Mishearing words

Jan 13th, 2013 | By | Category: Ireland

Driving along one afternoon listening to an Ulster-accented presenter on RTE Radio, I was intrigued by the title of a track that he announced he was about to play, ‘Can’t beat Duff’. Anything was possible on the programme so it seemed reasonable that there would be a track called, ‘Can’t beat Duff’.

‘Who is Duff?’ I wondered, as the music began.

A female voice sang the lyrics. ‘Can’t be tough’.

The Northern accent made the consonants sound harder to my ear, a gentle love song becoming something that sounded like the title of a song about an Irish footballer.

Mishearing Northern voices is a common experience on this side of the border, not just mishearing the words that are said, but mishearing the meaning of those words. There is a directness, what sounds, to southern ears, like an almost confrontational openness, in much of what is said in the North.

Back in the mid-1990s BBC Radio 4 ran a programme on the Northern Protestants, at one of the rounds of talks politicians were asked about their negotiating position. They outlined their stance in plain terms. When asked about their fallback position, they had none; they had laid all their cards on the table

A lack of adherence to one’s word seems considered almost the norm in Dublin politics – one need only look at the promises made by the Irish Labour Party prior to the 2011 General Election and their ensuing behaviour in government. One prominent Dublin politician was alleged to have admitted during the 1990s peace process that what he said and what he meant weren’t necessarily the same thing, his words might have been clear, his meanings would be entirely misheard. Not just in Dublin, but in London too, there was a habit of saying and meaning different things. John Major once claimed that the thought of talking to the IRA would turn his stomach; his claim coming at the very time that talks were taking place leading to the 1994 ceasefire.

Northern words and meanings can be misheard, because in the cynical world of Dublin-based politics, we nuance what everyone says. We assume that things are said for effect, that all politicians indulge in spin. We have become dismissive of the notion of ‘principle’ in public life, assuming the satirists and the cartoonists are closer to the truth than our public representatives.

The current flag protests in Northern Ireland do not come out of nowhere, they come from a generation of people who assumed their political leadership would adhere to its rhetoric, (however odd those outside the Province might find that rhetoric). Addressing the current wave of violence asks for much more than policing, it asks for an attempt at understanding the logic of the protests (even if we may find such logic to be perverse).

The Tánaiste’s response to the protests, that they are being orchestrated by ‘known criminals’. may be true an accurate, but does not address why people are allowing themselves to be orchestrated. There is a need to listen more carefully to the voices.



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