Irish/Unit 1/Lesson 2

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Unit One: 1 2 3 4

Unit Two: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Unit Three: Lesson Index

Spelling and Pronunciation - Grammar

More Irish language resources can be found at
Wikiversity's Department of Irish Studies

In This Lesson

In this lesson, you'll learn about:

  • Caol (slender) and leathan (broad) verbs and consonants
  • The definite article
  • Singular and plural nouns

Caol agus Leathan (Broad and Slender)[edit | edit source]

caol slender pronunciation
leathan broad pronunciation
anois now pronunciation

Broad and Slender Vowels[edit | edit source]

Irish vowels are classified as either broad (leathan) or slender (caol). The broad vowels are a and á, o and ó, and u and ú. The slender vowels are e, é, i, and í.

Broad and Slender Consonants[edit | edit source]

Consonants are considered broad or slender based on the surrounding consonants. In Irish, if a consonant has a vowel on either side of it (before and after), both vowels must be the same type, either both broad or both slender. So the Irish word for "now" is "anois". The "o" is not pronounced, but it could not be omitted--otherwise the "n" would have a broad "a" on one side and a slender "i" on the other.

This is important because, in Irish, most consonants are pronounced differently in their broad and slender forms. One of the most obvious changes to an English speaker is with the letter "s". A broad "s" is pronounced like an English "s", and a slender "s" is pronounced like an English "sh". Think of two Irish names as examples:

Seán Súileabháin

In English-speaking countries, the Irish name "Séan" is sometimes spelled "Shawn", reflecting the pronunciation of "s" followed by a slender vowel. "Súileabháin" is also changed in English-speaking countries, to "Sullivan", with the initial "s" reflecting the broad vowel that follows.

If you've ever wondered why some Irish words, like Seán, Sinéad, and Séamus, pronounce "s" as an "sh" sound, now you know: it's because of the slender vowel that follows it.

Broad and Slender Consonants in English[edit | edit source]

This may seem like a strange concept, but it actually occurs in English, too. Consider the letter "C". When "c" is followed by a broad vowel, a, o, or u, it is usually pronounced with a hard "c" sound:

cat cab candle
cob con court
cub curdle cult

When followed by a slender vowel, it it is usually pronounced with a soft "c" sound:

city cinema cite
cell cent cedar

If English is your native language, you probably never thought about that rule--but you follow it instinctively when you see a new word. If you concentrate on properly pronouncing Irish words, you will develop the same instincts in Irish that you have now in English.

Reviewing Broad and Slender Consonants[edit | edit source]

With that in mind, let's review the consonants we've learned so far in their broad and slender forms:

spelling caol (broad) leathan (slender)
example IPA phoneme English equivalent example IPA phoneme English equivalent
L caol /lˠ/ léigh /lʲ/ "l" as in "lure"
n / nn léann /nˠ/ Niamh /nʲ/
bh leabhar /w/ an bhean /vʲ/
mh Niamh /w/ Naomh /v/
gh // //
s // //

Some of these differences are subtle, as with "l". Some are more dramatic, such as "bh". And, as we saw with "gh" in the last lesson, sometimes the dialect makes a difference.

The Articles: An and Na[edit | edit source]

an singular definite article pronunciation
na plural definite article pronunciation

You may have noticed in the last lesson that we translated the sentence:

Léann Niamh leabhar

as "Niamh reads a book." In English, the sentence would be incorrect without the indefinite article "a".

Irish does not have an indefinite article. If a sentence in English would use "a" or "an", in most cases the Irish translation would simply use the noun with no article, as we see above.

However, Irish does have a definite article, the equivalent of the English word "the". In Irish, the definite article used with singular verbs is an.

Léann Niamh leabhar Niamh reads a book
Léann Niamh an leabhar Niamh reads the book

English uses the same definite article for all nouns, singular and plural. In Irish, there is a separate form of the article, na, used with plural nouns:

an leabhar the book
na leabhair the books

Plural Nouns[edit | edit source]

You'll notice that to say "the books" you also change the word leabhar, book, to its plural form, leabhair, books. Like English (but unlike some other languages, such as Mandarin Chinese), most nouns have different singular and plural forms.

Forming Plurals[edit | edit source]

Like English again, these plurals can be formed in different ways.

  • Some plurals are formed by slenderising the word's last vowel, altering the ending of a word from a broad syllable like "-ar" to a slender one, like "-air". Many English plurals are formed this way as well; think of "mouse" and "mice".
Singular Plural
leabhar (book) leabhair (books)
  • Some plurals are formed by adding the letter "a" to the end. Because "a" is a broad vowel, sometimes this means changing the word's last vowel from slender to broad.
Singular Plural
bliain (year) bliana (years)
  • Many Irish nouns add a longer plural suffix, like the English "children". There are many different plural endings in Irish, some of which also affect the preceding vowel:
Singular Plural
uncail (uncle) uncailí (uncles)
scéal (story) scéalta (stories)
tír (country) tíortha (countries)
ainm (name) ainmneacha (names)
ceist (question) ceisteanna (questions)
  • Finally, as in any language, some words are irregular--in other words, exceptions--and must simply be memorized.
Singular Plural
bean (woman) mná (women)

The first two categories--slenderized plurals and plurals with "a"--are called "weak" plurals, and plurals with other endings are called "strong" plurals. Knowing whether a word has a strong or weak plural form will also tell you something about how the genitive and dative forms of the nouns are formed--but we'll worry about that when we get there.

Learning Plurals[edit | edit source]

There is no simple set of rules for Irish plurals; beginning learners will need to memorize the plural for each noun. As you learn more you will notice patterns emerging; often nouns with the same endings will form plurals in the same way.

Going forward, when we introduce and drill a noun, we will also note and drill its plural to get you used to the way plurals are formed. If you prefer a rules-based approach, you can find more technical information on the way different genders and declensions of nouns form their plurals in the Nouns reference page.

Basic Sentences[edit | edit source]

New Words, New Sounds[edit | edit source]

Let's look more closely at some of the new words introduced above. First, scéal, meaning story. Scéal and its plural scéalta have a few new sounds in it:

spelling IPA phoneme English equivalent
Sc (slender) /ʃc/ "sh" as in "shoe" + "k" as in "kiss"
éi /eː/ "a" as in "acorn" (in Connacht dialect)
t /t/ "t" as in "hat"

Because the "sc" at the beginning of the word is slender, the "s" is pronounced like an English "sh" sound. The dipthong "éi" is pronounced differently in each dialect. Use the link below to listen to each pronunciation:

scéal (story)

Notice also that in the Munster dialect, the "s" in the initial "sc" sounds more like a broad "s" than a slender "sh" sound.

The "c" sound appears by itself in one of our other new words, ceist (question).

spelling IPA phoneme English equivalent
c (slender) /c/ No exact English equivalent
st (slender) /ʃt/ "sh" as in "shoe" + "t" as in "hat"

Again, the "s" in "-st" is pronounced like an English "sh" because of the slender vowel that precedes it.

The broad and slender "c" sound very similar to English speakers. The broad "c" has the familiar hard /k/ sound found in English, but the slender "c" has a slightly softer /c/ sound, like the "q" in the French word "quoi".

It is worth spending some time now to train your ear to hear these different sounds. Visit this site:

[Minimal Pairs]

Choose a dialect, then find the row with cúis and ciumhais. Don't worry about the meanings; just know that these words are pronounced almost identically, except for the broad and slender initial "c". Listen and try to reproduce the difference.

New Sentences[edit | edit source]

Now let's use these new words in a sentence. As you learned in Lesson 1, the most common sentence structure in Irish is V-S-O, or verb-subject-object:

Léann Niamh leabhar
Niamh reads a book

Let's change this sentence around using our new vocabulary and our new knowledge of articles and plurals.

Léann Niamh scéal Niamh reads a story
Léann Niam an scéal Niamh reads the story
Léann Niamh scéalta Niamh reads stories
Léann Niamh na scéalta Niamh reads the stories
Léann Niamh ceist Niamh reads a question
Léann Niamh ceisteanna Niamh reads questions
Léann Niamh na ceisteanna Niamh reads the questions

You'll notice we didn't tell you how to say "Niamh reads the question." You'll learn why in the next lesson.

Exercises[edit | edit source]

Exercise 1[edit | edit source]

Follow the links below to and listen to how each word is pronounced in the three major dialects of Irish. Try to pronounce each word out loud both before and after you listen to the example. When you reach the end of the list, go back to the beginning. Repeat until you can predict the pronunciation with reasonable accuracy. You don't have to be perfect, but you should not be pronouncing any words in inappropriate "English" ways. As you listen, think about whether the consonants are leathan (broad) or caol (slender)

ní (not) nó (or)

Next Lesson[edit | edit source]

Next Lesson

In Lesson 3, you'll learn about:

  • More Irish consonants
  • Masculine and feminine nouns
  • Séimhiú, one of three Irish initial mutations
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