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In English the name Siobhan is typically pronounced /ʃəvɔːn/. English speakers typically find this unintuitive, but the typical explanation is that the name is from Irish and that's how it's pronounced in Irish, or something along those lines. However the Irish "Siobhán" is pronounced /ʃəwaːn̪ˠ/. It seems to me a more straightforward anglicisation of this pronouncation would be /ʃəwɔːn/, since /w/ is a phoneme in English and there's no phonotactic restriction on it occuring in this position.

⟨bh⟩ can make /vʲ/ in a slender context, which I think would anglicise to /v/, but this is not a slender context. So I'm a little confused as to why there's a /v/ in the anglicisation.

I have a few potential explanations:

  • The /v/ in /ʃəvɔːn/ is an archaic feature retained from an earlier Irish pronounciation of the name. The English pronunciations solidified at a point when the broad ⟨bh⟩ produced a sound closer to English /v/ than English /w/, while /w/ in Irish evolved from that phoneme at a later time. I know very little about Irish diachronics, so I don't know if this is at all reasonable. The Old Irish that Siobhán developed from is "Sibán" which if I'm correct in my primitive understanding of Old Irish pronunciation this would probably not be anglicised as either /v/ or /w/ but rather /b/. This would place the hypothetical borrowing between Old Irish and Modern Irish, with the consonant being lenited sometime before the borrowing.
  • The anglicisation is more likely to be based on the phonetics of the name than the phonemes. Perhaps the realisation of /w/ in this context is actually more like English /v/ than /w/. I haven't found a native Irish pronounciation of "Siobhán", to confirm this, but I've looked at examples of intervolic /w/ in Irish (e.g. leabhar, cíobhaí) and while they are not universally [w] none appear close to English /v/.
  • The pronunciation could be based on a dialectical pronunciation with either of the above explanations.
  • The /v/ is based on a misconception about Irish orthography that has persisted. At some point a mono-lingual English speaker knowing that ⟨bh⟩ was pronounced like a /v/ (/w/ isn't even that dissimilar to /v/ anyway) guessed that the name was pronounced /ʃəvɔːn/ and by chance it stuck. This hypothesis would be extremely difficult to verify or falsify.
  • I'm just wrong about some of the facts, and the confusion arises from that.

Why does the anglicised pronunciation of Siobhán have a /v/ in it?

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    Note that in Old Irish <b> represents /β(ʲ)/ after vowels, not /b/, so anglicisation as /v/ would not be unexpected for an early borrowing. My guess (without particular basis) is that it would be due to a dialectal borrowing, apparently Munster has /βˠ/ instead of standard (also Ulster and Connacht) /w/, making it a plausible source
    – Tristan
    Commented May 29 at 8:25
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    Sorry, but how is this quesition not linguistics? Gees. Not only it is linguistics but it is highly technical historical linguistics.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 29 at 16:31
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    @paddotk The question is asking about the reason for the English pronunciation, not the Irish. Commented May 30 at 14:54
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    @paddotk That is as incorrect as it can be. Names change their pronunciations when borrowed into other languages all the time. Siobhan is not pronounced /ʃəˈvɔːn/ anywhere in Irish; that’s its pronunciation in English. The Irish name itself is an adaption of mediaeval Latin/French Jo(h)anna, which is/was also pronounced completely differently. Simon is pronounced /ˈsaɪmən/ in English, /ˈziːmɔn/ in German, /siˈmɔ̃/ in French, /ˈʃimon/ in Hungarian, etc. Commented May 31 at 11:25
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    @paddotk Most wouldn’t, no, because they’d be speaking English both at home and in England. It’s the language, not the geography, that matters. If the Irish gal is from the Gaeltacht and her first language is Irish, she will almost certainly introduce herself differently to her Irish-speaking peers and her English-speaking peers, regardless of where she is. She would not introduce herself as /ʃəˈvɔːn/ to her Irish-speaking peers. Similarly, Germans called Simon will introduce themselves as /ˈziːmɔn/ to Germans, but as /ˈsaɪmən/ to English speakers. Commented May 31 at 14:18

3 Answers 3

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I don’t know the specific history of this particular name, but all the points you raise have influenced pronunciation of Irish loanwords to some extent.

If we start diachronically, lenition in Old Irish was generally more predictable than in Modern Irish, generally simply ‘opening’ consonants by turning them into their corresponding fricatives, without changing their place of articulation: /b/ becomes /β/, /m/ becomes /β̃/, /p/ becomes /φ/, /t/ becomes /θ/, etc. So Old Irish Sibán would represent something like /ˈsʲɪβˠaːn/, where the ⟨b⟩ represents a non-slender (≈ velarised) bilabial fricative – neither a /v/ nor a /w/.

You’re right that early on when England colonised the island and started incorporating Irish words (from Middle Irish by that time), lenited consonants were sometimes Anglicised as though unlenited: at the time, lenition was indicated in the Gaelic script with a ponc séimhithe, a dot above the consonant (i.e., ⟨ḃ⟩), and this dot was often ignored by English scribes, leading to written forms that just had the plain consonant. When lenition was indicated, it would usually be phonetically, and we would expect either ⟨w⟩ or ⟨v⟩ for /β/. The practice of indicating lenition with an h after the consonant didn’t arise until much later, so the fact that Siobhan shows the lenition with an h is a good indicator that at least the spelling was not introduced into English early on (though alternative spellings like Shevonne could have been).

At some point during Middle or Early Modern Irish, the bilabial /β/ split into the slender labiodental /vʲ/ and broad bilabial–velar /wˠ/ that we see now in most parts of the country (and merging with lenited /m/ by losing the nasalisation). Contemporary descriptions of particularly Donegal Irish show that it remained bilabial /β/ in pockets of the country all the way up into the 19th century, but in most of the country the bilabial pronunciation was lost much earlier.

In Munster Irish in particular, the current situation is that lenited /b m/ vacillates between /wˠ/ and /vˠ/, depending on context. In words like leabhar where it comes between a stressed broad vowel and an unstressed, reduced broad vowel, /wˠ/ is the norm, but in position before a non-reduced broad vowel, /vˠ/ is standard (if you listen closely to the Munster pronunciation of cíobhaí that you linked to, you can hear that it is in fact a velarised [vˠ], rather than a [w]). I’m not 100% sure offhand, but I believe this is a later innovation within Munster whereby [w] became [vˠ] in certain contexts, and not the original outcome of the broad/slender split of /β/.

Keeping in mind that in Munster, /aː/ is strongly retracted and often somewhat rounded, and that Munster Irish in general has a tendency to move the stress away from the initial syllable if a later syllable is long, the Munster pronunciation of Siobhán is [ʃəˈvˠɒːnˠ], which is very close to the common pronunciation in English.

This match is to be expected since Munster Irish – by and large – has been the primary source of Irish loans into English overall. In most cases where the pronunciation of an Irish loan word in English carries any indication of which specific dialect it was taken from, it matches the Munster pronunciation. Not entirely surprising, given that Munster long had the largest population of Irish-speaking communities and was generally over-represented in the emigrations from the Great Famine on.

The form you cite in the question, /ʃəwaːnˠ/, corresponds quite well to the Connemara pronunciation of the name, while the traditional and still most common pronunciation in Ulster (or at least Donegal – I’m not entirely sure how the distribution is in Northern Ireland) is /ˈʃʲuː(w)ənˠ/, also spelt Siubhán or just Siún.

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  • Is the ⟨bh⟩ in the Munster cíobhaí maybe [vˠɰ] with a velar off-glide? I'm accustomed to broad consonants having velar off-glides before /iː/ (e.g. faoi and caoi) in Ulster Irish, and this ⟨bh⟩ still sounds like it has something extra beyond pure [vˠ] which brings it closer to [w]. Commented May 30 at 17:26
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    @SriotchilismO'Zaic Very likely, yes. Velar off-glides (and, especially among non-native speakers, labial rounding) are both very common in all dialects after broad consonants, especially before non-back vowels (other than /ə/). The raised /ˠ/ after the broad consonants indicates velarisation, which is basically the same thing as a velar off-glide – the only difference is how long the back of the tongue remains raised towards the velum after the part of it that acts as the primary articulator starts moving out of position for the finished consonant. Commented May 30 at 22:47
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Irish has regional accents. You’ve been misled by one of them.

The pronunciation you cite, /ʃəwaːn̪ˠ/ is not definitive. Rendering á as /aː/ or even /a/ is one of the tell-tale characteristics of Ulster Irish, but it is atypical in speakers further south - elsewhere in Ireland, the á vowel is pronounced either as /ɑː/ (Br. father) or /ɒː/ (lengthened version of Br. god). Also, Ulster speakers pronunce bh closer to /w/ in both broad and slender contexts. Put those together, and you get a rendering of the name “Siobhán” that is markedly different from the one normally heard by English-speakers... and most Irish people too.

Here’s an example of both of these regional variations at play in the words searbhán and sabhána

Note how the Ulster speaker says /w/ and /a/, but Connacht and Munster both use /v/. For á Connacht is more /ɑː/, Munster more /ɒː/, and Munster speakers really take that /ː/ length marker seriously!

As an Irish person, I have to say that the canonical pronunciation uses /v/ and /ɒː/, as that is the form used by most people in Ireland who can speak Irish. However, native-born speakers in Ulster will naturally disagree, and of course the way that a person pronounces their own name is the only thing you should ever heed when speaking to (or about) them.

But there’s really no difference between Irish and English language pronunciations at play here: it’s just that the non-Irish rendering of the name in the English language follows the Munster or Connacht pronunciation, as this is the most common form, while you have been told the Ulster pronunciation.

So why did /ɒː/ win? Higher status, Force of Numbers, Proximity

But, you asked why this version is used in English. The answer to that is that for a long time, Munster pronunciation was the “Received Pronunciation” of the Irish language - it is only in the last ten years that you hear Ulster Irish with any frequency on the national media.

The second reason is simpler: The Irish-language pronunciation used in the areas closest to England is Munster, and those parts of Ireland are also the most populated. For that reason, the odds are that anyone named Siobhán encountered by an English person would have pronounced her name as something that would be heard as /ʃɪvɒːn/. As usually happens in English words, the unstressed /ɪ/ of the Irish pronunciation becomes a /ə/ in the English version. The move from /ɒː/ to /ɑ:/ is fairly minor: in British English it may be due to the presence of the letter a in the spelling, but also Americans (and some British accents too) do not use /ɒː/ at all, and replace it with /ɑ:/...

For what it’s worth, a friend of mine used to train American colleagues to say her name properly by telling them to say the name “Ship Vaughan”, then drop the p. From that, you should be able to tell that she used the typical Munster pronunciation.

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    Note that /ʃəwaːn̪ˠ/ is not the standard Ulster pronunciation of the name – in Ulster, the first syllable is stressed and not reduced to /ə/, and as always in -án, the a is shortened to [a]. I’d say it’s a pseudo-dialect-neutral phonemic representation of the word which renders broad lenited b/m as /w/ and long a as /aː/, regardless of their actual realisation (this seems to be what Wikipedia does). Searbhán isn’t necessarily a good comparison for the quality of the /β/ (to be even more abstract), since it’s derived from searbh Commented May 29 at 14:31
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    → which is influenced by the phonotactic restriction on sequences of /l r/ and /w/ in any order in Connacht and Munster. In Siobhán, however, the /β/ is between vowels, where there’s no such general restriction in Connacht (cf. the pronunciations of ulchabhán with /w/ in Connacht but /v/ in Munster). Commented May 29 at 14:34
  • Your point about geography is a good one, though. Historically, the densely populated areas closest to England would have been Leinster, of course, but Irish died out much earlier and more completely in Leinster than in the rest of the country, and as you say, Munster took over as the prestige variant and had significant influence in historically Leinster areas. Commented May 29 at 14:39
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thanks for the comments. I agree with /a/ rather than /aː/ and have edited. I had first chosen “sabhána” as an example of this accent difference. It’s a loan-word (Eng: savannah), but the pattern is still present there. I am wary of Wikipedia, as it is grossly inconsistent on this subject - as with other languages, the information about pronunciation is duplicated across numerous articles, but for Irish they disagree with each other. The pronunciation link I posted is from a site provided by Foras na Gaeilge, the official "language council" for the Irish language.
    – KrisW
    Commented Jun 5 at 10:16
  • I think the loanword status of sabhána muddies the waters unnecessarily as well – consider how, in vóta, it’s Ulster and Munster that have /v/ and Connacht that has /w/. The extent to which English /v/ is allowed to ignore the broad/slender distinction varies not only by dialect, but by individual speaker and word. In native words, things are more stable, and in the phonetic context found in Siobhán, I would only expect [v] in Munster, not generally Connacht. I’ve been trying to come up with a more exact parallel than ulchabhán, but all the → Commented Jun 5 at 11:48
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From the website of a Gaelic educational institute - "Sabhal Mòr Ostaig."

English uses combinations of letters to indicate a single consonant sound, such as “ch” in “church” and “sh” in “shape”. Irish does the same sort of thing, only there are more of them. Here is a basic list of the values of these combinations, which can be either broad of slender, depending on the adjacent vowels:

bh (broad) = w

bh (slender) = v

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    The ⟨bh⟩ in Siobhán is broad. Following that source it would be pronounced /w/, which is the premise of the question. Commented May 29 at 12:14
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    And as the grave accent in Mòr indicates, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is a Scottish Gaelic educational institute. They do have resources on Irish Gaelic as well, but they are a Scottish institution on Skye. Commented May 29 at 13:35
  • @JanusBahsJacquet You may wish to click the link I provided and see the words "The Pronunciation and Spelling of Modern Irish".
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 29 at 21:55
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    You may wish to actually read my comment. The fact that Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has resources on Irish on their website does not make it an Irish Gaelic institute. They are located on Skye, and their purpose and focus is on Scottish Gaelic; always has been. Indeed, it’s part of their name: Ionad Nàiseanta Cànan is Cultar na Gàidhlig. Plus, as @SriotchilismO'Zaic says, the pronunciation and spelling of Irish is the premise of the question, not an answer to it. Commented May 30 at 0:23
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    @JanusBahsJacquet's point is important. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is not an "Irish Gaelic Educational Institute". Its website happens to host some work by Dennis King (an American with an interest in, possibly an expert in, Irish and its history). Your attribution is just wrong, even if the page is useful. Please correct it. This is not properly an answer to the OP's question as others have pointed out as well, but I'm happy for it just to be accurate. Commented May 30 at 2:43

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