A Spud By Any Other Name

For those of you having trouble, I officially pronounce my name Nile Lennard.

Back in the twentieth century when I used to wander around Dublin on behalf of the BBC I had a meeting with a  lovely woman who at that time ran the Irish Film Centre*.  ‘O yes,’ she said when we met, ‘You’re the guy who doesn’t know how to pronounce his own name.’  I suppose I’d set myself up for that because I used to, and still do, pronounce my name differently depending on the circumstances.

When I grew up Niall was quite an exotic name – hard to believe, because there’s millions of the buggers now – and the most popular way of spelling it was Neil or even Neal.

For the record, the most famous Niall in Irish history was Niall of the Nine Hostages, supposedly the last Irish king to die a pagan.  (I’ve always regarded that factoid with a certain amount of smugness to which I am no way entitled.)  In the Irish language the son of Niall, if he were called Colm, would be Colm MacNeill (pronounced Neel), ie Colm son of Niall. More distant members of the tribe would be O’Neill.  So ‘Neil’ is the possessive form of the name ‘Niall’ and strictly speaking should not be used as a first name.

That said, in many parts of Ireland it is perfectly acceptable to pronounce Niall as Neel.  One Irish speaker I know of, the actor Niall Tobin, pronounces it this way, and since it’s his own name he’s entitled to.  But that is largely a matter of regional accent, which allows for wide variations in common words.  In Dublin, for example, the word for ‘black – ‘dubh’ – is pronounced  ‘dove’.  Up North the accepted pronunciation is ‘doov’.  This can and does cause confusion for people learning Irish but there is a lot of resistance to standardising the language because it would mean some Irish speakers accepting that their accent is inferior to another, and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

I care less about how my name is pronounced than how it is spelled, so when I speak on the phone I invariably say my name is ‘Ny-al Leonard’.  That way most people know my name is spelt with an ‘ia’  and not an ‘ei’.  In real life, I answer to Neel, Nile, and even Nail.

But if you meet a Niall – and, as I said above, there are millions of the buggers now – be sure to pronounce his name ‘Nile’…  and wait for him to come up with his own explanation of how that’s wrong and how you should really pronounce it.

Next week a guest posting from my good friend Aisling Walsh about the joys of having an really unpronounceable Irish name.

*Can’t remember her name now.  Funny, that.


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