A Beginner's Guide to Irish Gaelic Pronunciation


Ornament Ornament I have put this guide together as a service to traditional musicians, radio announcers and anyone else who is interested in traditional Irish music, and would like to be able to pronounce tune titles, people's names and the like in Irish, but is not familiar with the language or the spelling system.

This guide is not intended for linguists or people who are learning Irish as a language. It is simply a rule of thumb for people who are unfamiliar with Irish (e.g., most English-speaking people outside Ireland). As an example of what I mean, most English-speaking people in California or the U.S. Southwest, seeing the placename "San Joaquin", would pronounce it "San Wah-KEEN". This is not exactly the correct pronunciation in Spanish. You would, however, be understood a lot better by a Mexican than if you said "San JOE-a-Kwin", which is what applying English spelling rules to Spanish would give you. In our part of the world most people have a rough concept of the Spanish spelling system. If you are involved with Irish music, why not try to acquire a similar knowledge of Irish spelling?

Never again need you feel uneasy when confronting words like bhfuil or Maedhbh!

Spoken Irish has three main dialects, Munster (Cork and Kerry), Connemara and Ulster (Donegal). This guide is more or less based on the Ulster dialect.

Scottish Gaelic is quite similar but the spelling system is a little different. Actually the consonants are much the same, but the vowels differ quite a lot. The other Gaelic language is Manx which has a spelling system based on English. As a result the spelling is totally unrelated to the grammatical structure. This is a bit difficult to deal with. I generally read it aloud and try to translate it into Irish as the sound of the languages is very similar.

Irish, Scottish Gaelic (which is pronounced "Gallic") and Manx make up the Gaelic branch (sometimes called q-Celtic) of the Celtic languages. Irish is sometimes called "Erse" (usually in crossword puzzles), but this is generally considered impolite nowadays. The other branch is the Brythonic (p-Celtic) branch consisting of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Although the two branches can be seen to be related by a professional linguist, to the ordinary person there is no perceiveable relationship between the two—just as English is linguistically related to Swedish, but the ordinary English speaker would find it difficult to speak or read Swedish.

I've divided the rules up into the following topics:

Vowels

Irish vowels are very easy. They are only single sounds, not diphthongs like English vowels. They come in two varieties, long and short. Long vowels are marked with an acute accent, called in Irish a fada (which simply means "long").

Simple Vowels

Long vowel Pronounced Short vowel Pronounced
á Eng. "Pa" a Eng. "ago"
é Eng. "Hey" e Eng. "peck"
í Eng. "Knee" i Eng. "pick"
ó Eng. "Woe" o Eng. "mock"
ú Eng. "Shoe" u Eng. "muck"

Consonants

For Irish consonants, things work a bit like Spanish or Italian. Note the two different ways the letter "c" is pronounced in "cappucino" or "San Francisco". In these languages, when a "c" is followed by an "i" or "e" it is pronounced differently than if it is followed by "a", "o" or "u".

Irish does the same thing in a very systematic way. "i" and "e" are called slender vowels, "a", "o" and "u" are broad vowels. Each consonant is pronounced either in a broad or slender way, according to the surrounding vowels. Irish spelling requires that the vowels match on either side of a consonant, which is summarized as Caol le caol, leathan le leathan ("Slender with slender, broad with broad"). When foreign words are taken into Irish, extra "glide vowels" may be introduced to meet this rule, e.g. California might become Caileafóirnia.

Irish has fewer consonants than English. As you can see, most of them are pronounced very much like English. Actually, for the purpose of simplicity I am leaving out a few subtle differences.

Simple consonants

Broad consonant Pronounced Slender consonant Pronounced
b Eng. "b" b Eng. "b"
c Eng. "k" c Eng. "k"
d Eng. "d" d Eng. "j"
f Eng. "f" f Eng. "f"
g Eng. "g" g Eng. "g"
l Eng. "l" l Eng. "l"
m Eng. "m" m Eng. "m"
n Eng. "n" n Eng. "n"
p Eng. "p" p Eng. "p"
r rolled "r" r Eng. "r"
s Eng. "s" s Eng. "sh"
t Eng. "t" t Eng. "ch"

Aspirated consonants

Some consonants in Irish can undergo a transformation called séimhiú, which is somewhat inaccurately (to a real linguist) translated as "aspiration". In the old Irish script this was shown by putting a little dot above the letter. Nowadays Irish is printed using the standard Western alphabet, and the little dot has been replaced by the letter "h" following the consonant. "h" in Irish is not a letter, it is an operation. That's why there seem to be so many "h"s in Irish.

("h" sometimes appears at beginning of a word before a vowel, or in words borrowed from English. It is pronounced the same as in English when used by itself before a vowel.)

The operation of aspiration changes the pronunciation of the consonants, and naturally there is both a broad and a slender version for each.

Aspirated consonants

Broad consonant Pronounced Slender consonant Pronounced
bh Eng. "w" bh Eng. "v"
ch As in "loch" or "chutzpah" ch Like the broad version
dh Like "ch" but based on a "g" sound dh Eng. "y"
fh Silent fh Silent
gh Like "ch" but based on a "g" sound gh Eng. "y"
mh Eng. "w" mh Eng. "v"
ph Eng. "f" ph Eng. "f"
sh Eng. "h" sh Eng. "h"
th Eng. "h" th Eng. "h"

There are a few exceptions to these rules. Broad dh or gh in the middle of a word is usually pronounced "y", such as fadhb "fibe" ("problem"). Sometimes broad bh or mh ("w") can result in a combination which is hard to say, like mo bhróga ("my shoes"). In that case, a "v" sound is used instead. Also, sometimes a "v" sound occurs when bh or mh is at the end of a word, such as creidimh "krej-iv" ("belief").

Eclipsed consonants

In English, in different grammatical situations, we sometimes change the end of words, such as "child" becomes "children". We also can change the middle of words, such as "man" turns into "men". In the Celtic languages, the beginning of a word can also change. If you were learning to speak Welsh, for example, this might produce difficulties for the beginner. If you see an unfamiliar word, you could have trouble looking it up in the dictionary, because you might not be sure what the first letter of the root form is.

In Irish, things are much easier. When the first letter of a word changes in what is called urú or "eclipsis", the spelling gives first the letter as pronounced, followed by the original letter before it was changed. The following letter combinations at the beginning of a word should be interpreted this way:

Note that bh is considered to be a single letter!

Diphthongs

This is the trickiest part of Irish pronunciation, when two vowels come together. The reason it's tricky is that sometimes one of the vowels is favoured in pronunciation, and the other is just a glide vowel. You remember that a glide vowel simply changes the quality from broad to slender.

The slender glide vowel is easy because we have it in English. Irish tún would be English "toon", Irish tiún would be English "tune". So the slender glide vowel is sort of a very quick "y" sound.

Similarly, the broad glide vowel is sort of a very quick short "u" sound, almost a grunt. In Munster dialect it can sometimes sound like a "w".

When two vowels are together, and one of them is long, the long vowel sound predominates. There are only a few words in Irish where two long vowels come together, in which case you simply say them one after the other. So the case we really need to look at is when two short vowels come together.

Long diphthongs

These are written with short (non-accented) vowels, but actually you speak them rather as if one of the vowels were long.

Long diphthongs

Written Pronounced
ae Eng. "tray"
ao Eng. "tree"
eo Eng. "Joe"
ia Eng. "see a"
ua Eng. "truant"

Note this can be followed by an "i", which just makes a slender glide vowel afterwards.

Short diphthongs

These are combinations of two short vowel sounds. For most of them you simply say the two vowels rather quickly one after the other. The table gives a few where one vowel predominates and the other is strictly a glide vowel. I'm not putting in the glide vowel in the table, but it should be added to the sound shown.

Short diphthongs

Written Pronounced Glide vowel
ea Eng. "mass" Slender before
io Eng. "miss" Broad after
ui Eng. "miss" Broad before

Accent

In Ulster Irish, the accent always occurs on the first syllable. Especially, please note this includes the name "Clannad". In Munster Irish, things are different, but we are not dealing with that.

The exceptions are a few words which were historically compound words. The most common are:

Double consonants

Some combinations of double consonants are hard to say together as written. Normally an indistinct vowel sound is introduced between them. The Irish often do the same in English, like pronouncing "Dublin" as "Dubbalin".

The introduction of such sounds does not affect the placement of the accent. Thus gnóthach ("busy") is pronounced like "ga-NOE-hakh". The accent is placed on the first syllable, the ó, because the little added sound doesn't count as a syllable.

You can put in the added indistinct vowel wherever you find any of the following consonant combinations difficult to say:

Note that aspirated consonants are considered as a single consonant.

Don't confuse these with eclipsed consonants which appear only at the beginning of a word, in which the second consonant is not pronounced. These double consonants can appear anywhere in a word. They don't include the eclipsed combinations, which even the Irish wouldn't try to pronounce!

Exceptions

Irish spelling is really quite regular, especially compared to English. Think about "through", "rough", and "cough". Now tell me how Gough Street in San Francisco should be pronounced!

But there are a few exceptions in Irish, like most languages. But just as Irish has only 11 irregular verbs, the number of spelling exceptions are few. The most important are:

So by looking back at our first examples, we see an bhfuil (the verb "to be" in the present tense question form), the bh eclipses the f, and the u is just a glide vowel making the bh broad, so we say "an will". For Maedhbh (a legendary queen), ae diphthong is pronounced "ay", a slender dh is a "y", a slender bh is a "v", so we say "Mayv". Simple, isn't it?


Ornament Ornament If you would like to see a different perspective on the subject you can check out another Irish pronunciation guide. This is on the "Focal an Lae" site which has a lot of interesting linguistic information available.



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