On Speaking in an Irish Accent, and How to Respond to Trolls

Emma Dabiri

Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is currently a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and is working on her first book.

I’m not from Ireland but I live in Dublin and I’ve lived here for several years now. I’ve been wondering whether I should start to assimilate by using Dublin slang and letting myself grow an accent or not? I feel like I should be trying to fit in, and I really like it, and it feels natural to start to talk like everybody around me. But if I started doing that wouldn’t people think I was joking? Especially people I know who are used to my original accent. Any advice?

Such an interesting question. Our voices and accents are a fundamental part of our identities. They are crucial markers of belonging, of how we are perceived, and of whether we are included or not.

Full participation in verbal expression – particularly in cultures that place great value on orality and that are richly idiomatic – is a key part of socialization. Not using the “lingo”, as it were, can lead to intense feelings of exclusion.

The self-awareness that emerges when you understand how different your accent is from those around you can be likened to a form of double consciousness, leading you to overthink and over-analyse every word in a way that thwarts ordinary communication. Or is that just me?

So … what to do? I think the concept of code-switching might be helpful.

Code-switching is simply a matter of modulating your accent or vocabulary to meet the needs of the situation. People from minority or marginalized groups do it all the time. An Economist article on the phenomenon, explains that “Language is a proxy for identity, and so code-switching is an apt metaphor for handling more than one identity.”

When I was growing up there was certainly a stigma attached to this kind of thing. The perception being that it was “inauthentic” or “fake”, that you were trying to “be something you were not”, but code-switching is very different from “putting on an accent”.

It is using a voice ostensibly your own, but adapting it accordingly, and it is a survival technique for people navigating racial, national and class lines. In a society that was as homogenous as Ireland was in the 1990s I can understand why the use of different accents might have been viewed as suspicious.

Code-switching is born out of diversity and the intersections of multiple identities across different social spaces. As Ireland becomes increasingly diverse, it is bound to happen more and more.

We are multidimensional and the way we speak can reflect that. Don’t get me wrong, it is not the easiest thing in the world to do.

Despite having lived in London for years, I still have an Irish accent – I think because so many different accents exist in London it’s almost easier to retain your own. Irish accents can be hard enough for British people to place in terms of class, which is a big indicator of identity, throw being black with an Irish accent into the mix, and things can get pretty confusing.

Even after all these years, I still occasionally get the piss taken out of me for certain things that I say, but sometimes you gotta just have a thick skin, a strong sense of who you are, and accept that it is what it is. This is one of the realities of being an immigrant. It’s certainly not the most challenging but at the same time it can be wearying.

One of the things I miss most about living in Ireland is the incomparable wit and speed of the way we speak. It’s one of the greatest pleasures of living there so it would seem a great shame to not get stuck in.

My advice to you would be g’wan, use the slang, you’ve probably already picked up the accent more then you know. But at the same time don’t feel that you only have recourse to one accent that now becomes your “authentic voice”.

***

I’m white but I hate all the racist and xenophobic stuff that I see on Twitter. Like, when John Connors tweeted about the Lidl being smashed up, and so many racists jumped on him for it and he got loads of abuse. Whether you agree with what he said or not, that’s really out of order. But I don’t know what I should do when I see stuff like that. I report it to Twitter but if I chime in, am I just helping to amplify it and give it more attention? I feel like the trolls go away if you don’t feed them, but then it looks as if you aren’t speaking out against it.

I appreciate this question. Often when there is a racist outburst I just don’t have the energy to engage anymore and also, it shouldn’t always be the responsibility of members of marginalised groups to do the draining labour of confronting racists 24-7. One of the most powerful things members of majority/powerful groups can do, is to contest instances of racism when they occur.

With that being said, I take your point about amplifying trolls, and I think it’s important to consider this aspect carefully too. My advice would be that there is no hard-and-fast rule. It is case-by-case specific.

I have had instances where ignoring the vitriolic egg with five followers has completely resolved the situation, but equally there have been times when it has escalated far beyond that, and in times like these I have often been moved by the volume of white Irish people who have come to my defence against white men (ironically both instances were “Irish-American” men I believe), who had been triggered by my existence.

I think the incident you refer to with John demonstrates the ugly reality that lies just beneath the surface of civility. It is something I’ve experienced many times myself. Everyone is polite and progressive until something happens where the truth of how Travellers or black people are really perceived, is quickly revealed.

The far harsher judgment of our behaviour than that which is extended to members of other groups. The ferocious backlash that vastly outweighs the content of whatever it is that we have said or done.

An acceleration from zero to 100, sparked by a pretty uncontroversial comment, where the rage of the response seems out of all proportion to what was said in the first place. Where if the social identity of the speaker were different, what was said would go largely unremarked upon. I think in instances such as these it is imperative to speak out.

It is also important to think about life beyond the digital sphere, a space where people of all different perspectives and opinions are far more emboldened than they might be IRL. I think that it is helpful is for white people – who feel so inclined – to contest pernicious and problematic racial attitudes when they encounter them in their families, work or social spaces too.

Perhaps it is in these conversations that the deeper more enduring work is done. Certainly I think an intersection between both offline and online conversations is necessary.


Got a question about race and identity in contemporary Ireland and want to hear what Emma thinks? We’d love if you’d submit it through this online form.

Reader responses

Write a response to the article

Log in to write a response.

Author:

Emma Dabiri: Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is currently a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and is working on her first book.

Understand your city

We do in-depth, shoe-leather reporting about the issues that shape Dublin. We're not funded by advertisers. We're funded by readers like you.

We use first-party cookies to allow visitors to log in to our website and read our articles.

I understand