Irish Language Blog

Treoir don Treoir: A Guide to the Guide (for Pronunciation), Cuid a 2 Posted by on Jul 27, 2010 in Irish Language, Uncategorized

(le Róislín)

Treoir don treoir, an ea?  Well, here’s more!

The most accurate way to transcribe the sound of the broad Irish “gh,” as in “gharbh,” is by using the Greek gamma symbol, γ. It looks a little like a “v” with an extra loop at the bottom. It represents the voiced velar fricative, a sound that is not in English nor in the standard versions of most of the other languages that I sometimes refer to for samples of this sound’s compatriot, the voiceless velar fricative (spelled “ch” in Irish, as in “ach” or “och”).  Irish is lucky enough to have both the voiced and voiceless versions of this sound but I’ll deal with the voiceless one in another blog.

I did say “standard versions” for a reason, by the way.  The sound is in some pronunciations of Spanish and German.  It’s just not part of the way those languages are typically taught, at least in American classrooms.  And I say that based on several years of classroom experience for both, as a student, plus intermittent perusal of pronunciation guides to those and other languages.  I actually love to read pronunciation guides for all kinds of languages, and the more removed from my linguistic comfort zone (Irish), the better.  But I’ve never found a shortcut or easy path for the “gh” sound of “gharbh.”

So, cutting back to the chase, which I sometimes remind myself to do, what are the non-standard German and Spanish examples of the voiced velar fricative?  For German, “sagen” pronounced not with the usual “g” but with a rumbling guttural sound that seems to want to stay in the throat.  Subjectively described, I hear it as a bit softer and less blunt than the more familiar voiceless velar fricative (as in German “Achtung” or “Buch”).  For Spanish, the classic example is “agua,” but again not the typical textbook variety, but with that same soft rumbling guttural sound.  I also see online this sound indicated for the “g” in the Catalan pronunciation of “boligraf “(pen) – if that helps.

“Guttural,” by the way, in this context has nothing to do with gáitéir, silteáin, or claiseanna (types of roof or road gutters), but rather comes from the Latin “guttur” (throat).

Many non-IPA pronunciation guides for Irish slough over the broad “gh” sound, partly because the actual phonetic symbol is a bit difficult to type and partly because it’s a bit difficult to explain if it’s not in the student’s native language.  I’ve seen it described as simply an “h” sound, which might be true if you have a really sore throat and can’t rumble your vocal cords.  Or I’ve seen it written as it’s actually spelled in Irish (“dh” or “gh”), which makes some sense, but I’m trying to make my guide consistent and not a hybrid of actual Irish spellings and phoneticized spellings.

If you go back and look at the phrase that triggered all this rangalam, “treoir gharbh d’fhuaimniú na Gaeilge” (rough guide to the pronunciation of Irish), the word “gharbh” is the one we’re concerned with here.  It’s transcribed as [γAHR-uv], which tells us that the “g” is silent.

So how do you pronounce this sound, if you don’t know the dialectal German or Spanish examples or Catalan, Hebrew or Arabic, where the sound also occurs?  As I said above, it’s sort of like the voiceless velar fricative (the German “Buch” sound), but, in my view softer and not as abrupt.  I recommend listening to native speakers whenever possible, for example on Raidió na Gaeltachta (  Even if you can’t understand everything they’re saying, listen for the sounds that aren’t in English!

The good news?  Once you’ve learned this sound, you can also apply it to the broad Irish “dh,” since they’re identical.  So here are some examples, first with broad “gh” then with broad “dh”:

gharbh [γAHR-uv], rough, the feminine form, from “garbh.”  Note that there’s also an unstressed vowel sound inserted, giving us the second syllable, “-uv.”

an Ghaeilge [un γAYL-ig-yeh], the Irish language

a Ghráinne! [uh γRAWN-yeh] Gráinne! (in direct address)

Mo ghairm thú! [muh γARzh-im hoo] Bravo! (lit. my acclaim (on) you)

Mo ghrá thú! [muh γraw hoo], I love you!

And now some words with the same sound, but spelled with broad “dh”:

bó dhonn [boh γun], a brown cow (“dhonn” is the feminine form of “donn”)

A dhuine uasail! [uh γIN-yeh OO-uss-il], Sir! (in direct address)

A dhaoine uaisle! [uh γEEN-yeh OO-ish-leh], Noble people! (in direct address, used for “Ladies and Gentlemen”).  This phrase was used internationally to introduce Riverdance performances.

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill [NOO-uh-luh nee γOH-nil]; this is the name of a leading Irish poet, who uses the feminine form of her surname, Ó Domhnaill, as would be traditional in the Gaeltacht and among Irish speakers

Watch out for times when the broad “dh” or “gh” is silent, like “foghlaim” [FOH-lim} or “fadhb” [faib].  Good news?  This will be in the middle or end of a word, not at the beginning.  And please remember, this treoir don treoir is meant to explain the symbols I use, not every possible sound in Irish.

Why spell the same sound several different ways as Irish does with these “gh’s” and “dh’s”?  It’s not really a very answerable question, but English does it all the time too (read/reed, laugh/gaff, ptarmigan/tarmac, Google/googol, and, if you want to get really obscure, chthonic/thong).  Word history comes into play, as well as linguistic borrowings and coinages, and the simple fact that language was created over thousands of years, not by a committee that could check itself for overlaps.

And for good measure, and to wrap up, a phrase with both the voiceless [kh] and voiced [γ] velar fricative:

oíche dhorcha [EE-hyeh γOR-uh-khuh], a dark night, using the form “dhorcha” (instead of “dorcha”), since oíche is feminine  Like “gharbh,” “dhorcha” is the feminine form of the adjective.  Unlike your Romance languages, which typically adjust the vowel at the end of an adjective to show it’s feminine, Irish usually makes the change at the beginning of the word.

If this blog seems a bit fricative-heavy, well, so be it.  The two velar fricatives are quite important in Irish.  And for those of you whose native language is English, you’ve been using fricatives all your life, just not the velar types in most cases (with Scots and some Northern English among the exceptions).  The sounds “f,” “v,” “s,” “z,” and both of the “th’s” in English are all fricatives.  And there are some blessings in life – learners of Welsh are faced with the voiceless alveolar/coronal lateral fricative, aka the “belted l.”  It’s spelled “ll,” or in caps, “Ll.”  You’ve likely seen it all over the Welsh map (Llandudno, Llanelli, Llanfair P-G, etc.) and it almost made it to the U.S., as in Landover, MD (from “Llanofer”) and Lampeter, PA (from “Llanbedr”).   So, as the Irish saying may sum it up, “Is buí le bocht an beagán” (We must be grateful for tender mercies).  Slán go fóill–Róislín

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