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Saying “I love you” in Irish and Minding Your Velar Fricatives Posted by on Oct 9, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

We’ve recently been looking at different ways to say “I love you” in Irish.  Some of you might have been wondering how to pronounce them, especially the phrases where the straightforward “grá” [graw] changes to “ghrá” [γraw, to be explained below, note the IPA gamma symbol for the “gh”] and the straightforward “croí” changes to “chroí” [khree].

Regarding the “gh-” sound, I’ve noticed some pronunciation guides online that simply say “graw” for the pronunciation of both “grá” and “ghrá,” which is, unfortunately, misleading.  For the “ch” sound of “chroí,” you’ll find at least three approaches, 1) the official IPA representation of /x/, 2) the typical “pronunciation guide” usage of “kh” (which I mostly advocate in this blog, for practicality’s sake), and 3) some sources just glossing over the fricative sound and making the “ch” a simple “k” sound.

I’ve actually dealt with this issue previously in this blog, as some of you may recall, but since there are always more léitheoirí nua ar an liosta and also many reasons to proclaim one’s love, or to talk about how to do so, we’ll revisit the fricatives.  Some of the other blogs that discussed the fricatives are http://blogs.transparent.com/irish/treoir-don-treoir-a-guide-to-the-guide-for-pronunciation-cuid-a-2/ (which mostly dealt with the broad “dh-” and “gh-” sounds) and http://blogs.transparent.com/irish/treoir-don-treoir-a-guide-to-the-guide-for-pronunciation-cuid-a-3/ (which mostly dealt with the broad “ch-” sound).

Some of the love phrases we discussed previously were “Mo ghrá thú,” “Tusa mo ghrá,” “Is tú mo ghrá,” and “Grá mo chroí thú.”

For “grá,” the basic noun for “love,” transcribing the sound as “graw” is reasonable.  In the North, of course, the vowel sound is a little different, but for this blog, we’ll just stick to consonant issues.

For “ghrá” [γraw], as in “mo ghrá” (my love), I described the voiced velar fricative sound previously as “a rumbling guttural sound that seems to want to stay in the throat.”  That’s “guttural” as in Latin “guttur” (throat), not “gutters” as in drainage systems.  I added that, subjectively speaking, it is “a bit softer and less blunt than the more familiar voiceless velar fricative,” the latter being represented by German “Achtung” or “Buch.”  The voiced velar fricative (as in Irish broad “gh” or “dh”) may be found in some pronunciations of German “sagen” and some pronunciations of Spanish “agua,” but not in all, and not typically in the American high school language class presentation.  The best way to pick up sounds that are not in one’s linguistic inventory, of course, is to listen, listen, listen, and for that, short of living in the Gaeltacht, I’d recommend tuning in to www.rnag.ie as often as possible and listening to the native speakers.

For “croí” (heart), the sound is quite straightforward, almost like “kree” as in “Cree” Indian, or “creel” or “creepie,” etc., but with the flapped (lightly trilled) “r.”  Remember the long vowel “í” here trumps the short “o” sound, which is, essentially, silent.

For “chroí,” as in “mo chroí” (my heart), the sound is, as I’ve mentioned several times before, like German “Achtung” or “Buch,” like the Welsh “bach” or “fach,” and as you might hear in the pronunciation of “Loch” especially by a Gaelic speaker.  This is the voiceless velar fricative.  In American English, we may find it sometimes in the pronunciation of Hebrew- or Yiddish-derived words like “Chanukah” and “Chutzpah,” but many Americans tend to minimize the throaty quality of these sounds and simply start off with an initial “h” sound.  Unless, of course, they actually speak Hebrew or Yiddish, in which case the voiceless velar fricative comes quite naturally.

Feeling completely tongue-tied?  Actually, it’s a vocal cord issue, not really the tongue.  There is some good news – there are some ways to avoid the velar fricatives and still say you love someone, like “Tá cion agam ort” and “Tá grá agam duit.”

Tá cion agam ort, very literally, there is love/affection at me on you.

Tá grá agam duit, very literally, there is love at me to you.

Of course, if you pronounce the latter with typical Cois Fharraige Irish, the “duit” will become “dhuit” and you’ll be right back in there with the voiced velar fricatives.

In fact, at some point, to really master Irish pronunciation, you’ll need the velar fricatives.  If you want to say “Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú, a Dhonncha?,” you’ve got two voiceless ones and one voiced one.  If you want to talk about the poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, you’ve got a voiced one every time you say her surname.  If you live “sa Chlochán Liath (Dungloe),” you’ve got two (voiceless, within the same word, using Donegal Irish) and if your muintir are from “Contae Dhún na nGall,” you got a voiced one.  Not to mention speaking about “dúchas” (heritage), as in “Is as an gClochán ó dhúchas mé” (I’m from An Clochán/Clifden originally).  The phrase “ó dhúchas” is a “double-whammy” example, like “a Dhonncha,” with both a voiced and a voiceless velar fricative.  And isn’t that special!

And in case you think that velar fricatives are a bizarre topic for discussion in an Irish language blog, I’d like to add two points as closers.

First, both the voiceless and voiced velar fricatives are widely used sounds in Irish and they do occur in a variety of other languages.  They happen not to occur in English, except in a few loan words, and even there, English speakers will tend to soften them to the point where they are no longer fricative.  In other words, English speakers will tend to say Hanukah with an initial “h” sound instead of “Chanukah” with an initial “kh” sound.  They’ll also tend to say “Hallah” instead of “Challah” for the braided bread.  BTW, who’s talking about “Challah” these days?  Well, plenty of people in U.S. delis and bakeries, for one, but more recently, and newly exciting to both art historians and the world at large, anyone discussing Rembrandt’s “The Supper at Emmaus.”  Apparently the recent cleaning, removing many layers of varnish, revealed that the bread being served at Emmaus was, in fact, challah, bread braided in three strands before it’s baked.

Second, “Velar Fricatives” made headline news not too long ago in the online journal Significance: Statistics Making Sense (October 22, 2010).  A statistics journal, no less!  Michael O’Kelly’s article, “How’s your velar fricative? A numerical guide to urban and rural Irish speakers,” commented on some research by Dr. Brian Ó Broin, concerning the accuracy of pronunciation among difference demographics of Irish speakers.  O’Kelly’s article can be found at http://www.significancemagazine.org/details/webexclusive/870327/Hows-your-velar-fricative-A-numerical-guide-to-urban-and-rural-Irish-speakers.html

So keep your fricatives velarized when whispering “sweet nothings” in Irish, and remember to make them voiceless or voiced according to whether you’re saying “chroí” or “ghrá.”  Or, if you prefer, choose one of the fricative-less alternatives.

Hmmm, “sweet nothings” as Gaeilge?  “Baothbhriathra mealltacha” – that’s a nice mouthful, nach ea?  Ábhar blag eile, b’fhéidir?  You might note that while the Irish phrase is considered equivalent to the English, it contains neither the word “sweet” nor the word “nothing.”  How’s that?  Stay tuned!  SGF, Róislín 

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