"The Ulster accent has always been an effective cordon sanitaire around the province," a British critic wrote with some hauteur under the heading "Wurr are they nah?" Some of the conversations I had in Belfast were by no means as simply heard as they may read - although generally people made allowances for me and saved the poetry for each other. But the accent alone could be no end of a mystery. It's simply enough to come to terms with feg and geg for cigarette and joke, but some of the pronunciation foxed me for months, and even then I couldn't get a foothold on some accents. People speak differently, I was told, even in this part of Belfast or that. Nothing to do with Protestants and Catholics, who talk alike despite little opportunity to hear each other. Film is fillum and flowers are flahrs without regard to tribe. But Catholics from the Falls swore they could tell a Catholic from the Short Strand, a mile away, by the accent. I couldn't distinguish, I was just banjaxed, as they say, by the vowels, whoever was using them, especially "ow". "The Clyde has lifted," someone said, then lost me for paragraphs as I tried to work out how. Mound is mind and now is nigh and sound is signed and I'll never live it dine. High nigh brine cie. For that matter, wise is ways and time is tame, and there is thar so whar is up the stars? Sammy is Sommy and Barry is Borry and he's hoppy as Lorry. Poor is pure. The unemployed, I was told, "indulge in the purest kind of sex." Purest? "You know, in the ditch," was the answer. Many Cockneys think that Northern Irish is the ugliest English to be heard, but that may be to draw attention away from their own. I found Belfast English lilting and lyrical, inventive and funny - and optimistic, because of the upward inflexion, suggesting doubt or paradox, at the end of most sentences. Threats or imprecations are less than convincing when the tune is so opposed to the message, and it's even head to sound grossly pompous - despite the hideous overwork given to the cliches "grasping the nettle", "taking the bull by the horns", "standing up to be counted", and "nailing his colours to the mast". (Of these, the first two often tended to be what Catholics said other people ought to do, and the latter two what Protestants said they themselves did.) One of the commonest words is "crack". There is no direct translation, which is what makes it such a good word. "What's the crack?" "You know the crack yerself." "He was sayin' til us about the Chinese, and all this here crack." "Then yer mon joined in the crack." "This is deadly crack." "The crack was 90!" (best crack; no one knew why it scored 90). Or, as one of the incredibly rude horoscopes that are printed in one Sunday paper had it: "If an affair is more complication than crack, then find some friends who are as shallow and insincere as yourself." The crack in Belfast (the big smoke) is *magic*. (The opposite of magic is *desperate*.) People greet each other: "What about ye?" and sign off "Alla best!" or "Safe home!" "C'mere till I tell ye," starts the yarn. "What do you reckon - the carry-on in this dunderin' place we live in! Sometimes it sickens the heart outta me" (or makes me heart-feared, or heart-scared). All right, nothing too complicated about that. But what's "On the pig's back"? "Doing fine." Right. "Wee buns"? "No problem." Yes. "Looking away"? "Doing a line." Eh? "Having a bit on the side." Got it. How about "a looter"? "A dig." A dig? "You know, a swipe in the gub." Oh. Some people lived in kitchen houses, but the kitchen was the living room and the place where you cooked was the scullery or working kitchen which contained the jawbox (sink). He hopped himself well up (dressed warmly) to go out for the messages (shopping). Then one thing led to another and all this caper and carry-on and whenever he stopped at the pub, he hoovered up five pints and got poleaxed (jarred, puddled, punctured, paladic, plucked, blocked, blitzed, snattered, stocious, steamboats, elephantsed, arsified, blootered, lockjawed, or merely full). "You know what yer mon's like, like." - "Och aye. Not a titter of wit." "Did you get the sausingers but?" - "I'm only after goin' til the shop so." ("But", "so", and "just" perch on the ends of all kinds of sentences. "To" is nearly always "til", "when" is "whenever" and "them" is often "them'uns".) "Catch yourself on! Go you back now." "I'm busy at the minute but." "Man dear, I seen the day you hadn't a knicker on your arse and now you got some money you're drinkin' it!" "I could see you far enough!" A child is a wain, which just has to come from "wee one", yet you often hear "wee wain". "He's a boul' wee divil, right enough. And he's always gurnin'" (wailing). "Sure your hands are absolutely mingering, go you and wash! Would you stop runnin' around like a clarty wee gyp or I'll give you a looter, so I will." "Lord fuckin' love 'im like, he's a dacent spud, he's dead sound, dead on, he's beezer (brilliant)." "He's a Billy Whizz, a real gamester." On the other hand he's sleekit, narky, culchie tulip, a gansh or a glipe or an aleckadoo, in fact he's beezer (an eejit - idiot). Wait a minute, someone on the other side of town said beezer meant "brilliant". "See, we can't agree on anything." When you are on the broo (unemployed) what is there to do but dander about? To be arrested is to be lifted or nathered or knollered or pranged or scooped - "and then the peelers ditry-Joe'd him" (the police promised him a deal, then reneged). "You're a-wantin'" - someone's calling for you. "I'm wearin' up til it" - getting ready. There are more ways to question someone's sanity in Belfast than anywhere I can think of. He's a loop, a balloon, he's as odd as a nine-pound note. He's wired, a spacer, he's not the full shilling. He's as queer as a bottle of chips. He's wired up but not plugged in. He's a header, a headbin, a headbanger, a head-the-ball, his head's a marley. "He took the head-staggers." Och he's just not wise, so he's not. With all the ways of being drunk, crazy, or arrested, you'd think there would be more words for "rain". Some mysteries just had to remain private. What's "griskins"? "It's horrible wee creatures which have never been described," I was told, "but when people use the term they know what they mean." (pp. 76-8)
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