Monday 29 November 2010

Irish parties

On Friday, as I watched live television coverage of the result of the by-election in the Irish Republic, I was astounded to hear the returning officer for Donegal South-West pronounce the name of the party in third position, Fine Gael, as faɪn ɡeɪl. The results in English, in which I heard this, were preceded by the results in Irish, but since the Sky News commentator saw fit to talk over the Irish-language results I could not hear what she may have said when pronouncing this name in an Irish-language context.

We English know that we are supposed to pronounce the first word of Fine Gael as ˈfɪnə. How come this Irish lady doesn’t know that? Or was it just a slip due to nervousness?

In Irish, I believe, both consonants in Fine are palatalized, making the name of the party in Irish ˈfʲɪnʲə ˈɡeːɫ̪.

Compare the name of the other major party, Fianna Fáil ˈfiənə ˈfɑːlʲ, usually anglicized as ˈfiːənə ˈfɔɪl. The pronunciation of the first word is confusingly similar to Fine. The second word, Fáil, is alternatively anglicized as fɔːl, though this is appropriate really only for speakers who make all ls clear, as most Irish people do. In Irish I think it must be the genitive of a noun with the nominative form fál: the lateral would be velarized in the nominative and palatalized in the genitive. We map this palatalization onto the second part of the English ɔɪ diphthong.

The winning party in Donegal SW was Sinn Féin. We all know how to pronounce that in English: ˈʃɪn ˈfeɪn. Looking at LPD, I find I give the Irish as ˌʃin̪ʲ ˈheːnʲ. Although this has remained unchanged in LPD since the first edition twenty years ago, I think it must be wrong. Wikipedia says it should be ʃɪnʲ fʲeːnʲ, which I am inclined to believe. Perhaps someone who knows Irish can set us straight. Where did I get the idea that the f- is lenited to h here? Anyhow, surely the lenition product of f is zero? And if there were lenition here, surely it would be signalled in spelling? How come no one has complained about the entry, or reported the mistake (if that is what it is)?


  1. The pronunciation of féin with an initial [h] is very widespread in Ireland (and I believe in Scotland too, where it's even written fhèin), and pretty much normative. Just going through the books on my bookshelf, it is the only pronunciation given by Mícheál Ó Siadhail in "Learning Irish" (which is based on Eastern Connemara dialects), in Heinrich Wagner's Gaeilge Theilinn (Ulster), and both [f]- and [h]-initial forms are found in Diarmuid Ó Sé's Gaeilge Chorca Dhuibhne (Munster). Another case is found in the future tense forms, where orthographic <f> corresponds to [h] in pretty much all of Ireland (I believe). I think Wikipedia is the more suspect source here.

  2. It's a relief to hear that. Thanks.

  3. Studiying Irish in grammar school I was taught to pronounce 'féin' /heːnʲ/. But the political party is always /ˌʃinʲ ˈfeːnʲ/ - probably because of the northern associations that the party has: in Ulster Irish 'f' is always pronounced as written (as I believe it is in Scots Gaelic).

    It's definitely nothing to do with lenition (confusingly known as 'aspiration' in the traditional study of the Irish language). 'F' does indeed lenite to 'fh' and this is pronounced (you're right, John) as zero. But 'sinn' doesn't trigger lenition, which is why it's 'Sinn Féin' and not *'Sinn Fhéin', which would be pronounced */ˌʃinʲ ˈeːnʲ/.

    No idea where /faɪn ɡeɪl/ came from though. In Irish it's pronounced /ˌfɪnʲə ˈɡˠeːɫ̪/ as John suggests (although note the velarised 'g'), and it's therefore always Anglicised as /ˌfɪnə ˈɡˠeɪɫ/, or occasionally /ˌfɪnə ˈɡweɪɫ/, where the velarisation is mapped to a /w/. This is common in the south of Ireland, where velarised ('broad' as we say in Ireland) Cs and Gs are also slightly labialised.

  4. The pronunciation as 'féin' as 'héin' is found in certain dialects only. Breatnach (1947), for instance, records this for Co. Waterford. Ó Cuív (1944), on the other hand, records /f'e:n'/ in neighbouring Co. Cork.
    The labial fricatives are traditionally bilabial rather than labiodental in all Irish dialects. If you hear labiodentals (which you will very frequently) you can attribute it to interference from English, and to the tendency for the pronunciation of Irish to go in the direction of Irish English generally, though particularly in the Munster dialects, where the language is very weak.
    In Waterford and most of Cork, palatal such as in 'Sinn Féin' would be pronounced as a palatal nasal, just like <-ing> in English.

    @ Pete: I think we can safely atribute 'labialized' Cs and Gs to an anglicized type of pronunciation. Certainly none of the traditional descriptions of natively-spoken Irish record labialization on non-palatal /k, g/.
    Non-native speakers of Irish have two strategies for dealing with a word like 'Gael'. One is to omit the back-unrounded offglide completely, hence /ge:l/; the other is to map the offglide to the Engluish /w/, hence /gwe:l/. Of the two anglicizations, this latter one seems more common to me.

    @JW: I too heard that 'Fine Gale' pronunciation from that lady on Friday. I doubt it has anything to do with nervousness, as surely she would've decided in advance how to pronounce it. It is a pronunciation I've heard once or twice before, and I personally associate it with a somewhat pedantic kind of person who would insist on applying English spelling-to-sound rules to an Irish word when the rest of what he/she was reading was in English, as if this were somehow more 'correct' or 'official'. It is also a pronunciationn I've only ever heard from election officials, which might say something about the 'officialness' associated with calling out election results (!)

    Dan McCarthy.

  5. The pronunciation [faɪn geɪl] is usually indicative that the speaker is a supporter of Fianna Fáil, who refuses to pronounce the name correctly as a matter of disdain for the opposition.

    Of course now that Fianna Fáil has executed the basest of betrayals of the Irish people, that particular slur may pass out of use.

  6. Both féin [feːnʲ] and [heːnʲ] are valid pronunciations. I would normally say mé féin [meː heːnʲ] but in Munster they say mé féinig [meː feːnʲɪɡ]

  7. @ Pete: How can /g/ be velarized? It already is velar. I don't understand.

  8. @Phil - you're right: for velar consonants the 'broad' pronunciation is realised as a velar offglide in the following vowel, so 'gael' is pronounced /ɡɰeːɫ/ rather than /ɡˠeːɫ/ as I transcribed above.

    Sorry about that. This velar offglide and the velarisation of non-velar consonants are both referred to as 'broad' (caol) in the traditional Irish system of phonology, so we tend to think of them as the same thing, but phonetically they're not realised in the same way.

  9. @ Pete: That's fine. I don't know that much about Irish so that's why I ask.

  10. If the lady weren't Irish, my first thought would be that she was assuming that the name was formed by the English adjective "fine" and the English noun "Gael", as I did the first time I saw the name of that party (probably as a result of it being in the name of the Young Fine Gael society at UCD).

    fɔːl [...] is appropriate really only for speakers who make all ls clear, [...]. We map this palatalization onto the second part of the English ɔɪ diphthong.
    But even that doesn't work that good for many of the speakers with dark L: they typically realize /ɔɪl/ with a noticeable glide before the /l/ (roughly [ɤ̯], which makes the rhymes of oil and loyal pretty hard to tell apart), and from that little I know I guess that [ɔɪ̯ɤ̯ɫ] would be taken to be /əi̯ɫ/ in Irish.

  11. Pete,
    At first you actually had me thinking you might be using a non-IPA-compliant raised ram's horn for the "back-unrounded offglide" rather than an IPA-compliant but not very appropriate raised gamma. I checked its code and saw that it was indeed the latter, but that sent me on a fruitless quest for a code for the said raised ram's horn. Is there such a thing, IPA-approved or not?

  12. I endorse Michael Everson's comment about anglicized "Fine" usually being a deliberate mispronunciation (is there a Greek term for deliberate mispronunciation?). However, it would still be surprising for a supposedly neutral returning officer (the County Registrar for Donegal) to use it in public. Perhaps she is a a native speaker of Irish, and it was a hypercorrection?

    Returning officers are not obliged to give the Party name after the candidate's name; some do and some don't, though I guess it's all-or-none for a given announcement.

    The Munster Irish I learnt at school has [ŋ] rather than [n̪ʲ] for nn, but "Sinn Féin" as a party name was always [ˈʃɪn ˈfeɪn], never [ˈʃɪŋ ˈfeɪn] or [ˈʃɪŋ ˈheɪn].

  13. Yes, I too thought it might be some sort of hypercorrection, and the views expressed on here as to what sort of hypercorrection that might be have made it seem a bit less weird to me, at least.

    The same weirdness-minimizing factor applies to Sinn Fein. The name of the party is ˈʃɪn ˈfeɪn in any circles which care to make the effort to pronounce it at all, and Pete's point about its Northern associations is as good an explanation of that as any.

  14. The OED says the name Sinn Fein is from the Irish sinn féin, which it translates as 'we ourselves'. So, aside from the name of a political party, do Irish people use the phrase sinn féin, and how do they pronounce it if they do?

  15. It can't be a hypercorrection. The name "Fine Gael" is pronounced correctly on all the news media day after day and has been for decades.

  16. @Steve Doerr - yes they do - read the top few replies for examples of its pronunciation when not being the party name!
    I've amazed you could post your request - it implies you didn't bother reading the replies .... :)

  17. @Anonymous: If the description at of the distribution of bilabial vs labiodental realizations of f and bh is correct, that seems way too complicated to be only the result of contact with English.

  18. @ Michael Everson

    I think your theory about that woman's Fine Gael pronunciation is more plausible than the one I suggested yesterday. I think, regardless of her reasons for doing so, she pronounced Fine Gael as /fain ge:l/ for some deliberate reason. She surely would have decided in advance how to pronounce it. So I too very much doubt it was a hypercorrection.

    I'm not familiar enough with de Bhaldraithe's work to comment in full about the bilabial allophones he found. He says, according to the Wikipedia article, that some speakers had a bilbial realization and others had a labiodental one. I bet if we could check the ages of the speakers who used the bilabial realization in his study, we would find them to have been older than the ones with the labiodental realization.

    Furthermore, I don't understand your argument that the complex distribution of /v/ and /w/ in any way shows the labiodentals not to have come from English; change can come from another contact with another language in which labiodentalization affects some environments only, the other environments (e.g. word initially as in 'bhfuil')being influenced by English /w/ instead.

    Dan McCarthy

  19. But the political party is always /ˌʃinʲ ˈfeːnʲ/ - probably because of the northern associations that the party has: in Ulster Irish 'f' is always pronounced as written...

    The pronunciation as 'féin' as 'héin' is found in certain dialects only...

    On the contrary, 'féin' is pronounced 'héin' by the vast majority of native speakers still speaking. This is the case in Ulster in particular so there can be no question of the f- pronunciation being due to a northern association.

    This together with the fact that sinn is generally pronounced with [ŋ] rather than [n], even among the minority of speakers who still use sinn rather than muid as the first person plural pronoun, there is probably not a speaker alive who would naturally say ʃɪnʲ fʲeːnʲ to mean us / ourselves. That pronunciation is used only for the political party, the name of which, used in Irish, is probably best regarded as a borrowing from English.

    the by-election in the Irish Republic

    On the subject of Irish usage, I would point out that the expression 'Irish Republic' is not one you are ever likely to hear used by any resident of the state it is intended to refer to.

  20. David Marjanović4 December 2010 at 22:59

    Given that it is |sʲ|, is it really [ʃ], or is it [ɕ]?

  21. @ David Marjanovic (pardon the lack of final diacritic!):
    /s'/ seems to be alveolopalatal in the Donegal and Mayo dialects from what I've read. I don't have de Bhaldraithe's (1966) description of Connemara to hand, but I've a hunch it's alveolopalatal there too.

    Down south, however, Ó Cuív's (1944) and Breatnach's (1947) descriptions of Cork and Waterford respectively term /s'/ 'postalveolar' and compare it to the English sh. However, Breatnach does note that there is no tendency to make /s'/ 'dark' after rounded vowels in words like 'short', as Jones had described.

    Dan McCarthy


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