The week I started, they told me the common features of Hong Kong English and said to correct the children when they used them. ‘I go already’ to mean ‘I went’, that was wrong, though I understood it fine after the first few days. ‘Lah’ for emphasis – no lah, sorry lah – wasn’t English. I saw no difference between that and Irish people putting ‘sure’ in random places, it served a similar function sure, but that wasn’t English either. English was British.
I explained to my nine-year-olds that there were two ways to say the ‘th’ sound. The one at the start of ‘think’ and the end of ‘tooth’ was the voiceless dental fricative, and the one at the start of ‘that’, ‘these’ and ‘those’ was the voiced dental fricative. As a Dubliner, I had gone twenty-two years without knowingly pronouncing either phoneme. If anyone had thought there was something wrong with my English, they’d kept it to themselves. Now I had to practise fricatives, voiced and un-, so the kids could copy me. […]
‘Hold your tongue still and breathe,’ I said. That was what the teacher’s guide told me to say, but I tried it myself and produced a sound unlike anything I had ever heard from an English speaker, or indeed from any other vertebrate in the animal kingdom.
Joan often made me stay behind to ‘help her’ write vocabulary lists. In Hong Kong English, ‘helping someone do something’ could mean you did it and they did not assist. Joan was fond of this usage.
Mam always said: ‘That’s plenty.’ If you tweaked the heating above seventeen – that’s plenty, Ava.
I imagined her having me for dinner, just the two of us. I’d mispronounce ‘gnocchi’ and she’d avoid saying it all evening so as not to embarrass me. I would meet her eye and think: in this way I could strip you of every word you know. I’d take them like truffles and you’d say, ‘Help yourself,’ and then I’d take those too and you’d be speechless.
Most English people said ‘what’ as ‘wot’, though authors only spelled it ‘wot’ when the characters were poor. Sometimes I said ‘wot’, but with my parents I pronounced it as they did: ‘hwot’. This had been correct when Churchill said it but was hokey now Cameron did not. Even the Queen had stopped haitching it, at the behest, no doubt, of some mewling PR consultant. Irish English kept things after Brits dropped them. ‘Tings’ was incorrect, you needed to breathe and say ‘things’, but if you breathed for ‘what’ then that was quaint. If the Irish didn’t aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn’t then they were still right. The English taught us English to teach us they were right.
In person, if I missed a shaking hand or a falter in his smile, then that was that and I couldn’t revisit it. But in written form he was under a bell jar and would stay there until my analyses were complete.
Edith disliked waiting but liked the order of queues. I saw from her tactfully impatient expression that she was doing her best to reconcile these stances. She was such a polished and resolute individual that tiny breaches stood out: stray thread on skirt, wisps where hairline met back of neck. Before I met her I’d wondered if uncouth meant uncouth then what did couth mean, and now I knew: couth meant Edith.
She used the armrests. Julian rarely did when he sat there. He’d crossed his arms narrowly, like he was in the middle seat on a plane and the people on either side had boarded first.
Dublin had its own take on the perfect aspect. I didn’t know what to call it, but when you were ‘after’ doing something, it meant you’d just done it but didn’t expect the hearer to know. ‘I’ve just fallen in love’: we thought it might happen and it has. ‘I’m after falling in love’: look, I didn’t think there was a heart in this piece-of-shit chest compartment either, but here we are. ‘Only after’ was ‘just after’ plus exasperation: mud on a carpet you’re only after hoovering, losing someone you’re only after finding.
… I dented fricatives for a living …
The middle one was Tudor-fronted with carceral grids for windows. Tall English buildings looked like tall English prisons, and when you said that to an English person they thought you meant their prisons were lovely, too.
We had one cheap umbrella, which looked wholly unequal to the task before it. They said I should hold it. Being the modal height, I’d keep it at the fairest altitude for the three of us.
My twelve-year-olds were on quantifier nouns: a tube of, a stack of, a stick of. Some words only went with some nouns, and there was, I gaily informed them, no logic to it whatsoever. They nodded. They didn’t expect any. This was, after all, English.