Irish Language Blog

Oíche Shamhna – The Eve of Samhain (October 31) Posted by on Oct 21, 2009 in Irish Language

(le Róislín) 

Uair amháin agus mé ag spaisteoireacht i bpasáiste na ngníomhfhigiúirí (na mbábóga aicsin) i siopa ilrannach, cé a chonaic mé ag stánadh anuas orm trí phacáistíocht thrédhearcach phlaisteach ach carachtar ó Ghostbusters darbh ainm “Sam Hain”!  Bhain sin preab asam!  That startled me!


So, what was that all about? 


As late October settles in and we prepare for Oíche Shamhna, we’ll no doubt hear many references to the Irish origins of Halloween.  First let’s clarify the terminology itself, and then, in the next upcoming blogs, we’ll look at some of the sprideanna that might be abroad ar an aonú lá is tríocha de mhí Dheireadh Fómhair (an 31ú Deireadh Fómhair) [err un AYN-oo law iss TREE-uh-khuh djeh vee YERzh-uh FOH-irzh]. 


Samhain [SOW-in], an chéad lá de mhí na Samhna, November 1st (the Celtic New Year).  The first syllable is pronounced “sow,” as in the pig (rhyming with “cow” or “now” or “Tau,” not as in “mow” the lawn or “sowing” seeds).  At least that’s “cow” and “now” as they are pronounced in most American English; I can’t vouch for some of your Scottish or even Canadian vowels, or maybe other areas as well, any place where a “coo” might be “oot” in a field (though probably not “oot an’ aboot in a boot”) .  The main thing is that the “–mh–” in the middle is basically just a “w” sound. 


An tSamhain [un TOW-in]: sometimes this word will take the definite article (“the”), as Irish does for Christmas (An Nollaig) or Easter (An Cháisc).  Adding “the” also means the “S” of Samhain will be prefixed by a lower-case “t” and the new pronunciation is “un TOW-in.”  Again, that’s not like “tow-trucks,” but like “Tau” crosses, “towel,” or “tower.”  Most importantly, the “S” has become silent. 


na Samhna [nuh SOW-nuh]: this means “of Samhain” and shows up in phrases like “Mí na Samhna” (November, lit. “the month of Samhain”).  Note that as “Samhain” changes to its possessive form, it loses the original middle syllable and adds a vowel at the end.  Remember that “nuh” is used here to indicate the unstressed vowel sounds, as in “um, uh, I dunno,” not as in German “Huhn” or Turkish “uhlan.” 


Shamhna [HOW-nuh]: this is also a possessive form, as used in the phrase “Oíche Shamhna” [EE-hyeh HOW-nuh] (eve of Samhain).  Since “oíche” (eve, night) is feminine, the word following is lenited (“s” changes to “sh”) and only the “h” is pronounced. 


As for “oíche,” many of you already know this word, from phrases like “Oíche mhaith!” [EE-hyeh wah] (“Good night!”).  As with using “uh” for the vowel sound in “fun,” I use “eh” to indicate the vowel sound of “pet” or “met.”  Why add the final “h” at all, you might wonder?  If I don’t include it, I’ve found that people assume that the unadorned “e” is the long vowel sound in “me” or “be.”  The “y” in “hyeh” indicates breathiness, like the “h” sound in English “Hugh,” “hue,” or “hew” (not as in “who,” or the “hoo” of Sutton Hoo or the “hoo” that Horton heard).  Key point, then, the “c” of “oíche” is silent.


Now (the noo!) that the pronunciation of Samhain is safely under our belts, we can look at our original first paragraph, and hopefully you’ll find the situation as humorous as I did. 


Uair amháin, once

agus mé ag spaisteoireacht, while I was wandering

i bpasáiste na ngníomhfhigiúirí [nung NEEV-IG-yoorzh-ee], in the aisle of the action figures; alternatively, i bpasáiste na mbábóga aicsin

i siopa ilrannach, in a department store,

cé a chonaic mé ag stánadh anuas orm, who did I see peering down at me

trí phacáistíocht thrédhearcach phlaisteach, through clear plastic packaging,

ach carachtar ó Ghostbusters, but a Ghostbusters character

darbh ainm “Sam Hain”!, named “Sam Hain!”

Bhain sin preab asam!, lit. that struck a start out of me!


There was his name, on the package, and probably trademarked, as if “Sam” was his “ainm” and “Hain” was his “sloinne.”  A great onomastic pun, actually, as long as people don’t use that pronunciation for the holiday itself – which, ar an drochuair, I have heard often enough.  It sounds about as authentic as if the “f-i-e” of “fiesta” was pronounced to rhyme with “apple pie” or the “fie” of “fie upon you!”


Anyway, there are lots of other points to discuss regarding “Samhain,” so keep your eyes “scafa,” skinned, or as said in the U.S., peeled (!) for some upcoming blaganna séasúracha (seasonal).  “Peeled eyes” – now there’s an íomhá ghúlach (ghoulish image) for you!  Slán go fóill — Róislín


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  1. Beej:

    (Your blog page was shared in a link this week on a FB page and I thought I’d throw a little trivia at you.) When the Ghostbusters cartoon series was originally airing back in the late 80s, Sam Hain was one of the ghosts that the ‘Busters fought. As I recall, he was presented as the “Ghost of Halloween,” though I don’t recall if the pumpkin-headed monster had been associated with a particular culture in the episode.

    • róislín:

      @Beej A Beej, a chara,
      Thank you for writing in. I’m glad to see that the Oíche Shamhna blog was shared on FB. As for Ghostbusters, I don’t recall either if there was any commentary on Celtic culture with the introduction of the Sam Hain figure. But the name certainly jumped out at me — thank goodness, though, that “Sam Hain é féin” didn’t!

      é féin – himself (and it rhymes nicely, since “féin” in Irish is often pronounced like “Hain”!)

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