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June 2019
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2002-07-03 Languages

I think my elocution teacher, the lovely Mrs Mary Watson, was secretly quite flattered that I had named my pet hen (Mary the Hen) after her. I loved my elocution classes. My love of languages, and of their sounds, came from my dear late mother who was a fine English and French teacher, and of course Bean Ui Higis passion for the Irish language at the Model School.


I always think that because we learn Irish and English from an early age we Irish have a great linguistic facility, and find it easier to master other languages. The same can be said for many other Europeans who learn English as well as their own first language from a young age. On the other hand, the English and Americans seem to have more difficulty mastering a second language (some might say even mastering their own?). Del-Boys attempts at French are not far off the mark really. And we wonder why England havent joined the Euro, and always seem that bit removed from Europe? And why does Roma become Rome, and Koln-Cologne? Are they that difficult to pronounce in the original languages?

When singing, English is probably the most difficult language to master. Not only does a lot of the pronounciation seem to have little logic but the dipthongs, less present in other languages,cause lots of bother. In many of the continental languages such as Italian there are few vowels (no dipthongs), and what you see is pretty well what you get. The dipthong, of course, is a combination of vowels, not a pure vowel, as in words like sky (vowels ah + ee) and beauty (vowels ee + oo). These end up being very exaggerated when a foreigner speaks English. Just think of an Italian saying beautiful day?

With regard pronounciation, George Bernard Shaw illustrated it very well, when he asked how one should pronounce ghoti? Ghoti = Fish! Take the gh from enough (F), the o from women (I) and the ti from condition (SH) = Fish/Ghoti. Look at the different pronounciations of the words though, through, trough and tough? Any wonder why the continental singers despair in their attempts to sing English? Of course its a little rich of us to criticise English spelling when our own native tongue has a very complex spelling system. The words bhfuil, thosaigh, chuaigh and Baile Atha Cliath should be enough to illustrate that point. (Just thought Id put that in as I was beginning to sound anti-English?Sorry.).

Anyway, back to the English,some rules or practices in the English language confuse me. I have never had a satisfactory explanation as to why it is correct to say Arent I?, as opposed to Amnt I? which I rebelliously continue to use. I am, I am not, Am not I?, Amnt I?. So why Arent I?. Any solutions to this little hobby horse of mine would be most welcome. Answers on a postcard please.

However, like many others, I am of the belief that the Irish do in fact speak better English than the English themselves, innit? At school, we covered a lot of English grammar (you see, I did appreciate it Mr.OBeirne) and I still remember the parsing, clauses n all that! There is less emphasis on grammar now I think, which is a shame? This stands to you when learning other languages of course, and when you find yourself in the world of opera you need all the help you can get, as I have found myself singing in English, Irish, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Czech and Norwegian. It can be quite daunting speaking German dialogue in a German opera when you are the only non-German in the cast.

The International Phonetic Alphabet has been a huge help to me in mastering the pronounciation of some of these languages. This alphabet has a letter/ symbol which represents every possible sound in any of the worlds countless languages, so if you take the time to learn the I.P.A., a lot of the hard work will be done.

Maybe its the musical nature of languages or even dialects within those languages (listen to a Corkman speak and the varying pitches within even one phrase) that gives me my fascination for and hunger to learn languages, but whatever it is, its yet another reason for me not to have a boring retirement!