On Irish names
or: Missing the point
This post was originally a Twitter thread, although it’s been slightly expanded upon for context.
A piece in the Guardian, written by Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird, complains about the way people with Irish names are treated in places like England or the US. By now we’ve all seen the clips of Saoirse Ronan on talk shows where the audience hoots and hollers when she tells them that yes, Tadgh is pronounced 't-eye-g'; I don't think I need to go over all the ways that people in England and the US (and elsewhere) gawk at 'weird' Irish names. Ní Hoireabhaird is deeply upset over this supposed legacy of colonialism: 'The English destroyed our language once before, so every little throwaway comment and scoff at our names hurts a little bit more'. And her advice to those in the metropole is simple: 'There is no easy crash-course I can give to you on the pronunciation of Irish names… but the simplest and most reliable solution is perhaps just to politely ask an Irish person – and listen attentively to what they say.'
Unfortunately, this isn’t a particularly helpful piece of advice!
Ní Hoireabhaird rightly emphasises that the Irish language’s unique rules for spelling and pronunciation should be valued rather than denigrated. But she omits mention of the fact that these rules involve making distinctions that do not exist in English. A classic example is that Irish consonants can be pronounced in two different ways, 'broad' and 'slender', depending on context. While some of these differences are obvious to Anglophones (broad 's' is pronounced the same as in English, while slender 's' is English 'sh'), not all of them are: the differences between the broad and slender forms of 'r', for example, cannot be detected by most English speakers. More than that, there are certain sounds in Irish that simply do not exist in English, like 'ch' or slender 'g' or 'é' (somewhere between the vowels in 'pep' and 'pay').
Monolingual English speakers simply will not be able to get these right on the first or second or third try! As anyone who has sat in a class for half an hour trying to get the correct back-of-the-throat sound for broad 'gh' can tell you, it takes practice over a long period of time. This is normal; indeed, it also applies in reverse. Back when there were many monolingual Irish speakers, they struggled to pronounce English words and names correctly - hence how 'John', from French 'Jean', morphed into 'Seán', because Irish doesn't have those 'j' sounds. And the same applies to essentially any other pair of languages. This has nothing to do with colonial oppression or anything like that, it's just what happens when two different languages come into contact.
Importantly, this isn't just an issue in England or America: Ireland itself is full of monolingual English speakers, who don’t have any kind of natural advantage in pronouncing these names. (Ní Hoireabhaird notes that her surname often trips up Irish people.) Irish society gets around this with a bodge: we partly Anglicise the pronunciation of the most common Irish names, even where the spelling is unchanged. A classic example is the name Caoimhe, which is often pronounced ‘kwee-va’ in English. That first 'kw' consonant cluster is not all that accurate a reflection of the (past or present) pronunciation of broad 'c', but it's the best available to English speakers!
English-speaking Irish people aren't any better at respecting the spelling and pronunciation of the Irish language; they've just learned a bunch of individual conventions that are close enough approximations for practical purposes.But (of course) people from outside the island, who haven’t heard these names before, will never have had the chance to learn these conventions. And more than this, less common Irish names often do not have a conventional Anglicised pronunciation. These might rely on distinctions that Anglophones can't perceive or sounds that they can't make - like the back-of-the-throat broad 'ch' (quite close to Yiddish and Hebrew 'ח'or Greek 'χ'), which Ní Hoireabhaird actually mentions, without stopping to reflect on how difficult it might be to pronounce if you only speak standard English.
With common Irish names, we can teach people individual approximations when they come up, but it's unfair to demand that they have a level of knowledge about Irish pronunciation that even most Irish people don't have. And with less common names which don’t have conventional English pronunciations, it's especially unfair to expect people to be able to accurately copy sounds they've never made or heard before; nobody can do that, including Irish people. Every Irish student at some point struggles with pronunciation, and needs time and practice to get it right. Why do we expect English people to be able to get it on the first try?
Now, there is something that is unquestionably bad and annoying about English speakers encountering Irish names for the first time: the obsession, confusion, and even amusement that people show. For many English speakers the 'weirdness' of Irish names is interesting, fascinating even; this can often lead to performative amusement (laughing at Irish names) or refusal-to-believe ('oh my GOD, it's shiv-awn!?'), and in turn lead to people not even making an effort, which can verge from maddening to actively offensive.
But, as frustrating as it can be, this phenomenon has very little to do with pronunciation. The Danish language (for example) has famously difficult pronunciation rules, and the average English speaker couldn't get most Danish names right; but nobody interrogates Mads Mikkelsen about it the way they do Saoirse Ronan. The fascination instead comes from surprise that the Irish - the Western, European, English-speaking Irish - have these deeply alien names. Spelling and pronunciation is only one part of the alienness of Irish names: many of them are from a pre-Christian Celtic linguistic tradition, largely displaced throughout the rest of Western Europe by Latinate, biblical, and Germanic names. Yet the strangeness of Irish names doesn’t sit so neatly with preconceptions about our island, which is often assumed to be culturally of a piece with places like England, Australia, or the US. The combination of alien names and a supposedly non-alien culture is what produces the reaction.
But the flip-side of this phenomenon is dismissal towards 'difficult' names from cultures that are thought of as sufficiently alien. (nth-generation) immigrants from Asia or Africa or even Eastern Europe all have their own stories echoing Ní Hoireabhaird’s tales of Irish woe: their names too are mangled and bastardised, with many just leaning into Westernised names to avoid the problem. But whereas Irish people are met with amusement or bemusement in a way that’s unquestionably annoying, these people tend instead to face reactions that are actively degrading. There’s rarely any fascination about or interest in non-Western names or accents, just frustration or contempt.
And here, we Irish are as guilty as English or American people; our island has no special sympathy with other migrants, whatever we might want to believe. Expecting English people or Americans to be able to pronounce Irish names well, when you can't pronounce (say) Bengali names, is just reinforcing the phenomenon you think you're criticising: it's the same idea, that the Irish are 'unalien'. The implication is that Irish people share some kind of deep cultural affinity with other Western nations - and in particular, an affinity that is ethically significant, that means our language should be privileged (knowledge of its rules widespread) while Polish or Urdu or whatever are not.
And yeah, sure, Irish culture is pretty damn close to English or American culture (largely due, of course, to the fact that we all speak English). But this doesn't have any special significance for how we, or anyone else, should be treated. Non–Irish speakers could stand to be less annoying about the language, unquestionably. But the more fundamental issue is one that Ní Hoireabhaird is not addressing, which is why Irish names produce fascination, while non-Western names produce dismissal. Thinking about this means moving outside your bubble, expanding your field of view, and considering the experiences of others - not just your own personal frustrations.
Being Irish and living abroad is annoying for a load of reasons. But being a foreigner abroad always comes with its annoyances; all told, we have it pretty good. Rather than getting absorbed in your own personal frustrations, it’s often better to look outwards, and learn from others.
Importantly for my argument, these conventions differ in different parts of the island. I'm from Northern Ireland, and would pronounce 'Caoimhe' as 'kee-va'; likewise, I'd say Saoirse as 'seer-shuh' rather than 'ser-shuh' or 'sur-shuh'. (Since Ronan became famous, many of us Nordies have had the irritating experience of being corrected on the pronunciation of the latter name by people who'd have never come across it otherwise.)
How about the Chinese tendency to have a totally new name in English (I know a Chao-Yang who is also a Betty)? Is there a type of cultural exclusivity going on with Irish names as a way of identifying ‘tribe’ members?