Irish Language Blog

Nótaí Fuaimnithe (Pronunciation Notes) don Bhlag Deireanach, or, Not Your Abuela’s “ua” Vowel Sound Posted by on Feb 23, 2010 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

A few notes on pronunciation for the last blog, which was called “Thuas Seal, Thíos Seal, or Ice-cream and Underlings.”  Pronunciation notes always seem to be welcome!


The “ua” sound, which we saw consistently in that whole “slua” (angl. slew) of related words is basically “oo-uh.”  That’s “oo” as in (American) English “tool” or “fool,” not as in English “book” or “look” (now you see why it’s so tricky to describe the sounds of another language in terms of English examples; as Pete Seeger sings, “English is C-R-A-Z-Y). 


And the “uh” sound I mean here is the schwa or unstressed vowel sound, as in English “about” or “umpteen,” not as in German “Huhn” (that’s especially for our German foghlaimeoir who has just written in to introduce herself, agus fáilte mhór di!). 


So at least we’ve got our “oo-uhs” straight now, i.e. that “oo-uh” doesn’t sound like “u (short)-oo”!


Can we actually find this sound in an English word?  Not readily, but a few examples will follow.  Note that in the Irish “ua” and these English examples, both vowels are pronounced.  In other words, and perhaps the key point, here, Irish “uaisn’t pronounced like the typical American pronunciation of the name “Juan,” which is, more or less, “wahn.”  More on the British pronunciation of that later, just to nip any misconceptions in the bud. 


The closest word I can think of in English is “truant.”  Also close is “fluent,” though some people pronounce that with more of an “ent” or “int” sound at the end.  At any rate, if you slice away the bookending consonants surrounding this double-vowel sound, you have your Irish “ua.” 


It actually took me a long time to think up those corresponding words, since the sound isn’t very common in English, at least not within one word.  We could have the sound in lots of phrases in English, like “Do a bit of work” or “Boo up there,” as a ghost might say to a hen perched on the rafters (well, why not?). 


Anticipating a possible question, no, I wouldn’t say it’s like the U.S. Marines’ “hua,” which seems to have equal stress on the two vowels, and a distinctive “ah” sound at the end (not a schwa sound). 


Of course, all this explanation is probably unnecessary, like taking “liúdair go Toraigh,” for anyone actually raised in Ireland.  There, minimally, most people will have heard the sound in the word “Nuacht” (the news) on TV since 1962 or so (dáta níos beaichte, a Éireannaigh?).  That’s even true for those outside the Gaeltacht or who don’t speak or listen to Irish much in their everyday lives.  More recently, people might recognize the sound from “Luas,” the new Light Rail Tram System i mBaile Átha Cliath


So now you have the vowel sound for the following words: thuas, suas, anuas, uachtar, uachtarán, and uachtarach.


And it’s useful for another whole slew of basic Irish vocabulary words like bua, cuan, crua, duais, fuadar, grua, gruaig, luath, nua, rua, and truaFuaim úsáideach, déarfainn.  


As for the “ío” sound of the words that work as opposites to the “ua” words, the key point is that when there are two Irish vowels together, and one has a long mark, you pronounce the one with the long mark.  The other vowel is only functioning to make the adjoining consonant broad or slender.  So the following all have a long “ee” sound: thíos (remember, silent “t”), síos (remember, slender “s,” like English “sh”), aníos, íochtar, íochtairín, íochtarán, and íochtarach


The same rule (fada trumps non-fada) applies with many other words, like buí (bwee) or suí (see, with perhaps a bit of a “wuh” sound after the “s,” but not enough to make it like the American hog call, “soo-eey”). 


There are relatively few instances in which both vowels of a two-vowel combo have a síneadh fada (long mark), but when that’s the case, you pronounce both, as in “tríú” [trzhee-oo], meaning “third.” 


Well, that’s a lot of cyber-ink spilled on four little vowels, but I’ve heard many attempts to pronounce “ua” like the Spanish “Juan.”  Given that outside of  Ireland, it still takes a lot of determination to actually hear Irish, it’s not surprising that learners might look to the vowel cluster as they’ve seen it in another language.  And I have also heard enough attempts to strongly pronounce the “u” of “suí,” that I’ve wondered that the “muca” don’t come running. 


Before complete finishing this blog, I’ll note that while Americans pronounce “Juan” like “wahn,” the most famous Juan of all, “El Burlador de Sevilla,” is pronounced like “joo-un” in the famous Byron poem, “Don Juan,” at least as discussed by the British.  The first time I heard this I was a bit startled, being accustomed to “Juan” with the “wah” sound, but since I’ve now heard several experts in the field use that pronunciation, so I’ll just say “so be it.”  Byron gives internal rhyming clues that that’s the pronunciation he intends.  And, ironically, that’s the same sound as we have in the Irish examples I’ve been belaboring in this blog.  So maybe I should have just referred everyone to Byron, but from 1821 to 2010 is a bit of leap for phonetic cultural memory!  Slán go fóill — Róislín


Nóta: liúdar, coalfish, presumably in abundance in the waters around Tory Island.  An bhfuil a fhios ag éinne an bhfuil sé sin fíor?  Bheadh suim agam níos mó eolais a fháil faoi.   

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  1. Mary:

    There is a new show called The Generations Project. They take every day people on a journey to discover more about their ancestors. This Monday (March 1) they are doing a story about a lady who goes to Ireland to learn more about her grandma. It looks like its going to be a great episode. Check out their website, or I saw a preview to the show on their Facebook page.!/pages/Generations-Project/139488246786?v=wall

    I just thought you would be interested.

  2. Róislín:

    Go raibh maith agat as an eolas, a Mháire. Thank you for passing on the information, Mary — I’m sure other readers will find it interesting as well.

  3. Luisa:

    Thank you for welcoming me. 🙂
    Maybe it was already mentioned in an earlier blog, but you can watch the Irish language tv channel TG4 online (some programmes are not available outside Ireland though), and they also offer older programmes for a limited time. Some have english subtitles, some don’t.
    This is a good opportunity for people outside Ireland to hear the pronunciation. For example, to get the “ua” sound, you could watch and listen to the “Nuacht” (atleast to the first few seconds 😉 I especially liked the programme “No Béarla”. It is about the situation the Irish language is in and the people’s attitude towards it and the protagonist has a lot of creative ideas to revive the language. Unfortunately, only one episode is available now:

    • róislín:

      @Luisa Go raibh maith agat as an eolas, go mór mór an méid faoin gclár “No Béarla.”

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