Irish Language Blog

Don’t Be Silent, Even If It Was The Cat: A Pronunciation Round-up for the Irish Black Cat Blogs Posted by on Nov 5, 2014 in Irish Language

Cat dubh a bhfuil an t-ainm 'Lilith' uirthi, tarrtháilte as clós páirceála ollmhargaidh nuair a bhí sí in piscín.  Nach slíoctha galánta anois í? ( (

Cat dubh a bhfuil an t-ainm ‘Lilith’ uirthi, tarrtháilte as clós páirceála ollmhargaidh nuair a bhí sí ina piscín. Nach slíoctha galánta anois í?

(le Róislín)

Even some seemingly simple Irish words may benefit from a few pronunciation tips, so this blog will look at some of the terms that come up as we go through the forms of the phrases “an cat” and “an cat dubh” in Irish, as discussed in some previous blogs (naisc thíos).

First, let’s look at “cat” itself, plus the plural “cait,” and the two possessive forms “chait” and “gcat.”

One key point is that the “a” is a short “ah” sound, not like the “a” (/æ/) of English “cat,” “bat,” or “mat.”  Some speakers pronounce “cat” with more of a short “u” sound, almost like American English “put” or “soot” (but not “putt” or “Sutter”).  So, although the two words, English “cat” and Irish “cat,” look identical, they aren’t pronounced quite the same.

For the phrase “an cat” (the cat), remember this “an” is pronounced like the “un” of “fun” or the “a” of “sofa.”

So far, so good, I imagine.

The plural form “cait” (cats) inserts the letter “i” before the final letter.  This changes the vowel sound to “i” as in “bit” or “kit.”  It’s definitely not like a typical “ai” in English, as in “Tait” or “rain.”

But the word “cait” is not simply like English “kit.”  For one thing we have the “broad c” at the beginning, which has a slight “w” quality to it–but just slight, not as much as “quit.”  So maybe we could say that the “c” of “cait” is about halfway between “kit” and “quit.”

And we now have a slender “t” at the end of the word (“t” pronounced next to an “e” or an “i”).  So the final “t” is more like “tch.”

To sum it up, the full word “cait” is like “kwitch.”

And what about various possessions “of the cat” (… an chait)?  The “ch” is as in German “Buch,” Yiddish “Chutzpah,” Scottish Gaelic (and Irish) “loch,” and Welsh “coch.”  The final slender “t” is the same as described above.  So we could have the phrase:

lapaí an chait [LAH-pee un khwitch], the paws of the cat.  Some speakers might not pronounce the “n” of “an,” since it often dropped before consonants, as in “bean an tí,” usually pronounced “ban-uh-tchee,” not “ban-un-tchee.”

As for “the paws of the cats,” we use the plural form for “of the cats,” which is “na gcat.”  The “g” covers over (or “eclipses”) the original “c.”  So we have “nuh gaht,” and for “the paws of the cat,” we have “LAH-pee nuh gaht.”

And how about the black cat, and the word ‘black” itself: an cat dubh (dubh, black).

There are two main pronunciations of “dubh” in Irish: duv (with the “u” similar to English “put”) or, in the North, “doo” (with the long “u” sound of “pool” or Irish “úll“).  In the latter, the “-bh” has become completely silent.  You might recognize the word “dubh” from the folksong “The Little Beggarman,” which is about “Johnny Dhu” (aka “Johnny Doo”).  Every version of the song I’ve heard uses the “oo” sound, rhyming with “rigadoo.”  “Johnny Dhu” means “black-haired Johnny.”

The basic plural form of “dubh” is “dubha,” with the “-bh-” pronounced either like a “v” or  “w.”

But after a noun like “cait,” which ends in a slender “t,” the initial “d” of “dubh” changes to “dh.”  And this pronunciation is … <tormáil druma> … our old friend, the voiced velar fricative.  We’ve dealt with this sound before, in various blogs (naisc thíos) and the note (Nóta 1) below gives a few more examples.  In a nutshell, it’s a bit like the “kh” sound of “Buch” and “Chutzpah,” but deeper in the throat and more rolling.  This sound is represented by a letter from the Greek alphabet, the gamma sign /ɣ/ and there’s no exact equivalent in the Roman alphabet.

So that should now enable you to say “the black cat” [un kaht duv] and “the black cats” [nuh kwitch ɣwiv-uh] in Irish.

Well, there are many more focail we could wrap ár dteangacha around, but those will have to do for now.

To hearken back to today’s title, we might have to be silent if we were on the crew of the H.M.S. Pinafore, singing “Goodness me, why what was that?” and the answer came, “Silent be, it was the cat.”  But for today’s purpose, the best plan is not to be silent, but to speak Irish, as much and as often as one can.  And that includes practicing all the words we’ve practiced above (cat, cait, an chait, na gcat, dubh, dubha, dhubha).

For a little more on the cat in H.M.S. Pinafore, see nóta 2 below.  SGF — Róislín

Nóta 1:  Additional examples include: A Dhónail, A Dhonncha, a dhún.  The same sounds occurs with broad “gh”: An Ghaeilge, A ghrá, mo ghrá, a ghasúir.  And did we say that was a friCATive sound?  Sheer coincidence that that occurred in a cat-themed blog!  There’s no sign of a “cat”-syllable in the Irish for “fricative;” it’s “cuimilteach.”

Nóta 2: Of course, the Gilbert and Sullivan text also refers to a “cat o’ nine tails,” which in Irish is simply “lasc na naoi gcraobh,” literally “whip of the nine ‘branches,’ here best understood as “straps.”  No reference to “cats” here.

naisc (the voiced velar fricative sound): (Six Ways to Say, “I Want Some More” in Irish (ag cur Gaeilge ar athfhriotal clúiteach Oilibhéir) ; 10 Bealtaine 2014) (Saying “I love you” in Irish and Minding Your Velar Fricatives ; 9 Deireadh Fómhair 2011) (How To Pronounce ‘A Dheaide,’ ‘A Dhaidí,’ and Other Forms of ‘Dad/Daddy’ in Irish; 6 Meitheamh 2013)

naisc (cait dhubha):

‘Cats’, ‘of the cats,’ ‘black cats’ and related phrases in Irish, Posted on 31. Oct, 2014 by róislín in Irish Language  (

Bígí Ciúin! Ba é an cat é! Or Should That Be “Ba Iad Na Deich gCat Dhubha Iad”? Posted on 15. Oct, 2012 by róislín in Irish Language

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