Irish Baby Names: How do you pronounce that?
Since there has been so much interest in (and confusion about) the pronunciation of Irish names, we turned to someone with some real expertise–Norah Burch, who runs the long-running website namenerds.com —and who has lived in Ireland and made a study of the Irish Gaelic language.
Irish names seem to be all the rage these days, and one of the most recent trends among Americans with Irish ancestry is using Irish Gaelic names for their kids, rather than the anglicized versions. For example, in the past few years I’ve met little girls with the names Aislinn /ASH-lin; Sorcha /SUR-uh kha/ and Saoirse /SEER-sha. Ditto for Liam and Cillian, which are becoming increasingly popular, as they are fairly easy to pronounce in English. However, Irish is a language all its own, and many names are very difficult to pronounce for foreigners—names like Toirdhealbhach, Maelshechlainn, and Fionnbharr, for example.
When the British took over Ireland, they spelled out names phonetically, and thus the three names above became Turlough, Malachy and Finbar. In Irish they are pronounced something like TUR-uh -lokh, MAIL-ukh-lan and F’YUN-uh-var/. Or, they gave (sometimes puzzling) already-existing English names as “translations” of the Irish names based on sound alone. Thus Sorcha became Sarah, Donnchadh/DUNN-uh-kha became Dionysus, and Feardorcha /far-DUR-uh-kha/ became Frederick.
The problem comes when people take Irish Gaelic names and pronounce them as one would in English. This is how Caitlin became Kate-lynn, when in Irish, it is pronounced more like KOT leen or KOYT leen. It’s difficult to write these out phonetically, because, like other foreign languages, Irish contains sounds that English does not have. To pronounce Caitlin like Katelynn would be a bit like calling a Spanish person named José “Josie.”
Here are some Irish Gaelic names that you may find easy to pronounce (keeping in mind that the letter “r” is rolled much as in Spanish and Italian), given first using the Gaelic alphabet, followed by the authentic pronunciation.
It may be easier for an English-speaking child, however, to just be given the anglicized version when applicable , which is given in parentheses:
Áine /AWN yeh (Anya)
Aoife /EE fa
Brónach /BRO nakh (Brona, Bronagh)
Brid /BREEJ (Brigid)
Cliona /CLEE uh na (Cliona)
Dearbhail /DJAR vil (Dervil)
Eibhilin /EH leen (Eileen)
Éilis /AY leesh (Eilish)
Gráinne /GRAWN yeh (Grania)
Íde /EE-da (Eda)
Máirín /MAW-reen (Maureen)
Neasa /NESS-a (Nessa)
Órla, Órlaith /OR-la (Orla)
Saraid /SAR- id
Síle /SHEE-la (Sheila)
Sinéad /shih-NADE (Sinaid)
Siobhán (sh’VAWN (Shivaun )
Siomha, Siomath /SHEE-va
Árdal /AWR-dul (Ardal)
Brógán /BRO-gawn (Brogan)
Cathal /CAH-hul (Cahill)
Éamon /AY-mun (Eamon)
Fial /FE– ul
Lorcán /LUR-uh-khan (Lorcan)
Naoise /NEE-sha ( Neesha )
Oisin /USH-een (Osheen )
Pádraig /PAW-rick (Patrick)
Norah Burch received her first name book at age seven, and has been obsessed with origins and meanings of names ever since. She studied anthropology, linguistics and archaeology while living in Ireland. She currently lives in Boston with 2 cats, 2 frogs, a snail and a turtle, all of whom have exquisite names (at least by her standards). She created her site namenerds.com in 1998.
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on January 6th, 2010 at 1:10 am
A very enlightening blog — many thanks, Norah! I enjoyed this!
IRISH BABY NAMES: How do you pronounce that? | Ondelet Said
on January 6th, 2010 at 1:18 am
[…] Continue reading here: IRISH BABY NAMES: How do you pronounce that? […]
on January 6th, 2010 at 3:50 am
What a wonderful blog! Whenever I see Irish Gaelic names, I can feel my IQ dropping as I hopelessly try to sound them out. I’m going to print out your list and use it as a study guide. 🙂
I’ve already learned Saoirse and Sorcha, and am giving myself a high-five for recognizing that “Fionnbharr” is better known to me as “Finbar.” 🙂
Thanks for a great blog!
on January 6th, 2010 at 6:58 am
This might be just a difference of local dialects, but I had friends in Ireland named Ciara and Ciaran. Neither of them pronounced it as above. It was “KEER-a” and “KEER-awn.” They were from Cork. It’s very likely in the North they pronounce it differently.
on January 6th, 2010 at 9:35 am
I definitley have to agree with Jill. Thanks for helping me feel LESS clueless! 🙂
on January 6th, 2010 at 9:47 am
I think Sorcha is a lovely name but only pronoucned as Sor-sha. SUR-uh kha just isn’t the same to me.
The Irish really like their vowels huh? Siobhan used to confuse me so much as a child
on January 6th, 2010 at 9:56 am
What a fabulous article – thank you so much! I’m hearing more & more of these choices on real life kids, too. I know an Ailis and two Maeves. Great names.
on January 6th, 2010 at 10:52 am
My daughter’s name is Sorcha, which we pronounce as “SOR-a-kha”. We’d thought it would be relatively easy for our Scottish and Irish descended families to get their tongues around, but even her grandparents (my in-laws) call her “Sorsha”. It makes me glad we didn’t go with our first choice – Aoibheann (“EE-van”). We do get a lot of compliments on her name, though!
on January 6th, 2010 at 11:45 am
My Irish, Gaelic-speaking cousins, one of whom is called Sorcha, all pronounce the name SOR-sha (as do the other members of my family, including myself, who speak Gaelic as their second language). Perhaps there are some variations in the pronounciation depending on the area?
on January 6th, 2010 at 1:18 pm
@twinkle: there is definitely variation, though i hadn’t heard Sorsha as an acceptable version. My source is Northern Irish, where I lived for 7 years. Ulster Gaelic is a little harsher on the consonants, I believe.
on January 6th, 2010 at 5:03 pm
I love this, as I am always looking up the pronunciations. Will Nameberry add these pronunciations to the entry?
I was also looking for Eimear. This is a name I have been seeing lately. No idea how to say it.
on January 6th, 2010 at 5:31 pm
@Jillian – Eimear is usually Pronounced “EE-mer”, but if spelled Eimhear, can be pronounced like “EE-ver”
on January 6th, 2010 at 5:40 pm
A lot of these names I only find pronounceable if I put on an Irish accent which I couldn’t do everytime I used my child’s name. It’d sound too weird
on January 6th, 2010 at 10:10 pm
Irish names seem to have been all the rage the last 25 years, they are not a new thing, though instead of Sean and Kevin, we now have Aidan and Connor hitting the charts.
on January 7th, 2010 at 8:14 am
I’m actually impressed with myself that I WAS able to pronounce about half these correctly without looking at the guide. Evidently I’ve picked up enough Irish pronunciation over the years…. I love some of these, but wouldn’t use them simply because nobody would every say Eibhlin correctly!
on January 7th, 2010 at 12:10 pm
Thanks for a great article! Just one question. Can Máire also be pronounced Moyra? Moyra is my aunt’s name, and I know it’s of Irish extraction.
on January 7th, 2010 at 2:09 pm
My son’s name is Cormac and we pronounce it with the emphasis on the first syllable, so it sounds like Cor-mick.
on January 7th, 2010 at 5:55 pm
on January 8th, 2010 at 5:34 pm
Thanks for this one, very helpful!
on January 14th, 2010 at 12:31 am
pronunciations should be added to all names on here! I mean really it’s a baby name website it would be nice to not have to google the names to try and figure out how to say it right..lol…come on nameberry get on it : )
on January 15th, 2010 at 11:31 pm
Heyyy! Good to “see” you here! It’s like running into an old friend. 🙂
Still on NameNerds regularly after all these years
on January 28th, 2010 at 12:11 am
Nice article! Irish names have definitely been in vogue for a while now.
@April– I am familiar with your pronounciations of Ciara and Ciaran, I’ve never heard them as “KEE ur ah” or “KEE ur awn.” My cousin (from Cavan) is Ciara, says her name as “CURE-uh.”
Also– I’ve never heard “Brid” as “BREEJ,” more like “BREE-yid.”
Thanks a lot, a very enjoyable blog!
on March 2nd, 2010 at 3:37 am
Our daughter is Fionnuala “finnoolah” we mostly call her Nuala “New-laa”. Everyone here in Canada says “That’s an unusual name I have never heard that before, where is it from?” To which I reply that it is Irish and that in Ireland it’s quite a well known name. Interestingly, when my wife proposed we call our first born Fionnuala (my wife is Irish) I wasn’t so sure but I looked it up on Facebook and there were 100 Fionnuala’s from Canada on Facebook. So it was such a lovely name and SOOOO Canadian, how could I say no?
on April 3rd, 2010 at 4:28 pm
Interesting blog – I didnt realise Irish names were popular over the pond. Just might be worth checking the meanings as well as pronunciation though – why people continue to call their girls Sadness (Bronagh) I do not understand. I’m Irish, live in Dublin and relaly dont like irish names at all, there’s a trend here to add a few fadas (accents) and a few unecessary dh’s and bh’s and then say it’s an Irish name, drives me pottty – if you want to call the child Maeve, call her Maeve, there’s no need to inflict her with Maedhbhdhbhdhdbhdbhdh……… Love Sorcha btw, but not as Sor-sha, it’s Sor-ka in our area.
Annice Liveoak Said
on April 22nd, 2010 at 12:30 am
This is some great info! Keep it up!
on July 13th, 2010 at 6:16 pm
@ April and Rose – I’m from Northern Ireland myself and Ciara and Ciaran are both pronounced in exactly the way April has given, as KEER-a and KEER-an, and this is the case in any area of the island I’ve been to. I imagine that the middle “uh” sound given is an imitiation of a rolled r – not an entirely accurate one of course as a rolled r is impossible to write. This is just an assumption, though, but I certainly have never heard that middle “uh” sound, unless it is meant to be a rolled r. And as far as I have ever heard, no one really bothers to roll the “r”s, to be completely honest!
And as for Sorcha – I’ve heard it as both “Sor-ka” (with a rolled r!) and “Sor-sha”, so I assume that there is room for variation there!
on January 6th, 2011 at 6:26 pm
My friend, Caoimhe, pronounces it Qweeva.
on March 5th, 2011 at 7:14 pm
If you would like to hear some of these Irish baby names pronounced, there is a site that has the author Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) reading them! It is http://www.babynamesofireland.com
Ali Bell Said
on March 14th, 2011 at 1:19 pm
Which other blogs do you read regularly?
on April 19th, 2011 at 7:07 pm
I really like Neve, but am worried that my daughter would have to constantly tell people how to say it.
on May 4th, 2011 at 9:23 pm
These give me a headache just looking at them! And I thought Greek names were impossible to pronounce….
on July 6th, 2011 at 5:48 pm
Just want to point something out. You say in Irish we roll our r`s.
Not really in modern Ireland. I dont know anyone who can even roll their r`s to be honest. Like its not a big deal.In fact if I heard someone rolling the r in an Irish name I`d think they were trying to hard to do an Irish accent!
One thing I personally can not stand is people from America or England or where ever giving their kid an Irish name e.g “Niamh” and changing the spelling to “Neve”. It really bothers me! But again thats just me personally, to each their own!
Online outlet store Said
on July 15th, 2011 at 11:38 pm
I apologise, but, in my
opinion, you are mistaken.
on November 4th, 2016 at 10:21 am
My mother was Rosaleen. That’s pronounced rose a leen. Like Kathleen or Maureen. Not ros a Lyn. We lived in London, and she was known as ros. They couldn’t say Rosaleen properly. I’ve always loved it. It sounds so beautiful. I don’t know why its not very popular these days. People use roisin, which is the Gaelic spelling. I don’t like roisin, pronounced roe sheen. My daughter is Tara. My son named her. I don’t really like Irish girls’ names as a whole, they’re hard to pronounce, difficult to spell to people overseas, and quite harsh sounding. I like the boys’ names like Declan, conor, cillian. They’re softer. My brother is Declan.
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