A right old language ruck and maul

By Squinter

ULSTER’S poor record in France continued at the weekend when the team went down to Clermont Auvergne, condemning the boys from Ravenhill to play away in the Heineken Cup quarter finals. Disappointing and all as the score was, there were major pluses to be taken from the match. The main one being that Ulster’s broadcast journalists are – to a man and woman – excellent French speakers. In studios all over the city, the name Clermont Auvergne was bandied about with all the stylish insouciance of a Parisian having a Gauloise and a pastis at a pavement café.

Not long after the Ulster side trooped disconsolately from the pitch at Stade Marcel Michelin, news broke that the cultural body Comhaltas had decided that Derry was not a suitable place for the all-Ireland fleadh because it’s too dangerous. And no, it wasn’t people getting their ears bitten off in Shipquay Street that concerned Comhaltas – it seems it was the two dissident republican bombs in the city last week that made up their minds.

Now Comhaltas is not a hard word to say. It is if you’ve no Irish and have never seen it before, in which case you’re likely to say something along the lines of com-haltas; but a quick word in the ear of your producer and you’ll quickly learn that it’s pronounced coaltas and you’re away in a hack. But clearly, nobody bothers checking things out with anybody else when it comes to the Irish language, because the word proved totally unpronounceable to veteran broadcasters who are normally diligent in their efforts to get things right – phonetically speaking anyway.

Anyone unfamiliar with the French language is going to have a fair bit of difficulty with the second bit of Clermont Auvergne. An English speaker would likely pronounce the word Awverg-knee, little knowing that ‘au’ is pronounced ‘o’ or that ‘gn’ is pronounced ‘nyuh’. Add the guttural French ‘r’ before the ‘gn’ and that becomes a very tricky word indeed, even if you got your O-Level – ‘Overnyuh’. But this was, as the bloke selling the lighters in the city centre might say, ‘nat a prablim’ to the same people who can’t say ‘Comhaltas’.

The interface between broadcasters who have spent long careers in the warm and comfortable embrace of Her Britannic Majesty’s mother tongue and the increasingly active and Bolshie Irish language lobby is a place where humour and tension are to be found in abundance. The funniest part is watching and listening to broadcasters flamboyantly struggling on-air with Irish words – it’s their way of saying ‘I know nothing of this Irish mularkey and care even less.’ Because if they did care they would do what they do every other time they come across a word they don’t recognise – find out how to say it. On a run-through of the day’s news, if a broadcaster were to see that the Sri Lankan Prime Minister was paying a visit to the Pravince, he or she would go to work on pronouncing Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Jayaratne. And they’d likely get it right, because by their very nature broadcasters are good with words. They would consider it a dereliction of duty to stammer over the words on air, or indeed to get them utterly wrong. And yet no such standards are applied to the pronunciation of Irish words, which are routinely ballsed-up. Plus ça change, as they say in the Gaeltacht.

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