Yamagata and Me (2016)

While teaching EFL in the public senior high school system in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, I was asked to contribute an article to the regional board of education periodical. I was asked to compose 500 words under the heading, “Yamagata and Me,” which was published in both English and Japanese in Yamagata Kyoiku No. 378, in late 2016.

Imagine a place lush and green with nature, where – beyond the big city - small villages and farming communities dot the landscape. Can you see the people? An old man speaks with an accent so thick you can barely catch your native language. A friendly, curious lady asks you where you are from, and she will go on to ask for your life story if you can’t get away. Everyone you meet is keen to tell you about locally produced food, famous crafts in the area, or a particular spot of natural beauty. Every town has an exciting festival, charming old religious buildings, and various traditions. Is it Yamagata? Actually, I was writing about Ireland.

Let me tell you about Ireland, and the great similarities between our peoples and places, even though they are on opposite sides of the Earth. In Yamagata the farmer tends to his rice, while in Ireland he harvests potatoes or herds livestock. The old Irishman sits outside a pub and speaks English in a thick local accent; the elderly Yamagata ojiisan speaks Yamagata-ben. The Yamagata lady might start chatting to you at the onsen, the Irish lady at the supermarket. In towns across Ireland, old stone churches remain amongst the modernizing buildings, in Yamagata it is the colorful torii or impressive temple gates. The Japanese pride themselves on “omotenashi” hospitality, while Ireland is known as the land of “one hundred thousand welcomes.”

I often hear snippets of Yamagata-ben. For Yamagata people this must be normal, but for other Japanese, it must sound strange, or difficult to understand! Although there are minor differences between American English and British English, there is no problem communicating. However, many smaller English-speaking countries also have their own language styles and structures, influenced by culture, history and native languages. Just like Yamagata-ben is a great example of Japanese local dialect, Irish English is a great example of diversity in English around the world.

Is Irish English so different? Not really, it’s quite close to British English. However, its unusual words and phrases come from local slang and the original Irish Gaelic language (Gaelige ゲーリゲ). English first came to Ireland in the 12th century, but didn’t become widespread until the 19th century. Today’s Irish English is scattered with words borrowed from Irish Gaelic, such as “craic” meaning fun or entertainment (クラック). The phrase “one hundred thousand welcomes”, which describes famous Irish hospitality, is usually said in the original Irish Gaelic form, “Céad Míle Fáilte” (ケードミーラファールチャ). Repetition and words like “now,” “so,” and “well” are used in sentences to give emphasis or attract attention. As a result, a phrase as simple as “I am,” can become, “well I am now, so I am.” Although I speak and teach American English here in Japan, when I chat with Irish friends, other English-speakers can find conversation amusing or difficult! Just like Yamagata-ben, Irish English is an expressive and unique dialect, which reflects the people, culture, and land.

Cross-cultural communication: bringing Saint Patrick’s Day to the staff room in March 2017.

Cross-cultural communication: bringing Saint Patrick’s Day to the staff room in March 2017.