Mind your language

Kevin McCafferty
Kevin McCafferty

If you’ve ever wondered exactly why you talk the way you do then the Tower Museum is the place to find out on Wednesday evening.

Peter Hutcheon asks just why do Derry people say ‘Yes’ instead of ‘Hello’ and why do local people insist on mixing their ‘ths’ with their ‘ls’ - Professor Kevin McCafferty has the answers...

If you’ve ever wondered exactly why you talk the way you do then the Tower Museum is the place to find out on Wednesday evening.

Kevin McCafferty, a Derry-born professor of linguistics now based in Bergen in Germany, will be exploring the origins of Derry English in a lecture.

“I will be exploring the influences on the language which make people talk the way that they do,” he explained.

“There are three main influences on the language and dialect spoken in Derry - Irish, Ulster Scots and English.

“We will be looking at all of them and the way in which they have affected over the years the way in which people in Derry speak today.”

Kevin has been working in the field of Hiberno-English for nearly 20 years.

And in that time he has completed detailed research into Northern Irish English.

Wednesday’s talk will also explore the ways in which social class, gender, age and ethnicity influence the dialects of English which are spoken in the Derry area today.

“All of the three elements become intertwined with each other over the years,” he says.

“So unravelling that to find out exactly where the influences come from can be a complicated and difficult process.

“This has all happened over a period going back 400 years and the way in which Derry people speak is influenced on both sides - from the rest of Northern Ireland on one and from the Irish of Donegal on the other.”

Kevin explains that all accents change over time but that some elements become unique to one particular area.

In Derry people have developed a habit of substituting an ‘l’ sound for words with ‘th’.

“As far as I can tell, this seems to be unique to this one area,” he says.

“So Derry people tend to say ‘oller’ instead of ‘other’ or ‘togeller’ rather than ‘together’.

Another feature of the language in Derry is an extra vowel sound in some words.

“People there have a tendency to say ‘feace’ instead of ‘face’ with an extra ‘e’ sound.

“But it isn’t unique to Derry and that influence probably came across Northern Ireland from Belfast.”

The extra vowel in film - ‘fillum’, though, has come into English from Irish,

“That sound would be commonly found across Ireland and isn’t unique to Northern Ireland English speakers.

“It’s commonly found in Dublin or Galway as well and so has come into use from Irish,” Kevin says.

Another style of speech found in Derry -although again not unique to the area - is adding an ‘s’ to ‘mine’ to make ‘mines’.

“That is largely to do with people regularising the way in which they speak,” says Kevin.

“We say ‘ours’, ‘theirs’ and ‘his and ‘hers’ so ‘mines’ in just adding an extra ‘s’ as quite a rational way of doing exactly the same thing.

“People adapt the way in which they talk all the time and that is how language and dialects evolve and change over periods of time.”

There is, though, one other area in which Derry stands proudly unique.

And that is people using ‘yes’ as a greeting.

“As far as I can tell, nobody anywhere else does that,” says Kevin.

“And I really have no idea why that should be and I have been asked about it many times. It is something that could be looked at and studied in the future.

“As far as I can tell it started in the 50s and the ‘60s and it could be that it arose because people began saying it when they lifted the phone.

“But if that is the case there’s no particular reason why people elsewhere wouldn’t have started to do that as well and as far as I can tell, they don’t.”

Kevin, who grew up in the Abercorn Road area of the city and went to St Columb’s College, has always been fascinated by language and linguistics.

At St Columb’s he studied French, German and Spanish and then Norwegian at the University of East Anglia along with dialect studies and linguistics.

He spent the first part of his working life in Norway where he lived for 13 years teaching English before moving to Germany.

“After 13 years living in the Arctic Circle, it was time for a change and a place where it wasn’t winter for ten months of the year,” he said.

Kevin’s talk is part of Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum service in partnership with its Irish language officer for the Island Voices Autumn lectures.

Margaret Edwards, Education Officer with the Heritage and Museum Service said it was an excellent opportunity to visit the Tower Museum and hear some interesting discussions on the development of the English, Irish and Ulster-Scots languages.

“This talk will be of particular interest to post primary and third level students of English as well as those studying English as a foreign language,” she said.

“The first lecture was very well received and we are delighted with the excellent panel of guest speakers that are lined up for the lecture series.

“We are confident that the lectures will prompt interesting debate and engagement.”

Pól Ó Frighil, Irish language Officer with Derry City Council also extended a welcome to anyone interested in finding out more about why we speak the way we do and how factors such as perceived class, religion and other social factors combine to create our individual dialects of English.

He said “This talk is particularly timely as it encourages us to explore the multiple influences on our sense of identity and illustrates the diversity of identities which can exist within one place.

“I would encourage anyone interested in Derry English to avail of this unique opportunity to hear from a leading voice in this specialist field.”

The third and last lecture, scheduled for Thursday 17th November will be delivered by Seoirse Ó Dochartaigh and is entitled ‘Turas Teanga na Gaeilge: the Irish Language - a Journey’. Seoirse is a painter, musician and researcher with family roots in Inishowen. He has previously worked in the O’Dochartaigh Family Research Centre in Inch and now works as a freelance genealogist.

He has published a number of books including a compendium featuring the place names of Inishowen.

The Island Voices programme is funded by Derry City Council’s Good Relations Programme and is supported by Foras na Gaeilge.

Kevin McCafferty’s talk ‘Exploring Derry English’ starts at 7pm in the Tower Museum on Wednesday and admission is free.