Irish Language Blog

Pronunciation Follow-up to the “Cúig Fhocal gan Mhaith” Series Posted by on Jan 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

(le Róislín)

The last few blogs have dealt pretty intensely with meaning and slight differences among comhainmneacha (synonyms).  Here we’ll look at a much more down-to-earth aspect of some of the same words – how to say them.  We’ll look at a few of the longer and more complex ones (tláithíneacht, neamhghontacht, m. sh.) but we’ll also look at some shorter, more basic words that illustrate some major points of Irish pronunciation, some from the blogs and others from general vocabulary.  Some samples will involve the widespread Irish phenomena of lenition (séimhiú) and eclipsis (urú), but we’ll also look such specific issues as lenited sounds in the middle or at the end of words and also some vowel sounds.  Like most blog-length approaches to this topic, though, this is just barr an chnoic oighir (or rinn an oighearchnoic, or the “bior” thereof, if you prefer).

I. Lenition (séimhiú, lit. softening)

Lenition of initial consonants occurs for over a dozen reasons in Irish, so I’ll just focus on a few here.  Lenition is generally marked by the insertion of the letter “h” after the initial consonant (cat becoming chat,

a. After the numbers 2 through 6, except for, well, na heisceachtaí (the exceptions)

Ceithre fhocal [KyEH-ruh OK-ul], four words

Cúig fhrása [KOO-ig RAW-suh], five phrases

Exceptions include some (but not all) units of measurement: ceithre bliana, sé seachtainí

b. Directly after some (but not all) prepositions, some, but not all of the time (a chapters’s worth of issues there!)

Gan mhaith [gahn wah], useless, lit. without good, but “gan tús gan deireadh” (the d and t resistance)

Compare: ó Bhéal Feirste (from Belfast; lenition) but “go Béal Feirste” (to Belfast; no lenition)

Nóta: I say “directly” here because the entire set-up changes if words like “an” or “mo” are present.  Blag eile!

c. Marking nouns that are “possessed,” either literally (Jimmy’s coat) or more abstractly (often involving compound prepositions like “de réir” or “os cionn”)

Let’s start with some real workhorse examples, not from the recent blog series: cóta Shéamais, seomra Shiobhán, iníon Mháire, madra Chaitlín.  Some basic examples of the compound preposition “os cionn” are os cionn an bhoird (above the table, normally “bord“) and os cionn an gharáiste (above the garage, normally “garáiste“)

Looking at our recent blogs, we don’t have to go any farther than the title of the series for “de réir“:

de réir Fhionntán Uí Thuathail [… IN-tawn ee HOO-uh-hil, note that the “f” of “Fhionntán” is silent, as are the “t’s” of “Thuathail”]

Note that if we didn’t include the surname, the spelling and pronunciation of “Fintan” would change  slightly: de réir Fhionntáin [… IN-taw-in, with the “taw” and “in” running together very smoothly], this means “according to Fintan.”  Likewise: de réir Mharcais [WAR-kish], de réir Mhatha [WAH-huh] (according to Mark/Matthew)

Lenition also occurs after “” in surnames, which is also an aspect of possession, albeit very abstract:

carr Uí Thuathail [… ee HOO-uh-hil, as above], O’Toole’s car, the car of Ó Tuathail

Sráid Uí Chonaill [srawdj ee KHON-ill], O’Connell St.

Bean Uí Mhurchú [ban ee WUR-uh-khoo], Mrs. Murphy, lit. the wife/woman of Ó Murchú

There are many more situations in which lenition occurs, but that’s a sample, for now.

2. Eclipsis (urú, lit. eclipsing): adding a new initial consonant and obscuring the pronunciation of the original one

a. After the preposition “i” (in)

i gcrobhaing [ig-ROW-ing, the syllables more or less run together], in a cluster.  In this transcription, “row” is as in “row-boat,” not as in “a row” (the latter being the “row” often paired with “ruction,” thanks to Tim Finnegan)

i mbannaí [im-AHN-ee], bail, as in “ag dul i mbannaí air” (to go bail for him)

This also occurs, of course, with many place names, like

i mBaile Átha Cliath [im AHL-yuh KLEE-uh], in Dublin, with the middle word “Átha” basically swallowed into oblivion

i mBostún [im OST-oon], in Boston

b. With plural nouns in the genitive case, following the definite article “na

tráth na gcomhainmneacha [traw nuh GOH-AN-yim-nyukh-uh], the time of the synonyms (“Synonym Time,” structured like “Tráth na gCeist” [… nuh gesht], which some of you may recognize from the popular quiz name)

This structure also occurs in many widely used phrases like “leabhair na gcailíní” and in a lot of place names like “Dún na nGall” [doon ung awl], Donegal, and “Baile na mBacach” [… nuh MAHK-ukh], Ballynamockagh (Co. Galway).  In the latter, the anglicized version reflects what has happened to the initial “b” of “bacach” – it has been eclipsed and only the “m” sound is pronounced.

III. Lenited sounds in the middle of a word

One good thing about this feature of Irish pronunciation is that it rarely changes.  Once a word has such a sound medially, it will usually remain intact no matter what other changes may happen at the beginning or the end of the word.  Here are some examples from the recent blogs:

diabhal [DJEE-uh-wul OR djowl], devil, with the “bh” approximating a “w” sound

le haghaidh [leh hai], for.  The “-gh-“ in the middle is silent, serving simply to give us an /ai/ sound for the vowel, pretty much the same vowel as in English “I,” “eye,” “my,” “pie” and “guide” (and now you can see why none of these English words is a good basis for a pronunciation guide).  In other words, “haghaidh” is pretty much like the English greeting “Hi!”  And btw, the vowel sound in this “le” isn’t at all like the French “le” (the) but it’s like the short “e” of “let” or “pet”

neamhghontacht [NYOW- γON-tukht] non-pithiness, probably not as commonly used as the positive form of this word, gontacht [GON-tukht], pithiness, but certainly there are possible usages, and it’s a nice example of four consonants in a row, due to lenition.  The final “-mh” makes the “-ea-“ vowel an “ow” sound (as in “cow,” or “ouch”).  The “g” of “gontacht” is lenited after the prefix “neamh-“ (non-, un-); linguistically, it is the voiced velar fricative that I’ve discussed elsewhere (Treoir don Treoir: A Guide to the Guide (for Pronunciation), Cuid a 2 (27 Iúil 2010), which is dedicated to the voiced velar fricative sound, and An Ghaeilge sa Leabhar _Galway Bay_: “Guilpín,” “Grá” agus Go Leor Eile (2 Mí na Samhna 2009), which discusses this sound in a few terms of endearment, such as “A ghrá!” and “A ghrá mo chroí!

tarrtháil [TAR-haw-il], saving, bailout; the medial “th” is just pronounced “h”

tláithíneacht [TLAW-heen-yukht], mealy-mouthedness, soft-spokenness, wheedling, flattery, cf. tláith, weak; again, the medial “th” is just pronounced “h”

IV. Lenited sounds at the end of a word (usually very softened or silenced)

maith [mah], good, as in “gan mhaith” [gahn wah], without good (useless, etc.)

le haghaidh [leh hai], for.  We’ve mostly discussed this above, but note that the “-dh” of “haghaidh” is completely silent

V. Pronunciation of final “e’s” in Irish (as opposed to English)

In words like “déine,” the final “e” is never considered silent, although it may be barely audible or inaudible, if followed by another vowel.  For example, déine [DJAYN-yuh], austerity and déine an tsaoil [djayn yun teel], the harshness of life.  If one is articulating very carefully, the final “-e” and the “an” can be distinguished [DJAYN-yuh un teel]

VI. Which vowel is pronounced when there are two or three vowels in a row?

This could take several blogs to answer, but to pick just a few examples:

íobairt [EEB-irtch], sacrifice.  If one of the vowels has a long mark, only that one is pronounced.  Likewise,

Uí Thuathail [ee HOO-uh-hil], of O’Toole.  Again, just the long vowel of “Uí.”  Additional examples: déine, béal ([bayl], mouth, as in béalghrá), anróiteach [AHN-ROH-tchukh]

When neither vowel is long, the pattern sometimes has to be memorized, and there are noticeable variations:

deacair [DJAK-irzh], hard.  The “ea” is like English “bat” or “cat” (or like Irish bean, fear, or deas, but not like Irish “beag”).  The “ai” here is unstressed, because it’s the second syllable, so it’s not a very distinct vowel sound.  It could be considered a very short “short i” or almost a “schwa.”

mion– [min], mini-.  Basically a short “i” with the “o” mostly serving to keep the “n” broad.  Not like the “io” in “iontach” [EEN-tukh] or “iontas” [EEN-tuss], though.

In the case of “-ua” and “ia,” each vowel is pronounced, as in Ó Tuathail [oh TOO-uh-hil], crua [KROO-uh], diabhal [DJEE-uh-wul], and dian [DJEE-un]

Three vowels in a row?  Fadhb ar bith!  We’ve seen aoi [ee], a guest; faoi [fwee], under; and saoi [see], an expert, among others.

Bhuel, as noted above, that was just tip of the iceberg, but it’s a bit of a headstart.  If you have any specific pronunciation questions, please feel to write in.  SGF, Róislín

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  1. Rod:

    Hi, I’m trying to translate a tattoo i saw but I can’t see it clearly so some words are wrong.
    Do you know what “tá seomra se domhan seo damdiste do god duine mar sin tá tú ag teacht mar” means?

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