lesson

Irish Pronuncation,by the Christian Bros.

Background

Irish, like most of the languages in Europe and like many in Asia as well, is a member of the Indo-European family of languages, a family descended from a common ancestral language that was probably spoken between 3000 and 2000 B.C., and probably in the area of what is now Iran or the Caucasus. The Indo-European languages are divided up into different branches; French and Spanish belong to the Romance branch, for instance, whereas English belongs to the Germanic branch. The Irish language belongs to another branch altogether, Celtic, which is split into two parts called "P" and "Q" Celtic". "Q" Celtic contains Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx, collectively called the Gaelic languages; "P" Celtic contains Welsh, Cornish, and Breton, the "Brythonic" languages. Although all of the Celtic languages retain some features in common, generally the languages of "P-Celtic" are unintelligible to speakers of the languages of "Q-Celtic", and vice versa.

All of the "Q-Celtic" languages are descended from Old Irish, and still share much in common with each other.

Pronunciation

The Irish language, though in the distant past written in "ogham" characters, has used the Latin alphabet for most of its history. The Irish version of this alphabet contains five vowels - a, e, i, o, and u - and thirteen consonants - b, c, d, f, g, h, l, m, n, p, r, s, and t. But other letters such as "v" and "x" show up in foreign loan-words.

This is only intended to be a *rough* guide to pronunciation, just to give an idea and what Irish sounds like. But I highly recommend buying a tape of people speaking Irish to pick up the accent and also to pick up what I've had to leave out here.

a) Vowels

There are two classes of vowels, the broad and the slender. The broad vowels are a, o, and u. The slender vowels are e and i. (This distinction is important to the pronunciation of the consonants that surround the vowels). In addition, each vowel has a long and a short form, the long form usually being marked with an accent. The approximate pronunciations of the vowels are as follows:

Vowel Sounds like... In the English word
á  aw  saw
tap
é  ay  say [but shorter]
let
í  ee  feel
tin
ó  note [but shorter]
much
ú  oo  tool
bull

b) Consonants

Consonants each have two pronunciations, broad and slender, depending on whether they are next to a broad vowel (a, o, u) or slender vowel (e, i), respectively. (Because of the Irish grammatical rule "broad with broad and slender with slender", a vowel on one side of a consonant has to be the same kind as a vowel on the other side of it). In some cases, these broad and slender pronunciations are clearly different, and where are they I've marked it down on the table below. But a couple of letters have differences that are more subtle and not expressible in writing, and these involve sounds that will have to be picked up by listening to an Irish-speaker. Because of this, I haven't marked the different pronunciations of these letters in the table - just for the time being pronounce them as they are in English.

Consonant Sounds like in the English word
bed
cat
d (broad)  die
d (slender)  tch  watch
fed
get
let
man
not
pet
run
s (broad)  set
s (slender)  sh  shin
t (broad)  top
t (slender)  tch  watch

Diphthongs and Triphthongs

Diphthongs and triphthongs are combinations of two and three vowels, respectively. Sometimes they act as one sound (like the diphthong "au" in the English name "Paul", for instance).

Diphthongs

Diphthong Sounds like in the English word
ia  "ee-a"  Maria
ua  "oo-a"  Kahlua
eu  ai  air
ae  ae  Gaelic
ao  [cross between] ee + oo  [no English equivalent, but "oo" is close enough for now]
éo  yo  yo-yo
iu  ew  few
ái  aw + i  [no English equivalent]
éi  ay + e  [no English equivalent]
ói  o + ee  Joey
úi  oo + ee  hooey
eá  aa  [no English equivalent]
ío  ee  deer
ai, ea  far
ei  eh
oi  uh + ee  [no English equivalent]
io, ui  ill
eo  uh  dull
aí  ee  feel

Triphthongs


aoi  ee  see
eoi  oh + short i  [no English equivalent]
eái  aa + short i  [no English equivalent]
iai  eeah + ee  [no English equivalent]
uai  oo + short i  [no English equivalent]
iui  ew + short i  [no English equivalent]

Word Stress

Stress generally falls on the first syllable of the word, except when any of the other syllables contains a long vowel, in which case the stress falls on that syllable instead.

Aspiration and Eclipsis

You might have heard these dreaded words before -- they're the two reasons most often given for not learning Irish! But they really are not very difficult at all. Aspiration and eclipsis are simply two ways in which some of the consonants in Irish can be altered to show grammatical change. This is done for exactly the same reasons that (for example) in English we put "-ed" at the end of a verb to show that it happened in the past (e.g. "walked"), or put "s" at the end of a noun to show a plural. However, in Irish, as in the rest of the Celtic languages, these changes are made not at the end of words but at the beginning of them. And these changes cause regular and predictable changes in pronunciation as well.

a) Aspiration

The consonants that can be aspirated are b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s, and t. They are aspirated by having "h" put after them.

Consonant Aspirated Form Sounds Like
bh  "w" as in "wet"
ch  "ch" as in "loch"
dh (broad)  "gh" as in "ugh"
dh (slender)  "y" as in "yet"; [silent at the end of a word]
fh  [silent]
gh (broad)  "gh" as in "ugh"
gh (slender)  "y" as in "yet"; [silent at the end of a word]
mh  "w" as in "wet"
ph  "f" as in "fit"
sh  "h" as in "hat"
th  "h" as in "hat"; [silent at the end of a word]

Note: both "dh" and "gh" have broad and slender forms, just like the regular consonants.

Here's an example of how aspiration works to show a grammatical change. In Irish the word "mo" means "my" and the word "bróg" (pronounced "brok") means "shoe". But "mo" always aspirates the first letter of a word that follows it (if that word starts with a letter that can be aspirated, of course). So if you want to say "my shoe", you say "mo bhrog" (pronounced "mo vrok").

b) Eclipsis

Eclipsis looks more difficult than aspiration, but is in fact easier because the pronunciation is always the sound of the first letter in the pair:
Consonant Eclipsed Form Sounds like
b mb m
c gc g
d nd n
f bhf w
g ng n
p bp b
t dt d

An example of eclipsis at work: the Irish word for "in" is "i" (pronounced like the "i" in "tin"), and it regularly causes eclipsis. So if we want to say "in Paris", in Irish it would be "i bParis" (pronounced "i barrish" - note how the "p" sound in "Paris" is lost and "eclipsed" by the letter "b"; also note that "s" in Paris is pronounced "sh" because it follows a slender vowel, "i".)

Similar examples would be "i dToronto", "i gCalifornia", "i bhFresno" etc. Naturally, because not all consonants are eclipsable, some would be unaffected: "i Nua Eabhrac" (in New York), "i Louisiana", etc.

Intrusive Vowel

When r, l, or m is followed by m, b, bh, or g, an unwritten vowel sound is pronunced between them. This sound is the "schwa" we hear in English (though in English it's also unwritten); for instance, think of the word "vacancy". Although the second vowel is written "a", it isn't pronounced like the first "a"; instead it sounds like a short "uh" sound. This "schwa" sound, then, is also found in Irish, e.g. in words like "gorm" (meaning "blue"), which is pronounced like "gorruhm". You might have noticed that some Scottish people still say "filluhm" for "film", in the same way.

Miscellaneous

Short (unaccented) vowels with "gh" or "dh" make the sound you hear in the English word "eye", e.g.

staighre (stairs)  --  pronounced "stire" (rhymes with "fire")
fadhb (problem)  --  pronounced "fibe" (rhymes with "tribe")

And now, since we have suffered enough, let us leave the realm of pronunciation, and learn to form sentences.

line
Return to Gaelic lessons index - Home