Olivia O’Leary


I notice that BBC Radio 4 announcers regularly pronounce Ms O’Leary’s family name as /əʊˈlɛəri/. I suppose from her accent that this is what she calls herself, but I’m wondering if following suit when one does not have an Irish accent is mimicking her rather than representing her name in ‘neutral’ terms. For those unfamiliar with Radio 4’s output, Olivia O’Leary is the presenter of “Between Ourselves”, a discussion programme that deals with a single issue in each edition.

To start from a different example. True to my roots, I pronounce bath with the TRAP vowel (as John Wells says in Accents of English, it would seem a denial of my northernness to change this). A friend of mine comes from the City of Bath, and he insists that I am mispronouncing his city. On the other hand, he pronounces Newcastle with the same BATH vowel (not a good key word in this discussion!), regardless of the fact that most Novocastrians from either Newcastle upon Tyne or Newcastle under Lyme will use the TRAP vowel. In my view, he is right to say /…’kɑːsl/ and I am right to say /bæθ/ – both in the terms of our own accents.

To return to Ms O’Leary. In her accent, I assume she calls King Lear /lɛər/. Certainly, when the Short Brothers Lear Fan Jet plane was in the news, Northern Irish commentators called it the /lɛər fɑːn/, but this did not persuade others to pronounce it in the same way. In my view, Ms O’Leary should be pronounced /əʊˈlɪəri/ by the announcers from other parts of the UK. By trying too hard to get a close approximation to her own pronunciation, they might appear to be simply making fun of it (and by extension, her).


  1. Interesting thought.

    I wonder how much this perception – of people makng fun rather than being neutral – might extend to consciously faithful pronunciations of foreign words and place names, where such pronunciations diverge from the standard Anglicized form.

    In my native (staunchly monolingual English-speaking) region of Canada, for example, using an “box” vowel [ɑ] (cardinal 5) rather than an “at” vowel [æ] when saying “Iran” or “Iraq” would come across as pretentious. This is despite the fact that the “box” vowel is more faithful to the native pronunciation of these words, and completely compatible with English phonotactics.

    Pronunciations that violate English phonotactics come off as even more pretentious. For example, paying attention to quantity distinctions in Italian consonants. (To be fair, I only remember seeing this in a movie, spoken by a very pretentious character.)

  2. Many British people pronounce the first name of the President of the United States as /ˈbærək/ instead of Mr Obama’s preferred /bəˈrɑːk/

    This is despite the fact that there is no phonotactic reason why /bəˈrɑːk/ should be forbidden: indeed “Iraq” is widely pronounced /ɪˈrɑːk/ in Southern England.

    There is an interesting discussion of this at the Separated By A Common Language blog.

  3. Unless Ms O’Leary’s pronunciation has changed radically since she was on Irish TV back when I lived there, I expect she pronounces her name much as I do, which is to say /oʊˈlɪːri/. Some regional Irish accents would indeed pronounce her name with an /ɛ/ vowel but neither hers nor mine is one of them. (She is from Carlow and I am from Dublin.) So the BBC announcers’ rendition is doubly strange.
    I listened to the beginning and end of several of her broadcasts available on the net, hoping to catch her in the act of pronouncing her own name, but to no avail.

  4. So did I. Pathetic, aren’t we? But I had made the same assumptions as you. I can only think that the names of the presenter and the jet plane are examples of both Southern and Northern Irish ɪːr being perceived as ɛər by mainland Brits in the BBC because in the context of –r it does not have the close i they expect in Irish accents.

    I guess we all agree that such mimicry between accents of English is absurd, especially incompetent mimicry, but surely varying degrees of approximation to a realistic pronunciation of non-naturalized words and names in other languages can be appropriate in varying circumstances.

    But even non-mimicry can seem extreme to people who disapprove of Brits of any sort. I cannot resist contributing an anecdote of my own. I was berated by a friend for calling him hju:ɪ (not his real name) məkˈmɑːn (he could do a parodic RP), and told in no uncertain terms that his name was kjʉi makʲˈmaχən. I said I would attempt that if he would desist from calling me ˈmɛɪχəl lɑːm. This arrangement soon lapsed.

  5. She pronounces it to rhyme with Mary…. as in the song One Two Three O’Leary/Games I played with Mary…..

    Generally that’s the way it’s pronounced in Cork where the family name originates.

    As it’s spelled Laoghaire in Gaelic (or Laoire in the newer form) meaning calf(laogh-)-herder (-aire) you can see why.

    Anyhow – had we pronounced it any other way (e.g. O’Leery) our Dad would have kicked both our Erses……… (ouch!)

  6. She’s just done a programme on Asperger’s Syndrome, during which she pronounced the Austrian doctor’s name, Asperger, with a hard G and the common shortening of the condition, Asperger’s, with (the common, in Britain) soft G. This apparent contradiction is particularly irritating to many people who have Asperger’s Syndrome, as may be seen on their self-help websites, but she stuck rigidly to it.

    She also pronounces her own forename unusually, as though it were O. Livia . . .

    Oh! Olivia O’Leary, why must you be so wary? Why can’t you be more sweary? O. Livia, O. Laoghaire.

  7. Nick –
    I stick to the pronunciation /ˈæspɜːgə/ for both the doctor and the syndrome, but I noticed that it was not only Ms O’Leary, but her two guests – both afflicted with the syndrome – who used the alternative /ˈæspɜːdʒəz/ throughout the programme, so in this instance, I would not be too hard on her!

  8. No aspersions intended, in fact I smile wryly at these attempts at firmness.

  9. Michele O’Leary

    I agree with Pat O’Leary above. I’ve always pronounced my surname just as my parents did. The family is from Cork and we pronounce it as in O – Lair – Ree. Surely you should respect the way an individual pronounces their own name as a mark of courtesy? I’ve had people saying to me “Don’t you mean 0 – Lee – Ree?”

    O’Leary as in “dreary” is perfectly acceptable if that is how a person pronounces their own name. The former pronounciation is probably closer to the Irish.

  10. On the question of RTE and pronunciation generally: why do so many speakers on our national radio station (and indeed on the TV equivalent) pronounce words such as many and any as “ani” and “mani”, when the first vowel, according to any reliable English dictionary, is in fact “ɛ”?

  11. Brian – I suspect that all the English dictionaries you’ve consulted give the ‘standard’ English English pronunciations. Even the latest editions of the English Pronouncing Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation that I have on my shelves make no mention of Irish variants, but the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, written by John Wells, the now retired Professor of Phonetics at University College London, has a note at any which reads “In Irish English, any and its compounds are often ˈæn i”. The same comment is made at many.
    I can’t give you a reason for this, but it has to be accepted as a regional variant, just like northern English /æ/ in pass, which most dictionaries also ignore, versus southern English /pɑːs/.

  12. Graham — Thank you for this courteous and informative reply. As an example of regional variation, possibly deriving from an older English pronunciation, it has to be tolerated as acceptable and valid (if the latter is the correct word, and not tainted by a legalistic bias). But if, as a fictional Joyce audaciously (or arrogantly?) claims in Heaney’s “Station Island”, the “English language/ belongs to us”, we really should write it as well as (or better than) any English-born writers. Is there then also a case for pronouncing it (albeit with an Irish accent) as “correctly” as the best English English speakers?

  13. Brian – To quote the late lamented (but not by everybody) Professor Joad, “it all depends on” what you call the ‘best’ English speakers. And also what you consider to be ‘correct’. I agree that the “English language belongs to us”, “us” being all the speakers of English. There are linguists who claim that a native speaker can never make a mistake in his/her language use, which means that all accents and dialects are equally valid and correct, merely different. Try telling a Scot that the two words tide and tied are pronounced the same, or someone from the English North West (roughly between Birmingham and Manchester, and including Liverpool) that finger and singer don’t rhyme, and you’ll probably get a look that says you’re mad! A friend of mine, who comes from Bath, has no problem with my saying bathroom with a short ‘a’, but wants to insist that his home town must be pronounced ‘baath’ because that’s what they say there – and yet the only reason that Bath is so named is because it was, and is, a bath. Whether as a vocabulary word or a place name, therefore, it is pronounced to rhyme with ‘hath’, in my accent.
    So, Annie rhymes with any, and Mannie rhymes with many – in many Irish accents, but not elsewhere.

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