Fun with Nomenclature! Ach!

Kate emailed me with a heaping ton of info about adding extra vowels to names after I mentioned how adding vowels was extra more sexy intriguing- and her email is quite interesting. So if you’re curious about Scottish Gaelic names and how those names might change depending on how the individual is addressed by other characters, och, dinnae miss a chance to read on, lassie. Ahem. Sorry.

Kate writes:

Book CoverIn Scottish Gaelic (I don’t know about Irish or Manx) a person’s name changes slightly depending on whether you’re addressing them directly or merely talking about them.

These people explain it better than I:  From Boyd Robertson and Iain (!) Taylor’s Teach Yourself Gaelic

Personal names often change form and are pronounced differently when someone is being addressed, e.g.: Mairead becomes a Mhairead, and Tormod becomes a Thormoid.

The names of males usually have an h added after the initial letter, which affects the sound of the letter, and an i inserted before the last consonant(s).  Thus Tormod becomes a Thormoid, Calum (Malclom) becomes a Chaluim and Dòmhnall (Donald) becomes a Dhòmhnaill.

Female names only have the h added after the inital letter, thus Mairead becomes a Mhairead, Sìne (Jane) becomes a Shìne and Catrìona (Catherine) becomes a Chatrìona.

Names which begin with a vowel or the letters l, n or r do not change their initial letter, e.g. Iseabail and Alasdair retain their usual form.  The a is also dropped before names beginning in vowels.

To English speakers the different cases sometimes sound like two different names, so the second form of the name has sometimes surfaced as a name of its own.  Hamish, for example, is the English spelling of a Sheumais, the vocative of Seumas.  (Which you might be more familiar with if it’s spelled Seamus or Shamus. Seamus is, I think, the Irish spelling, and Shamus the English.)

I think Ia(i)n is usually spelled with the second i in Gaelic, but I would guess that it might have something to do with the fact that it begins with a vowel.  Also, Gaelic has a spelling rule about the way vowels go together—which isn’t worth explaining here, and which I probably shouldn’t try to explain anyway because I’m only a beginner at Gaelic, and a self-taught one at that—but that’s my guess, or those are my guesses.


Now that is neat. Thanks, Kate!

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  1. 1
    Suze says:

    The names of males usually have an h added after the initial letter

    Hm.  That sounds kind of familiar.  Where have I seen extra h’s added to regular words?  Hmm.

    Gaelic…  Scottish…  Highlands…

    Oh. My. God.

    The Bhrotherhooid are Immortals like The Highlander!  And there can be only one.

  2. 2
    sadieloree says:

    lol.  I have that gaelic book and cd! And of course, my cat is Seamus, my daughter is Elspeth and my son is Wyatt Eoin. My poor german huusband had little choice in the matter. Well, he did choose Wyatt after all… said Eoin would be a nightmare in school. :)

  3. 3

    I’ve got that book and CD, yeah, and I’ve dabbled a bit in the initial lessons. I love how Scots Gaelic does that with names. It makes my wordgeek heart happy.

  4. 4
    Chani says:

    I live in the Scottish Highlands (although I am an Aussie and not a Scot) and never knew this – all very interesting. I can’t tell you how many Iain’s and Niall’s I have met since moving here. While Gaelic is re-emerging, being promoted by the Scottish Government (eg. Gaelic language channel has just been launched, road signs in Gaelic and English) and taught in some schools (there is a Gaelic College on the Isle of Skye and some schools on Skye are taught in Gaelic), only a very small proportion of the population of the Highlands speak it, compared for example to Ireland, or Welsh speakers in Wales. On the east coast of Scotland near Aberdeen the local language is Doric.

    Another interesting tradition concerning names, particularly on the west coast of Scotland is naming daughters after their fathers, using a feminine form of their name. While Georgina is now a fairly common girls name in many English speaking countries, I have also met a Thomasina which sounds a little strange to my ears for some reason.

  5. 5
    Faellie says:

    On a similar theme, different language, the “Greek Billionaire’s” Virgin Secretary Bride” books tend to get the local nomenclature wrong as well.  Nouns in modern Greek, including proper nouns, decline, so that the masculine 2nd person singular loses the final “s” – a Greek chap called Andreas should be directly addressed as “Andrea”.  For some unfathomable reason, this never seems to happen.  Can’t think why.

  6. 6
    SonomaLass says:

    In “our” part of Scotland, it’s the Doric, not the Gaelic.  But we have spent quite a bit of time in the Highlands, too; when we were there last in 2007, the locals were quite amused over the relatively new Gaelic-English road signs.

    I have also met a Thomasina which sounds a little strange to my ears for some reason.

    Thomasina was the cat heroine in a very old Disney movie, that I remember watching on TV as a kid and weeping over endlessly.  Wow, that came from nowhere!

  7. 7
    theo says:

    Thomasina was the cat heroine in a very old Disney movie, that I remember watching on TV as a kid and weeping over endlessly.  Wow, that came from nowhere!

    I LOVE that movie and was also going to mention it. Unfortunately, I remember watching it when it was first released (and we’ll leave my age at that! ;-)  )

    My maternal grandparents spoke Scots Gàidhlig and when I was young, I did speak it, though not often and not extensively. I’ve since taken it up again. It’s a beautiful language that’s being lost to time. :(

  8. 8
    Charlene says:

    Patronyms were all the rage here (Western Canada) in the 60s. I (and I have a patronymic too) went to school with tons of Thomasinas, Paulas, Stephanies, and Lauras who were the daughters of Thomases, Pauls, Stevens, and Lawrences. Thomasina usually turned into Tammy, though.

    almost62 – and I feel like it too.

  9. 9
    Silver James says:

    Theo, I’m at least as old as you, as I remember The Three Lives of Thomasina vividly and crying over it in the theatre in 19mumble64mumble and again when it came on Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color.” Like SonomaLass, the tears were copious!

    I’ve been trying to learn Irish Gaelic, which is a tad different. Getting my tongue wrapped around the sounds has not been an easy task. I fear I’m too Americanized, but I keep trying.

  10. 10
    AgTigress says:

    Thomasina:  I had no idea about the film, but I remember reading and enjoying the book by Paul Gallico when it was first published (around 1957, I think), so that the name ‘Thomasina’ has long seemed familiar to me.

    The information about the sound-change in Gaelic names is intriguing:  it is related to the much more complex system of mutations in another Celtic language, Welsh, in which the beginnings of nouns alter systematically according to their gender, the initial letter of the ‘root’ word, and the preceding word.  Makes it hard to look words up in a dictionary, when, for instance, cath (cat) can also be spelt and pronounced gath, chath or nghath.

    :-)

  11. 11
    theo says:

    I’m going to be really sappy then, and tell you all I STILL cry at the end of that movie! *sigh* What can I say, I’m a sucker for a good ending…

  12. 12
    Masha says:

    I took Irish years ago. It was great fun, largely because of how much time was spent outside of class in pubs.

    The vowel spelling rule isn’t that difficult.  There are soft vowels (e, i) and hard vowels (a, o, u).  Other people define them as slender or broad.  The vowels have to match by type on either side of a consonant.  So in “cailín” you need the i before the l because the vowels have to match.  Similarly in Seamus, even though the a isn’t pronounced (or maybe it is and I can’t hear it), it needs to be there because of the u on the other side of the m.  It can make pronunciation a real struggle because not all the vowels are spoken.

    But on names specifically, in Irish sean is not the same as Seán.  I’ve never looked at that name without the fada since learning that.  Sean (no fada) is an adjective meaning old.  Seán (with fada) is Irish variation on the name John.

  13. 13
    Carin says:

    I absolutely thought of the Bhrothers, too!

    And on the patronym thread, I went to school with a Johnna.  I loved her and her name, though it didn’t make the finals when my husband had a vote with our kids. :)

  14. 14
    Kayleigh says:

    I’m studying Scottish Gaelic as my degree and the names part if one of my favourite aspects. My name is Ceilidh, John is Iain, Peter is Padraig, Mary is Mairi, Ellen is Eilidh, Donald is Domhnall and Agnes is Una. The added H happens in certain sentences, it’s common in the language (which makes it very difficult to learn.) There are only 18 letters in Scots Gaelic. J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y and Z don’t exist, hence the name variations.

  15. 15
    ev says:

    Thomasina was the cat heroine in a very old Disney movie, that I remember watching on TV as a kid and weeping over endlessly.  Wow, that came from nowhere!

    Absolutely, positively one of my all time favorite movies! It was the first thing i thought of when I read the comment too!

    so what do you do with a name like my daughters, Heather Mairi?? Hheather????

  16. 16
    closetcrafter says:

    I shall now br known as Jhennifer

  17. 17
    Kismet says:

    Thomasina was the cat heroine in a very old Disney movie, that I remember watching on TV as a kid and weeping over endlessly.  Wow, that came from nowhere!

    Best Movie EVER!!!! I wanted to be a animal “witch” for the longest time after that.

    Patronyms were all the rage here (Western Canada) in the 60s. I (and I have a patronymic too) went to school with tons of Thomasinas, Paulas, Stephanies, and Lauras who were the daughters of Thomases, Pauls, Stevens, and Lawrences. Thomasina usually turned into Tammy, though

    Not in the 60’s, but ask me how many girl’s named Johnna I know here… very popular name in the Pittsburgh area. And that doesn’t the JoAnne’s, Joanna’s, and Johanna’s either ;)

    I will fully admit to being addicted to Scottish names. It must run in the family… there is at least one Macrae (old surname became a given name), James, and Ian in every generation. My Hubby’s family uses a lot of names like Douglas and Kenneth… but no info on their lineage. If I were to use a patronym for a future little one, I think I could go with a Kenna (DH is a Kenneth)… but I was leaning towards Avery or Mara (not Scottish I don’t think, but a modern twist on my Grandmother’s Martha). I guess I am really just fascinated by names in general

  18. 18
    Kalen Hughes says:

    can’t tell you how many Iain’s and Niall’s I have met since moving here.

    My brother is Niall. My sister is Siobhan (which can be really funny when people stumble over it and call her Sigho-b-han, LOL).

    Naming daughters after the mother’s maiden name is pretty common in the Southern U.S. I wen to college with girls named Hollingsworth, Sterling, Burton, Purcell, and Stewart.

  19. 19
    sadieloree says:

    Naming daughters after the mother’s maiden name is pretty common in the Southern U.S.

    If I followed that tradition, my little girl would be named Dixon Franks. *snort*

    But in the vein of naming daughters after their fathers, I also have a cousin Johnetta… I’ve always written that off as another “they’re from West Virginia” thing. lol

  20. 20
    Lori says:

    If I followed that tradition, my little girl would be named Dixon Franks. *snort*

    In my experience there are parts of the south where that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.

  21. 21
    Deb Kinnard says:

    I tried to teach myself Welsh (Cymraeg, actually) one summer, and got so bogged down you wouldn’t believe it. Wound up with a single sentence: “Y maer bachgen ar y felde.” Sort of tough to work into the average conversation unless there really ARE boys in the field…

    What I cannot grasp about the Celtic languages is: how is one even to attempt to pronounce these? Each of the voiced sounds seems to have half a dozen unvoiced consonants. What are they there for, in the spelled word? I mean, why isn’t Siobhan simply spelled Shavon? or something?

    Too tough for an American of Welsh descent to grasp.

  22. 22
    Katie says:

    SonomaLass , I love Doric. We are in Edinburgh but my father in law is from Aberdeen and he is teaching my two year old doric. When ever she sees her granda she says “fits that Jimmy”

    Kayliegh do you pronounce your daughters name Mary or Varry? You can pronounce Mhairi either way.  Varry is the gaelic way.

    Another little tidbit: Catriona is pronounced Catrina.

  23. 23
    Marianne McA says:

    My sister’s middle name is Thomasina, after my dad. If she’d been a boy, she’d just have been given his names.

  24. 24
    Marianne McA says:

    I mean, why isn’t Siobhan simply spelled Shavon? or something?

    Do remember getting a new English lecturer at university who started calling the roll, got to ‘Psy-o-ban’… ‘Psy-o-ban?’. Class just looked at him, bemused, until the penny dropped and a Siobhan tentatively raised her hand to correct him. Was funny at the time – though I feel for him in retrospect – because he did the same with every single Irish name in the class.
    (I’ve seen ‘Chevonne’ as an anglicised spelling of Siobhan.)

  25. 25
    Kate says:

    What I cannot grasp about the Celtic languages is: how is one even to attempt to pronounce these? Each of the voiced sounds seems to have half a dozen unvoiced consonants. What are they there for, in the spelled word? I mean, why isn’t Siobhan simply spelled Shavon? or something?

    It’s not that they’re unvoiced, exactly—it’s that certain letters or letter combinations are pronounced differently in Gàidhlig than they are in English.  Bh, for instance, is pronounced v (or sometimes w); s, when it’s next to a slender vowel (i or e), is pronounced sh.  So by Gaelic standards, Siobhan is pronounced phonetically.  Gaelic spelling looks horrifying to an English speaker, and the written words don’t seem to bear any resemblance to the sounds you’re hearing until you start get to the hang of it.  (But you do get the hang of it, I swear!)

    I have a very clear memory of once typing up the word dìochuimhneachadh (‘forgetting’), looking at it to check that I’d spelled it right, and thinking, ‘It looks like I typed it by hitting my head on the keyboard repeatedly.’

  26. 26
    AgTigress says:

    Wound up with a single sentence: “Y maer bachgen ar y felde.”

    The boy is where, Deb?!  The only words I know for ‘field’ are cae, maes and (in SW dialect) parc.  Maybe this is a dialect I don’t know:  for a small country, Wales has extremely marked dialect variations in different regions.

    Each of the voiced sounds seems to have half a dozen unvoiced consonants.

    No, that’s not so in Welsh, though it may be in the Q-Celtic languages, which I don’t know.  If you have learnt any Welsh, you should have realised that the apparent proliferation of consonants in the spelling is for two very simple reasons: -

    (1) Many single phonemes are written with two letters (just like ‘th’ or ‘ch’ or ‘sh’ in English – two letters, one sound).  These include, in Welsh, ch, ll, th, dd, ff, rh, ng .  Combinations that learners find hard, like the nasal mutation sound ngh are actually all pronounced – ‘ng’ is a single phoneme, followed by the aspirate ‘h’.  English-speakers can pronounce ng fine – only they usually encounter it at the end of a word, not at the beginning or in the middle, so they jib at an initial ‘ng’, just as they come over all vapourish at ‘ts’ or ‘ps’ or ‘pn’ at the beginning of a word, yet pronounce the sound without difficulty in the middle! 
    (2) Two letters that English-speakers think of chiefly as consonants, y and w, are also vowels in Welsh,  Actually, y is often a vowel in English, too.  Think about it.

    The relationship between spelling and pronunciation in Welsh is very, very simple and regular, in marked contrast to that relationship in English or even French. 

    Okay, that’s enough Welsh for now.  But I won’t have my beautiful mother tongue labelled strange or obscure!  ;-)

  27. 27
    mirain says:

    I’m only really familiar with Irish names and spelling, but there the added letter often makes a pronunciation difference, albeit one that most Americans have trouble perceiving. Eg, Angus and Aongus are almost the same, but not quite, and Irish people will notice if you mix them up. There are also some slight pronunciation differences in the different regions of the country.

    As for the spelling strangeness—many historians think that was deliberate, to make it harder for English colonists.

  28. 28
    AgTigress says:

    As for the spelling strangeness—many historians think that was deliberate, to make it harder for English colonists.

    I think that’s intrinsically pretty unlikely.  Different languages have different sounds, and the ways in which they are represented alphabetically are always going to look disconcerting when one knows a different language, or even a regional dialect or different chronological phase of the same one.  Written language is never going to be more than a guideline, a diagram to assist in the recording of the ever-changing organism that is language.  In devising a written system for any language, its speakers choose the symbols that best suit their phonemes, and are hardly likely to give much consideration to their impact on speakers of other tongues.

    Furthermore, I doubt whether English settlers in Ireland often even tried to learn the language at all.  They would have found any written form of it sufficiently daunting – it didn’t need to be written in a deliberately challenging spelling!  Certainly that is true of Welsh, and today’s learners of Welsh as a foreign language can find the spelling mysterious, even though it is perfectly straightforward to a native, as some of the posts in this thread have demonstrated.

    :D

  29. 29
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Sometimes you just have to get used to stuff in other languages, like the silent “g” that seems to crop up in every other Turkish word, LOL!

  30. 30
    Siobhan says:

    I’m laughing my head off here, because I am one of the (un)fortunate Siobhans living outside of Ireland. Worse, I live in a French-speaking area and the vowel sounds are impossible for them. My dad’s family have been calling me variations on Shee-van for my whole life. Every single roll call for my entire life has been “siobhan, madame. Comme Cheval et Ane.” (like horse and donkey, which is unfortunate, but memorable). I also get mistaken for a guy a lot, when people see my name on a form.

    I think that seeing it spelled any other way would be ugly, though.  My (very french-canadian) father wasn’t able to pronounce my name the first time he saw it, but it’s the spelling he fell in love with. It’s a very beautiful name, I think (but I’m biased) both the look of it on paper and the sound of it. Chevon, Shevan or anything else doesn’t look as pretty

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