Irish Language Blog

How To Say Irish Words Like ‘Aghaidh,’ ‘Bhratach,’ and ‘Shaoirse’ (Pronunciation Guide for the Red, White and Blue Blog) Posted by on Jun 20, 2013 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

The recurring chorus that I hear in Irish classes, year after year, is “How do you pronounce that?,” or as students get more advanced, and ask it in Irish “Cén chaoi a ndeir tú sin?” (How do you say that?).  In theory, at least, people could be asking, “Cén chaoi a bhfuaimníonn tú sin?” ([kayn khee uh WOO-im-nee-un too shin?] How do you pronounce that?), but it seems to me that the former version of the question is more typical.  Either way, it seems to be a persistent issue in Irish, even after the basics are mastered.   And those basics, by the way, include at least 35 consonant sounds, 12 vowel sounds, 5 diphthongs, and 2 triphthongs, all of which must be written within the confines of the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet.  In fact, since the letter “k” is almost never used in Irish, as discussed in other blogs, it’s really 25 letters.  And since five other letters (q, w, x, y, z) are rarely used, we’re really talking about 20 letters to account for, let’s say, 99.99% of the sum of words in Irish.

Not that this situation is all that different from English, which has at least 24 consonant sounds and 17 sounds for vowels or diphthongs.  That means that at least 41 English sounds also have to be written within those same 26 letters.   However, if English is your native language, you probably learn such oddities as “taught,” “thought,” “laughed,” “raft,” “new,” “noon,” and “pneumonia,” relatively early on and then don’t think much more about them.  And later, you probably pick up a few more of the irregularities, like “ptarmigan,” “ptomaine,” and “chthonic.”  But mostly, whatever our native language is, we probably take its idiosyncrasies for granted.

Learning Irish pronunciation involves not just learning at least two sounds for each of the original thirteen consonants in Irish but also two sounds for each lenited combination (bh, ch, dh, etc.).  And then there are the eclipsed sounds, like “mb” as in “i mBostún” ([im OS-toon], “in Boston”) or “i mBaile Átha Cliath ([with full articulation, 7 syllables: im AHL-yuh AW-huh KLEE-uh, but often shortened: im AH-yuh KLEE-uh, 5 syllables, OR im-LAH-klee, 3 syllables] “in Dublin”).  The good news about the eclipsed sounds is that mostly they don’t actually represent new sounds, just new ways of spelling them.  One of the most stunning examples, to most English speakers, is “bhf,” pronounced as “w” or “v” in phrases such as “an bhfuil …?” ([un wil] “is, am, are …?”) or “i bhfidil” [iv-IDJ-il], ” in a fiddle”).

Having said all that, let’s look at the pronunciation of some of the more interesting examples from the most recent blog (, posted on June 17, 2013.  Since that blog focused on the colors red, white and blue (dearg, bán, gorm), those three terms were covered pretty thoroughly last time.  Here we’ll be looking at six of the other words that were used as vocabulary examples.

1) aghaidh: this word almost rhymes with English “eye” or “aye,” but it is a little more drawn out, reflecting the fact that presumably the “gh” in the middle was originally pronounced (not in recent years, but maybe 1000 years ago or so) and then became silent.  Not so different really from the “gh” in English “light” and “night,” although for different reasons.  The final “-dh” in “aghaidh” is essentially silent, but contributes to the final sound being “ee.”

The most precise way to represent the sound of “aghaidh” is with IPA /ai/ followed by IPA /ɣ‘/.  But for English-speakers who don’t know the International Phonetic Alphabet, the /ai/ tends to suggest words like “rain” or “train,” which is not at all the sound we’re talking about here.   So, to sum up, for “aghaidh,” just remember that the “gh” and “dh” indicate the way the vowels are pronounced; they’re not pronounced as consonants.

Similarly “m’aghaidh” (my face) sounds more or less like “my” and “d’aghaidh” (your face) sounds more or less like “die” (or “dye,” take your pick!).  There’s a slight “ee” sound at the end of these words, as there is for English “my” and “dye,” but not as much as we might find, for example, at the end of an English word like “hooey” or “gooey,” or the slightly exaggerated pronunciation we sometimes hear for “by-ee” (as in “and I will sing a lullaby-ee,” at least as I recall hearing the Beatles sing the line in “Golden Slumbers”).

2) bhuachair [WOO-uh-khirzh]: this word is the lenited and slenderized form of “buachar” [BOO-uh-khur], which means <tormáil druma, i.e. drrrrum rrrrroll> “cow-dung.”  So yes, the unsuspecting “corn bunting,” as it is known in English, is called “gealóg bhuachair” in Irish, literally “cow-dung bunting.”  The Latin taxonomic name is “Emberiza calandra,” but that doesn’t seem to shed much light on the “cow-dung” connection.   The “calandra” part means “lark,” and shows up occasionally as a girl’s name in English and Spanish, but not to my knowledge, in Irish.

As for the “Emberiza” part, all I can find online is that it means “bunting” (the bird, of course) in Esperanto and Catalan (!), which doesn’t really tell us where the word came from.  But it does seem clear that the Latin name has nothing to do with cow-dung, either (the Latin for “dung” is “fimus,” in case you’re curious), which is probably just as well, at least from radharc na gealóige buachair (the corn bunting’s viewpoint).   For those interested, the “cow-dung” element in that phrase is slenderized but not lenited (buachair: regular “b,” slenderized “r).  Why?  Ábhar blag eile, I think, not enough room here.  But if there’s éaneolaí ar bith on this list who knows more of the background of “Emberiza,” and the cow-dung connection, I’m sure there are interested readers here who would love to know, mise ina measc.

And why were we talking about buntings, anyway, in the June 17th blog (2013)?  That was to distinguish “buntings” (the birds) from “bunting” (stiallbhratacha) as in festive decorations, which might be used on holidays such as July 4th (i Meiriceá, ar ndóigh).

3) bhratach [VRAH-tukh, with a slightly flapped “r”]: this word comes from “bratach” (flag) and is lenited after the word “the,” as in “An Bhratach Gheal-Réaltach” (“The Star-Spangled Banner,” lit. the “star-bright” flag).  Why lenited?  It’s feminine and singular and so behaves like thousands of other feminine singular nouns (bean, an bhean; cathair, an chathair, etc.).  Although the first vowel in the word is “a,” a “broad” vowel (which normally triggers a “w” sound for “bh”), the letter “r” here changes the situation.  “Bhr” in Irish is pronounced like “vr.”  As for “vr” itself, yes, the “vr” sound is unusual but just imagine you’re a five-year-old child playing with cars and saying “vrúm, vrúm,” for the sound of the engine.  If you can say, “Vroom! Vroom!” with a trilled “r,” you can pronounce the “bhr” of “bhratach.”  It just looks different!

The “flapped r” sound is like the very beginning of a trill, but cut short.

4) láimhe [LAW-vuh]: this word comes from “lámh” (hand) and is in the possessive form, from the phrase “ingne láimhe” (fingernails), which was used in the earlier blog as a reference to fingernails being painted in red, white, and blue for the July 4th holiday in the United States.  The “-imh-” sound is definitely a “v” sound, a slenderized “mh.”  “Lámh” itself is sometimes pronounced with a final “v” sound, sometimes with a final “w” sound, and sometimes a sound that’s sort of in between (despite being “broad”), depending on dialect.

5) Shaoirse [HEER-shuh]: the lenited form of the name “Saoirse,” which we used for “breithlá Shaoirse” (Saoirse’s birthday).  It would also be used for greetings, farewells, etc., that is, whenever you’d have direct address, as in “A Shaoirse, a chara.”  In a more limited sense, “shaoirse” might appear in phrases where the word has its root meaning, “freedom,” but this would likely be less common than “saoirse” on its own.  “Bhí sé ag caint faoi shaoirse,” would be an example (He was talking about freedom).   For that matter, we could also have “Bhí sé ag caint faoi Shaoirse” (He was talking about Saoirse, i.e. the person).  To say “the freedom,” there is a slightly different form of the word “an tsaoirse” [un TEER-shuh}.  And that probably deserves a bhlag féin someday.

And finally, for now, at least:

6) tsráid [trawdj, NB: the “s” is silent]: from the sentence, “Tá an tsráid bán” (The street is empty, i.e. empty of people).   This word actually works like “an tsaoirse” above.   “Sráid” (street) is a feminine singular noun and feminine singular nouns beginning with “s” do not take ordinary lenition after the word “an” (the).  Instead, a special rule kicks in and a “t” is prefixed, blocking out the original “s” sound.  Other examples include “an tsúil” ([un too-il], the eye) and “an tSnaidhm,” the place name in Kerry anglicized as “Sneem.”  Note that the whole definite-article aspect gets dropped in the anglicization of the place name, which isn’t unusual (Sneem, not *Tneem).

As a generic vocabulary word, “an tsnaidhm” means “the knot,” and I’d pronounce it to rhyme with “time” (or to rhyme with “rhyme”).  It would rhyme with Irish words like “aidhm” and “feidhm” (even though the latter has a slightly different spelling).   Do remember, though, that the “s” is dropped in “tsnaidhm,” so we could represent it as “tnime,” as long as we remember that that’s English “-ime” with the sound of IPA /ai/, as we just discussed (as in: chime, time, thyme, rhyme).  IPA: /tnaim’/.

What about the sound “tnuh” of “tsnaidhm“?  Bhuel, that’s gotta be ábhar blag eile!  Suffice it to say that the sound doesn’t exist in English; the closest we get, perhaps, is “tmesis,” though that has “tm-“”instead of “tn-.”  I suppose if you tried saying “ant nut” in English, and then dropped off the initial “an-” and the final “-t,” you’d have it.

Bhuel, there are some fairly easy words in Irish, like “” (cow), “agus” (and), and “capall” (horse).  But, there are some, like the six examples above, that are less straightforward and may require a little more patience to master.  And a recognition that, in its own way, Irish is at least as systematic as English, possibly more so.  Meanwhile, didja hear the one about the ptarmigan and the pterodactyl  in the chthonic railway (thanks, Philip Pullman!), who mixed up their “pneumonic” with their “mnemonic”?  Actually, there’s no real punch-line there, just a bunch of unusual English spellings, with silent letters galore, but all easily explainable from either Greek or Gaelic.  Yes, one is from Gaelic (more typically Scottish than Irish, although the Irish involved would provide a nice parallel).  Which one’s Gaelic?  An chéad bhlag eile?  Go dtí sin, BB7B, Róislín

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  1. róislín:

    Nuashonrúchán ar 1 Lúnasa 2014:

    Comhghairdeas do Sheán Ó Briain a sheol an freagra isteach ar shuíomh Facebook an Irish Blog ( ptarmigan, ón bhfocal “tàrmachan” i nGaeilge na hAlban.

    Tá sé beagnach mar a gcéanna i nGaeilge na hÉireann: tarmachan (le “a” in ionad “à”).

  2. Cathal:

    In Munster “aghaidh” is pronounced more like “eye-ig”.

    • róislín:

      @Cathal Pointe maith, a Chathail, agus go raibh maith agat. Agus cloistear an “g” deireanach sin ina lan focal, “Corcaigh” mar shampla: KORK-ig i gCúige na Mumhan agus KORK-ee i nGaeilge Chonamara agus Thír Chonaill.

  3. Cathal:

    Chun sibh a chur ar an eolas [FYI]:
    The people at have digitized Tomás de Bhaldraithe’s English-Irish dictionary and Niall Ó Donaill’s foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla [Irish-English dictionary], both “under the same umbrella” at and they are building up databases of Grammar (Gramadach) and Pronunciation (Foghraíocht) in the same location. These latter two are available when the print in the tabs becomes red. For those words that have been added to the Pronunciation (Foghraíocht) database, pronunciation is given in all three dialects. (Ulster – Uladh; Connacht – Connacht and Munster – Mumha)

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