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I've always had this question about the pronunciation of Sean.

Is Sean a word from another language? Is it actually not pronounced Shawn and instead it's some sound between Shawn and Seen? Also, why isn't it pronounced as Sawn instead of Shawn, when the word Sean doesn't even have the letter 'h' in it to get that -sh sound?

Bottom line is, why is Sean pronounced Shawn instead of Seen?

  • 33
    Because it's an Irisn name, and that's the way the Irish name pronounced /ʃan/ is spelled in Irish. Any S that comes before an E or an I is pronounced /ʃ/ in Irish. – John Lawler Dec 26 '14 at 16:47
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    Because it's Irish. Sinn Fein is also pronounced with /ʃ/. – user15851 Dec 26 '14 at 16:47
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    It is a common Anglicization of the Irish version of John, formally spelled <Seán> and pronounced /ʃaːn̪ˠ/ in that language. – StoneyB Dec 26 '14 at 16:47
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    Great question! I've now learned my requisite daily "something new"! – Cyberherbalist Dec 26 '14 at 17:35
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    Basically, Irish uses Latin letters just to confuse the foreigners. Just because it looks like an S, and just because you think you know how to pronounce an S because umpteen other languages write the /s/ sound with an S, doesn't mean that you have the faintest clue what sound an Irishman means when he writes S. But none of this has anything to do with English language and usage. – Marthaª Dec 27 '14 at 1:55
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Sean (written "Seán" or "Séan" in Irish) is a Hibernization of the English name "John"; that is, it's a transliteration of "John" into a form which can be pronounced in Irish and written with the Irish alphabet (which nowadays is simply a version of the Roman alphabet).

The Irish language does not have the sound /ʤ/ (the sound which English typically writes as "J"). It does however have a /ʃ/ sound (a "sh" sound in English orthography), which happens when an "S" is followed by a front vowel (in Irish, by an "i" or an "e"). Thus, in Irish, the letter sequence "se" or "sé" is pronounced something like /ʃɛ/ or /ʃe/ respectively.

With the "a" following, the name "Seán" is pronounced (if I'm remembering my IPA symbols and pronunciations correctly) /ʃɒn/, which is about as close to English "John" /ʤɑn/ as they can get.

Thus, when the name Seán/Séan began to be used as an English name, it was used with the standard Irish pronunciation, which sounded like "Shawn" in English, and later began to be spelled that way as well.

(Note: Someone can please feel free to correct my IPA symbols; it's been 30 years and I don't remember the pronunciations as well as I used to.)

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    Slight inaccuracy: Seán was borrowed from Old French (or Middle French, not entirely sure on the time frame) Jean (or Jehan) into Middle Irish. Many dialects of Irish do (and did) have the English j sound (sorry, no IPA at all here—phone typing); but Irish has never, in historical times at least, had any version of the French j sound (voiced postalveolar sibilant, ‘zh’), so the voiceless version (‘sh’) was substituted. Séan is not usually used nowadays, though it is fairly recent. It reflects the west Ulster (= Donegal) ‘flat’ pronunciation of [a:] as [æ(:)]. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 26 '14 at 21:25
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    Note that the Germanic form of the name, as in German Johann, was borrowed earlier on, becoming Eoghain, Anglicised as Owen. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 26 '14 at 21:26
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    Excellent! Thanks! (Although I thought that Eoghain was cognate with "Eugene"; see here.) – Matt Gutting Dec 26 '14 at 21:30
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I believe the Ulster version is anglicized as Shane. – StoneyB Dec 27 '14 at 0:01
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    @Paul the way they're spelt. Irish is very phonetically consistent so Seán is "Shawn" and Séan is "Shayne" because that's how they're spelt. – Jon Hanna Dec 27 '14 at 1:43
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Matt's answer here is close but off in a few regards.

The semi-Anglicised Sean is formed by removing the fada (accute accent) from the Irish name Seán.

It is a Gaelicisation (more specific than Hibernisation) of the Norman-French name Jehan which makes it cognate of the English John with both coming from the Old-French Jehan but in the case of the English the Anglo-Norman Johan then became John.

Irish is a much more phonetically consistent language than English, and so it's pronounced like Shawn because that's exactly how you'd expect those letters to be pronounced, an S followed by an i or e is pronounced /ʃ/ while is pronounced /ɔː/ and the n is pronounced /nˠ/ or generally /n/ by English speakers and indeed the /n/ sounds have merged in Irish use recently (and I have to admit, I can't tell the difference!).

The form Séan is pronounced Shan or Shane. This variant was once more popular in Ulster, but now one generally finds either Seán or the semi-Anglicised (by dint of dropping the fada) Sean throughout the island while the Anglicised Shane is similarly found in all provinces though still I think more often found in Ulster than elsewhere.

  • 1
    Just to be sure: are you saying neutral /n/ and broad /nˠ/ have merged, or that broad /nˠ/ and slender /nʲ/ have merged? If the latter, then I would strongly disagree! They may have merged in some southern dialects (and amongst non-native speakers), but in the West and North, they are still quite distinct. (Also /ɔː/ is quite a dialect-specific notation for the phoneme, again quite biased towards the South; the standard way to write the phoneme is /aː/, with pronunciations ranging from southern /ɔː ~ ɒː/ through western /ɑː/ to northern /aː ~ æː ~ εː/.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 6 '17 at 16:29

protected by Community Dec 29 '14 at 22:17

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