Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Belfastisms: My Struggle with the Belfast Accent

If you type in Google search "How to Speak Norn Iron" or "High till Speak Norn Iron", you come up with over 8,000 pages of various instruction websites. Some sites are even sophisticated enough to accompany their definition of idioms with mp3 soundbytes so you can learn the accent. I didn't realize that Norn Iron was quite popular until I found a girl on youtube who was practically pleading out to the interwebs if there was anyone who can teach her how to speak Norn Iron. As she put it, "I really need to learn how to do the Northern Irish accent." You hear that? She really needs to, people. Can someone help the poor girl? She seems desperate.

According to this dude, "Norn Iron is a variation of the English and Scottish language except butchered hideously", which is an accurate description. If you watch his video, you'll notice his accent. For one, you can understand him and chances are you will find it very rare coming across people like him unless you're hanging out at the University or wealthier places like the Malone Road or Stranmillis. He has what my fiance pegged as a "posh accent" with hints of the countryside. Nevertheless, this dude annoys my fiance to the point he wants to wring his neck for reasons I don't know. I'm guessing one reason for his hostility is because 95% of the Belfast population do not speak like a pirate and don't even use half the words that dude has outlined in his video. And he hates how everytime the dude says a word he makes air quotation marks. Yes that would drive anyone to violence.

My first encounter with the Belfast accent was, of course, when I met my fiance Craig 3 years ago (but he doesn't count because I could understand him from the get-go). Maybe because he watches too many American movies, I don't know. My real encounter with actual spiedy talk (working class Belfast accent) was when I was picked up at the airport by Craig's family. His stepdad was driving and he was talking to me behind the wheel. Everytime he would say something I would get nervous because I couldn't understand a thing he was saying. His accent was so thick he would mumble a lot, and talk so quickly I couldn't get anything in context. It sounded like all the words melded into each other. His mom was aware of my difficulty to grasp the language and was kind enough to talk to me nice and slow and pronounce every syllable like I was a 3 year old, "He--llo, Mad--dy--Hooooooow---aarre--yooo--tooo-daaaay"? It was funny and the entire family would bust a gut everytime she spoke to me.

You can imagine how I was communicating with the locals for the next few months. Anything they said after "Hello", my response was, "I'm sorry?, "What did you say?", "I don't understand, sorry", or I would mostly resort to "Uh-huh", nod my head and pretend to know what they are talking about. I was very self-conscious about annoying many people, but they understand that I'm just a stupid Yank and know to be patient with me.

Now it's almost a year, I can pretty much understand everyone. His mom doesn't have to talk to me like a three year old. I don't have to nod my head and pretend I understand people most of the time. I can even emulate the accent down pat. People often ask me how to say this and that in a Belfast accent for their amusement. First their eyes bug out in amazement, then they bust out laughing. I'm a great hit at parties now. Although, there are some instances where I don't understand but it's not the accent that gets me it's the new idioms that enter my vocabulary almost everyday. Some of them go right over my head.

Here's a vocubulary list that I've got down so far:

Aye = yes

What about ye? = How are you?

What's the craic? = What's going on?

Craic= Fun We're going to a pub in the Cathedral Quarter to have some pints and listen to a session, it will be great craic.

No bother = no worries

Dear = expensive A holiday in Italy is awfully dear.

Dander = Go for a walk. Let's take a dander up the Shankill to the chippy.

Chippy = Fish and Chip shop.

Yer man/Yer woman = I don't quite understand the meaning of this but they refer to it a lot and it's not necessarily someone I know. You know yer man at the chippy, has got cockles for sale. *shrugs*

Bake = mouth Are you gonna stuff yer bake with Tayto crisps all day?

Flat balls = lazy person, I hear Craig's mom saying this to her SO all the time while he watches horse racing or football Hey flat balls, are you gonna sit in front of the tv all day or you gonna drive me to Tesco?

Aye, yer ma?= It's a last resort insult engaging in playful banter.
-Show us yer baps.
-Aye, yer ma?

Baps = tits or two pieces of round bread

Ballix = testicles or used in context when you think someone is full of shit. I'll knock yer ballix in. or Don't talk ballix!

Fuck up = Shut up

Dead on = Right on or OK

So it is or so I did = They say this alot after a sentence. I went to Argus, so I did. or The price of fillet is dear, so it is.

Right = means they agree with you or they say this after a sentence to make a point.
You fuck up or I'll knock yer bollix in, right?!?

Blocked = to be pissed drunk. I was so blocked I went to tesco and bought foil. There's a story to this. Craig's mom had too much wine to drink at her company's christmas party. She had two glasses and was 'blocked' so in her drunken stupor she asked Craig's stepdad to drive her to Tesco and buy some foil. The woman is a party animal!

These are all the phrases I can come up with off the top of my head. There will be more to come! Isn't Norn Iron such a poetic and beautiful play on language? BTW...if you wanna hear real spiedy talk (working class Belfast accent) click here. Warning: The language is graphic and it's NSFW, so I wouldn't turn it up for your cubemates to hear if I was you, right?


Unknown said...

Enjoyed reading your experience of learning Norn Iron speak.

Except you'll never hear anyone say, "How about ye?" Instead, it's, "'Bout ye?" (BOUT-ya) Took me two years to understand that; I would just nod my head and say "Yah" back.

For me, acquiring the Norn Iron accept was a survival mechanism. Started by just talking more quickly, which forces shortcuts on the vowels.

I knew I "arrived" when a co-patriot said to me, "Oy, that's not fair. I've been here two years and you've been here two weeks, and your [Northern Ireland] accent is stronger than mine."

I replied, "That's because you're Welsh and I'm Irish!" Her ancestry was Welsh.

I refuse to say "so it is"; sounds lazy talk. But I like "aye" and "wise up".

Flippin' Yank said...

Yes, I find the locals love to hear me speak Norn Iron. They find it entertaining and get a kick out of it especially coming from a Filipina Yank. It is completely random and strange to them. :D

Purple_Merman said...

I enjoy hearing about peoples views on Norn iron speak. But as you say the majority of people dont actually talk like that. Though its always interesting to pick up on different local expressions.

The expression that always seems to entertain/confuse my non-Norn Iron friends is so and so 'must have had a hard paper round' to mean that someone looks a lot older than they are.

Flippin' Yank said...



I've never heard that expression before, that's a new one! :)

Unknown said...

Now, that's a more obscure one. Last weekend I learned a new one used to describe people from Belfast: "Frankie", i.e. "I never understand what Frankies are saying."

My elaboration here: http://mrulster.org/2009/02/a-dog-named-frankie.html

Flippin' Yank said...

@Mr. Ulster

Hmmm...I wonder if Frankie is widely used. My fiance has never heard of it before.

I'll check out your post on you blog! :)

Unknown said...

Ah, but your fiancee is from Belfast? "Frankie" is a term used by those outside Belfast.

Flippin' Yank said...

@Mr. Ulster

Yes, he's born and raised in West Belfast. Maybe it's a term used in certain circles? *shrugs*

Flippin' Yank said...

oh scratch that! Used OUTSIDE of Belfast! I get it now. I need coffee.

Norn Iron all the way said...

Born and raised in Norn Iron
Just to let you know 'yer man' is simple refering to another person

A few others you might be interested in:
Macooey: another word used to describe Belfast people
Banjaxed: broken
Saunter [pronounced sunter]: walk, e.g. "We sauntered down the road"
Gub: another word for bake, or mouth
Fegs: cigarettes
Quare: very good
Aminta [pronounced amtna]: am I not?

Anonymous said...

Hehehe i really enjoy reading your blog:)I have been 6 months in Belfast and love the accent.

Chris said...

I have an Irish friend who lives near me in Spain so I sympathize with your "struggle" to understand what they're saying. Still, I have to say I would not have guessed "dander" was "take a walk." To me, "dander" sounds like something you need some Head and Shoulder's shampoo to cure.... haha

Anonymous said...

I live in Belfast and yeah I don't get how all you American people are in love with our accents. I went over for a month with a youth group (I'm only 13) Everyone kept telling me that I have an amazing accent and the boys over there called it 'Sexy', I hate my accent why do you guys find it all amazing?

Flippin' Yank said...


I guess it's because we don't usually come across people from Northern Ireland here in California. Your accent is unusual and different. You don't sound like you're from Southern Ireland yet you don't quite sound Scots. You're somewhere in the middle.