Culture & History

The Ember Months: Hiberno-English in Europe

Any listener of the excellent Something Rhymes with Purple – a podcast about strange and forgotten words – will know that language can be a laughing matter. The two presenters, an endearing and knowledgeable duo, find humour in language. They somehow seem like Werther’s Originals incarnate, safe yet with the capacity to giggle at an arcane word for ‘knob’.

But language is also more than a joy-filled reclamation of old or misused words. Language, the great mystery of human life itself, is a summation of all the triumphs and disasters of our shared experience.

Such is its power, it is little wonder language has often been controlled by invasive forces. Charles de Gaulle did it in France, and many empires did it in their dominions.

Recently, two things of note have happened: the Oxford dictionary added Nigerian words to its vocabulary list, and Brexit pushed Hiberno-English to the foreground in the European Union.

Well, actually that second thing didn’t happen, but thousands were fooled by a satirical website from Luxembourg.

Nevertheless, in our post-colonial world, two countries are reaffirming their reclaimed identities via how they speak the English language.

Kannywood: The Nigerian Hollywood

Nigeria is one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world, and in a move to represent the many different dimensions of the language, The Oxford English Dictionary has added 29 Nigerian words to its compendium.

Rubbing minds is one such word, and it means to brainstorm. The western word for thinking in a group is elegant in itself. Both terms are synonyms with slight nuances, with the Nigerian phrase hinting at how collaboration induces new ideas sweetly, while the other, equally as interesting a phrase, is more dynamic. Think Wall Street, think cocaine dripping off your nose.

Hiberno-English

Next tomorrow also made the cut. It means the day after tomorrow. This singular utterance does a fine job of penetrating our apparent security. In a world where tragedy is for other people until it happens to you, the turn of phrase highlights how grateful we should be that, for the most part, we get to see our loved ones again. It’s a measure of time that is comfortable in its sense of precariousness. We’ve made it this far, let’s see what happens next.

Burning phrases

My personal favourite is ember months – used to describe the last few months of the year. It’s gorgeous in its planting of itself in the colour of the sky.

In Madrid, the pinky-red of the September-December period is remarkable and stark in its beauty.

The phrase burns. And why not? Fire brought early humans together, inspired stories and speech. In Ireland, turf fires symbolize the country, while Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa takes place in these ember months. The play sees an Irish priest come home mesmerized by African customs, and a traditional Irish festival that marks the end of the harvest season.

Things Fall Apart

The relationship between English and Nigeria has not always been so rosy.

Perhaps one of the most famous Nigerian novels is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Controversially written in English, the tale charts a growing British and Christian influence on Nigeria. Achebe defended his decision to write in English, stating that the language ‘in the logic of colonization and decolonization is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight to regain what was yours’. In addition, by mixing in indigenous proverbs, the writer showed how the language of dominance could be subverted.

Hiberno-English in Europe

The Luxembourg website Wurst hilariously reported that Hiberno-English was the new working language of the European Union. It was satire at its finest – the sanctity of the Union was ‘grand’, the Brits were leaving after ‘donkey’s years’ and the whole thing was ‘gas’.

Darach Ó Séaghdha, writing in The Journal in 2019, argued that a Gaelicised form of English is more than mere fecks and ah sures. After all, language reflects lived experiences, and he rightly points out that Irish people will immediately understand what tribunals, bailouts and referendums are. He finished by arguing that a European Union with Irish as the de facto language should be a reality.

He bases his case on the fact that Irish writers like Beckett and Joyce encompassed the ideals of the European Union through their humanistic, anti-war stance, while regional versions of a language are by turns macro and micro, just like the EU itself. Furthermore, the bureaucratic legalese of the Union is a nightmare to navigate, so why not have Hiberno-English as the vernacular?

Feck it, Ted

Ireland in the EU

Europe has been good for Ireland, there is no doubt. But Irish people have long been good servants of the EU and other international bodies. We have contributed to safeguarding human rights and on issues such as clearing landmines.

Language could another vehicle through which Ireland could give back to Europe.

Publications such as HuffPost, the BBC, and National Geographic have all written about why we should preserve languages, and they all come back to the same point: when we lose a tongue, we lose cultural, linguistic and political diversity.

In our book, Fake News: Bulos que cambiaron el curso de la historia, we speak of a fractured world. Languages are tied up with perspective, and by being exposed to other ways of speaking, we become aware of sensitivities, angles and problems faced by other people. Language is, inevitably, a bridge to empathy.

After Brexit, a divided Europe that based its official working language on Hiberno-English would only go from strength to strength.

Hiberno-English in Europe

Hiberno-English in Europe: Conclusions

The Nigerians and the Irish share St Patrick as a patron saint, the colour green in our flags and a fondness for Guinness.

We were also forced to speak the same foreign language, yet we carved a space for ourselves inside colonizing vocabulary. Both nations brought their mindset and culture to bear on English, converting their separate versions of the language into something unique and vibrant.

I have personally witnessed instances of Hiberno-English being told to quieten down. An Irish person teaching English in Madrid, or anywhere else for that matter, will be used to the smirks and protestations that carry a contradiction: We made them speak our language but how dare they teach our language! By virtue of our Hiberno inflexions, our accent, our place of origin, we are deemed by some to be unqualified, of being imperfect speakers of English.

So, it seems that’s Hiberno-English won’t be replacing British English as the working language of the EU. It was fun to live in fantasy. But it does gladden my heart to see Nigerian culture being rightly recognized.

And remember…

For more on Gaeilge, check out our piece on the Irish language. Listen to our podcast for more cultural pieces, and head to our online shop for some literary-inspired fashion. You can also buy our book on Amazon and in many bookshops around Spain.

Thanks for reading!

Samuel Beckett – Some man for one man

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