Thursday 9 June 2011

Joe Mc-what?

The pronunciation of surnames in Mc- or Mac- is sometimes quite difficult to predict from the spelling. These thoughts are prompted by the name McElderry, which I give in LPD as ˈmæk əl ˌder i or ˌ••ˈ••.

But the winner of the 2009 X Factor television show, Joe McElderry (pictured), calls himself məˈkeld(ə)ri.

As we all know, the prefix M(a)c- means ‘son of’ in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. The general rule is that
• before a stressed syllable it is pronounced mək, or in a more formal style perhaps mæk; thus McBride, McDonald, McEwan, McPherson
• before an unstressed syllable it is mæk, and is itself stressed; thus McAnulty ˌmækəˈnʌlti, McAvoy ˈmækəvɔɪ, McEnroe, McIntosh, McNamara
• but before k or g it is reduced to , thus McCarthy məˈkɑː(r)θi, McCorquodale, McGill, McGonagall, McQueen.

The problem with McElderry, and with several other names of three or more syllables, is knowing whether the second syllable is stressed or not. The BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of Proper Names regards the El- in McElderry as unstressed (which in turn triggers stress on the prefix), but Joe the singer treats it as stressed. (Anyone from Baltimore MD? What do people call its McElderry Park neighbourhood?)

For what it’s worth, the etymology of McElderry, according to the Dictionary of Surnames (ed. Hanks and Hodges), is Mac Giolla Dhorcha ‘son of the dark-haired lad’.

Why are McIlwain, McIlwraith, McIndoe, McIntyre stressed on the ˈmæk-, while McInnes is stressed on the -ˈɪn-? Why can McElroy and McElwain, not to mention McGillycuddy, go either way?

Although these surnames are now to be found throughout the English-speaking world (Joe the singer is a Geordie), the explanation of their stress patterns presumably lies in Gaelic phonetics, and perhaps in particular in dialect differences within Irish/Scottish Gaelic. Can any reader enlighten us?


  1. I do some work on Scottish Gaelic and this would be my suggestion: Irish and Scottish Gaelic carry stress on the first syllable of the word, so names like McDonald, which are made up of Mac + Donald, would have the first syllable of Donald stressed. Most names follow this pattern.

    Names that don't like McNamara and McIntyre are made up of three words: Mac + na + Mara means 'son of the sea' and McIntyre = Mac + an + t-saor means 'son of the carpenter'. In these cases 'na' and 'an' are forms of the definite article so don't carry stress. So I guess the 'Mac' bit can be stressed because it isn't right next to another word initial stress.

  2. As a fan of Blackadder, for years I used to think that the actor that played Capt. Darling was called /məkˈɪnəni/, whereas he is in fact /ˈmækɪnəni/. Or perhaps /ˌmækɪˈnɜ:ni/.

  3. I don't think the Anglicised stress patterns bear much relation to the Gaelic pronunciations of these names. Most of the McEl-/McIl- names, for example, come from three-word phrases like Mac Giolla Bháin (McIlwaine) or Mac Giolla Dubh (McElduff) which in Gaelic take stress on both of the last two words. Clearly that's not reflected in the Anglicised versions.

    There's also some variation in the English pronunciation. I've only ever heard McIlwaine as məkɪl'weɪn, which is different from what you've got above. And McCloskey is pronounced mə'klʌski in Ireland but mə'klɒski in America.

    In fact I pronounce my own surname with a mæk- while my father pronounces it mək- (followed by a vowel). So I don't think the pronunciation is as systematic as the main article suggests.

    Given the different dialects of Irish/Scottish Gaelic, the different dialects of English/Scots the names were borrowed into, and the various levels of familiarity with the original Gaelic forms of these names, we should expect a lot of variation, and indeed that's what we find.

  4. I think the first principle is that the stress falls in the same place it did in the Gaelic version, and the second principle (in point of time) is that the stress tends to move back to the first syllable (after the Mac or O), which is where it stands in the vast majority of names anyway. The third principle is that in America the stress may become penultimate if the nature of the name as a Mac or O name is obscured: thus O Mathghamhna > (O) Mahony in Ireland (with initial stress) > Mahony in America (with penultimate stress).

  5. Dan McCarthy asks me to post this on his behalf:

    @ Gassalacapaje: McInerney is pronounced with the stress on the second-last syllable, at least in Ireland.

    There are two stressings of the name of the president of Ireland (Mary McAleese) in circulation, one on the 'Mc' and the other on the '-leese'. I consider the stressing on the 'Mc' to be a rather recent innovation, being due to the English language's preference for initial stress.
    As for Joe McElderry's stressing of his name, the change of stress presumably took place on foreign soil. This happens to other Irish names too; O'Mahony and Costello are stressed on the second syllable in the US, but the first in Ireland.

  6. What about syllabification? Wikipedia says MacLeod is /məˈklaʊd/, but the way they pronounce it in Highlander sounds more like /məkˈlaʊd/ to my ear.

    (In Irish stress is usually on the first syllable, but in southern dialects a long vowel in the second or third vowel is stressed if the/both preceding syllable(s) have short vowels.)

  7. I've only ever been aware of məˈklaʊd, and LPD agrees with that, and so do the very common alternative spellings McCleod, MacCleod. A lot of names in Mac redistribute the c. The abovementioned Costello is so attached to its C that it has lost its Mac.

  8. It's not just M(a)c and O' names that are often treated differently in the US.
    For instance, Buchanan seems to be /'bʌkənən/ in the US, but /bjuː'kænən/ appears to be dominant in the UK. However, my Scottish wife, who is a Buchanan, pronounces it /bə'kænən/.

  9. @Thomas W:

    I have never heard /'bʌkənən/ in the US, only /bjuː'kænən/.

  10. Likewise, I'm from the US and I'm only familiar with /bjuː'kænən/.

  11. Wikipedia says that the former U.S. President (1857-61), though normally called /bjuːˈkænən/ today, was "often called Buck-anan by his contemporaries". This spelling must imply something close to /ˈbʌkənən/ or /bʌkˈænən/.

    Pat Buchanan, the author, broadcaster, and former would-be President, is always /bjuːˈkænən/; I too have never heard any other pronunciation in the U.S.

    My surname is also a Mac name that has lost its Mac in favor of just C; viz. Mac Eoghain.

  12. Just in case you need another American to write this: I am an American from a different region than these others (although VP is actually English originally, but now lives in Cali, if I recall correctly) and I have only ever heard /bjuː'kænən/, never /'bʌkənən/ or anything else. Americans don't slaughter the pronunciation of everything, you know :)

  13. The actor that played Captain Darling (Tim McInnerny) is indeed /ˌmækɪˈnɜ:ni/, but I've often heard that name pronounced /məˈkɪnəni/ as you might guess from the spelling.

  14. Great Post! But you might just want to try having the irish surnames, it would be really fun!

  15. Constantly correcting people who pronounce Macafee or McAfee wrongly.

    Mac-a-fee, not McCafe!!!!


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