Words aren’t what they used to be. In my youth they had a richness, a magic, and there were so many of them. Age hath diminished their infinite capacity.
I can remember the moment the erosion began. I had recently arrived in the US and was in a department store. I paid for my purchase and thanked the saleswoman. ‘Uh-huh,’ she said.
In the car I asked my husband, ‘What does uh-huh mean?’
By the time I encountered its counterpart, uh-uh, I was convinced that thousands of years of evolving language could not escape the simianisation of North America.
I miss the richness of my Irish youth, the riches of a language that was ever-present. I miss the passion for words, both written and spoken, and the instant recognition of a literary reference. I miss seeing books everywhere—in houses, in buses and trains, on park benches.
‘Is it Keats you’re reading? Ah, there’s a poet!’ you’ll hear from a stranger and before you know it you’re comparing odes.
I miss words like widdershins, omadan, and kin. I miss discussions on street corners and poetry on every lip, ubiquitous as Guinness.
Being Irish, I love words; being a Dubliner, I write. But being an exile the words don’t come easily. Did they come easy for Joyce, I wonder, all those lonely years in Paris?
I never met Joyce, but once I tripped over a prostrate Brendan Behan lying drunk down by the Liffey side. Such things happen in Dublin. And once I sold a painting to a pub where, it’s said, all the greats used to gather and write: Behand, O’Casey and O’Connor. Did they leave something of their greatness in those whiskey-soaked walls? In me?
I resist change. I cling to European spellings. I use u’s you Yanks have no use for in flavour, colour and humour. I call parts of the car by words my British father used: bonnet, boot and petrol for hood, trunk and gas. I feign ignorance when I am, again, corrected.
There are words I don’t know the American term for because, in ten years, I haven’t had occasion to use them. Even now, after ten years of marriage, I sometimes surprise my husband.
‘It’s in the press,’ I’ll say, slipping back in time until he says, ‘What?’
‘Oh, I mean the cupboard.’
‘Can’t you talk English?’ he’ll say.
‘I do talk English. You’re the one with the problem.’
But in truth, the problem is mine. Words are my life, and I cannot bear to see them diminished. While there is gold in the American tongue, it is not my gold. When I sit down to write, I must ask myself, will an American know what that means?
My husband had hysterics when I went to an art supply store and asked, in innocence, for a rubber. When we lived in London it was he who could not adjust to expressions like, ‘I’ll knock you up in the morning,’ or ‘Do you have a fag?’
Was it Shaw who said that Britain and America were two countries separated by the same language?
For a while I lived in Israel and language there was, as Dubliners say, a horse of another colour.
The English and the almost-English speaking people tended to group together and the conversations astounded me.
‘Time out,’ some American would say.
‘Say again?’ the Britain or the Celt would reply.
At those moments, we were divided: Them and Us. Unable to find a common bond because it wasn’t only the words that were different, but experiences. We couldn’t agree, for instance, on what football was. But what truly amazed me was the moment language—or, more accurately, the English language—failed.
It didn’t work, for instance, in the Shuk, the marketplace in the Old City of Jerusalem. Arab children would traipse after the Westerner using any of six or eight different languages to persuade one to ‘buy, lady; is nice, is cheap.’
I learned to say mefish mesaree (I have no money), but that didn’t slow them down.
‘Ah, you speak Arabic,’ they would say. ‘I make you a good deal…’
That was when I found my Gaelic came in more useful than I ever could have guessed.
‘Guth raibh maith agat, ach nil aon shilling agam,’ which meant the same thing, but had, at least, the virtue of being unfamiliar. The children, bewildered, fell away.
My writing keeps me home. I rest in the grey and the grime of Dublin, or the lush green of the Wicklow mountains where my stories are set. I hear the words of the old wans in my head and replay their tales of ‘the troubles’ and the ‘black and tans’. I listen as they tell me of the Abbey Theatre and the gaunt William Yeats.
When I tell their tales, I am home.
(I published this article in Writers’ Digest when I lived in the US. Since I haven’t been to a play this past week, I thought it might be fun to revisit some of my earlier work. Have a great week, theatre-goers.)