Irish Language Blog

More Irish Pronunciation Notes: Broad and Slender “B” Sounds Posted by on Aug 17, 2010 in Uncategorized

Getting back to the pronunciation series that was started a few blogs ago, there are a few more points I’d like to add.  As I said before, what I’m doing here is primarily explaining the transcription system that I use, not attempting to account for every possible sound or variation of a sound in Irish or every possible way of transcribing it. 

As I’ve also said before, I realize that the most precise system is the International Phonetic Alphabet, but even that presents the dilemma of whether to use the original IPA or the Irish-modified version.  And for most learners, at least the students I’ve had over the years, a rough guide based on English is much more graspable. 

The problem, of course, with using the sounds of English as a guide is that English is full of multiple ways to spell the same sound.  Here’s a set of examples I recently culled from the Internet to explain the pronunciation of “Caique,” as in the Caique parrot: kigh-eek, kah-eek, kai-eek, kai-EEK, ky-eek and kye-eek (the latter two used interchangeably in the same website).  To complicate matters, those are just for one approach; some people apparently just pronounce the word like “cake.”  But the main point is that in the relatively specialized world of Caique parrot aficionados, six transcription systems have been used. I’ve been trying to keep mine, for Irish, consistent. 

At any rate, from time to time I explain the system I’m using, but if I did that every time it would take up at least half the blog, so I hope people can refer back to the other pronunciation blogs if there’s a question. 

And finally, getting to the sounds I wanted to discuss in today’s blog – the broad and slender “b.”  While there are basically two sounds involved here, one could see them as four sounds: there’s a regular broad “b” in words like “bata” (stick), “bog” (soft), and “bus” (bus), as discussed previously.  But in front of certain vowel combinations, the broad “b” becomes, well, broader.  This is especially typical with the vowel clusters “ao,” “aoi,” and “uí,” as in the following: 

buí [bwee], yellow

baoi [bwee], a buoy

baoth [bwee], foolish, vain; the silent “th” at the end of the word you might recognize as par for the course by now

Likewise, baol (danger), baoite (bait), baothghalánta (snobbish), buíoch (thankful), buíochas (thanks), and buíon (band, troop). 

For these sounds, I’m simply using the “w” after the “b” in the transcription to get the effect.  I can’t say I can think of any English words that start with this sound, except maybe borrowed words such as the Swahili “bwana” and French “bois” as in “faux bois garden furniture.”  And that actual French “bois” doesn’t include W. E. B. Du Bois or Boise, Idaho, at least not in their usual American pronunciations. 

Why troscán gairdín needs to be described as “faux bois” at all is an issue I’ll leave to the margóiri.   Or maybe the maisitheoirí intí.   

And now for the slender “b” (appearing adjacent to the vowels “e” and “i”).  In a previous blog, I discussed the slender Irish “b” as in biúró [ByOO-roh], bureau, and b’fhiú é … [byoo ay, “fh” is silent], it would be worth (it).  As I mentioned in that blog, I mark these “b” sounds with the superscript “y.”  I’d describe these slender “b” sounds as quite slender.  It resembles the “b” in English “beauty” (as opposed to “booty,” which we’ve been through before). 

Other examples that I’d say have a particularly slender “b” are:

beo [byoh], alive

beoir [byohrzh], beer

But there’s also a “slender b” that’s not quite as articulated, and that appears in words like:

bean [ban] woman

beirt [bertch] two people

beiriú [BERZH-yoo] to boil, boiling

béirín [BAYRzh-een], little bear

biongó [BING-goh], bingo

There’s still a subtle distinction here, in comparison to the broad “b” but it’s not as salient, so I don’t transcribe it in the phonetic guide. 

Much of this seeming variation between the broad and slender sounds really has to do with the specific vowels that come after the consonant involved, rather than representing a different consonant pronunciation.  But the effect is create some variety in the best way to transcribe the sounds. 

The good news about these subtle distinctions is that they’ll be repeated with the letters f, m, and p (na consain dhéliopacha eile).  Please stay tuned for more examples. 

By the way, I also realize that not all readers of this blog are native English speakers but since the blog is dátheangach (cuid i nGaeilge agus cuid i mBéarla), I’m assuming most of the English-based references are reasonably useful.  At any rate, I get a lot of requests for more pronunciation information, and quite a few thanks as well, so it must be working.  Ultimately, of course, the goal is for learners to see Irish words and not need a pronunciation guide ar chor ar bith but that seems to take longer for Irish than with some other languages.

Gluais: dátheangach, bilingual; déliopach [DJAY-LIP-ukh] bilabial, as in consonant pronunciation; lenited and plural, this becomes dhéliopacha [YAY-LIP-ukh-uh]; maisitheoir, decorator; margóir, marketer

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  1. Luisa:

    Go raibh maith agat!

    I have no problems understanding your pronunciation guides. Of course it helps that you sometimes use German examples to explain Irish sounds. 😉

    • róislín:

      @Luisa Tá áthas orm go síleann tú go bhfuil sé soiléir. Déanaim mo dhícheall.

      Tá áthas orm freisin go síleann tú go bhfuil na samplaí Gearmánacha úsáideach.

  2. Tim:

    Just wanted to comment that I really enjoy the blog. Many thanks!

    • róislín:

      @Tim Tá áthas orm go mbaineann tú sult as an mblag. Glad you like it – thanks for writing!

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