It’s not like my parents were thumbing through an English/Irish dictionary when they were pregnant with me to find the most epic-sounding name possible for their little bawling bundle. But, despite this, they hit the nail on the head pretty darn squarely.
My full name is Aoibhe Caitríona Ní Shúilleabháin.
…I’ll give you a minute to get over the shock. Take your time.
There’s a lot to digest in there, I know. You’re not alone in your puppy-dog head tilting, I promise. How to pronounce my name is a question I get aimed sheepishly at me on a regular basis.
I used to feel the need to apologise.
“Sorry, I know it’s a crazy name”.
“It’s so complicated, I apologise”.
“Oh, just write it “Eva”, I don’t mind”.
But as I matured I started to see the power that comes with an unusual name, a traditional spelling, something that stands out. My name is spelt exactly the right way when you are an Irish speaker. The letters follow a distinct set of rules understood by people across this island, and scattered around the world. I learnt that just because it’s not the standard set by English spelling, doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely 100% valid and correct.
So, I stopped apologising, and instead started to educate.
This past weekend I was in England, at the gloriously inspiring Hillview Farm Creativity Fest. All weekend I had a lanyard with the truncated, professional version of my name around my neck. “Hi!” it proclaimed “I’m AOIBHE NI.”
I got the question a few times. Once, directly, other times with a sort of a faux-casual sidle, all asking the same thing; “How do those letters… make that sound?“
So, here it is folks. Short of my going around with a flip chart and a laser pointer to everyone’s house, this is the best way I can explain it.
In Irish, as in many languages, the sound a consonant makes can be altered by something either before or after it.
Think about the difference in English between “trust” and “thrust”, “sip” and “ship”. Just, with Irish it happens with different consonants in different ways.
So, the “bh” in my name isn’t a B sound, but a soft V. It’s like as if the B sound just sorta gave up and didn’t put all that much effort in.
The “Aoi” combination is a classic in Irish. It’s pronounced a few different ways depending on the region, but in Leinster, where I grew up, it’s a kinda AY sound (as in Hay, or Ray, or Stay). Other regions make it a sharper EEE sound, (as in Need, or Creed). They’re both valid, and I will answer to either.
So, smushing it all together, we get AY-v-ah.
…yea, that e at the end is pronounced like an A (as in Lamb, or Bath)
Ní is pronounced exactly like that bendy bit half way down your leg. The fada (that’s the accent) on the i changes it from a short sounding vowel to a much longer, broader version.
So, i is ‘ih’, í is ‘eeeeh’.
Once I had learnt all that aged about oh, 6 or so? came the next phase of self discovery; working out the translation for the words in my name, and folks, this is where I suddenly developed a life-long grá (love) not only for my moniker, but also for the process of explaining it to interested people.
My name, when translated directly from Irish into English means… ahem;
“The Radiant and Powerful daughter of the One-eyed Man“
I mean, c’mon… what’s a girl to do with that? It’s a wonder I don’t obsess about spending my entire life inside a Tolkein novel, yearning to be a Rider of Rohan, tbh.
And, for what it’s worth, my father has two, perfectly serviceable eyes. A more suspicious person would be worried about that. 😉