Speak Irish: An Ghaeilge
By Bob Carney
A new session of Speak Irish Cleveland is about to begin, and hopefully, many of you will be joining us in person to study and use the Irish language. Much of what follows has been covered in previous issues, but is valuable and is included in new student handouts for our class at PJ McIntyre’s every Tuesday night, starting September 14th.
There are three regional dialects in Irish: Donegal, Galway and Kerry, as well as an official dialect that was established during the language reform of 1950. The official dialect is what is taught in schools, on-line courses and many self-learning materials.
There are eighteen letters in the Irish alphabet, ABCDEFGHILMNOPRSTU, although you will see the remaining letters of the English alphabet used in loan words. Vowels can be long or short, indicated by a mark over the vowel called a fada(fah-da), which means long.
Vowels and consonants are broad or slender. Sentence structure is common to other European languages: verb, noun or pronoun, adjective. Although spelling can seem daunting at first, vowels that appear to be extra or unnecessary are there to aid in the pronunciation of the word.
The fada over the vowel makes it a long vowel, changing it’s sound, and the word’s meaning as well. The vowels are also grouped into two categories: broad or slender; a o and u are broad while e and i are slender.
Whether the vowel is broad or slender affects the pronunciation of the consonant next to it. The spelling rule is, “Leathan le leathan agus caol le caol” (leh-in leh leh-in ah-gus keel leh keel) “Broad with broad and slender with slender.” You will never see a consonant between a slender vowel and a broad vowel.
Typically broad consonants are pronounced as they would be in English, with some exceptions in the letters d and t. Slender consonants can be a bit trickier; they can be pronounced as they might be in English or with a faint y sound at the very end. For example, in the word beo, which means alive, the b is slender because it is next to the letter e, a slender vowel, so the word is pronounced b-yeo.
a – uh á – aw
e – eh é – ay
i – ih í – ee
o – uh ó – oh
u – uh ú – oo
b – b as in ball b – b as in bill
c – k as in cat c – ky as in cute
d – d as in dot d – dj as in jar
f – f as in fawn f – f as in fee
g – g as in gone g – gy as in regiment
h -h as in hall h- h as in heel
l – l as in law l – l as in leap
r – r as in raw r – r as in read
s – s as in saw s – sh as in sheep
t – t as in top t – tch as in itch
As you may have noticed , many consonants produce the same sound broad or slender, but they can be changed by softening or eclipsing them. Some consonants can be affected by both of these changes and some only by one. The letters l, n and r cannot be softened or eclipsed. The letter h rarely appears without another consonant and it too cannot be softened or eclipsed.
Pronunciation is consistent, if you encounter a word such as sláinte (slawn-cha), which means health, and you come across the word táinte, with similar spelling, chances are the pronunciation will be very close (tawn-cha), which meanswealth.
A popular toast or saying is, “Is fearr an t-sláinte na táinte” (iss far ahn tlawn-cha na tawn-cha), Health is better than wealth.
Séimhiú agus Urú
You may have noticed the letter t in front of the word sláinte in the above phrase. It changed the way we say the word, but not it’s meaning. The beginnings of Irish words can be changed by the words that precede them. These changes can be confusing at first, but soon become quite natural. In séimhiú (shay-voo) or lenition, the intent is a softening of the word to allow the language to flow better. This is achieved by placing the letter h after the first letter of words starting with the following consonants and change the pronunciation of the letter.
b – bh – w as in water b- bh- v as in void
c – ch – k as in lake c – ch- khy as in loch
d – dh – gh as in rogue d – dh – y as in you
f – fh – silent f – fh silent
g – gh – gh as in rogue g – gh – y as in you
m – mh – w as in water m – mh – v as in void
p – ph – f as in fawn p – ph – fy as in fuel
s – sh – h as in hall s – sh – hy as in huge
t – th – h as in hall t – th – hy as in huge
Urú (uh-roo) is the process of eclipsing, that is to put a new letter in front of the intial letter of a word and to pronounce that letter in place of the original first letter. Below is a list of the consonants that can be eclipsed and the letters that are used to eclipse them.
b – mb
c – gc
d – nd
f – bhf
g – ng
p – bp
t – dt
The letter s, instead of being softened, will s0ometimes have a t in front of it. That happens when the word is a feminine noun starting with s and following the definite article an (ahn).
Being new to the language, many adult students try to understand all of the circumstances that cause a word to be lenited or eclipsed, and although important to becoming fluent in the language, it is not the best use of our time now.
All of us were able to converse and be understood long before we understood any English grammar. Speak Irish Cleveland classes are about conversational and reading skills. Most people find it helpful even when reading Irish mythology or even place names. We hope to see you soon.
Slán go Foill!
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class at PJ McIntyre’s every Tuesday. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Morrighán and Rían and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]