spelling and pronouncing gaelic mountain names

Sat, Dec 1, 2007

To non speakers of the language, Gaelic mountain names can look daunting on paper, a veritable glottal assault course, with mouth saying to brain, “get ready to process” and brain replying “don’t bother, just say cheesecake!“. However, if I’m sitting in the bar at the Kingie and explain to the imbibers that Glen Etive is pronounced Glen Etchive, the accusations of pretentiousness soon follow. So, I thought I’d clear up spelling and pronunciation once and for all. Pretentious? Moi?

Although Gaelic words can be long, you can’t go wrong if you stick to the spelling rule:

Caol ri caol is leathann ri leathann (slender to slender and broad to broad)

The above spelling rule applies to vowels in Gaelic, which are either broad or slender:

broad vowels : a, o, u

slender vowels : i, e

The broad vowels are fairly standard chappies but the slender vowels have magical properties. More about that later. The spelling rule basically states that a consonant or group of consonants can only be surrounded by vowels of the same type. i.e. they must be surrounded by either broad or slender vowels. Here’s what I mean:

Beinn nan Aigheanan : notice how the gh is surrounded by the slender vowels i and e and the second last n is surrounded by the broad vowel a.

There are a couple of points to note about the above example. The rule doesn’t apply between words, only within words. Notice how the nn of Beinn and the n of nan are surrounded by dissimilar vowel types (slender i and broad a). Also, if you know the rule, you can spot mistakes in mountain names. If you follow the link to Beinn nan Aigheanan, you’ll notice it’s spelled Aighenan, which is incorrect spelling. Notice how the second last n is surrounded by dissimilar vowel types (slender e and broad a). Incidentally, aigheanan is the plural of agh, a deer hind.

Now for the magical properties of e and i. They “smear out” the consonants they are next to. D becomes dj next to an e or an i. T becomes tch and s becomes sh.

Next, how about pronouncing the names of mountains once you know how to spell them? Well, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. You can’t spell them until you know how to pronounce them, so I’ll cover that here. This is a Skye/Lewis influenced explanation, as those are the dialects I learned from. Let’s cover the basics:

  • i = ee. Fir (feer, a man. Note the similarity to Latin, vir)
  • e = eh.
  • bh = v. You never get bh at the start of the first word in a name. The h signifies lenition (or aspiration), which means the word is being modified in some way. The most common modifications are being put into the genitive case (of) or addressing something. e.g. Beinn means mountain. A Bheinn means “O mountain!”, e.g. in poetry and a’bheinn means “of the mountain”.
  • mh = v. Same as bh. People who call their kids Mhàiri are actually calling them “O Mary!”. Mhàiri is the vocative case of Màiri, which you use when you are addressing or hailing someone. Like Vale/valete in Latin.
  • dh, gh = If they are surrounded by broad vowels then they have a broad sound, which is like the ch of loch but more “angry”. Try saying ch from the back of your throat, or try saying it while saying a g. The sound resonates more than a ch, which is very soft. If they are next to slender vowels at the start of a word, they have a slender sound, which is yih. Beinn nan Aigheanan (ben nan ay-yenan). Mullach na dheireagan (moolach na yairagan). If they are in the middle of a word, or at the end of it, they are generally silent. Coire Domhainn (corry doween). Saying it as corry doveen is perfectly acceptable, although locals would call it corry doween.
  • th, fh = always silent. Liathach (lee-ach). Creag an Fhithich (creg in ee-eech).
  • sh = h. Drium Shionnaich (droim hee-oneech)
  • ai = ee. Very often this is pronounced ee at the end of a word. Otherwise it can be pronounced eh. e.g., the word for “at” in Gaelic is aig, which is pronounced ek.
So armed with the spelling rule and pronunciation guide, you can spot mistakes and make an educated guess at how to spell a mountain name you haven’t seen before. Let’s give it a go. Let’s try and spell the name of a well known mountain, Hill of the barren corrie. I’ll give you some starters:

This is it spelt phonetically : Beedjan uh chorry hesgeech

What can you do first? Eliminate letters that shouldn’t be there and replace them with what they should be. h never stands alone in Gaelic, so the h of hessgeech must be sh. Why sh and not th or fh? Well th and fh are always silent, which would meant the word would be pronounced esgeech. Also, from the list above, you can see that ai at the end of a word is pronounced ee. So that must be Shesgaich. Now apply the spelling rule. Notice how the sg is surrounded by dissimilar vowel types, e and a. To conform to the rule, you have to add a new vowel. We’ve already spotted that ai = ee at the end of a word, so the ai is correct, so the new vowel must be inserted before the sg and it must be a broad vowel to match the broad a on the other side of the sg. So we add an a to get Sheasgaich. Let’s go to the first word now. ai is only ee at the end of a word, so it’s not Bai, so it must be Bi. The dj sound is a clue next. Remember, slender vowels have “smearing” properties and the dj sound is a giveaway that we have a slender vowel somewhere. It can’t be e or it would sound Behdj, so it must be i, to give us Bidan (beedjan). Again, to complete, apply the spelling rule. We have a d surrounded by dissimilar vowel types (slender i and broad a) so we need to add e after the d to give Bidean. Why not Bidian? after all, i is a slender vowel too. Well, i sounds like ee, so it would be Beedj-ee-an. Notice how a new syllable has crept in. We only want two syllables, Beedj-an, so it must be Bidean. Almost there now. What about chorry? That’s easy, choire. Everyone knows how to spell corry in Gaelic. But why ch? Why not coire? I said earlier that a’bheinn means “of the hill”. So applying that to “of the coire” we get a’choire. a’ means “of the” and lenites the following word (puts an h after the first letter) but I’ll cover that in a later article on grammar. So there we have it. Never having seen a mountain name before, we’ve applied some simple rules and come up with:

Bidean a’choire sheasgaich

Seasgach can also mean mikless cows but the meaning in this case is pretty obvious I would say. It means barren. Although you’d have to go there and observe and think for a while. Cows would mean high pastures which would mean shielings somewhere nearby. Perhaps the locals took cattle up there once and it proved to be a fruitless exercise for the creatures so they called it the barren corrie. Equally though, if it was barren and cattle were kept there, their milk output would be reduced. I’m no farmer so I’m just speculating on that.

So, next time you’re in a bothy and the local bagger is holding court on the summits he’s attained that day, you can offer to write their names in the bothy book.

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