Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Aussie parents went crazy for the name Caitlin. The Irish form of Catherine seemed so much more appealing than straight old Catherine itself. A beautiful, traditional Irish name, evoking images of dark-haired girls staring moodily over wild, windswept coastlines.
Well, sort of. Caitlin is Irish, but Irish parents wouldn’t pronounce it “Kate-lyn”, like most Aussie parents would. They’d pronounce it more like “Kat-leen”. (Or perhaps even “Koyt-leen” or “Kotch-leen”, depending on what part of Ireland they’re from.)
“Not the ‘a’ as in Kate, but the Irish ‘a’, which is flatter,” explains Tomas, a spokesperson for Irish cultural organisation The Aisling Society of Sydney.
In fact, Kathleen – which is basically the same name as Caitlin, just more old-fashioned – is closer to the proper Irish pronunciation. It means that if the spelling of Caitlin is changed to something like Katelyn or Caytelynne, there’s really nothing Irish left about the name at all.
There seems to be no clear reason why so many people outside Ireland mispronounce Caitlin, but online sources suggest it started in the 1970s. It’s likely that Americans are to blame, because the name became big there in the mid-1980s, before taking off in Australia. A string of TV characters (Caitlin from DeGrassi Junior High, etc) sold Aussies on the name and the non-Irish pronunciation.
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So what other Irish names may we have been unintentionally mangling?
Tomas tells Mamamia that things have improved from the days when his son Cian (pronounced “KEE-an”) started school in Australia. Tomas found out his son was being called “Sy-ANN” by the teacher, and so went along to the school to clear things up.
“I told the teacher, ‘Listen, it’s a Gaelic name. In Gaelic, “c” sounds like a “k”.’
And she said, ‘Oh, no, his name is “Sy-ANN”. You’re in Australia now. That’s it.’”
Tomas says Cian is “quite popular” in Australia now, along with a lot of other Irish names. But if you’re not sure if you’re pronouncing them correctly, here’s a quick guide (keeping in mind that pronunciation can differ from one part of Ireland to another):
Saoirse – SEER-sha
Aoife - EE-fa
Niamh - NEE-av
Aisling - ASH-ling
Caoimhe - KWEE-va
Roisin - ROW-sheen
Sorcha – SOR-a-kha
Cillian - KILL-ee-an
Tadhg - TIGE (like Tiger, without the "er", but with a hint of a “th” at the start)
Oisin - USH-een
Cathal - CA-hull