Guide to Irish Pronunciation

Na leathanaigh bhunaidh

Leathanach ⅰ.
Leathanach ⅱ.
Leathanach ⅲ.
Leathanach ⅳ.
Leathanach ⅴ.
Leathanach ⅵ.
Leathanach ⅶ.
Leathanach ⅷ.
Leathanach ⅸ.

Tras-scríbhinn

Guide to Irish Pronunciation.

General.

The phonetic range of Irish is considerably wider than that of any other West or Mid-European language, such as English, French, German, Spanish or Italian. Still its sounds can be acquired by careful listening to the records, with the help of the following instructions. The learner must remember that any sound, in any language, can be correctly learned by a person with good hearing who listens attentively to its pronunciation and tries to imitate it.

The alphabet employed in Irish is the Latin alphabet, slightly modified. The use of the dot over the “aspirated” consonants, e.g. a ṁáṫair, his mother, is an Irish modification. This dot was, at first, used only over or under f, in which case it served as a punctum delens, as aspirated f is silent. Then it spread to s (s). A h was written after c, p, t, (c, p, t) when aspirated. Later, a portion of the h, a v-shaped sign, was written instead over these letters to mark aspiration. Later still, the dot became the uniform mark of aspiration.

The development of the Latin to the Roman alphabet can easily be seen by a glance at medieval Romance manuscripts of different dates. Latterly, the Roman alphabet is a good deal used in Irish, as it is exclusively nowadays for Scottish Gaelic. In this case, the aspiration is expressed by a following h.

There are only 18 symbols in the Irish alphabet, but their range is considerably extended (1) by the “aspiration” above referred to which completely alters their phonetic values, (2) by marks of length written over long vowels to distinguish them from short vowels which are unmarked, e.g. fear, a man, féar, grass, (3) by the system of “broad” and “slender” consonants.

Consonants which occur before or after a, o, u, long or short, are called “broad” consonants. Those occurring before e, i, long or short, or after i or í, are called “slender“ consonants. According to a rule, caol le caol agus leaṫan le leaṫan, slender with slender and broad, with broad, intervocalic consonants if broad have broad vowels (a, o, u) before and after them, if slender they are flanked by slender vowels (e, i).

The phonetic values of broad and slender consonants differ very widely. Consequently, the system of giving the pronunciation of letters in their order in the alphabet would not adequately meet the case.

As a detailed discussion of all the Irish sounds cannot be attempted here, the reader who wishes to make a more thorough study is recommended to consult Ó Maille’s Urlabhraidheacht, Ó Searcaigh’s Foghraidheacht Ghaedhilge an Tuaiscirt, etc.

Consonants.

The consonants may be divided into the following groups:—

1. Guttural or Back Consonants.

This includes g, ġ, , c, ċ, ng, written before or after a, o, u. They are not, properly speaking, gutturals, but are pronounced with the back of the tongue against the soft palate.

c(a): [k] is pronouned like c in English cow, call.

ċ(a): [ch] is pronounced like Scottish ch in loch, which is itself a Gaelic word meaning lake. There is a little less friction than in the case of ch in German auch, etc. In pronouncing ċ(a) the tongue is somewhat removed from the soft palate, further than in the case of the corresponding German sound.

g(a): [g] is pronounced like g in English go, goose.

ġ(a), ḋ(a): [g]. Initially ġ, , broad are pronounced like ċ above, only that they are voiced, i.e. the vocal chords vibrate during the process. There is nothing to correspond to this sound in English. The pronunciation of g in German sagen, in some districts, resembles it.
Examples: ḋall, blind, an ġáir, the shout.
Medially ġ, , broad, are commonly not pronounced, except that they lengthen or otherwise affect the preceding vowel.

ng(a): [ng]. Pronounced like ng in English long.
Examples: i ngar, near; long, a ship.

2. Interdentals.

These are broad n, l initially,in unaspirated position (v. p. x), nn ll (broad) in the middle or end of a word and a d, t (broad) in any position. They are pronounced with the tongue on the lower edge of the upper teeth or slightly between the teeth.

t(a): [t]. Pronounced with the tongue in the position indicated above. There is nothing like this sound in English, French, German, Spanish. The nearest approximation is Italian tt in otto, perfetio, etc. In many parts of Ireland it is used in pronouncing th of English word think, but of course is quite different from the correct English sound: , is.

d{a): [d] is pronounced in exactly the same tongue position as t(a), with the addition that it is voiced. There is nothing like it in English and West European languages. In Ireland, the sound is incorrectly used for th in English that, them.
Examples: doċar, harm; ród, a road.

n(a), nn: [N]. Pronounced in exactly the same tongue position as d(a), t(a) but with the nasal passage open. There is nothing like it in English,
Initial broad n is pronounced in this way. In the middle or end, of a word it is written nn (broad). Broad n after s, r is also interdental: snáṁ, swimming; carnán, a heap. Initially, nuair, when. The n of an, the, is pronounced (a)nn before a broad vowel.

l(a), ll: [L]. This interdental L is pronounced like above, except that on each side of the tongue there is room for the voiced breath to escape. There is nothing to correspond to it in West European languages, except of course in Scotch Gaelic, where it is quite common.
Examples: , a day; loċ, a lake; Béarla, English.

3. Alveolars, l, n, r.

These, (a)l, (a)n, (a)r are pronounced with the point of the tongue on the arch (or upper portion) of the hard palate. They closely resemble English l, n, r in call, bone, for ever, except that in Irish the tongue is slightly more flattened against the hard palate with less back modification. The r is, of course, more trilled.
Examples, n: fan, wait: mo náṁaid, my enemy.
l: Ál, a brood; ḋá lá, two days.
r: lár, mór, ráḋ.

4. Point-teeth Consonants.

These are l, n after i, or before e, i, é, í in “aspirated” position. They are made by the point of the tongue against the junction of the upper teeth with the gums.

(i)l,: [l]. Like initial English l in leave, let, French l in tel, etc., but not like final l, ll, of English words.
Examples: toil, will: tuile, flood; liom, with me.

(i)n: [n]. Like n in English neat, French .
Examples: cáin, báine, is sine (older).

(i)n(h): [n˚]. Like the preceding, but slightly breathed: sine na bó, the cow‘s teat: faiṫne, a wart.

5. Labial Consonants.

(a) Broad b, p, m, , , , f. These are made with the lips against or close to each other, with the tongue in u-position.

b(a): [b] much the same as b in English boat.
Examples: , a cow; cab, a lip; leabaiḋ, a bed.

p(a): [p] much the same as p in English poor.
Examples: pota, a pot; b followed by , réabṫa, rent, torn.

ḃ(a): [w] like English w in wont, mo ḃó, my cow; caḃair, help.
In some cases, medially, it is not pronounced, duḃairt, said; cuḃar, froth. Here it lengthens the preceding u.

f: [f] like English f in father, except that English f is labio-dental, Irish bi-labial.
Examples: fáṫ, cause; mo ṗáiġe, my pay.

(a): [m] like English m in more, mole, French m in mois, without, of course the w‑sound in the latter.
Examples: mór, great; máṫair, mother

(a): [w]. It to corresponds broad above, except that in this case the nasal passage is opened. The nasality often passes over to a previous or following vowel.
Examples: saṁraḋ, summer; náṁaid, an enemy.

(b) Slender b, p, m, , , , f. They are made by the lips with the tongue in e-position.

b(i): (b′] as in English bee, French d in belle: , be; béas, custom.

ḃ(i): [vj as English v in veer, very, except that the English sound is lip-teeth, Irish bi-labial.
Examples: , was; a ḃéasa, his customs.

p(e): [p′] as English p in peel, French p in péve: péire, a pair[;] caipín, a cap.

ṗ(e), f(e): [f′] as f in English feel, except that Irish slender f is bi-labial: fíor, true; a ṗeata, his pet.

m(i): [v] corresponding to ḃ(i) but with the nasal passage open. This gives it a nasal sound, and the neighbouring vowels become slightly nasal: an ṁí, the month; a ṁéar, his finger.
Where is preceded or followed by (=h) the ṁt, tṁ‑ becomes f with a slightly nasal effect: aiṫṁéala, regret; líoṁṫa, polished.

6. Blade Consonants.

Broad and slender s and slender r.

s(a): [s]. Broad s (s) is pronounced like s in English words like toss, moss, sell: sál, a heel; glas, green, grey.

s(í), s(e), slender s, like sh in ship, or s in sure.
Examples: síoda, silk; leis, with him (lesh).
s in Irish is never pronounced like English z. Broad s is somewhat lower on the teeth than the corresponding English s, and to an English ear has a slightly lisping effect.

(i)r. Another blade consonant is slender r, as in cóir, fir, láir. It is made by the blade and from that to the “front” or middle of the tongue against the hard palate, the point of the tongue hanging behind the lower teeth. The tongue is then trilled. It is a difficult sound for foreigners, and there is nothing at all like it in any W. European language. The learner is recommended to try to get his tongue into the position indicated and then to pronounce an r‑sound. Careful listening to the pronunciation on the records and imitation of it will after a time give correctness.
Exception: r preceded by i but followed t, d, n, l, s is pronounced like broad r: beirt. áird, túirne. In Sandhi, soir leis, deir sé, deir tú.

7. Palatal Consonants.

Slender c, ċ, g, ġ, , ng. These consonants are formed by placing the front (towards the middle) of the tongue against or close to the arch of the hard palate.

(e): [k′] like k in English keel (made on palate).
Examples: cead, céir, leigṫe.

ċ(e): [ç]. This is an open consonant formed as indicated above, the front of the tongue being near the arch of the hard palate. It is like ch in German ich. The h in English huge, as pronounced by some speakers, is like it.
Examples: mo ċios, cloiċe, fiċe, and in riṫ, iṫe.

g(e): [g′] like English g in get (on hard palate): geata, géar, laige

ġ(e), ḋ(e): [y] is like y in English yes.
Examples: ġeal, páiġe, ḋeasng(e): [ng′] like ng in German singen or English sing, with ng on hard palate : i ngeall, Daingean, ar an ngeata.

8. Front Consonants.

Slender d, t, nn, ll, and slender n, l, initially. They are pronounced with the front or middle portion of the tongue against the roots of the front upper teeth and also against the hard palate. The sounds do not exist in English. The tongue position may be readily obtained by anybody familiar with the pronunciation of gn in Italian ogni, legno, etc., or of Spanish ñ in Señior, etc.

t(e): [t′]. A t sound with the tongue in the position indicated. There is nothing like it in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German. This t‑sound is used over a great part of Ireland in the pronunciation of the English words tune, tube.
Examples: tír, a country; caiṫte, spent; druidṫe, shut, moved up.

d(e): [d′]. The tongue is in the same position as the last, but the consonant is voiced.
Examples: deas, díol, lide.

n(e), (i)nn: [N′]. This is pronounced with the tongue in the same position as d(e) above, with the nasal passage open. It is the same sound as gn in Italian legno, ogni, and Spanish ñ in Siñor, or the Irish pronunciation of English n in new.
Examples: Néifinn, sníoṁ, túirne, ḋár ndíṫ.

l(e), ( )ll: [L′]. The tongue position corresponds to that of d(e) above. It is the same as Italian egli, gli, etc.
Examples: lios, daille, sliġe, coṁairle.

Breath.

, . The pronunciation of , , in most positions, is virtually the same as English h where it is fully pronounced.
Examples: ṫáinig, aṫair, áṫas, ṡíl, a háit, her place.
Slender , before a short vowel followed by a long vowel are pronounced ¢ (v. above p. 7). This is often the case with slender medial and final preceded by a short vowel: a Seáin, a ṡiúr, riṫ, maiṫ.

Vowels.

There are five vowels in Irish a, e, i, o, u, which occur both long and short, and several diphthongs.

There are both tense (close) and slack (open) vowels in Irish. Irish i in tír is tense like French i in vite. Tense vowels occur before slender consonants like i in díreaċ, straight, and é(i) of féir, of grass. Slack vowels occur before broad consonants as í(o) in fíor, true. In this case, the o is not pronounced but is written to show that í is a slack or open vowel. In like manner, á in bád, a boat, is an open vowel. When tense á has to be written, it is followed by i which itself is not pronounced beyond indicating that the á is a tense vowel and the d slender: báid, boats.

Front Vowels.

í: [í]. Tense í before slender consonants, or final, pronounced like i in French fine, or rather like the first e in English complete, as ee in see: tír, sliġe.

i: [i]. Tense i before slender consonants like the first i in French fini: fill, bille, lide.

ío, an open i‑sound. Cf. English feared: tíorṫa, countries.

io. an open i‑sound as in English bit: crios, ciotaċ.
Before some consonants, it becomes a back vowel: like u, giolla, a servant; giorra, shorter.

éi: [é] tense long e (before slender consonants). It is always written éi and tense short e is written ei, There is nothing exactly like it in English. It is like French é in , : féir, céile, céir.

ei: [e]. Short tense e is very common. It is like English e in get but sharper and tenser: beir, ceil. Beirt is not an example, as r before t is pronounced broad.

éa: [e:]. Open (or slack) é before broad consonants. The a is a glide and not pronounced, It (éa) is like the vowel in English fair, bear: spéarṫa, skies; céad, a hundred.

e: [e]. Short open e is like the preceding, but short. It is not very common: beirt, two persons, is an example.

ea: [æ]. This is a low front vowel like a in English glad. It occurs before d, t, s: leadaiḋe, teas, geata; ea before nn, ll, ċ, p, is much further back: teaċ, teann, ċeapfainn.

Back Vowels.

ú(i): [ú]. A tense, high, back vowel, written úi. It is pronounced like English u in rule, two, but less rounded and tenser: cúil, úire.
There is a narrower version flanked by slender consonants: ṡiuḃail.

ú: [ú]. Open ú. Somewhat like the preceding, but léss tense: cúl, .
There is a different type of this following slender consonants: b’ḟiú, diúl, where the rounding is greater.

u: A short form of ú like u in English full, look, but not quite so tense (close): ṫug, muc, molt.
A tenser variety is ui in puiteaċ.

ói: [ó]. Tense ó, a mid-back vowel, like eau in French, eau, beau, but more tense. It is like the first element of the diphthong in the English word go, but more tense: óir, fóid.

ó: Like the preceding, but less tense. It is like o in English obey, when this o is not a diphthong: fód, ol,, eolus, foġluim.
There is a more rounded variety in beo, alive.

o: [ŏ]. A short variety of ó. There is nothing exactly like it in English: bog, loċt.

oi: [e]. Sounds like e described above, but further back: soir (ser′), coire.

á: [á]. A very low back vowel, lower and much less rounded than a in English father, vase: , is; d’ḟaġaḋ, used to get: ál, a brood.
Slightly rounded and more to the front: b’ḟeárr.

ái: [á]. There is a tense variety of á, written ái, which is more to the front, cáil, repute; fáiġte, found.

a: [a]. A short variety of á: fada, las. Before , ġ, it becomes a diphthong; aḋarc, aġaiḋ.

ai sounds nearly like e described above, saileog (selóg), a willow tree.
Sometimes it is like tense ea: sail (sæl), a beam.

Mixed Vowels.

ui, oi: [ɪ]. A high, mixed, tense vowel: druid, toil. It sounds rather like short i.

aoi [ɪ]. A long version of the foregoing: naoi. There is nothing to correspond to this in English. It sounds like a very open (long) í.

—aiḋe, —aiġe: Like the preceding, occurring in unaccented syllables.

ao. A very open i‑sound, more open than aoi.
Example: caora, a sheep.

—ai— occurring in unaccented syllables, like codail, socair. It is a tense vowel, somewhat lower than the ui, oi described at the beginning of this section. It is an i‑sound, rather retracted.

—a in unaccented syllables like pota, cóta is the mid-mixed indeterminate vowel usually written ə.

e— in unnacented syllables like maide, laige — a higher version of the preceding, and more to the front.

Diphthongs.

There are several diphthongs in Irish.

ua: [úə], consisting of open ú as described above, followed by a mid-mixed vowel ə. Examples: ċuala, cuan.

uai has a more tense vowel than ə at the end: fuair.

ia: [íə], open í as above followed by ə: diallaid, ciall.

iai like this with a tense vowel at the end.

aḋ—, [əi] as in aḋarc, aġaiḋ. It consists of ə followed by an i‑sound. There is nothing exactly like it in English. The i in the usual Irish pronunciation of English time, fine is like it. Before a slender unaspirated consonant the final portion of it is tenser than in the above instances.

óġ— [eu], as in toġa is an ə‑sound followed by an u, approximately. Cf. —aḃ— in laḃairt. It is like Irish-English ow in how.

There are certain modifications of these sounds before particular consonants, which cannot be dealt with in detail here.

Nasal Vowels.

Every vowel in Irish which comes into contact with a nasal consonant, m, n, , broad or slender, has a slight nasality, though this is not pronounced in some speakers, Consequently, there are a large number of nasal vowels in Irish, but the nasality is not so marked as in the case of French. It is most marked in connection with a broad m, n or , preceded or followed by a long vowel, particularly the latter consonant ().

Examples: foġṁar, autumn: a ṁáṫair, his mother; saṁail, likeness; is mó, it is greater; ba ṁó, it was greater. , ṁó are pronounced by some speakers with a slightly nasal ú ().

Sandhi.

There are several cases of Sandhi, or assimilation, in Irish, where a vowel or consonant is influenced by a following consonant. For example, the slender r in fuair tú, deir sé, becomes broad before the following consonant. The —inn in is aoiḃinn duit (it is happy for you) becomes broad: is aoiḃeann duit.

The matter cannot be dealt with fully here. For further details, cf. Ó Máille, Urlabhraidheacht, pp. 89–107.

Aspiration and Eclipsis.

In addition to the foregoing peculiarities of lrish orthography and pronunciation, there are the so-called “aspiration” already referred to, and eclipsis.

Initial aspiration, which usually means changing a stop (or closed consonant) into a spirant, occurs according to definite grammatical rules. Internal aspiration is fixed. It occurs in cases where, in the primitive language, a consonant stood between two vowels. The rules showing where initial aspiration occurs will be stated in detail in the grammar.

For Example: cóta, means her coat, and a ċóta means his coat, the rule being that a, his, aspirates, and a, her, leaves the initial unchanged.

In addition to a, his, several other words canse aspiration if the consonant is aspirable. The genitive singular masculine and nominative singular feminine of the article cause aspiration, as do mo, my, do, thy, and several other words, e.g. an caora, the sheep, an ḃó, the cow, seol an ḃáid, the sail of the boat, mo ṗiopa, my pipe, do ṫalaṁ, thy land, etc.

Aspirable consonants are f, p, c, t, b, d, g, m, s.

S followed by g, b, d, c, p, t, m is non-aspirable.

L, n, r are classed as non-aspirable consonants, but their pronunciation is, in most cases, changed in positions where another consonant would be aspirated. For example, in a leaḃar, his book, the l is pronounced differently to that in a leaḃar, her book. In the former case, the l is a point teeth consonant, in the latter a front consonant. Similarly, in a láṁ, his hand, l is a point alveolar, in a láṁ, her hand, l is an interdental. The same remarks apply to n. R is very rarely affected in aspirated position except in old established compounds, etc.

Aspirated f is silent: m’ḟear, my man (husband), pron. mear (mær).

Eclipsis.

Certain words and particles cause “eclipsis” of a following consonant. This means that the eclipsing word causes a consonant to be prefixed to the initial of a following word, which consonant, and not the initial of the word, is pronounced.

Examples: a gcótaí, their coats; a mbád, their boat, pron. as if written a gótaí, a bád.

The consonant prefixed is determined by the following rules:

Tenues, c, p, t are eclipsed by mediae, g, b, d respectively, mediae (g, b, d) by nasal consonants ng, m, n respectively. Nasal and l‑sounds remain unchanged by eclipsis, as do s and r: f is eclipsed by .

Examples: a bpócaí, their pockets; ar gcnáṁaí, our bones: a dtalaṁ, their land; a mba, their cows; a ngaḃáltas, their holding (of land); ḃur ndoirse, your doors: ar an ḃféar, on the grass.

Words which cause eclipsis of consonants prefix n to vowels as: a n‑áit, their place; a n‑-asal, their ass.

Rules as to words and particles causing eclipsis will be given in the course of the grammar.

Transliteration of the Alphabet.

  • a .. a
  • b .. b
  • c .. c (k)
  • d .. d
  • e .. e
  • f .. f
  • g .. g
  • h .. h
  • i .. i
  • l .. l
  • m .. m
  • n .. n
  • o .. o
  • p .. p
  • R, ɼ .. R, r
  • S, ſ .. S, s
  • t .. t
  • u .. u

Aspirated consonants are expressed in the roman alphabet by writing h after the consonant, as: b=bh, =mh, ġ=gh, etc.