Speak Irish: Séimhiú agus Urú

Speak Irish: Séimhiú agus Urú
by Bob Carney

In the pursuit of the Irish language, we have obstacles to overcome, that at first can be very daunting. Over time, they become stepping stones.

One of these has to do with the change of form at the beginning of words. These changes are called séimhiú or lenition, and urú or eclipsis, both occur because of the word that precedes them.

But why? Like almost all spoken languages, celtic languages want to flow easier, much like music. It is no surprise that many people enjoy the sound of a solo cello being played by an artist who has spent a lifetime studying the instrument. Of all the stringed instruments it resembles the human voice the closest. Language and music share many traits, pitch, timing, rythm, and intensity, all to help convey emotion.

In almost half of the languages spoken in the world, words can have a completely different meaning depending on the pitch used. Linguists refer to pitches as tones.

Mandarin has four tones, “ma” can mean different things depending on the tone used. Not as in tone of expression, as “Ma!” for exasperation, or “Ma?” as a question. Rather, “ma” on a high tone means mother, with a falling tone it means reprimand, with a rising tone, rough or coarse. Spoken with a drawn out tone, “ma-a-a”, it means horse.

In the Hmong language, spoken in parts of China and Southeast Asia, there are seven tones a syllable can be spoken, resulting in completely different meanings. Speak these languages monotone and you’re not really saying anything intelligible, or you could be refering to someones mother as a horse!

Tones can also be used as grammar, as in the African language Edo. If you say “EE-ma” it means I’m showing, but if you say “ee-MA” it means I showed. Tonal languages can be found in Asia, Africa and the indigenous languages of Mexico and South America.

Poetry is the Musical Form of Writing
When Christianity came to Ireland, the poets continued to practice some of the functions of the druids. The word for poet in Irish is “file” or seer, one of the words for poetry, “éigse” is of a similar nature to “feiscint” or seeing.

Poets were apprenticed for a long period, and then were held in high esteem even by kings. After all, the poet could make or break him with his ryhmes.

The celts from the first millenial believed their poets could even kill with magical satire. Early Irish law criminalized satirical “crimes of the tongue,” equitting it with theft or spousal rape.

“It was long thought that the rhyming syllabic meters of Irish verse were formed under the influence of late Latin verse, but more recent scholarship argues just the opposite, that the versification of early Irish poetry influenced Medieval Latin verse.”  Exc. From The Princeton Handbook of Multicultural Poetries. Shakespeare even refered to the rhyming powers of Irish poets to get rid of a plague of rats, probably from folklore imported from Ireland as a result of English conquest.

So, intial mutations are there to enable the flow of speech. By now we’ve encountered them many times and without getting into the grammar behind them (this column is way too short!) we’ll at the least identify them.

SÉIMHIÚ (lenition) this change occurs to the following consonants

b – bh                  f – fh                    p – ph

c – ch                   g – gh                   s – sh

d – dh                  m – mh                t – th

the consonants h l n r cannot be lenited

URÚ (eclipsis) this change occurs to the following consonants

b – mb                g –  ng                  

c – gc                  p – bp

d – nd                 t – dt

f – bhf

the remaining consonants, h l m n r s cannot be eclipised


The letter t can be placed before an intial vowel, it is followed by a hyphen except when the vowel is a capital letter.

t-a           tA                t-o        tO

t-e           tE                t-u         tU

t-i            tI

There is never a hyphen between t and the intial s  ts

An h can be placed before an intial vowel. There is never a hyphen used ha he hi ho hu.

The sounds that these changes make vary depending on the consonant being either broad or slender. The easiest way to determine if it is broad or slender is to remember that i and e are slender vowels and the spelling rule in Irish “leathan le leathan agus caol le caol” (broad with broad and slender with slender).

That means a consonant can only be touching one kind of vowel, an m next to a means that m is broad, m next to e makes it slender.  Mh next to a broad vowel makes a w sound, next to a slender vowel a v sound.

Even though this appears complicated, we ‘ve been encountering these changes almost monthly in our phrases. One final note: if you’re having a difficult time looking up a word in the dictionary ( try looking it up by the second letter, it might be getting eclipsed, or if the second letter is an h, eliminate the h and try it that way, it may be lenited.

FEICFIDH MÉ SAR I BHFAD THÚ!                                                                                                                         
Feicfidh mé sar i bhfad thú! (fek-ay may sar ih vahd who) I’ll see you soon (fad a word meaning duration or long is being eclipsed, while the word for you, tú, is being lenited.

*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 Wolfhounds and Irish dog orginizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Morrighan and Rían and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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