The Irish Can’t Spell (and the English Can’t Read)
Pronouncing Irish names with a minimum of mangling
The easiest way to find out how to pronounce someone’s name is usually just to ask them; sadly, few people in the SCA with Gaelic personas actually speak or read Gaelic, so unless they have asked someone with some knowledge of the language (preferably before they chose their name) they themselves may be pronouncing their own name incorrectly. On the other end of the spectrum is the person with the scrupulously-researched persona who will give their name in perfect Gaelic, using a lot of gagging noises and other sounds you’d rather not try to repeat.
Many heralds positively weep when they are presented with a scroll or announcement to read that includes a Gaelic name, more so than those of any other tough-to-pronounce culture. Why should this be? Simple—you’ve been set up to fail.
When “Hooked on Phonics” steers you wrong
Most of us probably learned to read via some system involving phonics. “Sound it out,” your teacher said, as you muddled through “see Spot run” and other odd phrases. Once you learned the sound that B and K and S make, you could make a stab at pronouncing a word even if you didn’t know what it meant. And for the rest of your life, every time you see an unfamiliar word, you try to use the same tools. But though you’ve been given a darned fine hammer, not everything is a nail.
If I show you <HEP>, and you’re an English speaker, you’re going to pronounce it “hep.” A Russian speaker will pronounce it “nyair.” Unless I tell you what language it’s in, you’re both right, because you’ve each used the sound values those letters have in your language. You don’t usually try to sound out words and names written in Arabic, or Cyrillic, or kanji, because unless you’re familiar with those writing systems (or “orthographies”), it looks like a bunch of squiggles to you. When these orthographies are rendered in the Latin alphabet, they are spelled out specifically to approximate the sounds. Ha-ba-bah, Ye-le-na, or Ha-ru-ki-ri are relatively easy to sound out.
The problem with Gaelic is that although it appears to have too many Gs and Hs, and way too many vowels, it looks like English. But think of Gaelic as more of a screw than a nail. You can eventually drive it into the wood with the hammer, but the results aren’t going to be pretty. You’ll try to pronounce a B like you do in English, and sometimes you’ll be right, except for when it should sound like a V… or when you shouldn’t pronounce it at all. Screwdriver, anyone?
The following tips are meant as a very basic approximation, with the intended goal being that you, the reasonably educated English-speaking herald or courtier can announce, refer to, and converse with a distinguished Irish visitor without embarrassing yourself or distressing the visitor to the point where war is declared. If you have a Gaelic-speaking persona, I highly recommend you do some in-depth technical reading on the subject. I have listed two articles at the end that would make an excellent starting point for you.
A brief history of Irish writing
The earliest surviving written form of Irish dates from around the 4th century. It was written on stone in an alphabet called "Ogham". When this writing system developed, the Irish language was very different from the medieval form, roughly as different as Latin is from Middle French. At this stage of the language, called "Primitive Irish” or "Oghamic Irish", a nice Irish boy might be named <Ivagenas maqqas Cunavali>, or ‘Ivagenas, son of Cunavalas.’
Ogham orthography was literally set in stone. The Irish language, on the other hand, was undergoing pretty drastic changes, so the later Ogham writings (7th century) didn’t look anything like how the language was being spoken. Happily, a new writing system using Roman letters was developed in the 6th century, much closer to what was actually being spoken. This stage of the language, as recorded from the late 7th century to the mid-10th century, is called Old Irish, and our good Irish boy can now write his name (you’ll just have to trust me, a discussion of recreating Oghamic forms based on their stems is WAY beyond the scope of this article) <Eogan mac Conaill>, or ‘Eogan, son of Conall.”
The shift in spelling made the learned Irish so happy, that around 1200 they decided it was time for yet another sweeping change in spelling conventions to reflect new pronunciations. Fortunately for our boy, all he needed to do was to start spelling his given name <Eoghan> instead. Many of the “rules” I’m giving in this article are specific to spelling styles after 1200; the pronunciation changes started long before that, but they weren’t reflected in spelling, making getting the right sound from the spelling even more challenging.
Gaelic orthography (from the Old Irish period on) uses eighteen letters. Twelve of them (B, C, D, F, G, L, M, N, P, R, S and T) are used to represent consonant sounds. All of these can be altered in pronunciation depending on where the word or name appears in the sentence (called lenition—more on this later); sometimes this change is indicated in spelling and sometimes it is not, so these twelve can all have two or more very different sounds associated with them. Five more (A, E, I, O, and U) are used to represent vowel sounds, and happily represent nearly the same sound all the time, except for when they are entirely silent. The remaining letter, <H>, is used only as an indication that the preceding consonant is altered and as a prefix to a word beginning with a vowel in certain contexts when required by Gaelic grammar. (The English letters J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y and Z are not used in Gaelic.)
The Long and the Short of Irish Vowels
We have been hopelessly muddled in our understanding of long and short vowels by modern English. We are taught that, for example, short <A> is the sound in “cat” and long <A> is the sound in “make”. We have reached these usages after a tangled history of combining many languages to form one. For most of the world, long and short vowels are just what the name implies, different in duration rather than actual sound. If English made sense, short <A> would be the sound in “caught” (for most Americans, anyway) and long <A> would be the sound in the first syllable of “father”. It’s basically the same sound, but you hold one out longer.
Gaelic, in this respect, does make sense. There’s no dramatic difference between long and short vowels; rather, the difference is in length, usually affecting on which syllable we hear a stress. Long vowels are typically marked with an accent, which will help give you a clue where the stress should fall.
<Á> (long <A>) is roughly the vowel sound in the first syllable of “father”. Unstressed <A> (short <A>) is pronounced lightly, and, just like in English, frequently becomes what we call schwa. Think of the first syllable in “about”.
<É> is the roughly the vowel sound in “weigh” (so if that sounds just like “way” to you, you can probably think of Gaelic long <E> as English long <A>). Unstressed <E> is often pronounced just like unstressed <A>, namely, as schwa. It can also be pronounced roughly like the vowel sound in “bet”, English short <E>.
<Í> is roughly the vowel sound in “fee”, so think of Gaelic long <I> as English long <E>. (These sound values, by the way, are common to most Romance languages and much of the rest of the world that uses a Latin alphabet; it’s English that’s wacky.) The unstressed is the same sound, lightly pronounced.
<Ó> is roughly the vowel sound in “row” (move a boat); unstressed <O> is schwa.
<Ú> is roughly the vowel sound in “food”; unstressed <U> is schwa.
There are three diphthongs in Gaelic; that is, a vowel sound made up of two vowels sounded together. Two of them are also present in English: the first can be spelled <áe>, <ái>, <aé> or <aí>, and is pronounced like “eye”; the second can be spelled <óe>, <ói>, <oé> or <oí>, and is the vowel sound in “boy”. The third diphthong is not used in English; spelled <uí> and pronounced very roughly like the word “wee” very light on the <w> sound.
Vowels in written Gaelic have an important function for pronunciation beyond the rendering of their own sound value. They also indicate whether the consonant which precedes them is slender or broad (more on this later, just go with it for now). <A>, <O>, and <U> follow broad consonants, and <E> and <I> follow slender consonants. Before your eyes glaze over completely, let me reassure you that we have this practice in English; think about the letter <C>. When you see <C> before <A>, <O>, or <U>, you pronounce it like <K>, as in “cat”, “cot”, and “cut”. When you see it before <E> or <I>, you pronounce it like <S>, as in “cell” and “city”. Ditto for <G>: think “gas”, “go” and “gut” as opposed to “gem” and “giraffe”. That’s pretty much where we stop in American English, but in Gaelic it’s true for every consonant.
You may notice that the Gaelic diphthongs are always made up of a broad-indicator vowel followed by a slender-indicator vowel. Whenever you see two vowels together and the second vowel is a broad-indicator, you should hear “Danger Will Robinson!” inside your head. One of those vowels is likely to be silent. This can also happen with a slender-indicator in the second position, but we’ll deal with that after a look at the consonants.
“Skinny and Fatty” in Irish Consonants
Every consonant (except <h>) has two variants, referred to as “slender” and “broad”. You can think of broad consonants as normal; the broad Gaelic consonants have pretty much the same sound values as those consonants in English. The slender consonants are what is called “palatalized”, meaning you slide your tongue over the roof of your mouth (your palate) while saying them. The easiest way to approximate this change is to think about putting a <y> sound after the consonant. We do this occasionally in English; think of the difference between “foo” and “few”. Depending on where you grew up, you might also do it with “do” and “dew”, or “toon” and “tune”. Slender consonants are often marked in phonological transcription with an apostrophe, so /t’ir/ tells you that <tír>, the Irish word for ‘land’, should be pronounced “tyeer” or even in some dialects “cheer”. Your first stab pronouncing a syllable should be:
B broad: <bó> ‘cow’ sounds like “bow” (the thing that shoots arrows)
B slender: <bil> ‘mouth’ sounds like “byeel”
C broad: <cat> ‘cat’ sounds more like “cot”
C slender: <cill> ‘church’ sound like “kyill”
D broad: <dá> ‘two’ sounds like “dah”
D slender: <día> ‘god’ sounds like “jee-uh”
F broad: <fál> ‘hedge, fold’ sounds like “fall”
F slender: <fidir> ‘to know’ sounds like “fyijir”
G broad: <gal> ‘war’ sounds like “gall”
G slender: <gille> ‘servant’ sounds like “gyilla”
L broad: <lot> ‘wound’ sounds like “loat”
L slender: <lia> ‘stone’ sounds like “lyee-uh”
M broad: <máthair> ‘mother’ sounds like “mah-her” (go with it, more on H below)
M slender: <mil> ‘honey’ sounds like “myil” or “meel”
N broad: <na> ‘the, of the, than, etc.” sounds like it looks
N slender: <nél> ‘cloud’ sounds like “nyail” or “neel”
P broad: <pálas> ‘palace’ sounds like it should
P slender: <peall> ‘skin, hide’ sounds like “pyell” or “peel”
R broad: <rann> ‘quatrain, poem’ sounds like “Ron”
R slender: <riar> ‘will, pleasure’ sounds like “ryear”
S broad: <samhain> ‘Halloween’ sounds like “sah-ven” or “sah-wen” (H later!)
S slender: <sinn> ‘we, us” sounds like “shin” or “sheen”
T broad: <tan> ‘time’ sounds like “tahn”
T slender: <tír> ‘land’ sounds like “tyeer” or “cheer”
That Awful “H”
Okay, <H> sometimes makes me weep, too. I once heard a herald describing <H> in Gaelic as being equivalent to “backspace delete”, and indeed in some period transcriptions of Gaelic, <H> is replaced by a dot over the preceding letter known as a “punctum delens” or “dot that tells you to skip that bit.” Sadly, this is a gross oversimplification that will lead you wrong most of the time. It’s also something that happened over time, so it’s truer in modern Irish than it was prior to 1600. Take our example boy, Eoghan. When he was Ivagenas, that <G> was hard, like “ee-va-GAIN-us”; by the time Old Irish came in, that <G> had mutated to a guttural rasp which lightened over the centuries to such a point that the usual modern spelling of the name is Eoan.
Remember that <H> technically has no sound value. It’s there simply to tell you that the consonant preceding it isn’t pronounced the way you expect. There is no such sound in Gaelic as <TH> pronounced like “this” or “thick”, nor is there such a sound as the <CH> in “chair”. If those sounds come out of your mouth, you will always be wrong. (If you’ve ever heard an Irish person pronounce <third> like “tard”, you’ll know that they just don’t do that <TH> sound.)
The combinations <LH>, <NH>, and <RH> will never happen. Weirdnesses to these consonants were simply never reflected in spelling, probably because they make very little impact on the sound. The rest of the consonants will change as follows:
BH: nearly always sounds like <V> (it doesn’t really, and for you Spanish speakers, you know what I mean, but most English speakers hear <V>, hence <Mebh>, later spelled <Meadhbh>, pronounced “Mayv”). Over time, <BH> at the end of words became silent, especially after long vowels, so you will hear the word <dubh> ‘dark, black’ pronounced both as “doov” and as “doo”. Both are correct for some time period.
CH: like a German, not like an English speaker. Think “Bach” and you’ll get it. If you can’t manage that sound, it appears from English spellings of Irish names that English speakers hear the <C/K> sound for a broad consonant and an <H> for a slender one, but take your pick.
DH: this is a <D> sound, but with your tongue at the back of your teeth. If you’ve ever heard anyone from South London, it’s their <D> sound. In practice, it’s silent often enough that you can just skip this one.
FH: the proper sound is rather like blowing between your lips; either <F> or silent will work as an approximation. Some English spellings use <PH> for this sound.
GH: remember <CH>? <GH> is the same sound with twice the phlegm, and lower in your throat. Pick <G> or <H> as an approximation.
MH: halfway between <BH> and <FH>. The best approximation, and the most common in English spellings, is <W>, though <V> is common if it’s the beginning of the word.
PH: like English, usually reflects a light <F> sound. See <FH>.
SH: Highly variable. Your best bet here is to leave it silent.
TH: Usually silent, as in <máthair> above.
For the consonants that go silent, remember that they are still keeping vowels from running into one another. Within a name, an <H> sound will do the job. For example, the name <Saoirbhreathach> (which should not be pronounced “sauerbraten” however sorely you are tempted) is roughly “sair-vra-hock”, preserving the number of syllables.
A promised (brief) word about lenition
Lenition is a softening of initial consonant sounds required by Gaelic grammar. For our purposes, you’ll see it most often in Irish women’s bynames. <Niall Mór> ‘Big Niall’ pronounces his descriptive nickname like “more”, but <Maire Mhór> ‘Big Maire’ has to stick that <H> in there and pronounce it “vore” instead. If you see that dreaded <H> after the initial consonant, just follow the rules above and hope for the best.
If you have a Gaelic persona and wonder whether, why, and how this affects your name, see the excellent articles by Sharon L. Krossa available on the web. She’ll lead you through it.
So what are all those extra vowels for?
I hear you cry. About 1200, the anal Irish scholars felt that having a marker vowel follow a consonant wasn’t good enough when the consonant or consonant group appeared in the middle of a word. Wouldn’t it be better if there were markers on BOTH sides? We’ll remember not to actually pronounce those extra vowels, but won’t it be fun when we don’t tell the English speakers not to? So middle Irish <lennan> ‘sweetheart’ became early modern Irish <leannan>, adding the first <a> to warn you that <nn> is broad. It doesn’t change the sound a bit.
But that’s not all. Just as we have <’s> in English to change <John> to <John’s> and indicate possession, Gaelic also has a grammatical change to express the genitive (possessive) case, and not surprisingly, it involves vowels. The most common change is the insertion of <I> after the final vowel, so <Conall> becomes <Conaill>, <Cormac> becomes <Cormaic>, <Ercc> becomes <Eircc> and <Fintan> becomes <Fintain>. This change also makes little or no change in sound. Of course, there are plenty of genitive forms that don’t do it this way: <Diarmait> becomes <Diarmata>, <Niall> becomes <Néill>, and <Finn> doesn’t change at all, so don’t run off thinking I’ve taught you Irish grammar! These changes DO change the sound. Hey, if it were easy, everybody would do it.
When you see two vowels together, it’s possible for the first to be silent, for the second to be silent, for the pair to be pronounced as a single-sound diphthong, and for each to be pronounced separately. I gave you all the possible diphthong spellings above, so if it isn’t one of those, you can eliminate that possibility. If you see an accent mark over one vowel, that one is definitely pronounced alone or as part if the diphthong. Here’s the likely fate of the other combinations:
<AO>: horribly, this is often a later spelling of the <AE>/<AI> diphthong, but by that time it could be pronounced like either “ay” (as in “day”) or “ee” rather than “eye”; if it’s three vowels <AOI>, assume it’s “ee” except before <R> (<AOIR> is roughly “air”)
<AU>: if the name looks Irish, assume the <A> is silent, think “oo”; if the name looks foreign (Augustín, Causantín ‘Constantine’), pronounce it like “ow” in “cow”
<EA>, <EI>: the second vowel is nearly always silent, so think “day” and “weigh”
<EO>: the <E> is nearly always silent; think “oh”
<EU>: a typo! You shouldn’t ever see this.
<IA>: almost always pronounce both, as in <Brian> and <Niall>, “bree-un”, “nee-ul”
<IE>: you shouldn’t see
<IO>: the <O> is usually silent; <Fionn> is pronounced like <Finn>
<IU>: if the name looks Irish, assume the <U> is silent, think “ee”; if the name looks foreign (Maidiú ‘Matthew’), pronounce it like “ew”
<OA>: usually means a consonant group was lost; pronounce both, “oh-uh”
<OU>: you shouldn’t see
<UA>: you’ll see most often as one of the precursors to <O’> in Irish surnames; pronounce it like “wah”; inside a name, pronounce both, “oo-uh”
<UE>/<UO>: you shouldn’t see
<UI>: when inside a name, the <U> may be silent, as in <Muireann> “meer-yun”
Armed with this knowledge, let’s begin our practicum by tackling a scary Irish name:
Giolla Criost Ua Maoil Brenainn
Both of these are “compound names”: <Giolla Criost> ‘servant of Christ’ and <Maoil Brenainn> ‘devoted to (Saint) Brendan’, but that shouldn’t slow you down (this is a real 12th century guy, by the way). I told you that with <IO> you can pretty much ignore the <O>, so that makes the first part “gilla crist” which is almost perfectly phonetic; just try for “gyilla” and you’ve got it. I told you <ua> was “wah” by itself. I told you <AOI> was “ee” and the <I> in the last syllable of the last name was probably silent, so if you get “gyilla crist wah meel brennan” you’re almost exactly right. As a matter of practice, the element <maoil> (also spelled <máel> and <maol>) isn’t stressed, so it usually sounds like “mel” or “mul”. Further, this spelling didn’t happen to show you that <Brennain> was probably lenited and should be better spelled <Bhrennain>, so “gyilla crist wah mel vrennan” is slightly better. Your English counterpart circa 1600 would probably have recorded this guy as <Gilchrist O Mulrenan>. Any of those three choices is a valid attempt, and better than 90% of the folks in the SCA can manage. Here’s another:
Muiregen mac Aedhagáin
A 9th century guy, he also appears spelled <Mórecain mac Aedhacain>, so that’s a big clue. I’d make the first name “meer-uh-cun” or “more-uh-cun”, and <mac> I assume you can get. The name/element <Aed> (also spelled <Aodh>) was pronounced variously “ee” and “eye”, tending towards “ee” the later you go. The <D> was already mostly silent very early, and I told you to ignore <DH>, so “ee-uh-gun” isn’t a bad pronunciation for the byname. The ca. 1600 spellings include (they liked to abbreviate <mac>) M’ Egaine, M’ Hegane, M’ Keagan, and M’ Kiegane, so different scribes heard slightly different sounds.
Not so bad, right? Now let’s further our practicum by seeing what happens…
When Irish happens to good English names
The best way to demonstrate how Irish spelling conventions befuddle the English is to use as an example a name borrowed into Irish (through Latin) from English: Catherine, or in Latin, Catrina, whose Irish spelling <Caitriona> is probably the single most mispronounced name in the SCA (followed closely by <Caitlín>, and for the same reason).
So, you’re an Irish scribe, taking it letter by letter…<C>, that’s fine, <A>, fine, <T>, okay, <R>, and <I>. Hmmm. That means the <tr> consonant group is slender, so I need to mark it in advance; I’ll go back and put in another <I> before the consonant group. That makes <AI>, a possible diphthong to an Irish speaker, but so does <AE>, so it can’t be helped.
C, A, I, T, R, I, N, A… ugh. That <A> means the <N> is a broad consonant, so I need to go back and mark THAT by putting in an <O>. The <O> is usually silent when you have <IO>, so that won’t mess anybody up. So I’ve got C-A-I-T-R-I-O-N-A, Catrina.
Really. I promise you that there is no such name as “kay-tree-oh-na”. Likewise, there is no such name (yes, I know, there is now) as “kate-lynn”. Irish Caitlín is pronounced like “cot-leen”, leading to the English spelling Kathleen.
The Normans moved into Ireland beginning in the 12th century, and the Gaels had to record new foreign sounds as best they could. When you see these names, remember that the Gaelic spelling reflects THEIR best attempt to reflect the pronunciation you know already:
Énri, Anraoi Henry
Seán, Seaan John (Jean, Jehan)
Oilibhéar Oliver (no V in Gaelic!)
Peadrais Peter (Petrus)
Uater Walter (no W in Gaelic!)
Uilliam William (ditto!)
So, <Uilliam mac Sefraidh> is actually pronounced “William mac Geoffrey”. Easy, huh?
Clues in Spelling used by English Speakers
There’s a reason we spell Kelly the way we do, rather than Ceallaigh as a Gael would. First, we want to soften that <C> to an <S> sound before <E>, so if we’re going to preserve the consonant sound, we have to switch to <K>. The <A> before the two <L>s isn’t necessary as far as we can tell from the sound, and <aigh> sounds pretty much like “ee” to our ears. There is no shame in using the best English approximation of a Gaelic name. Not only is it exactly what an English speaker in period would have done, but given the fact that most SCA Gaels don’t speak Gaelic and probably can’t pronounce their own name anyway, you may still be coming closer to correct than they are.
Happily, we have a large collection of Irish names spelled by English scribes right around 1600, so we have a very good idea what most Irish names sounded like to English speakers. Listed below are some scary Irish names, along with their ca. 1600 English spelling and their common modern English spelling. Spellings ca. 1600 were taken from Woulfe, Patrick, Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall: Irish Names and Surnames (Kansas City: Irish Genealogical Foundation).
Breatnach Brathnagh, Brenagh Brannagh this means ‘Welshman’!
mac an Gobann M’Agowne MacGowan ‘son of the smith’
mac Cartaig M’Carhig, M’Carhie MacCarthy
mac Ceallaig M’Kelly Kelly
mac Coingeallaig M’Congillye Connolly
mac Domnaill M’Coenill MacConnell
mac Eocagain M’ Keoghegane, M’Coogan Coogan
mac Fionguine M’Kynnoun MacKinnon
mac Giolla Coinnig M’Gillekennie MacIlhenny
mac Giolla Criost M’ Gillachrist Gilchrist
mac Leannacain M’Clanaghan MacLenahan
mac Mathgamna M’Mahowna MacMahon, Mahony
mac Murcada M’Murroghowe Morrow
mac Paidin M’Padine, M’Faddine Patterson, MacFadden fun, huh?
mac Ruaidhri M’Rury, M’Rowry MacRory
mac Sitig M’Shihy, M’Shee Sheehy
mag Aireactaig M’Garraghtie MacGarrity
mag Fearadaig M’Garee, M’Garrye MacGarry
mag Samradain MacGovern
Ó Breaslain O Breslane Breslin
Ó Caoimh O Keeve O’Keefe
Ó Dubhda O Dooda Dowd
Ó Flannagain O Flannagaine Flanagan
Ó Gallcobhair O Galleghure Gallagher <gall> ‘foreigner’
Ó h-Annagan O Hannegan Hannigan a useful <H>!
Ó h-Uallacain O Holeghane Houlihan
Ó Reagain O Regaine Reagan
Ó Rimeada O Rives Reeves
Is that all? That’s not so bad!
Oh, no, believe me. We have just skimmed the surface of the weirdnesses of Gaelic pronunciation. If you were reading actual Gaelic sentences, you’d have whole new worlds of lenition complexities, and other fun things like “eclipsis” where the letter sounds changes entirely, but you shouldn’t encounter those in looking at names. If you’re a glutton for punishment, try the articles I’ve referenced below.
How about Scotland?
Scots Gaelic was almost identical to Irish Gaelic throughout our period, but almost no documents written in Scots Gaelic survive. We are therefore at the mercy of gleaning the names of Scottish Gaels from documents written in Latin or Scots, which is very close to English. This has led to some unique spellings of some Scottish names, but doesn’t help us much in understanding Gaelic writing. If you find a name recorded in Scotland prior to 1600, try to consult a herald with some knowledge of Gaelic to help you sort out its pedigree.
For Further Reading:
If all this has only whetted your appetite for the mystery that is Irish orthography, I recommend the following articles:
“Old-Irish Spelling and
Pronunciation” by Dennis King
Still an introduction, this article will nevertheless get you in deep enough that you’ll need to be really serious about things like phonemic values and bilabial fricatives.
“Pronunciation of Scottish Gaelic Consonants” by Sharon L. Krossa
An excellent explanation of terms used in discussions of articulation, with particular emphasis on the sounds required to pronounce Gaelic. She’ll actually tell you what a “fricative” is.