Ulster says what?

The Antipodean Inflection hits Belfast.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • Ulster says what?

Words have always mattered in Northern Ireland. ‘Londonderry’ v ‘Derry’, ‘Northern Ireland’ v ‘the North of Ireland’, ‘freedom-fighters’ v ‘terrorists’ – all illustrate that the war/Troubles in Ulster/The Six Counties has been fought on linguistic as well as military battlefields.

Now that Northern Ireland’s Troubles are coming to an end, or at least abating, this war of words has grown more ferocious. As if to compensate for the lack of real confrontation, antagonists have shifted all their energies to the semantic struggles. Much of this is an adjunct to the ‘culture wars’, in which what flags fly where and what is spoken by whom are regarded as seriously pressing matters, because they reflect people’s culture. Twenty years ago, grass-roots Loyalists would not have been so bothered by the prestige of Ulster-Scots; their less respectable numbers would have been joining the UDA.

Yet an altogether more telling linguistic shift of recent years in the Province has gone uncharted: the growth of upspeak. This is the tendency to end one’s sentences with an upwards inflection, so as to make a statement sound like a question. Other places in the Ulster/Six Counties are only mildly afflicted by this affectation; in Belfast, it is rampant.

Upspeak was first identified in Britain about 15 years ago. Many attributed its growth to the popularity of Australian soap operas. Australians are notorious for this habit – indeed, many have dubbed the affectation the Antipodean Inflection. In England, Bristolians are apparently the worst offenders, and demographically, it is far more popular among the under-35s. We all have friends who upspeak, and it has been observed that the rising inflection becomes more acute when you ask someone to talk about moral or political matters.

This linguistic shift reflects our more ‘inclusive’, contingent approach to ‘truth’. Rather than making a confident, bold statement, a sentence spoken with upspeak sounds doubting and hesitant. It invites the listener to nod or utter words of assent. We seek affirmation of what we say because we are unsure of what we believe. This, it is said, reflects my generation’s lack of ideology or moral compass.

So why should the burghers of Belfast have been seduced by this phenomenon? After all, Belfastmen of old prided themselves on their commonsense, no-nonsense approach to life. The Sash My Father Wore would never have been sung with the interrogative rise. Ian Paisley never boomed: ‘Ulster says No?’

Speaking to some people in Belfast today, you feel their tone rising and rising almost inexorably. Like the squeal of an oncoming police car, we become more nervous the higher the notes go, fearing no end to this escalation. Some wee girl who served me at one bar, I feared her head was going to fall off. By the end of her sentence only dogs and cats could now hear her.

There may be understandable reasons for upspeak’s ascendancy in Belfast. The Peace Process was very much built on the notion that ‘dialogue’ is good, that there must be more talking, mutual understanding and – although the specific word is rarely uttered – compromise. We must all ask questions of ourselves and each other; even statements must now sound like questions. On the other hand, it could reflect the fact that – just as Ulster’s identity wars illustrate that politics of the Six Counties is not very different from mainland Britain’s – Belfast’s younger generation just don’t have any belief in what they’re talking about.

Maybe readers from Northern Ireland/the North of Ireland have their own suggestions?

  • Sensitivity priests

It is rather different in the Republic, whose inhabitants are given to definitive pronouncements. This, Ulster Protestants might say, derives from the power wielded by the Catholic Church, which reflects and perpetuates a culture in which unquestionable dogma rules. This is a rather old-fashioned view. The Catholic Church in Ireland has fallen far from grace. While the populace hasn’t exactly embraced atheism – most now hide under the nebulous veil of ‘spirituality’ instead – anti-clericalism is certainly in vogue.

The new dogma in the Republic is multicultural orthodoxy. Under the guise of ‘pluralism’, there is now a slavish adherence to the idea that pluralism and ‘respect for identities’ are inherently good things. Recently, the Office of Public Works (OPW) advised that a picture of the Sacred Heart, which has hung in Cork’s Cobh Garda station since 1922, be taken down. Nobody had complained about it. Still, said the OPW, ‘It was felt it wouldn’t be appropriate in the context of dealing with people in a public building in a multicultural society’ (1). You will be shouted down if you express disquiet at this kind of thing.

It is a strange combination: at once, liberal opinions are uttered and accepted in an unthinkingly conformist manner; yet you will be howled and shrieked at for not being ‘sensitive’. This kind of emotive moral authoritarianism in the Republic of Ireland is all a bit familiar.

  • Final thoughts

Those are the differences between North and South – how Ulster is British in a very lamentable sense, how the Republic has not escaped its Catholic past. But what was very interesting for me as a Hiberno-Englishman was crossing the border from Dublin to Belfast by train. Although I am British, Ulster is still alien to me in a way the Republic (from where my mother’s family hails) has never been. At once, I was leaving my country, only to ‘return’ to my own, part of which was paradoxically on the other side of the Irish Sea. Which was ‘my’ flag? I pondered, gazing from the window at the lush fields of South Armagh.

It was all too much. I began sobbing, uncontrollably.

You can read more about these hyphenated quandaries in my forthcoming book Round Ireland with One Fat Fucking Ego (Navel Press, £15.99).

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) Irish Independent, 27 July 2002

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Topics Politics


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