A Cunning Linguist.

Spiderman Spiderman, does everything a spider can. I have to admit to being concerned about the cats role in this photo. And no, that's definitely not The Dating Leprechaun

They’re very polite in Jersey, you know, much more polite and patient than The Dating Leprechaun. I have a friend that comes around to see me here occasionally, nothing unusual about that but sometimes its difficult to get rid of him. I’m ok chatting away with him but after 30 minutes I’ve nothing really left to say to him, I’ve exhausted all conversational avenues and I want him to go but I can’t just say bugger off as that would be rude but I am reminded of what Benjamin Franklin said; “fish and visitors smell in three days.” (or 30 minutes in my case).

I’ve done the whole stretching, yawning, looking at my watch and saying “Oh my goodness, it’s nearly 8pm, I’d better get to bed…early start tomorrow (sunday!) and all that..” but he’s not taking the hint. So I put out the milk bottles, put out the cat, gather up the dishes, wash and put them away and get changed into my Spiderman pyjamas and still he’s not taking the hint at which point I turn around and tell him to bugger off.

I’m telling you this because it reminds me of one of my ‘pitch up and go’ random trips from Gatwick airport a few years ago. I turned up at Gatwick with only the weekend off and all fights to NYC were full so I opted for a short flight to Jersey in the Channel Islands, never been there but they speak English and drive on the same side of the road as UK, so off I went and an hour later I was in Little England..

Jersey. Not New Jersey ;p

Now, I don’t know if any of you lot have ever been to Jersey but the main town is dominated by the Fort Regent Castle up on the hill. It is now a leisure centre but during the Second World War it was occupied, like the Channel Islands, by the German army. Now, this is where we get to the first point of this blog entry. You see, Victory in Europe Day, VE Day is on the 8th of May but in Jersey the German soldiers didn’t get the message and stayed a full 24hrs later and thus in Jersey they celebrate Liberation Day on the 9th of May.

Sooooo… what I wonder is, did the good citizens of Jersey look at their watches on the 8th of May, stretch, yawn, put the cat out, do the dishes but still the Germans didn’t take the hint and it seems it took a whole 24 hours before the Lord Major banged on the castle door and told them to bugger off with a flea in their ear. See? Much more patient than me.

Jersey is a rather interesting place, it’s situated only a few miles from the coast of France and if you look at the map it is surrounded on three sides by the coast of France. This has a rather familiar effect on the culture there, because the French are so close it means that the locals differentiate themselves by being extremely English. Honestly, walking around there feels like I’ve just drove down the road to Hampshire with their plummy accents rather than flown across the Channel. And it reminds me of Norn Iron as part of the culture there does the same thing, emphasises it’s ‘Britishness’ even though both Norn Iron and Jersey aren’t actually British – don’t ask, just google it, it’s kind’a complicated..

And I wonder, does this happen in lots of communities that feel under threat from their neighbours, I’m thinking not just the obvious, Israel, but in smaller communities, like areas of NYC.. and even here in England, when I was out on a road trip a few years ago to Cornwall there were a lot of Cornish flags on display and it seemed the local dialect was used in shops to differentiate the locals from us grockles.. and they didn’t get charged tourist prices..

And I wonder how the French feel about having something so British literally on their doorsteps and one would think there would be a large number of French on the islands but the French make up less than 2% of the population, in fact, there is slightly more Irish in Jersey than French, not entirely sure why that is but it may be a language thang, the language being a deciding factor as to why I went visiting – I hate trying to decipher menus in French/German/Swahile, yes, call me pathetic but I like to know what I’m eating!

Anyway, I wonder how these communities feel and if it’s the same as us in Norn Iron, being brought up… I mean trailed up in a community that was basically at war with it’s neighbour, we tended to differentiate ourselves and our territory quite strikingly. It wasn’t just the language but the way we marked out our ‘territory, in our street there was the display of the Union Jack, especially during ‘Marching Season’ were-as the other side down the road displayed the Tricolour to mark their territory as Republican.. and the pavement was painted red, white and blue in our street and green, white and orange, down the road.. literally.

I realise that to folk not from Norn Ireland this may seem ‘somewhat’ excessive and even now it’s still very much like that, when I was visiting my mother last year even I was surprised to see the flags still out and even more interesting one village was flying the Scots flag – you can take that as an indication that the village is made up of some Tea Party Protestants. I wonder what makes a community like that, I know of course all about the violence but I’m wondering if having two antagonistic communities buttressed up against each other, is it like putting two magnets of the same pole next to each other, they are OK and weakly opposed to each other at a distance but the closer you bring them together,  the greater the force of repulsion.. and that expresses itself not just in the display of flags and painting and murals but also in speech, I wonder do warring communities take comfort in their own dialect and use that to detect strangers in their midst..

I read a book a while ago about the use of ‘standard English’ in America, some cunning linguists had been studying the flow and ebb of local dialects in some islands off the coast of North Carolina, Hawkers Islands to be precise. The island community had been cut off from the mainland since forever and the only way to reach it was via ferry. This obviously isolated the island community and they developed their own dialect for many words over the 250 years that the island had been inhabited. Linguists had been studying them for generations and as radio become more accessible they noted the standardisation of words and the ebb of local words, the younger generation in particular stopped using the local words altogether and the linguist thought that within a generation all the local words would be lost of good.

Then, in 1941 the State build a road bridge to the islands, well, it built a few road bridges linking the main islands together in a chain and a bridge to the mainland. Then what happened was unexpected, the linguist expected the flood of tourists to completely swamp the land with their modern English and they expected mainlanders to come to the islands and buy up property and dilute the local dialect even further. However, what happened was the complete opposite, there was a sudden resurgence of the local dialect. It seems there were two reasons for this; first of all, the tourist trade encouraged this so when tourists stayed on the islands they expected to hear the ‘quaint’ local speak but also the locals used the dialect to different themselves from the mainlanders and make them feel part of the local community against the ‘outsiders’ (and get non-tourist prices!)

And I think this works in the opposite way as well, I think some communities will consciously or unconsciously stop using their local dialect in an effort to integrate themselves into the wider community. This happens I think almost automatically, since arriving in London 25 years ago I have stopped using quite a lot of Norn Iron phrases simply because no-one here understands what I am talking about (so no change there then!) and from what I can tell I now use very few expressions that I commonly used 25 years ago. I have listed them on this blog ‘How To Speak Norn Iron” elsewhere so I have a record of them but I’ve also had to change the style of my speech. We speak very fast at home, it comes out in a blur and our ears can take that but when I first arrived in London I was, to all extents, talking a foreign language. I had to slow my delivery down to a crawl (or so it seemed to me) and I have to think about how to pronounce each and every word. Consequently I’ve had to use london expressions to make myself understood and even then… the amount of times I’ll say something like “excuse me, is this the way to Selfridges..?” only to have the other person look confused, then look at his watch and say “it’s quarter past three” and walk on…  or say “yes…” in that “I’m not sure what he asked me but I hope this is an appropriate response…”

So, I’ve had to moderate my speech and delivery, at least until I go home and then I can return to my Gatling gun delivery and everyone understands me but once I step off the plane at Heathrow then I immediately start talking English. It seems, that I too am a cunning linguist.

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