Two commenters recently pointed out that fillum (i.e. fɪləm), a quintessentially Irish pronunciation of film, can also be heard in England. Many assume fillum‘s origins to be Irish–along with similar pronunciations of words like helm (“hellum”)–because in certain contexts the Irish language inserts a vowel between /l/ and /m/ in consonant clusters.
Other languages and dialects do this, though, so the feature can create “false positives.” Take South African English, which also features fillum for some speakers. As Raymond Hickey explains (emphasis mine)*:
Branford (1994: 486) in his discussion of English in South Africa mentions the presence of the same feature in Irish English and suggests that it might be a source. But the number of Irish settlers in South Africa was in all only about 1%, so hardly significant in the genesis of varieties of English there. However, Afrikaans shows a similar epenthesis …
So while the Irish language is well known for its epenthesis (the insertion of a sound between two others), fillum can arise organically elsewhere. How much did Irish really contribute?
On my last post, commenter Warren Maguire mentioned early-20th-Century dialectologist Joseph Wright as a good source, so I’ll start there. In the 1905 edition of Wright’s The English Dialect Grammar**, he finds many regions where a vowel is inserted between /l/ and /m/ in this manner. One can find fillum and similar pronunciations for elm (“ellum”) and helm (“hellum”) throughout the West Country, Yorkshire, and Northwest England.
But epenthesis in Irish English extends beyond film and other /lm/ words. Also notable are clusters involving /r/ like farm, earn, girl along with more obscure examples like athlete and petrol. I wasn’t able to find much in the way of Irish-type epenthesis in clusters such as farm, burn, and girl in Wright’s work (with one exception for girl in Wilthire). I could likewise find no instance of more vernacular Irish epentheses like those in kiln and children.
There are many caveats here, though. Non-rhoticity is also more common in England, possibly confusing the question of epenthesis in words like farm. I only had the time and resources to stick largely to one of Wright’s more parsable works (although I tried seeing if there were a few other examples lurking in Wright’s massive English Dialect Dictionary).
Those quibbles are rather beside the point, though, because epenthesis in words like farm and burn doesn’t seem terribly common in Ireland these days. Hickey mentions that epenthesis is “universal in /lm/ clusters” but seems confined to vernacular English in other contexts***. Research seems to bear this out: In her Schwa Epenthesis in Galway English****, linguist Katrin Sell finds epenthesis for /lm/ clusters occurring at a robust rate of 54%, while epenthesis in /rm/ clusters yields a paltry 5%.
In other words, although Irish English features this type of epenthesis in many contexts, it seems to occur most in the very context where it seems most salient in England. So it’s more than plausible that England played a part in fillum.
There’s a difference between influence and origin. I suspect that “fillum” is at the very least influenced by Irish, but it’s not 100% clear if it was borrowed from that language. On the other hand, one can find features of Hiberno-English that are unquestionably Irish loans, most obviously lexical borrowings and Irish syntactic structures. When talking about this pronunciation quirk, alas, the connection is less of a closed case.
*Hickey, R. (2014) Retention and Innovation in Settler Englishes. In: Filppula, Markku, Devyani Sharma and Juhani Klemola (eds). The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes.
**Wright, J. (1905). The English Dialect Grammar. Google Play Edition.
** Hickey, R. (2007). Irish English: History and Present-Day Forms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
****Sell, K. (2012). Sociolinguistic findings on schwa epenthesis in Galway English. New Perspectives on Irish English, 44, 47.
Fillum is also common, or supposed to be common, in downmarket Australian. The much-belching, stained-tie Sir Les Patterson used to call himself Australian Minister of Culture and Fillums…
…thereby not only getting in the contradictory pronunciation but taking a side-swipe at the quality of the Australian film industry by separating it from “culture”.
“Fill’m” is very Geordie/North East of England. with a slightly less emphatic vowel between the l and m tha is found in Hiberno-English.
I’m currently preparing a paper on the origins of epenthesis in an Ulster English dialect; I’ll keep you posted.
The l-m epenthesis is also common for many non-native English speakers who do not have such consonant clusters in their own languages, such as Bengali and Somali.
If you think of the articulation a moment, the /l/ requires a tight nasal port, whereas /m/ requires it to be fully open, so there’s a slight delay as the velum probably isn’t lowered early (as it might be for a VN sequence). Listeners wouldn’t usually be disturbed by that, just as they’re not disturbed by any other aspect of coarticulation. But should it be perceived as a fleeting schwa, then you have something that can be exaggerated and acquired as a new syllable by subsequent generations. This wouldn’t apply to accents that have vocalized /l/, [fɪwm], where a little early nasalization would be possible.
David Crystal, when talking about his work on Original Pronunciation, often mentions how in Early Modern English, based on evidence from Shakespeare, “film” was most likely also disyllabic (it is often spelled “philome”).