HOW TO PRONOUNCE IRISH NAMES AND WORDS
As the Fidelma series has become increasing popular, many English-speaking fans have written wanting assurance about the way to pronounce the Irish names and words.
Irish belongs to the Celtic Branch of the IndoEuropean family of languages. It is closely related to Manx and Scottish Gaelic and a cousin of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. It is a, very old European literary language. Professor Calvert Watkins of Harvard maintained it contains Europe’s oldest vernacular literature, Greek and Latin being a lingua franca. Surviving texts date from the 7th Century AD.
The Irish of Fidelma’s period is classed as Old Irish, which, after 950 AD, entered a period known as Middle Irish. Therefore, in the Fidelma books, Old Irish forms are generally adhered to, whenever possible, in both names and words. This is like using Chaucer’s English compared to modern English. For example, a word such as aidche (’night’) in Old Irish is now rendered oiche in Modern Irish.
There are only 18 letters in the Irish alphabet. From earliest times there has been a literary standard but today four distinct spoken dialects are recognised. For our purposes, we will keep to Fidelma’s dialect of Munster.
It is a general rule that stress is placed on the first syllable, but as in all languages, there are exceptions. In Munster the exceptions to the rule of initial stress are a) if the second syllable is long then it bears the stress; b) if the first two syllables are short and the third is long then the third syllable is stressed – such as in the word for fool, amadán = amad-awn; or c) where the second syllable contains ach and there is no long syllable, the second syllable bears the stress.
There are five short vowels – a, e, i, o, u and five long vowels – á, é, í, ó, ú. On the long vowels note the accent, like the French acute, which is called a fáda (lit. long), and this is the only accent in Irish. It occurs on capitals as well as lower case.
The accent is important for, depending on where it is placed, it changes the entire word. Seán (Shawn) = John. But sean (shan) = old and séan (she-an) = an omen. By leaving off the accent on the name of the famous film actor, Sean Connery, he has become "Old" Connery!
For those interested in learning more about the language, it is worth remembering that, after centuries of suppression during the colonial period, Irish became the first official language of the Irish State on independence in 1922. The last published Census of 1991 showed one third of the population returning themselves as Irish-speaking. In Northern Ireland, where the language continued to be openly discouraged after Partition in 1922, only ten-and-a-half per cent of the population were able to speak the language in 1991, the first time an enumeration of speakers was allowed since Partition.
Language courses are now available on video and audio-cassette from a range of producers from Linguaphone to RTE and BBC. There are some sixty summer schools and special intensive courses available. Teilifis na Gaeilge is the television station broadcasting entirely in Irish and there are several Irish language radio stations and newspapers. Information can be obtained from Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge, 46 Sráid Chill Dara, Baile Ãtha Cliath 2, Éire.
The UK Audio Book versions of the books read by Irish actress Caroline Lennon provide an authentic and excellent way to hear the correct pronunciation. Details of these can be found towards the bottom of the Foreign Editions page of this website.