Wednesday, December 1, 2010

First post

I thought I'd start with the thing that is most striking to someone reading Irish for the first time — the spelling. There's an awful lot of letters in any given word which (when you learn how to pronounce the word) doesn't really seem to be doing anything. Take a simple word like múinteoir, meaning ‘teacher’. It is pronounced somewhere along the lines of ‘moon-chore’. Do we really need that ‘eoi’ chain of vowels at the end, for example?

Well, all those extra letters are actually (mostly) there for a reason. As I understand it, one reason is that Irish has a couple of more consonants than, say English (or Swedish).

Broad and slender consonants

The basic consonants in Irish are b, d, f, g, l, m, n, p, r, s and t. “Wait a minute, that's only 11, English has others, like q and z!”, you might reply. The reason I still say that Irish has more consonants is that each consonant come in two ‘flavours’, broad and slender.

It's a bit difficult to explain the difference between broad and slender consonants in written text, and to be honest I still haven't got the hang of the difference between broad and slender r for instance. But it is there. The one I find is the easiest is s, broad s is like a standard English ‘s’, slender s is a ‘sh’-sound, as in ‘sheep’.

For instance, we have:

Pronunciation (approximate)
siúl walk
súil eye

A consonant is slender if it is surrounded by slender vowels and it is broad if it is surrounded by broad vowels, where

the slender vowels are:
e, i,
and the broad vowels are:
a, o, u.

Hence in our example, múinteoir, the ‘m’ is broad, the ‘n’, ‘t’ and ‘r’ are slender. This explains the chain of vowels ‘eoi’, the ‘e’ is there to mark the ‘t’ as slender, and the ‘i’ is there to mark the ‘r’ as slender, with the actual vowel sound in between being ‘o’.

Hard and soft consonants - or why there is no ‘h’ in Irish

But there is more. Irish also has hard and soft versions of the consonants. The spelling rules here seem to be a bit more ambiguous. A natural place to start is with initial mutations. In Irish, the beginning of a word often changes depending on where it occurs in a sentence. For instance, when addressing someone, as in the sentence ‘You're wellcome Donnacha’ (Donnacha is an Irish male name), we have to use the vocative case of Donnacha. This is done by softening an initial consonant (if there is one) and making a final consonant slender (if there is one). In this case, the name ends with a vowel, so we don't need to worry about any final consonants, and all we have to do is make the initial ‘D’ soft. The soft broad ‘d’ is quite different from a standard ‘d’. It's like the German ch sound in ‘ach’, but voiced. Try saying ‘aaaaaaaach’ and try to keep making the ‘aaa’-sound as you say the ‘ch’. I found it a bit hard to say in the beginning, but practice makes perfekt.

In writing, a consonant is marked as soft by adding a ‘h’ after it. So ‘You're wellcome Donacha’ is ‘Tá fáilte romhat, a Dhonnacha’. It can also be marked by placing a dot over the letter, i.e. Ḋonnacha, but nowadays the h-version is used almost exclusively.

So, we get a bunch of extra consonants: bh, ch, dh, fh, gh, mh, ph, sh, th (note: l and n is usually never softened, but some dialects might soften them, I don't really know). Now, these soft versions of the consonants are also used as normal lettes, when no ‘mutation’ is going on. For example, we have mh in ‘Tá fáilte romhat’, where it represents a w-sound. The pronunciation of some of the soft consonants (bh an mh in particular) seems to vary depending on the dialect.

Why do I claim there is no ‘h’ in Irish, when there's obviously plenty of them? Well, what I mean is that ‘h’ is never used the way it is in English in that it represents the ‘h’-sound, it is only used to soften consonants. As far as I can tell, the ‘h’-sound is most often rendered by th, as in the following example.

Pronunciation (approximate)
cathair city

Finally, I'd like to add that a lot of the softened consonants occurring in the middle or end of a word, and I don't really get why they are needed. For instance the final dh is silent in the following:

Pronunciation (approximate)
geimhreadh winter
samhradh summer

I've come to get a fairly good grip on when and how to pronounce these ‘silent’ soft consonants, but they still confuse me somewhat...


As I mention on the About page I am a learner, bound to make mistakes. There are ‘proper’ h'es occurring in Irish. As far as I can tell, the occur in two instances; as initial mutations and in loan words.

It occurs for some words (won't go in to much detail, maybe in another post) that start with a vowel. For instance, ‘to Ireland’ is go hÉireann. Examples of loan words are hata (hat) and halla (hall).

If you know of any other places where ‘h’ occurs, please feel free to enlighten me.