The Irish Svarabhakti

One of the things I’ve picked up about Hiberno-English pronunciation is that Irish people tend to pronounce the English word “film” as something like “fillum”. I always thought this was just a sort of mannerism, but it turns out to be quite a bit more interesting than that.

The general term for the addition of an extra sound to the pronunciation of a word is epenthesis and it is a fairly common feature of many languages. The extra sound can be added at the beginning, at the end or in the middle. The latter case is specifically called anaptyxis or sometimes svarabhakti, which is a Sanskrit word specifically for the insertion of a vowel after the letter l or r before another consonant.

In most cases these extra vowel sounds are inserted to aid pronunciation, If you think about it the mouth and tongue have to do something quite complicated to get from l to m and a nice easy “uh” sound makes the transition simpler.

The Celtic group of languages was the first wave of Indo-European languages, to sweep across Europe. I blogged about this here. It seems the idiosyncratic pronunciation of “film” as “fillum” (which, I’m told, is also in widespread use in India) is a relic of the Irish language’s distant origins in Sanskrit, having no doubt crossed into Hiberno-English at a time when Irish was more widely spoken than it is now.

Another topical example is the name Colm (as in Colm Tóibín), which is pronounced “Collum” (or, depending on dialect, something more like “Cullum”).

Anaptyxis isn’t restricted to Irish, of course. There are examples in English. Who could forget the form favoured by football supporters? Engerland! Engerland! Engerland! (I don’t remember the rest of the lyrics to that song…)

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