Speak Irish: Pronunciation

Speak Irish Pronunciation
By Bob Carney                                  

The last few months, we’ve jumped into exploring the Irish language without too much explanation of the origins of the language itself, or some of its nuances. I have found from my own (hardly scientific!) experiences, that it’s easier to learn in a way that incorporates Irish words and phrases into your daily speech, rather than trying to understand the grammar behind the language. After all, as children we learned to communicate long before we were introduced to Warrriner’s English Grammar and Composition.

Irish is one of the oldest languages still spoken today. It belongs to the Celtic Family of languages, which is divided into two branches.

The Gaelic branch consists of Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx, and are similar to one another. The other branch consists of Welsh, Breton and Cornish, and differ dramatically from the Gaelic branch.

The Branches of the Indo-European Linguistic Family
Together the two form one of the twelve branches of the Indo-European linguistic family. Irish speakers refer to Irish as Gaeilge (gahl-ih-gay), derived from an old irish word for Irishman, Goídel (goy-del).

There are three regional dialects: Donegal, Galway and Kerry, along with an official dialect that was established during the language reform of 1950. That official dialect is what is taught in schools, on-line courses and most 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.

We have no word for yes or no; you can’t have something, something will be with you or on you. Sentence structure is common to other European languages, verb-pronoun- adjective. Spelling can appear confusing at first, but the vowels that appear to be extra or unnecessary are there to aid in the pronunciation of the consonants. In English there are far more exceptions than rules, in Irish there are few exceptions to the rules.

A fada over a vowel indicates it is a long vowel and changes its pronunciation and will also change the meaning of the word, for example, briste (brih- shta) broken and bríste (bree-shta) pants. The vowels are also grouped into two types, broad and 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”, Leathan le leathan agus caol le caol (leh-hin leh leh-hin ah-gus keel le keel): broad with broad and slender with slender, keeps pronunciation consistent. Since we know e and i are slender vowels, we can look at the word briste, and know that the consonants are slender as well. 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 exceptions in the letters d and t. Slender consonants can be a bit trickier to pronounce. They can be pronounced the way they might be in English or with a very 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 e, a slender vowel, the word is pronounced b-yeo. In the guide below, notice the exceptions to the slender pronunciation in the letters d, s and t.


Short                                                                             Long

a – uh                                                                             á – aw

e – eh                                                                             é – ay

i – ih                                                                               í – ee

o – uh                                                                           ó – oh

u – uh                                                                            ú – oo


Broad                                                                            Slender

b (b) as in ball                                                              b (b) as in bill

c (k) as  in cat                                                               c (ky) as in cute

d (d or like the word the) 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

m (m) as in mop                                                         m (m) as in mope

n (n) as in no                                                               n (n) as in knee

p (p) as in paw                                                             p (p) as in pill

r (r) as in raw                                                                r (r) as in read

s (s) as in saw                                                                s (sh) as in shop

t (t) as in top                                                                 t (tch) as in itch

The beginnings of Irish words can be changed by words that precede them. These changes can be very confusing at first, but with practice become quite natural. In séimhiú (shay-voo) or lenition, an h is added after the first letter of words starting  with the following consonants and change the pronunciation of the letter. b- bh(v or w) c-ch (ch as in loch) d-dh (y) f-fh (silent) g-gh (ch as in loch) m-mh (w) p-ph (f) s-sh (h) t-th (h-yah).

Urú (uh-roo) or eclipsis involves adding a letter before the first letter of words starting with the following consonants. These changes are easier to pronounce as the eclipsing letter takes over the original first letter. b-mb c-gc d-nd f-bhf (silent) g-ng p-bp t-dt. For now, just be aware that these changes exist and how they change pronunciation, we’ll get into when and why later. Also be aware if you are having difficulty looking up a word in the dictionary, try looking it up without the h if that’s the second letter or dropping the first letter, the word you’re looking for may have been lenited or eclipsed.

Word Stress
In Irish, stress is usually placed on the first syllable. In Kerry, the dialect in the south of Ireland, stress is on the second or third syllable.

With this information you can refer to last months vocabulary and try your hand at pronouncing the words and phrases without using the phonetics. Use the audio part of the on-line dictionary to check your progress.

Slán go Fóill!

Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday @ PJ McIntyre’s. 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 contacted at [email protected]               


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