How to pronounce words in Irish Gaelic

2019 Mar 11, 8:52pm   1,590 views  11 comments

by Patrick   ➕follow (49)   💰tip ($1.87 in tips)   ignore  

Why is Seán pronounced like "shawn" and not like "seen"? The answer is in the Irish spelling system, which is more consistent than that of English, but has its own ancient and peculiar rules. Once you know the rules and have heard all the sounds you need to make, written Irish is not very difficult to pronounce.

Broad and Slender

The basic problem in writing Irish is that every consonant has two distinct pronunciations, one "broad" and one "slender". For example, the letter "s" is pronounced in Irish either like "s" as in sun or like "sh" as in shun. These two different sounds cause us to perceive two different words in spoken English.

Irish, however, makes many more such distinctions than English does. Consider the words "tin" and "ton" in English. We write the same "t" in both cases, and we don't notice the difference between them, yet they are very distinct to the Irish ear. The "t" in tin is slender, and the "t" in ton is broad. If you pay attention when you say them, you can hear air escape when you say tin, but not so much when you say ton. You can do a pretty good approximation of Irish just from reading about it and pronouncing most of the consonants as we do in English, but there are many subtleties which cannot be picked up unless you actually listen hard to someone who is fluent in Irish, preferably a native speaker. We just don't normally make some of those sounds in English.

The two consonants where Irish broad vs slender pronunciation are obvious to English speakers are "s" and "t". Slender "t" is pretty close to "ch". So "sláinte" is pronounced more or less like "slawnche". The broad t is the one in "ton".

So Irish has about twice as many meaningful consonant sounds as English. Unfortunately, Irish has only 18 letters in its alphabet, unlike our 26. No word in Irish ever contains j, k, q, v, w, x, y, or z. So now Irish has even more of a dilemma. How to represent all those consonant sounds with a paucity of letters?

The answer cooked up by medieval Irish monks was to use the surrounding vowels to indicate how the enclosed consonants should be pronounced. This makes a lot of sense, because as we saw with "tin" and "ton", the vowels themselves alter the pronunciation of the consonants. So the spelling rule they came up with is that consonants surrounded by the letters "e" or "i" should be pronounced slender, and the ones surrounded by the letters "a", "o", or "u" should be pronounced broad. Italian and Spanish have a similar rule for some consonants, which is why "ciao" is pronounced "chow" and not "kyow", and why the beginning and middle c's in "cappuccino" are pronounced differently.

But how would we then spell words which, say, have a slender consonant immediately followed by a broad vowel? The rule for that case is to add a silent vowel of the right type, such that every consonant will always be surrounded with either the slender vowels, or the broad vowels.

A good example is the name Seán that we mentioned above. The "e" is in the name only to indicate that the initial "S" is to be pronounced in the slender way, like "sh" in English. The "e" itself is silent. So now we can see why Seán is pronounced like it is.

And what about that funny mark on the "á"? That's called a "fada", which literally means "long", and indicates that the vowel is, first of all, not silent, and second of all, to be pronounced "long". Without the fada, we would have the word "sean", which is pronounced "shan" (rhymes with "can") and means "old". You've already used that word if you've ever said "shanty", which is from the Irish "sean tí", literally "old house".

Vowels without the fada may or may not be silent. Sometimes it is hard to tell. Still, the vowels in Irish are very simple by comparison with the consonants. There are the same five vowels as in English, aeiou, and their long counterparts, áéíóú. The only irregularity to Irish vowels is that "ao" is prounced like "ee" in "bee" and the E in Eva. And in fact, to write Eva in Irish, you write Aoife. You can now guess that the "i" in Aoife is silent, to indicate that the "f" is a slender consonant. Note that the "f" is surrounded by two slender vowels, "i" and "e".

a as in "cat"
e as in "peck"
i as in "pick"
o as in "mock"
u as in "muck"
á as in "pa"
é as in "hey"
í as in "knee"
ó as in "woe"
ú as in "shoe"

There are no exceptions to the rule that every consonant must have the same class of vowels, or one end of the word, both before and after it. Irish language teachers tell their students: "caol le caol agus leathan le leathan", which means "slender with slender and broad with broad". It is always a spelling error if you see a mixture of broad (aou) and slender (ei) vowels around one or more consonants.

The broad vowels and consonants are pronounced at the back of the mouth, and the slender vowels and consonants are pronounced at the front of the mouth. If you speak German at all, it's pretty clear in the sounds of "ach" and "ich".

There is only one word spelled and pronounced the same in both irish and English: "cat". This word is useful for remembering how to say the non-fada "a" in Irish. The fada "á" is pronounced as in "fa la la la la".

The addition of silent vowels does sometimes cause difficulty. Which silent vowel should one write down, if any of them from the correct class will do? There may be some rules about that, but they are not clear to me. It seems to just be something one gets used to.

And in the other direction, reading, how does one know which vowel is silent and which is not? This is also not clear to me. For example, "tuille" (more) is pronounced like "tulluh", but "duine" (people) is pronounced like "din ah". In the first case the "i" was silent, and in the second case the "u" was silent.

Irish dictionaries generally don't even bother to include pronunciations because the spelling system is very regular and consistent. The one dictionary I know of which has pronunciations is the Foclóir Póca, pronounced "fuckler poka". Seriously.

And what about the missing letters j, k, q, v, w, x, y, and z? Are those sounds even made?
j: no such sound in Irish, though slender d and t sound similar to it
k: written "c"
q: written "c"
v: written "bh" or "mh" surrounded by slender vowels
w: written "bh" or "mh" surrounded by broad vowels
x: no such sound in Irish
z: no such sound in Irish

By the way, Irish also never makes the two "th" sounds that English uses in "Thursday" or "though".

Séimhiu and Urú

In addition to the broad vs slender distinction in pronunciation, the initial consonant of words changes in spelling and pronunciation in systematic ways. This is true for all Celtic languages, including Welsh, for example. An initial consonant can have two operations applied to it, séimhiu ("shayvu") and urú ("uhroo"). They are used at the beginning of a word to indicate things like sex and number, or perhaps just because a certain preposition requires a certain change.

Séimhiu, also called "lenition", is done by adding an "h" after the consonant, and urú is done by "eclipsing" the consonant with its urú counterpart, which is the voiced version in the case of unvoiced consonants. (examples: p -> b, t -> d, c -> g, but also, b -> m) So, for example, the Irish word "a" means "his", "hers", and "theirs" depending on how we change the first consonant of the next word:

a chapall : his horse, "a xapal" (where x is like the German ch) : séimhiu
a capall: her horse, "a capal" : no change from base form
a gcapall: their horse, "a gapal" : urú

The "h" softens the consonant, while the "g" or other urú consonant is simply pronounced in place of the original consonant, though both are written. (There are tables of the how the transformations sound and I should include them here...)

The letter "h" in Irish is for the most part used as an operation and not a letter in itself. It almost always indicates that a séimhiu is to be applied to the preceding consonant. Before modern typewriters, the séimhiu was indicated with a dot over a letter, but because typewriters don't have that ability, Irish started using a following "h".

Irish had its own script, in use for more than a thousand years, but that too has mostly gone away because of typewriters:

Seimhiú pronunciations, all of which can be slender or broad:
"bh" sounds like "v" or "w"
"ch" is like the German ich or ach
"dh" is like "y" or a gutteral voiced "ch" at the beginning of a word, but silent in the middle or at the end of a word
"fh" is always silent
"gh" is like "ch", but voiced, and also can be broad or slender
"lh" does not happen
"mh" sounds like "v" or "w"
"nh" does not happen
"ph" sounds like "f" with some broad vs slender distinction which is hard to hear
"rh" does not happn
"sh" and "th" are pronounced like English "h"

The slender "n" sounds quite a lot like the spanish "ñ".

The accent is always on the first syllable of multi-syllable words. So that's that.

Irish detests stops between vowels, so they are merged together between words. "Mo athair" (my father) is contracted to "m'athair". This is a nearly universal rule in speaking Irish, so it can be challenging to figure out where one spoken word ends and another begins.

Putting it all together, here are some names you might know, and approximately how to say them:

Caoimhe: "kweevah"
Oisin: "uh-sheen"
Sinead: "shin-aid"
Aisling: "ashling"
Niamh: "neeve" (violates broad/slender rule by pronouncing mh slender, as "v")
Gráinne: "grawnya"
Cathal: "cahal"
Saoirse: "seershe"
Maedhbh: "mave" (dh in the middle of a word is silent)
Baile Átha Cliath: "bahlyacleeah" (good example of how vowel sounds get blurred across word boundaries)

Confounding all of this is that there are four living dialects of Irish: Munster, Connact, Ulster, and Scottish. Sorry to any Scots, I know you don't like it, but Scottish Gaelic is really just a dialect of the Irish who brought it to Scotland and become the Scots. (BTW, when speaking about the two languages, "Irish" always means Irish Gaelic and "Gaelic" always means Scottish Gaelic. Not logical, but that's how it is.) The four dialects pronounce words quite differently from each other and even have different greetings and slightly different grammars. The official Irish spellings we have in dictionaries now are, believe it or not, simplified and intended to convey a middle-ground of pronunciations in the three Irish dialects. To see the old spellings, look at Scottish Gaelic writing sometime. Whether you use a seimhú or urú in a given situation also changes by dialect.

The best way to hear a lot of Irish with subtitles in both Irish and English is probably to watch the long-time TV soap opera, Ros na Rún.

The best online dictionary is https://www.teanglann.ie/ga/?source=patrick.net

Many slang terms in English come from Irish:

banshee from bean sí (woman fairy, pronounced "ban shee")
blather from bladar (flattery, wheedling, pronounced "bladar")
boogie from bogadh (to move, pronounced "buggah")
booking from bogadh (to move, pronounced "buggah")
dig from digeann tu? ("do you understand?", pronounced "digin tu?")
fooey from fuath (hate, pronouned "fuah")
galore from go leor (enough, pronounced "galore")
good on you (Australian) from go raibh maith agat ("may there be good on you", pronounced "guh row mahagat")
jazz from teas (heat, pronounced "jass")
jiffy from deifir (to hurry, pronounced "jeffir")
longshoreman from leongsior (boatman, pronounced "longshore")
phony from fáinne (ring, pronounced "fanya")
scads from scata (large amount, pronounced "scata")
scam from is cam (is crooked, pronounced "scam")
shanty from sean tí (old house, pronounced "shan tea")
shebang from sibín (small illegal tavern, pronounced "shibeen")
slew from slua (large group of people, pronounced "slewah")
slum from is lom (is desolate', pronounced "slum")
smashing (British) from is maith sin (is good that, pronounced "sma shin")
smithereen from smidirín (small bits, pronounced "smijireen")
snazzy from snas (polish, pronounced "snas")
so long from slan (goodbye, lit. health, pronounced "slan")
sourpuss from pus (mouth, pronounced "pus")
spree from spraoi (fun, pronounced "spree")
squeal from scaoil (release, unfurl, pronounced "squeal")
stash from taisce (pocket, pronounced "tashka")
take a shine to from taitneamh as (to like, lit. "take shine from", pronounced "tatnyeav as")
whale on, wallop from bhuail (to hit, pronounced "wual")
whiskey from uisce beatha (water of life, pronounced "ishka baha")

Comments 1 - 11 of 11   

1   FortWayneAsNancyPelosiHaircut   2019 Mar 12, 3:43am  

Sean Connery has an Irish accent. So did Reagan’s parents.
2   Patrick   2019 Mar 14, 9:23am  

Added a bunch of old American slang which comes from Irish, at bottom.
3   Patrick   2022 Mar 17, 1:17pm  

Bumped for St. Patrick's Day.

My nod to Irish Nationalism is trying to learn Irish Gaelic, which is a damn weird language, but fun.
4   FortWayneAsNancyPelosiHaircut   2022 Mar 17, 2:50pm  

Patrick says
Bumped for St. Patrick's Day.

My nod to Irish Nationalism is trying to learn Irish Gaelic, which is a damn weird language, but fun.

Hell yeah, I'm going to hit up a bar tonight, gotta have some fucking fun once in a while. Tired of all the california bullshit, can't wait to move in summer.
5   AmericanKulak   2022 Jun 14, 12:25am  

One of the greatest shocks of my life was learning that Shibeen and Boreen weren't Yiddish a few years back.

Boreen being a short trail; used in my youth to refer to the little dirt paths that connect plazas to each other or the developments behind them. I think in Ireland it has a more rural usage, like between a hamlet and a larger village that isn't frequently used.

That and stoop being Dutch not Yiddish.

I never confused any Italian/Neapolitan/Sicilian for Yiddish though: Fungool, Sva'tcheem, and another one that starts with an F, an insult I forgot. Funny thing is Sva'tcheem is super offensive in English, but I've heard old ladies use it while driving or talking about a neighbor at the dinner table.
6   Ceffer   2022 Jun 14, 2:01am  

Weird one is that Hollywood is derived from the Irish holly wood, that is reputedly used to make magic wands that cast a spell of delusion over people.
7   Patrick   2022 Jun 14, 9:53am  

AmericanKulak says



AmericanKulak says


Urban Dictionary doesn't know that one. What does it mean?

8   Patrick   2023 Mar 17, 12:15am  

Bumped for St. Patrick's Day again!
9   AmericanKulak   2023 Mar 17, 12:28am  

Patrick says

AmericanKulak says



AmericanKulak says


Urban Dictionary doesn't know that one. What does it mean?


I don't recall the spelling, but it's Southern italian dialect.

Just found it:

The better equivalent would be like the Drill Sarge from FMJ: the "best part of you Ran down your momma's legs"
10   Eric Holder   2023 Mar 17, 11:33am  

So, how's the progress on that Gaelic? Did you give up?
11   Patrick   2023 Mar 17, 11:37am  

I got reasonably good at reading Irish, but speaking fluently is kind of hopeless without really living among Irish speakers.

I studied Latin from mid last year until I finished my aunt's Latin textbook just a week or so ago.

And I studied Spanish pretty intensely for about six weeks before going to Mexico.

One interesting result of all that is that I can see that Irish is much more similar to Latin and Spanish than to English.

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