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First things first: If you’ve been pronouncing it “Sam-hane” this whole time, you’ve been doing it wrong.
Samhain, the ancient Celtic end-of-summer / beginning-of-winter festival, from which our modern holiday of Halloween was spawned, originated with the Goidelic-/Gaelic-speaking Celts of Ireland.
As Irish pagan author Lora O’Brien notes, Samhain is “a word that has a huge cultural and historical foundation as well as a place in modern spoken Irish language as the calendar word for the month of November.”
According to O’Brien, deliberately mispronouncing the word Samhain, when you know the correct pronunciation of Samhain is just a Google search (or, at this point, just a few sentences) away, is disrespectful to Irish culture.
You don’t get to just take someone else’s heritage and language and change the pronunciation because it’s ‘how you’ve always said it’. Don’t do that.
Out of all the Pagan festivals, this one is most specificially rooted in Irish traditions, and is perhaps the most bastardised by modern culture around ‘Halloween’…
So for all of my readers who are not Irish-speakers, myself included, let’s show some respect this Samhain holiday season, shall we?
The Proper Way to Pronounce Samhain: Sow-wen
I will defer to O’Brien on this one:
The correct way to pronounce Samhain is “Sow-wen, with sow as in female pig.”
To clarify, that is the proper pronunciation of Samhain in Irish (Gaeilge).
The website PronounceItRight.com (yes, there is a website called PronounceItRight.com, and yes, there is an entry for Samhain on said website) concurs with the “sow-as-in-female-pig” approach to Samhain pronunciation. And I quote:
“Samhain is usually pronounced in its Irish version. So the correct pronunciation of Samhain in Irish is Sau-ihn. The first part, -Sau, is pronounced like the “sow”, the female of a pig.”
The website opts for a slightly different phonetic spelling of Samhain, “Sau-ihn” versus O’Brien’s “Sow-wen”, but the end result is nearly the same.
And while they may not yield you a perfect pronunciation of the word Samhain, if such a thing even exists, both Samhain pronunciations—“Sau-ihn” and “Sow-wen”—get you much closer to the authentic item than the oft-spoken (but incorrect) “Sam-hane”.
Breaking Down the Pronunciation of Samhain Syllable by Syllable
For those who wish to go above and beyond the call of duty—the duty, in this case, being the need to pronounce a word in a way that respects the language and culture it comes from—the aforementioned pronunciation website offers a syllable-by-syllable breakdown of how one should go about pronouncing Samhain.
The first syllable of Samhain we already covered: “Sow”, like a female pig.
The second syllable of Samhain is “pronounced somewhat midway between an ‘i’ and an ‘e’ sound.” This explains the discrepancy between the website’s phonetic spelling of Samhain (Sau-ihn) and O’Brien’s (Sow-wen): The English alphabet can’t provide the precise sound that is needed, so choices have to be made.
The Irish film critic Brian Lloyd, for example, chose differently: He maintains that Sow-unn is the proper pronunciation.
“Samhain. You pronounce it Sow-Unn. Say it again – Sow-Unn,” he wrote in an article for Entertainment.ie. The article was in response to the Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s constant mispronunciation of Samhain. As Lloyd noted, “Irish people and pagans who know how to pronounce Samhain have been enjoying how the series regularly butchers the word.”
Now, onto the third syllable of Samhain.
Yes, you heard me correctly.
In another variation of the phonetic spelling of Samhain, one that attempts to make up for the lack of the English alphabet’s dexterity, one adds a Spanish “ñ” to the end of the word. Thus, Sau-ihn becomes Sau-ihñ. To quote PronunceItRight.com:
Adding that sound, the pronunciation of Samhain becomes Sau-ihn(ye), where the -ye is basically just the initial pronunciation of the “y”. It resembles a shorter “ñ” sound like the word “piñata”. So if you pronounce the “n” in -ihn as an “ñ”, but stopping midway through it you achieve the proper pronunciation of Samhain in Irish, which would equate to Sau-ihñ.”
Regional Variations in Samhain Pronunciation
So far we’ve focused on the Irish pronunciation of Samhain, but it turns out the first results Google spits out when you search for “how to pronounce Samhain” are the British and American pronunciations:
“Sown” for British English, and “Saa·wn” for American English.
Weird that Google Search displays these two phonetic spellings in its little header widget thingy but not an Irish one. But I digress…
Regional variations in the pronunciation of Samhain also occur within Ireland. The on-line Dictionary and Language Library, developed by Foras na Gaeilge in parallel with the New English-Irish Dictionary project, provides three distinct pronunciations. (They’re audio clips, FYI, so the phonetic spellings below are my “best-guess” interpretations of what I heard.)
- Ulster: Sah-win
- Connacht: Soun (like “sound” without the “d”)
- Munster: Sow-in
The Scottish Gaelic Pronunciation of Samhain (Samhuinn)
Finally, the Scots have “their own pronunciation stuff going on,” to quote O’Brien.
She’s alluding to the fact that the Scottish word for Samhain, Samhuinn, is pronounced with a slight “v” sound at the start of the second syllable. So in Scottish Gaelic, Samhain is pronounced Sah-vin.
This according to a Scottish Gaelic speaker, who went on to note that the “mh” in Samhuinn is pronounced “somewhere between a ‘v’ and a ‘w’” whereas “it’s pretty much completely a ‘w’ in Irish…sow-en.”
Want to learn the rest of the Samhain story? Check out…
Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…
More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.