Irish Language Blog

Some Irish Words Starting with the Letter ‘X’ (Part 1 of 2) Posted by on Sep 14, 2015 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

As you might suspect, there are relatively few words in Irish that start with the letter ‘x,’ since it wasn’t part of the traditional original Irish alphabet (which was a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, and u).

We’ve seen something similar for the letters “v” and “w,” but for those, at least we can say that “v” now is fairly well represented in Irish, with examples ranging from “vacsaín” and “vaidhtéir” (groomsman, best man) to “vodca,” “vóta,” and “vultúr.”  For “w,” the examples are still pretty thin on the ground, although “wigwam, wigwamanna” does seem to show up in most recent Irish dictionaries, and “wok, wokanna” is getting some usage online.

So what’s the story with “x”?  It’s getting a little more usage than “w” but much less than “v.”

We can divide the “x”-words in two categories, those which pronounce the “x” like English “-ecks,” which includes most of the scientific terms with just “x-” as a prefix (x-ray, etc.), and those which pronounce the “x” like “zh,” as in the “zh” sound in the middle of “leisure” or “treasure” in English, including “xileafón” and “xifisteirneam.”  All of these “x” words tend to be pretty scientific, with “xileafón” as the main, reasonably everyday, exception.   Today’s blog post will deal with the “x-prefix” words and “xileafón” and related words will be “sa chéad bhlagmhír eile.”

So for today, let’s look at some words that have the “x” separated, as a prefix.  For all of these examples, the “x-” part is fairly straightforward to pronounce, since it’s more or less like the English, as in “necks.”   The trickier part, at least for newcomers to the language, is probably the “gh” and “ch” that come after the “x-.”  These have been dealt with extensively elsewhere in this blog (naisc thíos), but here’s the nutshell version.  The “broad gh” in these words is a sound not in English, but you may hear it in regional pronunciations of Spanish “agua” and German “sagen,” as well as in the Klingon word “gharghmey.”   It’s important to note “regional” here, since we’re not talking about the standard pronunciation for German and Spanish.  The sound is deep in the throat, a little “gargley” sounding, and represented in phonetics by the gamma sign /ɣ/.  There’s no great way to represent this sound in an informal transcription system, so I use the gamma sign.  It may look like the Roman letter “y,” but it isn’t the same letter or sound at all.

x-gha [eks-ɣah], an x-ray

x-ghathanna [EKS-ɣAH-huh-nuh], x-rays

x-ghathaigh [EKS-ɣAH-hee], x-ray (the verb as a command, as in “X-ghathaigh an chos!” (X-ray the foot/leg!)

Next, we break away from the “gh” sound and progress to the “ch” sound of a lenited “c.”  This sound isn’t standard in English, but we do see it in borrowed words such as “Chutzpah” and “challah” (the braided bread).  It may also be somewhat familiar to many English speakers from the Scottish pronunciation of “Loch,” from German words such as “Achtung!” or “das Buch,” and from Welsh (bach, fach, etc., words which may be used even in Welsh English, like “acushla” or “asthore” may be used in Irish English).  While the official IPA symbol for this is /x/, I usually use “kh,” as many other pronunciation guides do

x-chrómasóm [EKS-KHROH-muh-sohm], x-chromosome (which I’m sure you figured out without me really needing to type it).  By the way, if we used the Irish-modified IPA system to transcribe that, it would come out like this:  /’ek΄s ͺ xro:mәso:m/.   It seems a little ironic that the sound of the letter “x” gets written /ek’s/ but the sound of the letters “ch” gets written /x/!  And yes, for any expert fontographers out there, I manually forced a little extra space flanking the vertical subscript line, since otherwise it seemed almost completely unnoticeable.  (9/24/15: occasionally spelled x-chrómosóm, but medial ‘-a-‘ seems to be the norm.

I’m tempted to add “X-Chomhaid” here, for “X-Files,” although I have to admit that I’ve only seen it one other place online, other than the earlier blog where I experimented with it.   If anyone knows of any sites where fans are actively discussing that TV program in Irish, I’d love to know.  Pronunciation-wise, once again, it will give us the “kh” sound for the “ch” [EKS-KHOH-widj].

Of course, there are a few Irish words that start with “x-” and aren’t followed by the “gh” or “kh” sounds, like “x-radaíocht” [EKS-RAH-dee-ukht].  But, for better or for worse, “x-gha” and its cohorts are probably the most commonly used out of all of these.  So the voiced velar fricative once again claims its place on our tongues and in our throats.  (Voiced velar whosit?  Féach na naisc thíos).

By the way, now that you’ve worked on those “gh” and “ch” sounds, you might want to practice them in some more everyday Irish words or phrases, like “Mo ghrá thú” (I love you), “a Ghráinne” (the name “Gráinne” in direct address), “a chroí” (“dear,” literally “heart” in direct address), and the well-worn example “cóta Cháit” (the coat of Cáit).

Bhuel, that’s probably enough to digest for one day.  The next blog post will deal with words that have an “x” syllable as an integral part of the word, not as a separated single-letter prefix.  SGF — Róislín

For the sound “broad gh”: Saying “I love you” in Irish and Minding Your Velar Fricatives Posted on 09. Oct, 2011 by róislín in Irish Language (

Treoir don Treoir: A Guide to the Guide (for Pronunciation), Cuid a 2 Posted on 27. July, 2010 by róislín in Irish Language (…ation-cuid-a-2/

For the sound “broad ch”:  Treoir don Treoir: A Guide to the Guide (for Pronunciation), Cuid a 3 Posted on 29. July, 2010 by róislín in Irish Language  (…ation-cuid-a-3/)

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