BRAVO to Minister of State and Limerick TD, Patrick O’Donovan, for his good humoured and straight-from-the-shoulder defence - in last week’s Leader - of the way he speaks.
One thing for sure, Deputy O’Donovan doesn’t mince his words. He’s not going to change his accent just because some jumped up Jackeen, who can’t even get his clichés right, doesn’t like it.
Deputy O’Donovan, whom I’ve always found to be extremely articulate and well informed, both on and off the air, was responding to the small-minded Dublin man with the over-sized ego, who suggested in an email that he should take elocution lessons, learn how to pronounce ‘th’ properly and stop making Ruth Coppinger sound like a carrot. Sorry, I think I added the last bit myself.
But he’s not the first person in the public eye in Ireland to become the butt of pathetic phonetic nit-pickers after a TV or radio performance - although the English language is being mangled every day by presenters on both media and no-body takes a blind bit of notice. Top model, Roz Purcell got the same treatment as the Minister after a Late Late Show appearance a few months ago. In the eyes of the purists, a Limerick or Tipperary accent doesn’t fit the image of either a Government Minister or a glamour model apparently! But Bertie Ahern somehow managed to use his distinctive vernacular to his advantage, which shows how ambivalent we can be about accents and pronunciations.
There was a man living near us when I was young and he was the only one in the locality – outside of the gentry in the big house – who spoke with a posh accent. We had no idea where it came from, because he had never been any place in his life, although he was descended from the last Lords of Ormond, or so he claimed. He was well read, though, and his contemporaries said that he had always spoken like that. The neighbours weren’t that impressed, however. ‘Who does he think it is?’ they occasionally asked.
Anyway, Deputy O’Donovan was having none of the pedantic advice from the Dublin based radio listener. He will remain loyal to his roots, as opposed to his ‘ruths’. He’ll continue to speak in his West Limerick voice, and more power to him. I wish I had his guts when I was advised once to tone down my Tipperary accent and try and put my tongue slightly above my front teeth so that the ‘th’ sound could emerge unimpeded by my cussed Hiberno-English legacy. That was easier said than done. Whatever about the legacy, there was a slight gap between my two front teeth in which the ‘th’ invariably either got stuck or came out in a whistle. Sometimes I ended up biting my tongue – something I now realise I should have done more often when I was trying to get ahead in life.
‘What will I do?” I gasped to a friend. ‘Pronounce it as an ‘f’ as in ‘fing’ or do as the foreigners do and say ‘ze’, she said, somewhat disinterestedly, I have to say. Friends like that were like balm to the soul in my youthful days of self-doubt and zero confidence, not to talk of having to grapple as well with what Kavanagh so marvellously described as a ‘thick-tongued mumble’. Needless to say, I never made the school debating team.
But she did have a point. As far as I know, there is no ‘th’ sound in most of the world’s languages, and if the French can’t and won’t get their tongues around it, I don’t see why we Irish have to abandon our roots and put our tongues under such pressure.
The man who wrote to Deputy O’Donovan, blaming his parents and teachers for ‘creating the situation’ lives in Dublin and obviously has never succeeded in shaking off the ‘Pale’ mentality. His name has not been released by the Deputy, but I think I know who he is. And if I don’t, then I’ve met many of his kind during my life, people who are tainted by a self-inflicted, post-colonial, national inferiority complex, on top of their own individual insecurities. They firmly believe that, whatever about a standardised articulation of the English language, a posh accent is the only way to gain respect. But whoever he is, he is clearly in dire need of English classes himself, judging by the brief extract from his email that was published. Presumably he meant that he would ‘respectfully’ suggest elocution lessons, rather than ‘respectively’, but maybe I’m reading that line out of context.
In any case, Minister O’Donovan is not as small minded as I am. His response was wonderful, and his defence of local accents was both heart-warming and timely. I don’t know whether it’s down to the advance of globalisation or the influence of television, or maybe even the introduction of the new Junior Cert curriculum, but local accents are being abandoned with undue haste all over the place. Soon, if this sorry state of affairs continues, all the colours, inflexions, lilts and nuances of talk will be gone from our lives. We won’t even know any longer where anyone comes from the minute he opens his mouth.
My home town of Nenagh had its own distinctive accent up to a few years ago and now it has disappeared – killed off, I think, by nothing more complex than pure snobbery. But it was part of our identity once, and what wouldn’t I give now to hear it again?