recent visit to Ireland revealed a range of word play that gave new depth to the language I use every day.

Road signs in Ireland provide directions and a lesson in Irish.

Road signs in Ireland provide directions and a lesson in Irish.

Road signs are the first indication you’ve entered another world. The signs were easy enough to understand, but the words describing what a sign means the driver to do might be different. We say “Yield;” the Irish say “Make way.” “Entrance” becomes “Way In.” “Exit” becomes “Way Out.” Spotting these was a delight. All Irish road signs also come with a lesson in Gaelic. Just don’t ask me to pronounce it.

Then, there’s the accent. Early in presentations, each guide asked, “Can you understand me?” Most were easy. However, one man – a farmer who also served as tour guide in the other-worldly, sandstone landscape of The Burren – was more of a challenge.

Can you imagine farming on this landscape? Our tour guide raises cattle on The Burren.

Can you imagine farming on this landscape? Our tour guide (in the CIA cap) raises cattle on The Burren.

Shane Connolly spoke so rapidly and with such a strong dialect that I’m sure I caught little more than half of what he said. Yet he was one of my favorite guides. A wealth of knowledge on history, geology, botany, and agriculture, Shane caught us off guard, surprising and delighting as he sprinkled American history and political and cultural references throughout his talk. The consensus of our group was that Shane knew more about American history and culture than many of us. And we got his message, even through the accent.

Undertakers, Plantations, and Craic

However, the real mind-bending challenge was how words that mean something to me as an American mean something entirely different to the Irish. Two of those words are “undertaker” and “plantation,” which came into play as guides related the centuries-long English/Irish, Catholic/Protestant conflict.

For many years, the English government and Church of England, were intent on removing Catholics from any power. During the “Plantation period,” Catholics were removed from the land they owned and farmed and Protestants were “planted” on that same land as the new owners. These new owners “undertook” to farm the land they’d been given and in so doing became “undertakers.”

The injustices described came uncomfortably close to America’s own treatment of Native Americans and Blacks. My head swam each time the words plantation and undertaker were spoken as I worked to re-direct my brain away from the American South and death.

On a lighter note was the word “Craic,” pronounced “Crack.” In Gaelic, craic means fun or a good time. So our guide might say, “That was craic,” or “Ye’ll have great craic.” We found the use of “ye” instead of “you” charming, while this word craic always caused laughter since seekers of American crack are looking for a whole different kind of fun.



All this play with language caused me as a writer, to think about the authors who write about countries other than their own. Getting a story factually right is challenging under any circumstances. To add in the possibility that words do not mean the same thing at all adds a whole new level of difficulty.

We did encounter one sign that was always, only, in Irish. That was Fáilte. Fáilte means “Welcome.” Even without the translation, we all knew that word because we felt it so clearly from every person we met. No language barrier there.

Have you traveled to another country and encountered words and phrases that caused you to think about language differently? What was your experience?

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  1. Merril Smith on June 15, 2016 at 6:00 am

    I love anything that has to do with words, Carol. Fun post! Your trip sounds so wonderful and full of such fascinating sights, sounds, and tastes. I never would have thought of road signs as being different (other than metric, of course). That is so interesting about “plantation” and “undertakers.” (Plantations here though were not always of the big southern “Tara” type. There were large farms in the north called plantations in the colonial period. So perhaps it also meant they were Europeans planted here?)

    I think even in the US there are many regional accents and words that “outsiders” do not understand, although it’s becoming less so. We had friends growing up who didn’t know what a bagel was, for example.

    I had to look up the pronunciation of “Fáilte. 🙂

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 15, 2016 at 12:09 pm

      I wasn’t aware of plantations in the northern U.S., Merril. You offer a plausible explanation. Americans are famous for appropriating and re-appropriating words, creating new words, and misusing words. Could have happened with plantation.

      You’re absolutely right about the regional accents in the U.S. At one time, I traveled to North Carolina to interview a farmer. I was lucky a client salesman was with me, because I could not understand a single word the farmer said, his accent was so strong. It was a funny scene. I asked questions; the farmer answered them; I pretended to understand; then back in the car, I replayed all the questions so the salesman could tell me what the farmer said.

      • Merril Smith on June 15, 2016 at 12:24 pm

        Well, the English “colonized” Ireland first, and then went to on to settle Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, etc. , so it makes sense. William Penn had a plantation in Pennsylvania.

        Flashback to Chincoteague! Now, I remember you telling that story, and we were discussing regional accents. It must have been very funny. I wonder if the farmer had any idea that you couldn’t understand him. 🙂

        • Carol Bodensteiner on June 15, 2016 at 12:34 pm

          I didn’t want to embarrass the farmer in any way, so I hope he didn’t know. I’d forgotten I told the story in Chincoteague (another word I was pronouncing incorrectly until that week).

        • Sharon Lippincott on June 15, 2016 at 12:35 pm

          Right on Merril. While Jamestown was designated a settlement, the Mayflower folks settled in Plimoth Plantation, now a living history museum. So the first plantation was way up north. I might have vaguely thought of that, but not in any compelling way.

  2. Sharon Lippincott on June 15, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Your trip to Ireland sounds fantastic. We traveled there on our own and were challenged as you were by the language. But like our trip, each day was precious.

    Amusing linguistic surprises were non-stop in China. My favorite was a sign in the Beijin Panda zoo. It was posted on a railing around a panda play yard. “Please don’t cross any railings lest suddenness happens!” We’re still curious about suddenness. We saw no pandas who were inclined to move at all, much less suddenly.

    Visiting England is a linguistic trip. When I was advised to wear a jumper one cool day I was baffled. I have not owned a jumper since grade school, so I wore a sweater instead. I looked forward to eating a savory pasty for lunch one day. The server looked baffled when I pronounced the word like paste-ee. Finally she got it. “Ah, you want a pAHsty then?” Oh well. Fries are chips. Chips are crisps. Cookies are biscuits. Dessert of any sort is usually called pudding. Diapers are nappies or napkins. Napkins are serviettes.

    And we all claim to speak English.

    I once read a manuscript for an author from England whose novel was set in the USA. If it hadn’t been set over here, with American characters, the British colloquialisms would be fine. Not so in this case, but easily fixed to conform.

    A author friend, who is fluent in French, is translating an English language book into French. I learned that a professional translator will be mandatory for ensuring the French is grammatically correct. “Literary French involves tenses that don’t exist in spoken French. The French are persnickety about their language, and a foreign author who plays fast and loose with the rules will be instantly scorned.” The French do have copy editors. Structural editing is something else.

    Isn’t it amazing that we can understand each other at all around the world? What a tribute to flexible minds.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 15, 2016 at 12:01 pm

      Fun with English abounds. The “suddenness” example is a hoot, Sharon. Illustrates perfectly the challenges of translations. And the need to have experts involved.

      For writers, it’s all about credibility and nowhere can credibility be more thoroughly destroyed then by incorrect use of a language. In my last novel, I failed to capitalize a German noun and boy did I hear about it. My upcoming novel includes a good bit of Spanish, spoken by Latinos from Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador. I’ll be checking with native speakers from all three countries because I know there are differences.

      Those differences from Irish English to British English to American English and from Mexican Spanish to Honduran Spanish to Salvadoran Spanish are, as you a say, a tribute to flexible minds, a fun challenge when traveling, and they add an element of fun for writers.

  3. Joan Z. Rough on June 15, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    I love Ireland, the people, the land, and the language differences. The one I learned while there last was never to ask if someone needs a ride. In Ireland it means doesn’t mean you’ll drive into town. It means having sex!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 15, 2016 at 4:54 pm

      My, oh my, Joan. That one would sure elicit a laugh if you stumbled into it.

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