Irish Language Blog

Irish Pronunciation Round-up for “Ó ‘Uncail Oscar’ go garmhac Fhionn Mhic Cumhaill: The Irish Roots of the Name ‘Oscar’ Posted by on Feb 27, 2015 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

How do you pronounce “garmhac,” “gheimhriúil,” “othar,” “Cumhall” and “Cumhaill“?  Does “uncail” in Irish sound any different from “uncle” in English?  And can we depend on “Oscar” in Irish sounding like “Oscar” in English?  What about when it’s “Oscair“?

This blog will look at a few pronunciation issues for some of the Irish words in the most recent blog.  May as well proceed in the order the words appear in the title and the first paragraphs of the blog:

1) garmhac [gahr-wahk], grandson. The main thing here is that the “mh” is pronounced like a “w” (or a “v,” depending on dialect).   Also, remember this is a compound word, literally meaning “near/approximate-son,” so it doesn’t follow the usual “-rm” pronunciation rules we find in words like “orm” and “gorm”  Those two words  have an additional “uh” sound between the “r” and the “m,” giving us “orm” [OR-um, meaning “on me”] and “gorm” [GOR-um, meaning “blue”].  With “garmhac,” the “r” to “m” sequence is basically a coincidence, since “gar” happens to end with “r” and “mac” (lenited as “mhac“) happens to start with “m.”  Other “gar-” words?   There are several, including gariníon, garmheastachán, garpháirc, and garthimpeallacht.
2) gheimhriúil [YEV-rzhoo-il], “wintry,” based on the adjective “geimhriúil” [GEV-rzhoo-il], winter.  The “oo-il” part really runs together, barely two syllables.

The “g” [hard “g” sound] becomes “gh” [“y” sound, so “gheimh-” sounds like “yev”] after “aimsir” [AM -shirzh], since “aimsir” is feminine.

And what’s that word for winter, that this is based on?  __ e i m __ rea __  __ (freagra thíos)

3) othar [UH-hur], “a patient.”  The key thing here is that the “t” is silent, so we have, approximately “UH-hur.”  The “o” is the same as in the Irish “pota.”  I can’t indicate it with “oh,” since most English speakers would pronounce that as in “Oh my!”

We see this word repeated in such comhfhocail as: othar__ann, othar__harr, and othar__heomra.  And these mean …? (freagraí thíos)

4) Cumhall, the name of Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s father, pronounced “KOO-ull,” with the “mh” like a “w.”  The “l” sound is broad, as in “úll” or “ball,” but not as in “súil” or “baill,” which have “slender l’s.”  For more on the broad “l,” please see the note below, on the “Louisville L.”

5) Cumhaill: That broad “l” sound changes when we say “Fionn Mac Cumhaill,” since “Cumhaill” now has a slender “l,” with the “-ill” spelling showing that “Fionn” is the “son of” Cumhaill (Mac Cumhaill).  Just like, in more typical modern names, McManus, the son of “Mánas” [MAWN-uss], is “Mac Mánais” [mahk MAWN-ish, with “-ish” not “-uss”] and “Johnson” is “Mac Seáin,” based on “Seán,” but with a slender “n” at the end.

So for the slight distinction of “Cumhaill,” I’d suggest imagining another syllable, as if it were “Cumhaill-ya,” but then don’t pronounce the “-ya.”

I was just about to say that you might not need that subtle distinction that much in modern daily life, since I don’t seem to meet that many people with the surname “McCool.”  Then I figured I’d check the name out online, just in case.  At least five well known persons with the anglicized form of this surname showed up: Billy McCool (baseball), Colin McCool (cricket), Courtney McCool (gymnastics), Michelle McCool (wrestling), and, sad to note, the late William Cameron McCool, pilot of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

The story gets even more complicated, since we have such spellings as Mac Giolla Chomhaill for “Mac Cool” and even “Mac Dhúghaill” for “Coole.”  So how does “Dhúghaill” end up sounding like “Coole”?  Bhuel, the “dh” is our old friend from previous blogs, the voiced velar fricative, which means, in practical terms, that some people “gargle” the sound and some people, in essence, swallow it.  So it can be silent or nearly silent, although technically it shouldn’t be.  The “-gh-” of “Dhúghaill” can also legitimately be silent, leaving us with an “-ool” sound.  We tack that on to the “c” of “Mac” and voilà, “Coole.”  The same core of the surname, meaning “black-haired foreigner,” also shows up, perhaps more familiarly in the name “Doyle” (Ó Dúghaill), but that’s ábhar blag eile.

And then, there were the cartoon characters “Cool McCool” (“Cumhall Mac Cumhaill,” if we could gaelicize the name!) and his father, “Harry McCool.”  And “Droopy McCool” from Star Wars‘ Max Rebo Band, who, in true lost bagpiper Celtic fashion, apparently is still heard playing his pipes on the deserts of Tatooine, although no one has seen him for ages, whatever “ages” means in futuristic-seeming past time (fadó fadó i réaltra i bhfad i bhfad uainn).  Hmmm, looking at the other band members, I see there’s Doda Bodonawieedo, but this being a family-blog, I’m not going to cross-examine that name from an Irish language perspective.

6) As for distinguishing Irish “uncail” from English “uncle,” well, the difference is very subtle.  Just as a reminder, the “l” of “uncail” is slender, like the “l” of “súil” or “scoil,” so it has a little of the “yuh” quality, stopping short just before saying the “yuh.”

And finally, for today, pronouncing “Oscar” in English and Irish — not a huge difference.

7)  Oscar: in English the “o” is more of an “ah” sound whereas in Irish, it’s a true “short o” sound, as in “pota” or “lofa.”  The “r” of the Irish “Oscar” is flapped (the slightly trilled), like the beginning of the Spanish trilled “r” in words like “perro.”

8) Oscair: in Irish, this is the possessive and vocative form of the name, so to quote the last blog, we use this form to say:

ascaill Oscair: Oscar’s armpit (love that near-alliteration!)

Dia dhuit, a Oscair: Hello, Oscar

So now the final “r” is slender, which gives us a sound which is virtually unknown in English.  In previous blogs, I’ve suggested the pronunciation of the Czech name “Jiří” as a parallel.  I represent this sound in my rough pronunciation guide, in square brackets, with “zh,” often as a superscript.  It’s like the French “j” as in “Jacques” combined with an “r.”

Well, that’s another sample of Irish pronunciation, reminding us that Irish has many silent consonants and surprising sounds, from an English perspective.  But there is a system, and most pronunciations can be explained by rialacha.  It’s just that there’s a lot of them!

Now if you were Fionn, addressing your grandson as “grandson,” you’d actually say “a gharmhic.”  Unless, you’re Fionn speaking Conamara Irish, in which case you’d probably say “a gharmhac.”  But the “a mhic-a mhacavick” scenario will have to wait for blag éigin eile.  SGF — Róislín

Nóta maidir leis an “L” i “Louisville”: The “broad” Irish “l” always reminds me of the distinctive pronunciation some English speakers have for the “L” of “Louisville.”  Other than this example, there’s very little in English that really sounds like a broad Irish “l.”  You can hear a couple of examples at the “Louisville” Wikipedia page — contrast the “local” sounds to the pronunciation sample representing “others.”  If you’re really intrigued by the “Louisville L,” check out the “Louisville Gear” website, which offers gift items with five (count ’em) alternate spellings of the place name, including “Luhvul” and “Looavul,” which illustrate my point well.  And yes, the various items are nicely designed and colorful, pretty impressive when you consider that what they’re illustrating is the velarized alveolar lateral approximant.

Anyway, this broad Irish “l,” is needless to say, the opposite of the slender Irish “l,” which we hear in “bairille” and “tuáille.”  Those two always remind me of “l” in “Ilya,” if we could pronounce it without the final “-ya.”  Curiously, when I listened to the four pronunciations of “Louisville Slugger” on Forvo, none of them had this feature, although the one person pronouncing “University of Louisville” did.


1) geimhreadh (winter)

2) otharlann (hospital, infirmary); otharcharr (ambulance), otharsheomra (sick bay, lit. “sickroom”)

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