Irish Language Blog

Á, ÁI, AÍ, ÁÍ, (Not To Mention “Aghaidh”): More Irish Pronunciation Tips Posted by on Oct 28, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Don’t blink, or you might miss the various long marks (síntí fada) in the vowel sounds above.  Actually, it’s a lot easier to spot the long marks when the letters happen to be capitalized, rather than when they’re lower case: á, ái, aí, áí.  And actually it’s really just over the letter “i” that there’s ever much of an issue.  And that’s simply because in the Roman alphabet we typically “dot” the letter “i,” and, especially in a small font size, the síneadh fada (‘) can look just like the regular dot over the “i.”  In the traditional Irish font (an seanchló), the letter “i” was not dotted, and therefore there was never any doubt as to whether the “i” was “gairid” (short) or “fada” (long).  You might still see an seanchló used today for decorative purposes, signage and greeting cards, agus a leithéidí, but it hasn’t been used much for publishing since the 1950s-60s.

At any rate, a key point for distinction here is “ái” versus “.”  There aren’t too many words that actually have the third a+i combination, with both vowels long (áí), but there’s a good handful, at any rate.  Here are the pronunciations (á, ái, aí, áí) and some samples.

1) á: fairly straightforward, like English “aw” in standard Irish, and in the North, more like the short “a” (IPA /æ/) of typical American English “bat,” “cat,” “jazz,” or “rather,” or, for that matter like Irish “deas” or “geal.”  Sampla: Tá an lá go breá (ar ndóigh)

2) ái: occurs quite frequently in the following situations:

a)      many many verbal nouns, such as “fáil,” “gabháil,” “sábháil,” etc., and most new borrowings, like “surfáil,” “sciáil,” etc.

b)      plural (“common form”) or singular possessive of nouns normally ending in “-án,” with the “-á-“ changing to “-ái-,“ mar shampla:

cupán, na cupáin, dath an chupáin (cup, the cups, the color of the cup)

an spreasán sin, na spreasáin sin, hata an spreasáin sin, (that worthless person, the worthless persons, or should that be “the worthless people?,” and, the hat of that worthless person).  As for why there’s a single word meaning “worthless person,” in Irish, sin scéal eile.  Whenever I’ve heard “spreasán,” it’s always in reference to a man, and it’s sometimes translated as “a big useless man.”  Among other places, it occurs in Harry Potter agus an Órchloch to describe Harry’s father from the viewpoint of Petunia Dursley.  To the Dursleys, James Potter was a “spreasán beag … chomh neamh-Dursleyúil lena bhfaca tú riamh.”

In pronunciation, the ”á” sound in the “-ái” cluster stays basically the same, but there’s a hint of an “ih” sound before the final consonant, especially if the words are pronounced really slowly (cupáin, KUP-aw-in, spreasáin [SPRASS-aw-in], etc.)

3) [ee]: as we’ve seen in the previous blog, can occur at the end of a variety of types of words:

rúnaí [ROON-ee], secretary

hataí [HAH-tee], hats (plural)

laí [lee], door-post

go mbeannaí Dia daoibh [guh MyAN-ee DJEE-uh deev], may God bless you (plural), which is a way to say “hello,” with the verb in the (infamous) modh foshuiteach

gealaí, as in “solas na gealaí” [SUH-luss nuh GyAL-ee], the light of the moon

One situation we didn’t discuss in the last blog was “-aíl” [eel] as a verb ending (as opposed to “-áil” [aw-il] which looks similar and is much more common).  Although the ending “-aíl” occurs less frequently than “-áil,” it does turn up consistently.  Examples include:

feadaíl [FAD-eel], whistling, to whistle, as in the seanfhocal, “Ní féidir le duine a bheith ag feadaíl agus ag ithe mine.”  (Aistriúchán thíos)

bradaíl [BRAD-eel], hacking, to hack

crannaíl [KRAN-eel], cranning, to crann (on the uilleann pipes)

portaíl [PORT-eel], lilting, to lilt (another music term)

4) áí [aw-ee or ah-ee]: this isn’t very common in Irish but does occur, as in the following:

páí, an alternate form of “” (pay)

láí, pl: lánta, a loy (type of spade and key weapon of destruction in J. M. Synge’s 1907 drama, The Playboy of the Western World).  Note how this word differs in accent marks, pronunciation, and pluralization, not to mention meaning (most important of all), from “laí, pl. laíonna” (door-post, door-posts).

The “-áí” cluster also occurs in some non-Irish place names, such as “An tSáír,” “Háítí,” and “Haváí.”  “Maui,” dála an scéil, as far as I can tell, remains spelled the same as in English, as it seems to in the other languages I checked online.  Interesting possibilities, nach ea, as to how one could gaelicize “Maui,” taking “Mí-eadha” (miaow) as a model, but, creid é nó ná creid é, I won’t make that language voyage.  At least not yet, not unless we undertake gaelicizing every place name from Aachen (aka Aix-la-Chapelle, or anciently Aquisgranum) to Żywiec (sa Pholainn), of cervisial fame.  Cervisial?  Think Irish “coirm” (ale; as in “coirm cheoil,” translated as “a concert,” but literally “ale-music”).  Or, sa Bhreatnais, “cwrw” [KOO-roo].  Short of that, just think “cerveza” – they’re all related linguistically.

5) As for the word “aghaidh,” which means “face,” all of the consonants are silent, and it sounds pretty much like “aye,” “eye,” or “I” or, in IPA transcription, /ai/.  Of course, pronunciation guides are only as good as the reader’s interpretation of the comparisons made, so if your pronunciation of English “eye” leans more toward “ee” (Scots, etc.) or if your pronunciation of “I” leans more toward “oi” or “oy,” the sample won’t be as useful.  That’s why the IPA guide is also provided.  But if your pronunciation of the three words “aye,” “eye,” and “I,” is virtually the same (gotta love litriú aisteach neamhsheasmhach frithimfhiosach an Bhéarla, dontcha?), then you’re on the right track for pronouncing “aghaidh.”  It’s all vowel, mostly “aye/eye/I” but with a bit of breathy “ee” at the end, so, more or less like “aye-ee” (or “eye-ee” or “I-ee”).

As for why the consonants in “aghaidh” are silent, sin scéal eile, but the tip of the iceberg of an answer is that both Irish and English have silent consonants left over from a much earlier time when those consonants were pronounced.  For examples in English, we can simply look at words like “knife” or “right,” or the word “knight,” which has both the silent “k” and the silent “gh.”  Double silent whammy!

On that note, slán, but not “for aye,” Róislín

Gluais: aisteach, strange; an tSáír [un TAI-eer, silent “s”], Zaire; frithimfhiosach [FRIH-IM-us-ukh, note the “t” and second “f” are silent] counterintuitive; ithe, eating, to eat; ag ithe mine [egg IH-hyuh MIN-yuh], eating meal; min, meal (as in “min choirce,” oatmeal, or “min eorna,” barley meal, not “a meal,” like breakfast or dinner, which is “béile”); neamh-Dursleyúil, unDursleyish; neamhsheasmhach [NyOW-HASS-wukh], inconsistent

An Seanfhocal: You can’t whistle and eat meal (ground grain) at the same time.  Croí na fírinne, nach ea?

Gluais don nóta tráchta don seanfhocal: croí, here “quintessence,” generally it means “heart”

Oh, and btw, in case you’re wondering, how did this issue with the síneadh fada over the “i” come to my attention?  I had a student once who kept reading “níl” out loud as “NFL,” since the “i-fada” looked like an “f” to her in the small and slightly faded print of an old copy of “Buntús Cainte.”  Not quite the same as seeing the síneadh fada as a simple “ponc” but the same basic issue pertains – in the “seanchló,” there was no ponc over the letter “i.”


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  1. joy:

    Hello do you know the English meaning or translation of Órchloch from Harry Potter agus an Órchloch ? I know Ór means gold and loch means lake..

    • róislín:

      @joy Dia dhuit, a Joy, or should I say, a Joyisrawrsome,
      The word “Órchloch” breaks down as “Ór” + c(h)loch,” in other words, “gold + stone,” referring to the original idea of a “philosopher’s stone.” As with the British publication, the Irish title doesn’t refer to a “sorcerer.” Have you read the full text of the Irish version, or are you still immersed in it? HTH, and thanks for writing in.

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