Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Your Name Does Not Translate Into Irish. Just Get a Tattoo of a Shamrock and Move On.

This is kind of a rant, and I'll apologize in advance. It involves people getting their own/kids'/dead friends/parents/whatever's names tattooed on them in Irish. 


pictured here: NOT how you say Jayden Kowalski in Irish


I have nothing against tattoos! I have several of them! I have nothing against the Irish language, I've studied its names for a couple of decades now! If you want to get your name tattooed in Irish on yourself, cool. Please just don't ask me to translate your name and then get pissy when I tell you it can't be done.

This goes out to all the people who write to me saying "I'm going to get my kids' names tattooed on me in Irish. How do you say Britni, Tyler, and Jaydyn Kowalski in Irish and what do they mean?" and then get annoyed when it can't be done.

I understand lots of people get their names "translated" into Chinese, Japanese and occasionally Arabic or Hindi or something. This is different from Irish though, because those languages use different alphabets. Thus, my name (Norah) could be represented as 

诺拉 in Chinese. Each of these characters represents a syllable, and though I know nothing about Chinese, I'm assuming the syllable corresponds to "naw" and "ra" or something similar. These characters probably have meanings as well (I used to work with a couple of Chinese women, and they spelled my name out and told me what the syllables meant, but I don't remember what. I think one of them was "a crowd of people."). There are tons of Chinese symbols that are homophones (sound the same, mean different things), so you can find ones with different meanings that still fit your name. 

نورا in Arabic. Arabic is slightly different; the letters represent consonants, and the vowels are implied. 

ノーラ in Japanese. Again, the characters represent syllables. 

Irish is NOT LIKE THIS! The Irish language uses the Roman alphabet, just like English and most other European languages. This means that each letter stands for a sound, and you need a bunch of consonants and vowels to make a word. 

Let's have a little (totally over-simplified) history. The Celts were a collection of tribes unified by a language spoken throughout Europe. They settled in various places, including the present-day British Isles and western France and Spain where their languages still are spoken to some extent. The original Celtic language became the Goidelic (Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and Manx) and Brythonic (Welsh, Breton, Cornish) languages. Irish Gaelic was the one spoken in Ireland. 


The English eventually took control of Ireland in the 15th century and brought with them the English language. This is a long and complicated discussion fraught with political/social etc. implications. Let's just say, as it refers to names, the English started transliterating peoples' names into English, because the English took over the Irish bureaucracy (or created one) and started keeping records in English (or sometimes Latin because educated English people were way into Latin). Thus, an Irish man named Donnchadh Mac Cuilinn became Dennis Cullen in records. Or maybe he became Donatus Quillan or Dionysus Collins. There was no standardization of Irish names, so a person's "translation" of a name may be recorded several different ways depending on who was recording it. Eventually, Irish Gaelic declined as a spoken language throughout the subsequent centuries, mostly because it was outright banned, and also because an idea entered the culture that it was "backwards" or speaking it would "hold one back." What this meant for naming was that people started being named Anglicized versions of Irish names instead of the original Irish forms. 

  The Anglicized versions of names are not completely equivalent to their Irish Gaelic counterparts. Think of reading a name in a foreign language. Japanese names are a good example of this: Someone named あきら would be called Akira in English, although in Japanese the sounds are not equal to English sounds (i.e., in English it would be /uh KEER uh/ while in Japanese it's more like /ah-kee-rah/ with the "r" rolled). A lot of times, English names that sounded similar to an Irish name were assigned, based on sound alone. For example, the Irish name Sorcha /SUR uh kha/ was "translated" as Sarah, and you can still find the meaning as "Irish form of Sarah" in a lot of name books (name books are notoriously incorrect about a lot of things, but that's another discussion). The two names don't share anything but a similar sound, as Sorcha means "light" in Irish, and Sarah is a Hebrew name meaning "princess." 

   So, what names CAN be translated into Irish?

One type of name that can be written in Irish is the already Irish name that has been "anglicized" or given an English form. Some first name examples of this are: Brian (Brían), Kevin (Caoimhinn), Brigid/Bridget (Bríd), Aidan (Aodhán) and Neil (Niall). Some last names: Murphy (Ó Murchú), Rooney (Ó Ruainaidh), McCarthy (mac Cárthaigh) and McFadden (mac Pháidín). Please note again that the Irish versions of these names DO NOT necessarily sound like their anglicized counterparts. A lot of people make this assumption, for example, naming their kid Aodhán, but pronouncing it like Aidan (Aodhán is something more like /ee YAWN/). The reverse is also true: Irish Gaelic has its own pronunciation, so giving a kid an Irish Gaelic name like Caitlin /COT leen/, /COTs leen/ or Aislinn /ASH lin/ and then pronouncing it like /KATE lin/ or /AIZ lin/ (people keep writing to me about this name, wanting to pronounce it anything from /ace LEEN/ to /EYEZ lin/) is kind of like naming a kid the French name François or Spanish name José and pronouncing them /FRAN koice/ and Josie.

Another type of name that can be translated into Irish are names that were brought to Ireland by the Normans in the 12th century. The Normans assimilated into Irish culture, and thus their names became "Irishized." Examples of this are Robert (Roibeard), Richard (Risteard), Ralph (Rádhulbh), Henry (Anraí) etc. 

Since when the Normans settled in Ireland they brought Christianity, Biblical names are another type of name that can be translated into Irish. Note: it's mostly New Testament names that were used in Irish (John, James, Mary, Matthew etc.), though some Old Testament names are found as well (Joseph, Adam, Michael). 

There are a smattering of other names that have been translated into Irish, but generally most foreign names cannot be translated. Or rather, they may be able to be transliterated into Irish Gaelic spellings, but not directly translated. Keep in mind, though, the Irish alphabet has no J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y, or Z, and has strict rules about vowel usage. So, if you were to spell Akira out in Gaelic, it would give you something weird, like Áicíria /AW (ih)keer a/. However, since this is just a transliteration of the sounds in the name Akira, it doesn't have an actual meaning in Irish. 

Most names in the USA that people are giving their kids these days are not translatable into Irish. The 20th century brought us a renaissance in names, with many of the top names were invented in, or used in a first name context for the first time in that century (Linda, Sharon, Melissa, Brad, Brittani, Ashley, Jayden, Madison, etc.)

So, don't yell at me if I can't translate your kids' names!

2 comments:

Megan M. said...

My husband's sister has a daughter named Aislynn. Guess how they pronounce it? Yep. ACE-lynn. I have no idea whether her mother was aware that that's wrong. I cringe every time I hear it.

Kara Cavazos said...

Great article! Thanks for teaching me a little more about Irish names. :)

Kara @ The Art of Naming