Thursday 27 October 2011

uilleann pipes

Let’s try a bit of crowd sourcing. How do we pronounce uillean or uilleann, as in uillean(n) pipes?

Please do NOT respond if you’re not familiar with this word. Tell me what you say ONLY if you have heard other people use it in English, and particularly if you commonly use it yourself in English.

If you are a speaker of Irish please tell me how you pronounce it in Irish, too.

I should explain that Nicholas Jones wrote to me pointing out that LPD
doesn’t have ‘uillean (pipes)’, [a word] that is guaranteed to give English speakers problems. Collins English Dictionary gives only /'u:lɪən/. I may be wrong – I guarantee nothing – but I thought it was more commonly /'i:lɪən/.

In my reply I mentioned that Wikipedia says it’s pronounced ˈɪlən. This is also what is given on an American website for enthusiasts. I have now looked it up in the online OED, too, where I find the pronunciation given only as ˈɪljɪn.

Etymologically, the word appears to be the genitive singular of the Irish word for ‘elbow’, variously given in the nominative singular as uillinn (my Learner’s English-Irish Dictionary, and online here) or uille (Wikipedia, the OED s.v. union pipes, and the image shown alongside). Another source says it is an adjective meaning ‘acute-angled, having a sharp elbow or angle’. However, as the Wikipedia article recounts, it is also possible that it is really a reworking of the English word union.

To hear what uillean pipes sound like, go here and follow the links on the righthand side; or here.

Meanwhile I’ll ask around at the EFDSS and the London Irish Centre.


  1. I've heard it from a Hollywood orchestrator, who used it in one of the scores, and it was, as above, ˈɪlən. The word is also on Forvo (three pronunciations, two from Ireland) and Irish Culture and Customs website.

  2. As an Irishman who follows traditional Irish music, I can assure you that it's universally pronounced 'ɐlən in the North of Ireland, which would be 'ɪlən (or possibly 'ɪlɪn) in RP. So it would be anglicised illen.

    In Irish the pipes are called píoba uilleann, pronounced pʲ'iəba 'ɪlʲɐn in the Northern dialiect, which would regularly yield the anglicisation above.

    I'm not sure if a different pronunciation is used in the South. They speak a different dialect of English, and also a different dialect of Irish down there. But the Wikipedia article given 'ɪlən as the English pronunciation, which looks correct to me.

    I've never heard 'u:lɪən and I can't see how anyone could get such a pronunciation, other than by interpreting the spelling uilleann as an English word. Irish orthography is radically different from those of other European langages and I can see how the initial silent U would confuse.

  3. I have two pronunciations
    • spelling-based 'ʊliən or 'jʊliən
    • ear-based (I think) 'ɛliən

    I don't regard either as 'correct', which doesn't matter as I never pronounce the word nowadays without explaining and describing the instrument.

    In the past I was more of a folky and did find myself in conversations where interlocutor(s) and I both/all knew what uilleann pipes were. Then my rule was to pronounce it the way the other guy did. (Not that it mattered much; after a first mention one would just say pipes.)

    I have read that Anglicised union pipes is or has been used in Ireland alongside the authentic name.

  4. In Irish the pronunciation is [ˈɪlʲənʲ] and in Hiberno-English both [ˈɪljən] and [ˈɪlən] are heard.

  5. The pronunciations with [ʊ] are incorrect, as are any pronunciations with a long vowel [uː] or [iː] in the first syllable. The modern nominative in Irish is uilleann, gen. uillinn.

  6. I've found my source for Union pipes — the sleeve notes to a Leo Rowsome LP on the serious Claddagh Record label. The authors 'JM & G de B' don't offer a pronunciation. However, they do speculate:

    when Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice speaks of 'woollen bagpipes' he probably means the Uillean pipes.

    (Why the capitalisation I wonder.)

    Once upon a time I mixed with and spoke with people who knew and could use the authentic pronunciation. They never did so in my hearing because the pipes was always unambiguous in the context.

  7. Michael

    I'm not in the least surprised that neither of my pronunciations are authentic. But that's not what John asked for.

  8. The only time I've heard Cruithne (/ˈkɾˠɪ(h)nʲə/ in Irish) pronounced in English it was /kruˈɪθnə/ (or /kruˈɪθni/, can't remember for sure). My bet is that the speaker had never heard that word before and just guessed. (Something similar would explain why the four possible pronunciations of ether in recordings of "Comma Gets a Cure" don't seem to correlate with anything else, and why a sizeable fraction of speaker correct themselves wrt the pronunciation of the E (but none that I've heard so far does wrt the TH, who knows why).

  9. I missed John's reference to Union in the Wikipedia article. The argument there rests on the fact that the first written use is union. It seems to me much more likely that the corruption was from uillean to union before either was written down. 'Elbow pipes' seems a perfect term. Certainly, that's what my Claddagh sleevenotes say.

    The argument cited in Wikipedia rests on the assertion that 'the instrument did not exist as such' in Shakespeare's time. But that wouldn't preclude some predecessor instrument having the same name. Simpler 'elbowed' (bellows driven) instruments are still around, and not only in Northumberland.

  10. I would say and hear [ˈɪlən] in Munster English. Mapping the broad/narrow distinction of Irish consonants to Hiberno-English ones is fraught. The easiest mapping is for s: /s/ broad and /ʃ/ narrow. I guess the various l forms provides the widest menu of possibilities.

  11. @mollymooly: Yeah the s is one of he few letters with a straightforward mapping of broad and slender sounds in their anglicisation.

    But in the North we treat t and d in a similar way: Broad, they're t and d; slender, they're and .

  12. ['ɪlən] is how I've always pronounced it; this is also what's given in T. P. Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno-English.

    Uilleach means angular or having corners; uilleannach means elbowing, nudging, or having prominent elbows.

    (I'm from Galway in the west of Ireland.)

  13. I will say 'ɪlən from now on.

    I loved John's link to Seamus Ennis, so I looked for Leo Rowsome online. There are several sound recordings and this remarkable film clip with Rowsome playing and a delightful counter-image to the then future that is Riverdance.

  14. I pronounce it like "million" (but without an m, of course).

  15. I too say ['ɪlən]; the oddest pronunciation I have heard is ['wɪljəm].

  16. Mapping the broad/narrow distinction of Irish consonants to Hiberno-English ones is fraught. [...] I guess the various l forms provides the widest menu of possibilities.

    Actually, not even all *Irish* dialects handle them the same way. (I'm going to use n rather than l in the following examples to have a reasonable chance that your font will place the diacritics in a sane way, but the situation is the same.) Irish historically had /Nʲ, nʲ, nˠ and Nˠ/ (roughly [ɲˑ ~ n̠ʲˑ], [n̺ʲ], [n̺ˠ] and [n̪ˠˑ]), but some dialects have merged /Nˠ/ with /nˠ/ and/or /Nʲ/ with /nʲ/, and some have merged /nʲ/ and /nˠ/ together keeping /Nʲ/ and /Nˠ/ separate. (The compromise pronunciation used in dictionaries merges /Nʲ/ with /nʲ/ and /Nˠ/ with /nˠ/.)

  17. Army, by N do you mean the velar nasal ŋ, or the uvular nasal ɴ? I cannot read what's in brackets because of font problems.

  18. @John Cowan: neither. This use of N is a convention used for Goidelic languages to indicate something "fortis".
    may be of interest (though focussed more on Scottish Gaelic than Irish).

  19. I'm afraid I don't know how to use phonetic transcription, but I do take part in folk music events in Wales. I've always heard this instrument referred to as "ooh-lee-ann" pipes.

  20. I must have been sleepy when I made my first post above, because the nominative uilleann is pronounced [ˈɪlʲənˠ] not [ˈɪlʲənʲ]. Sorry.

  21. I've only heard /ˈɪlən/ (or that 2nd vowel might be a barred cap-I). I'm US all my life, and a follower of folk music ditto, so that's where I'd've learned the pron. I have what seems to be a clear memory of learning it by hearing it, NOT by looking it up or seeing a description of the pronunciation. -- Mark Mandel

  22. I've heard it with an initial i sound, and I'm not sure I've ever heard it with something resembling a u sound, or even a "wi"-like initial vowel. (No IPA for me, because I'm hopeless with the vowel distinctions, and when I start trying to distinguish, I start altering what I'm saying...) I'm pretty sure I've heard the second vowel as both "e" and "ye", though I don't recall the frequency well. I'd pronounce it as "illian" if I had occasion to say the word.

    On the other hand, I'm in California, and I suspect that out here we butcher Gaelic pronunciations even more than do other Americans.

  23. Nice to read your article! I am looking forward to sharing your adventures and experiences.
    االحروف الانجليزيه


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