Irish Language Blog

Naomh, Neamh, Neamh-, Niamh, Nimh — Which One Pertains to St. Patrick and How Do You Pronounce Them? Posted by on Mar 17, 2016 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Hmmm, yes, the sign does mean "St. Patrick's Avenue," but what else could "Ascaill Naomh Pádraig" mean? Leid: is ceann de bhaill an choirp é! (, public domain, GRMA, a Stiofáin as é seo a chur ar fáil)

Hmmm, yes, the sign does mean “St. Patrick’s Avenue,” but what else could “Ascaill Naomh Pádraig” mean? Leid: is ceann de bhaill an choirp é! (, public domain, GRMA, a Stiofáin as é seo a chur ar fáil)

Oh, the beauty of péirí íosdifríochta!

In the title we see five words that have similar spellings and somewhat similar sounds.   So let’s dig right in and see what the differences are.

We’ll start with “naomh” for two reasons.  First, it comes first alphabetically, never a bad reason for sequencing.  Second, this is the one that relates most closely to St. Patrick, since it means “saint,” and is, therefore, seasonal (given the day that’s in it today).

One key feature for all the words in this series (naomh, neamh, neamh-, Niamh, and nimh) is that the “mh” at the end is never pronounced like an actual “mh” combination in English.  “Mh” would be rare enough in English anyway, but there are a few examples (Amharic, armhole), with the “m” and the “h” having separate sounds.  And the Irish “mh” is also not like the occasional word or place name we might encounter in Hindi, which has a complete set of consonants followed by “h” (bh, as in Mahabharata; dh, as in dharma; gh, as in ghee or ghat, etc.).  The one example I’ve been able to find so far for an initial “mh,” which might possibly make it into an English (or Irish) language discussion, is the place name “Mhowgaon” (in Madhya Pradesh), but I think we can safely say that’s not going to be much of an issue for Irish pronunciation practice.

So how do we pronounce the “-mh” in the Irish words selected for this blog?  It’s either a “v” sound or a “w” sound, depending on the exact spelling, with some leeway for dialect variation thrown in.

1) For “naomh,” the standard pronunciation is like “neev,” more or less rhyming with English “grieve” or “reprieve” (but not “sieve”!).  In the Irish-modified IPA used in the Foclóir Póca, this would be represented /ni:v/.

Naomh” is used primarily for Irish saints (Naomh Pádraig, Naomh Colm Cille, Naomh Bríd, srl.), with “San” used most of the time for non-Irish saints (San Nioclás, San Doiminic, srl.).

Some interesting related words are “naomhluan” (a saint’s halo) and “naomhóg” (a curragh or coracle, that is the type of boat Tim Severin used to sail across the North Atlantic in 1976-77, following the alleged path of Naomh Breandán, who lived about 1500 years ago).  And how about the difference between “naomhaigh” and “naomhainmnigh“?  Freagra thíos.

I’ve also heard “naomh” pronounced like “nayv,” that is to rhyme with “save” or “gave.”  In fact, most words with the vowel combination “ao” can be pronounced two ways: saol (as “sayl” or “seel”), baol (as “bwayl” or “bweel”), etc.  If you add an “i” (-aoi-), then you will almost always have the “ee” sound (naoi, saoi, Saoirse, saoire, naoimh), but that’s not the main issue here.

2) and 3)  Our next examples, “neamh” (the noun) and “neamh-” (the prefix), are two completely different words, despite the similarity in spelling.

As a noun, “neamh” means “Heaven” and I’ve usually heard it pronounced “nyav,” with the “av” as in English “have” (or “salve” or “calve,” although those spellings could be misleading).  The “n” is like the “ny” in “canyon.”  I’ve sometimes heard it pronounced more like “nyow,” like English “now” but with that slender “n” sound (again, as in “canyon”).

Neamh-” as a negating prefix (non-, in-, im-) is often pronounced with a final “v” sound, like “neamh” for “Heaven” usually is.  There are hundreds of examples of this prefix, so I’ll just give a few here, ranging from the short and sweet (neamhaird, disregard), to the delightfully lenited (neamhbhalbh, outspoken, i.e. “non-mute”) and the downright daunting (neamh-shainchreidmheach, non-denominational).  However, I’ve often heard the final “-mh” of “neamh-” pronounced “broad” (more like a “w”).  So, for example, “neamhbhalbh” could be pronounced “NyAV-VAL-uv” or “NyOW-WAL-uv.”  Or for the first example, the first two Vs could be combined, to sound like “NyAV-AL-uv.”

Three down, two to go!

4) The girl’s name “Niamh” is mostly pronounced “neev” these days, almost the same as “naomh,” but with the slender initial “n,” which means it sounds a bit like the first “n” in “canyon.”  I’ve also heard “Niamh,” pronounced with the “i” and the “a” broken slightly apart, like “NEE-uv.”

We could also say that this name is vaguely seasonal since “Niamh C(h)inn Óir” was indirectly associated with Naomh Pádraig.   Quite indirectly, in that after this Niamh allowed Oisín to leave Tír na nÓg and visit Ireland, Oisín died upon touching Irish soil and, in some versions of the story, he was converted by St.  Patrick to Christianity before he died.

5) Our final pronunciation example is “nimh,” the Irish word for “poison” or “venom.”  Here we have the slender initial “n” (as in canyon) and the “mh” sounding like a “v.  The vowel in the middle is a short “i,” so the words essentially rhymes with “give” and “live” (as in “to live,” not as in “live music”).  No relation to “The Rats of NIMH,” the American book and movie title, where “NIMH” stands for …? (freagra thíos).

Well, that’s five intriguing words, anyway.  I hope this blog has made at least a small dent in the questions people typically have about Irish pronunciation.  SGF  – Róislín


naomhaigh – sanctify or hallow

naomhainmnigh – canonize, literally “saint-name” (as it were)

NIMH – National Institute of Mental Health, but could the author possibly be getting some revenge (from the rats’ viewpoint) for all the “nimh francach” (rat poison), that has been used over the centuries.  Unlikely, I guess, but food for bilingual thought!  Especially since the author of The Rats of NIMH, Robert Leslie Carroll Conly, was from an Irish-American family and used a very Irish pen name, Robert C. O’Brien (from his mother’s maiden name).

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  1. Kevin:

    Rather late, but the American ‘NIMH’ stands for National Institute of Mental Health.

    • róislín:

      @Kevin Tá an ceart agat, a Chaoimhín. Yes, you’re right. Have you read The Rats of NIMH, and if so did you enjoy it? Sorry for my late reply. Been swamped lately. Thank you for writing in.

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