Pronunciation - An Fuaimniú
Irish spelling often baffles the beginner. For instance:
- mh at the start of a word is pronounced as a w; e.g., mo mhála ("my bag") is pronounced 'mu wall-ah' (/mˠʊ ˈwaːl̪ˠə/).
- mh in the centre of a word is pronounced as a v sound; e.g., nimh ("poison") is pronounced 'niv' (/nʲɪvʲ/)
- bh is pronouced as a v sound; e.g., sa bhearna ("in the gap") is pronounced 'sa varna' (/sˠa ˈvaɾˠn̪ˠə/)
Note: the pronunciation of "mh" or "bh" varies regionally. In Ulster, the general rule is that they are pronounced 'w' when broad and 'v' when narrow. In Munster (as in the Western isles of Scotland), the tendency is to pronounce it as a 'v' at the beginning or the end of a word and 'w' in the middle. I've never been able to figure out exactly how it works in Connacht (e.g., the final syllable of "Gaillimh" (Galway) is pronounced "ih" in Galway but "iv" in Donegal or Kerry).
Within the regional variations, there are also local variations. For example, in Munster, I have heard "Abhainn" (river) and "amháin" (sole, single or only) pronounced with a 'v' sound. Surnames and personal names may not always follow the pattern either. The standard pronunciation of Siobhán (approx. Shivaun) does not correspond to any modern regional pattern. The alternative pronunciation "shoe-un" (approx.) exists in Munster and Ulster. To the Gaelic ear the sounds are, to a degree, interchangeable.
bó = a cow, beo = alive
The broad b is pronounced almost as if it were "bw" (/bˠ/) or something like the b in the English word "but" (as pronounced in Ireland), using both lips, as if you were about to kiss someone!
The slender b is pronounced sometimes as if in the Scandinavian "Bjorn" (/bʲ/) for example or like the b in English "bet". The lips are tenser, almost as if you were tightening them in exasperation.
Stress - An Bhéim
Stress, in Irish, is usually on the first syllable, except in the southernmost (Munster) dialects. In these stress is attracted to the second syllable if it includes a long vowel or diphthong or if it ends in ch and the first syllable is short. Thus, a word such as coileach = "cock, rooster" will, in Munster dialect, be stressed on the second syllable, but díreach = "direct, straight" still bears initial stress. Inflected forms without the ch have initial stress; e.g. coiligh = "cocks, roosters" is stressed on the first syllable, not the second.
Some borrowed words, notably tobac = "tobacco" are stressed on the second syllable. There are also quite a few of common adverbs which are so stressed, above all these:
- abhaile "home" (movement)
- abhus "on this side"
- aduaidh "from the north" ("northward" is ó thuaidh, "in the north" is thuaidh, and "the North" is an Tuaisceart)
- amach "out" (movement)
- amuigh "out" (state)
- amainiris "the second day after tomorrow"
- amanathar "the day after tomorrow" (arú amárach is probably more common)
- amárach (dialectally even amáireach) "tomorrow"
- anall "from the other side, to this side"
- aneas "from the south" ("southward" is ó dheas, "in the south" is theas, and "the South" is an Deisceart)
- aniar "from the west" ("westward" is siar, "in the west" is thiar, and "the West" is an tIarthar)
- anocht "tonight"
- anoir "from the east" ("eastward" is soir, "in the east" is thoir, and "the East" is an tOirthear)
- anóirthear (dialectally in Ulster even anóirtheal) "the day after tomorrow"; also "the second day after" - i.e. the second day after what happened last, in a narrative
- anonn "from this side, to the other side"
- anseo (in Munster, anso) "here"
- ansin (in Munster, ansan) "there"
- ansiúd (in Munster, ansúd) "out there, yonder"
- anuraidh "last year"
- aréir (in some Ulster dialects, aréireannas, aréirnas) "last night"
- arú is an adverb that is added to amárach "tomorrow" and inné "yesterday" to create arú amárach = "the day after tomorrow" and arú inné = "the day before yesterday"
- inné "yesterday"
- inniu "today"
- isteach "in" (movement)
- istigh "in" (state)
- laisteas "southside" (also taobh theas)
- laistigh "inside" (also taobh istigh)
- lasmuigh "outside" (also taobh amuigh)
- lastuas "overhead" (also taobh thuas)
- laistíos "below" (also taobh thíos)
This kind of adverbs are historically speaking compound words or word groups, which accounts for their unusual stress. The locative adverbs beginning with la- include the word leath, which means "half" or "direction (towards)". They are most usual in southern dialects; northern dialects prefer taobh "side", with the relevant local adverb added
Vowels - Na Gutaí
Standard Irish has the following vowels:
- [a] (short or long)
- [e] (short or long)
- [o] (short or long)
- [u] (short or long)
- [i] (short or long)
- [ə] (murmured vowel, auxiliary vowel, in Irish guta cúnta or the "helping" vowel)
and the diphthongs
The last two diphthongs can in certain words acquire a nasal twang - basically, if there is a nasal consonant in the writing: amhras "doubt" [aurəs] or [ãurəs], but gabha "smith" will be pronounced as [gau], because there is no m. The two diphthongs might as well be written phonetically as [ou] and [oi], or [əu] and [əi].
Basically, it should work the way that if a vowel has an acute accent, i.e. the fada, it is pronounced long, and if it hasn't, then it is pronounced short. This is also the fact in most straightforward positions, i.e. when the vowel is in the stressed syllable of a word. In unstressed syllables, short vowels - i.e. those written without a fada - become murmured auxiliary vowels, but long vowels - those written with a fada - stay long, or at the very least not murmured.
Note, though, that in dialects, a short vowel can be lengthened into a long one and a long one into a diphthong. This "syllable lengthening" is especially typical of Connemara dialects.
Vowels followed by -rd and by -nn are also usually lengthened: ard "high" is [a:rd], but it can even become [aurd] thanks to syllable lengthening. In a similar way, if an one-syllable word ends in -nn, in -rr, or in -ll, the preceding vowel is usually lengthened: ceann "head, end, roof, one" [k'a:N], mall "slow" [ma:L], gearr "short" [g'a:r]. It can even be diphthongized: ceann [k'aun]. Note, though, that the lengthening phenomena are very dialect-specific, and you are advised to pick them up from native speakers.
A more important thing to notice is, that in the combination eo, the o is always long (with the exception of seo "this", anseo "here", and eochair "key" - eochair "border, edge" has a long o, as has eochraí, dialectally also eochair, "fish-roe"). This is why we don't usually write feirmeóir anymore - feirmeoir is correct.
The most difficult thing about the relationship between Irish spelling and pronunciation is, that if we have a short vowel letter followed by a lenited consonant (i.e. a consonant followed by a /h/) in a stressed syllable, this combination is pronounced either as a long vowel or as a diphthong - either [au] or [ai]. (The diphthongs [uə] and [iə] are usually written /ua/ or /uai/, and /ia/ or /iai/, respectively.) More worryingly, pronunciations are often quite different and irregular in different dialects, and to be entirely sure, you should really consult a native speaker, or at the very least the pronunciation guides in the dictionaries Foclóir Póca and Foclóir Scoile.
Note, however, the following model pronunciations. These are based on Foclóir Scoile (An Gúm, Baile Átha Cliath, copyright: Rialtas na hÉireann 1994, see respective entries). However, I have added a tilde for nasalization, where it might occur, as well as other additional information. The Foclóir Scoile pronunciation is a compromise between the three major dialects, devised by three native speakers (Dónall P. Ó Baoill from Ulster, Éamonn Ó Tuathail from Connacht, and Pádraig Ó Maoileoin from Munster), and my own experience suggests that native speakers do not find this pronunciation unnatural or contrived, provided that the person using it has studied Irish literature and folklore and can speak in a fluent and natural way.
- togha [tau] "choice(st)"
- amharc [ãurk] "sight, look". This is also used as a verb in Ulster: to look. There, though, it is usually pronounced in a worn-down way, as if written "orc" or "onc".
- comhar [kõ:r] "partnership, mutual assistance". In Connemara, it is not pronunced nasally, but the trace of nasality turns the long [o:] sound into a long [u:] sound instead, thus [ku:r]. This is what tends to happen with the o's in Connemara even in other words, when they come into contact with nasal consonants. Thus, dona "bad" is pronounced as [dunə], because n is a nasal consonant.
- radharc [rairk] "sight"
- aontumha [i:ntũ:ə] "celibacy". The long u can be nasal even here. (Note that the word (and prefix) aon "one" is largely pronounced as [e:n] even in those dialects which usually pronounce -ao- as a long [i:]. Thus, in this particular instance the Foclóir Scoile pronunciation recommendation might be somewhat misleading.)
Irish vowels are either slender (caol) or broad (leathan). This means, that they affect the quality of the adjacent consonant. A consonant that is in touch with a slender vowel (e, i, é, í) is slender, i.e. palatalized - the hard palate participates in the pronunciation, so that the consonant is softened. A consonant that is in touch with a broad vowel is broad, i.e. non-palatalized - either velarized (the velum or soft palate participates) or labialized (lips participate). Broadness is above all about not being palatalized, so it depends on the particular occasion, whether it is more natural and easier to emphasize the broadness by velarization or by labialization.
Often, we use sleamhnóga (singular: sleamhnóg) in writing Irish, i.e. extra vowel letters adjacent to a consonant, which above all show the broad or slender nature of the consonant, but are not pronounced in any other way. In the word buí "yellow", for instance, the -u- is a sleamhnóg, showing that the b- shall be pronounced broad, although it is followed by a long slender vowel -í.
It is not always easy to tell a mere sleamhnóg from a vowel letter which is pronounced more fully. When the sleamhnóg comes between a long vowel and a consonant, it is obvious that it is only a sleamhnóg, but when we have two short vowel letters in one syllable, it might not be quite clear, which of them is just a sleamhnóg and which is the real thing. Especially /io/ is often problematic: words such as tiomáint "driving" and tiontú "turning" can be pronounced either way ([t'oma:n't'] or [t'ima:n't], [t'ontu:] or [t'intu:]) depending on dialect.
In such words as scéalaíocht "story-telling" the pronunciation suggested by the spelling is [s'k'e:li:xt], but in Ulster dialect, the real pronunciation is more like [s'k'e:lajaxt] and would suit the old spelling scéalaidheacht better.
The /ao/ of writing is basically a long [i:] preceded and followed by a broad consonant: saol "life, world" [si:l]. However, the two broad consonants tend to strongly influence the vowel between them, and it can sound like a Russian ы. When names including this sound were borrowed into English, the /ao/ was in many instances interpreted in very different ways: thus, the name Ó Maolagáin could become Mulligan or Milligan.
A long [e:] sound both followed and preceded by a broad consonant is written /ae/. Thus, the consonant N in the word traenach "of a train, a train's" (genitive form of traein, "a train") is broad, although it touches an e: [tre:nax]. Thus, we need a sleamhnóg after the -e- in the nominative form to signal that the -n is slender there: traein [tre:n'].
|ah, as in the Scottish 'lad'||/a/||a|
|ahh, as in the Australian 'father'||/aː/||á|
|eh, as in the American 'bed'||/ɛ/||e|
|ehh, as in the Italian 'bene'||/eː/||é|
|ih, as in 'fin'||/ɪ/||i|
|ee, as in 'see'||/iː/||í|
|aw, as in the Scottish 'law'||/ɔ/||o|
|ohh, as in the American 'oh' or (approximately) British 'caught'||/oː/||ó|
|uh, as in 'put'||/ʊ/||u|
|oo, as in 'soon'||/uː/||ú|
*In stressed positions only; in unstressed, vowels are reduced to an uh sound (/ə/).
|uh-oo, like a neutral uh-sound followed by a ú||/əu/||abh(a(i)), amh(a(i))|
|obh(a(i)), odh(a(i)), ogh(a(i))|
|uh-ee, similar to the ay in 'spray'||/əi/||adh(a(i)), agh(a(i))|
|ee-uh, like the ea in 'Korea'||/iə/||ia(i)|
|oo-uh, like the u in 'sure'||/uə/||ua(i)|
*In stressed positions only; in unstressed, vowels are reduced to an uh sound (/ə/).
Consonants - Na Consain
To start with, let's look at the non-lenited consonants in Irish, thus, the way how consonant letters are pronounced when they are not followed by the letter h. In order to pronounce such a consonant correctly, you must pay attention to the vowel letters around it. If it is surrounded by broad vowels (a, o, u, á, ó, ú), then you must pronounce it broad, and if it is surrounded by slender vowels (e, i, é, í), then you must pronounce it slender.
Broad (Irish: leathan) means velarized. Velum is the soft palate, and when a consonant is velarized, the velum or the soft palate takes part in the way it is pronounced. Broad consonants are velarized when surrounded by broad consonants. A common mistake is made by labializing a broad consonant when it is surrounded by certain letters.
Slender (Irish: caol) means palatalized. Palatum means specifically the hard palate, and it tends to soften the consonant - give it a taste of the [j] or English "y" sound. The Spanish ñ, for instance, is a slender n, and the Spanish ll used to be a slender L sound, but these days it is of course the same as the Spanish y for most speakers of that language. The English ll in the word "million" is an excellent example of a slender L, which is appropriately enough also found in its Irish equivalent, milliún.
As we already saw, mute short vowels (sleamhnóga) are often inserted in writing just to signal that the consonant is, say, slender although it stands next to a long broad vowel, or the other way round. So, in the word móin "peat, turf" the long ó is indeed pronounced as a vowel, while the -i- signals that the final -n is slender.
As explained above, the terms slender and broad refer to two categories of vowels.
- The broad vowels are a, o, and u.
- The slender vowels are i and e.
A consonant that is is flanked by broad vowels is broad. A consonant that is flanked by slender vowels is slender. Don't let the fact that every consonant has two pronunciations panic you. In most cases, the difference between the broad and slender pronunciation is subtle but majorly important. It is also critical to make the difference between broad and slender consonants. The most dramatic differences are:
|broad t||/t/ as in "tool"||t|
|slender t||/tj/ as in "tube"||tj|
|broad d||/d/ as in "do"||d|
|slender d||/dj/ as in "dew"||dj|
|broad f||/f/ as in "foot"||f|
|slender f||/fj/ as in "few"||fj|
|broad b||/b/ as in "boot"||b|
|slender b||/bj/ as in "beauty"||bj|
|broad g||/g/ as in "good"||g|
|slender g||/ɟ/ as in "gules"||gj|
|broad m||/m/ as in "moon"||m|
|slender m||/mj/ as in "music"||mj|
|broad n||/n/ as in "noon"||n|
|slender n||/nj/ as in "new"||nj|
|broad l||/l/ as in "loose"||l|
|slender l||/lj/ as in "lure"||lj|
|broad s||/s/ as in "soon"||m|
|slender s||/ʃ/ as in "sure"||sh|
As for r things can get complicated. The r in Irish is rolled/tapped and in slender position almost sounds silent or like an amalgamation of r and z. Aside from that, slender consonants have a slight "y" sound.
Putting It All Together
Here's a list of words to practice with. Say the word out loud, then hover your mouse over the word to check your pronunciation. If you want, you can try writing the pronunciation phonetically -- but don't worry if you didn't write the pronunciation exactly the way we did, as long as you had the right sound in mind. For now, don't worry about which syllable has the emphasis; we'll cover that in another section.
Lenition - An Séimhiú
Lenition (séimhiú) is a modification of pronunciation of the first letter of the word - a kind of initial mutation (claochlú tosaigh). Lenition means different things for different consonants, but it is always expressed by adding a -h- after the consonant:
- B -> BH. The /bh/ is pronounced very much like the English W, when it is followed by a broad vowel (a, o, u). When it is followed by a slender vowel (e, i), it is more like the English V.
- C -> CH. The /ch/ is pronounced as a German "ach" sound before a broad vowel, as a German "ich" sound before a slender vowel.
- D -> DH. This is a little more difficult. You might think that it is like the English voiced th, but if you thought so, you were mistaken. Really, /dh/ is pronounced as a [γ] sound if it is followed by a broad vowel, but as a [j] - that is, an English /y/ - if it is followed by a slender vowel. The [γ] sound is the voiced equivalent of the German ach sound - you let your vocal chords vibrate while you try to pronounce a German ach sound. The "Parisian r" is also a good approximation.
- F -> FH. FH means simply, that there is nothing there. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. FH is only a kind of graphic symbol for showing, that normally there used to be a F- here, but it was taken away by the lenition.
- G -> GH. GH is pronounced exactly as DH. Note, though, that G is lenited in a somewhat more regular way, while D sometimes resists regular lenition. This will be especially noted in the lessons.
- M -> MH. MH is pronounced as BH, but it might give the adjacent vowel a nasalized sound.
- P -> PH. This PH is pronounced as F, sensibly enough. Note though that the Irish F tends to be bilabial.
- S -> SH. The Irish SH is pronounced as the English H. The S can only be lenited if it is immediately followed by a vowel or by one of the consonants N, L, R. Such words as strainséir (which, of course, means "stranger" or "foreigner", and is either a very old English loanword or has been borrowed from Norman French into Irish and English at the same time) cannot be lenited even when in a position where it would be grammatically required.
Note that instead of being lenited, a "lenitable" S can turn into a T sound, which is then written ts or tS (when the S is written in upper case). This exception will be mentioned in the lessons.
In Kerry Irish, SM- might be lenited, too. This is however seldom shown in writing, as it is a local dialectal trait. In fact, it is so local that a person who isn't familiar with the dialect (or is only familiar with it from more or less standardized texts, such as Peig Sayers's notorious autobiography) will perceive it as a learner's error.
- T -> TH. The Irish TH is pronounced as the Irish SH, i.e. as a H sound. And it can only be lenited when it is followed by a vowel or one of the consonants N, L, R. It also resists lenition according to the same rules as the D does.
Lenited Consonants inside the word - Na Consain Shéimhithe laistigh den Fhocal
When you see lenited consonants inside a word, note that they usually interact with the previous vowel, so that long vowels or diphthongs arise:
- the -amh- in samhradh "summer" is pronounced as [au]
- the aimh- in aimhréidh "entanglement" is pronounced as [aiv-]
- the -omha- in comhar "cooperation" is pronounced as [o:], i.e. a long o; in Connemara though, it is pronounced as [u:], because out there the touch of nasal consonants (or of what used to be a nasal consonant) usually changes an [o] sound into an [u] sound. (Similarly, in Connemara cnoc "hill" is pronounced as [kruk], and dona "bad" as [dunə].)
- the -ogha in togha "pick, choice, excellent thing" is pronounced as [au]
- the -abhadh in rabhadh "warning" is pronounced as [au]
Final, unaccented -dh or -gh can often be left unpronounced, especially in Connemara. Note, though, that a final -idh/-igh is a short, but clear [i] sound in Ulster, and an audible [ig'] in Munster; and final -adh is a short, but clear [u] sound in Ulster.
Note: vowels cannot be lenited
A mistake that some learners make, is to think that the h- that is sometimes added to the first vowel of the word, is for lenition. More correctly, this h- is added to the vowel in positions where a consonant would neither be lenited nor eclipsed.
Eclipsis - An tUrú
Eclipsis is called in Irish urú, an older form is urdhubhadh, from the intensifying prefix ur- "very" and dubhadh "blackening". So, it is really eclipse, as in solar eclipse (urú na gréine) or in lunar eclipse (urú na gealaí). As with lenition, eclipsis is triggered by the preceding word - the "eclipsing" word so to speak, which kind of "casts its shadow" over the word.
Eclipsis means, basically, that unvoiced stops become voiced, and voiced stops become nasal. Thus, c, p, and t become g, b, and d respectively, and b, d, and g become m, n, and ng respectively. Although f is a fricative sound, it is eclipsed too - it becomes voiced, i.e. either a w or a v sound - in Irish, these are perceived as variants of one sound that is written as bh, as we saw.
The disquieting thing is, that the actual pronunciation is written in addition to the original pronunciation of the first consonant letter. Thus, we see words beginning with gc-, bp-, dt-, mb-, nd-, and even bhf-, and people start panicking about, how such a monster should be pronounced. In reality, it is much more easy than it looks like:
- mb- is pronounced like m-
- gc- is pronounced like g-
- nd- is pronounced like n-
- bhf- is pronounced like bh-
- ng- is pronounced like...well, ng in the English word "sing"; you would expect it to be written ngg-, but that's not how it works in this case
- bp- is pronounced like b-
- dt- is pronounced like d-
Note that if the word is to be written in upper case, it's the letter showing the original pronunciation that is capitalized, not the letters showing the actual pronunciation:
- Gaillimh Galway, i nGaillimh in Galway
- Corcaigh Cork, i gCorcaigh in Cork
- Baile Átha Cliath Dublin, i mBaile Átha Cliath in Dublin
- Prág Prague, i bPrág in Prague
- Fear Manach Fermanagh, i bhFear Manach in Fermanagh
- Tír Eoghain Tyrone, i dTír Eoghain in Tyrone
- Deilginis Dalkey, i nDeilginis in Dalkey
While it was said earlier that a vowel can't be lenited, it definitely can be eclipsed. In that case, a n- is added to it. It is hyphenated before a lower-case letter, but not before an upper-case one:
- go n-éirí an bóthar leat bon voyage, Go nÉirí an Bóthar Leat Bon Voyage
Note, though, that when the eclipsis is caused by the preposition i, "in", the recommendation is to perceive this n- as part of the preposition. Thus, we write in Éirinn, not i nÉirinn. In sloppily edited books, you can of course see even i nÉirinn and i n-Éirinn. The different ways to write it of course don't affect the pronunciation.
Prefixed h- - An Réamhlitir h-
The prefixed h-, the hiatus consonant, is often grammatically required in positions where neither lenition nor eclipsis occurs. See the following example:
mo ghluaisteán "my automobile" - m'aiste "my essay"
do ghluaisteán "your automobile" - d'aiste "your essay"
a ghluaisteán "his automobile" - a aiste "his essay"
a gluaisteán "her automobile" - a haiste "her essay"
ár ngluaisteán "our automobile" - ár n-aiste "our essay"
bhur ngluaisteán "your automobile" - bhur n-aiste "your essay"
a ngluaisteán "their automobile" - a n-aiste "their essay"
This rule is not without its exception, however. The little word cá, which is used for creating "wh-" questions especially in Ulster Irish, prefixes a h- to a following vowel (cá haois é? "what age is he", i.e. "how old is he?") but lenites a following noun expressing the grade of a quality: cá fhad é ó tháinig sé go Conamara? "how long is it since he came to Connemara?", i.e. "how long has he been in Connemara?" - Note that cá is in other dialects more often used in the sense "where?", and in this sense it usually eclipses the following verb: cá bhfuil sé? "where is he?"
Prefixed t- - An Réamhlitir t-
In Irish, there are two kinds of prefixed t-:
The t- that is prefixed to vowels
This t- is, of course, added to the word, both in writing and pronunciation. Most typically, it comes after the singular form of the definite article in the nominative singular of masculine nouns:
- árthach "a vessel, a ship" - an t-árthach "the vessel, the ship"
- éan "a bird" - an t-éan "the bird"
- iontas "a wonder" - an t-iontas "the wonder"
The t- that is prefixed to words beginning with a lenitable initial s-
- i.e. s + vowel, sl-, sn-, sr-. This t- is somewhat similar to the eclipsing consonant, because while it is added to the written form of the word, it ousts the initial s- in pronouncing. We see this instead of lenition after the definite article in the nominative singular of feminine nouns:
- sráid "a street" - an tsráid [tra:d'] "the street"
- sornóg "a stove" - an tsornóg [torno:g] "the stove"
- saoirse "liberty, freedom" - an tsaoirse [ti:r's'ə] "the liberty, the freedom"
- sleamhnóg "a glide letter (in writing Irish)" - an tsleamhnóg [t'l'ãuno:g] "the glide letter"
- snaidhm "a knot" - an tsnaidhm [tnaim'] "the knot"