By far the word I have most been asked the Irish for in the 8-plus years I’ve lived in Kansas City, is “Grandmother”.
In Irish pubs, Irish festivals, by emails here to Towers gan Fhéile, and even just at social gatherings (before the end time. obviously)
At Irish festivals all over the Midwest I have had this conversation so many times.
-Hey, you’re Irish!
-I know (or Thank you or So I Believe or No, I’m sure I’d know, etc.)
-How do you say “grandmother” in Irish?
At this point I say, you don’t, you get down off a duck and then after the blank stare I say,
It sounds something like “Shan” together with the way my mother in Dublin always told me to stop saying “water’, as in Don’t say waw-her.
This won’t be 100% but it’s a start on how to pronounce the letters in this particular case:
’s’ is like the English ’sh’
‘ea’ is like the English ‘a’ in ‘far’
‘n’ is like the English ‘n’
‘mh’ is like the English ‘w’
‘á’ is like the ‘a’ in the Kaw river, or the English ‘awe’
‘th’ is like the English ‘h’ in ‘Harry’
‘air’ is like the English ‘er’
This sounds exotic enough to cause searches for paper and pen, even though I’m always willing to write on bare flesh. So at this point I get boring and explain the etymolgy of the word, breaking it up into sean (pronounced ’shan’ and the word for ‘Old’), and Máthair (pronounced something like ‘maw-her’ and the word for ‘Mother’).
Put them together and you have the word for ‘Grandmother’. But in putting them together you have to make a change because your mouth is naturally lazy and inclined to short cuts when it comes to sounds anyway.
That’s why you can see a ‘h’ after parachuting in there just after the ‘m’. This is what we call An Séimhiú - Lenition - though you will see it also referred to as Aspiration even if modern use is less inclined to, but I don’t want to get into that argument now.
Anyway chances are you call your grandmother, when you’re speaking to her in English, Granny, Nanny, Grandma or something similar. Both of mine were Nana. In Irish Mamó is commonly used in this fashion though I know Nana in Irish is not uncommon also.
I’ve been meaning to post on this for over a year, but yesterday’s question from a reader on what is the Irish for Great-grandmother reminded me.
And why is “Grandmother” the word I am most asked to translate? I don’t know. Tattoos? People love their grandmothers more than other family members? Grandmas go on and on about their heritage more than any other family members? Grannies more than anyone take their grandkids on guilt trips?
No idea. Maybe I should ask.