Irish Language Blog

Treoir don Treoir: A Guide to the Guide (for Pronunciation), Cuid a 3 Posted by on Jul 29, 2010 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

The past few blogs discussed the use of the superscript letters “zh” and “y” and the use of the gamma symbol (γ) to represent broad “dh” and “gh.”   This blog will deal with the use of “kh” to represent the “guttural ch” pronunciation in Irish in words like “ach” and “loch.”  The linguistic term for this sound is “voiceless velar fricative.”

The combination “kh” is widely used in pronunciation guides for many languages, not just Irish, to represent the voiceless velar fricative.  This sound is a bit easier to deal with than some other distinctively Irish sounds (like the slender “r” or the broad “dh” and “gh”), since it shows up in various other languages.  Hopefully at least one is already familiar.

1. loch (lake) Scottish pronunciation

2. bach (small) Welsh, as in “O, bois bach!” or “O, bobl bach!,” which are among the best-known Welsh interjections!

3. Buch (Book) German

4. Chutzpah, Chanukah in Hebrew/Yiddish (but remember, many English speakers don’t actually pronounce these with the guttural sound, since it’s unfamiliar, so they just make do with an initial “h” sound, as represented more by the spelling “Hanukah”).

Why do I list examples from so many different languages, you might wonder.  Isn’t one enough?  Not necessarily!  Over the years, I’ve heard lots of students saying, “Well, the book says to pronounce this like German “Buch,” but that doesn’t help me since I don’t know German.”  Or Welsh.  Or whatever.  So I figure, dá mhéad is amhlaidh is fearr é (the more the merrier), within reason.  This isn’t an inventory of all the possible guttural “ch” sounds, just enough to point people in the right direction, I hope.  In fact, of all the examples, “Chutzpah” seems to resonate best with Americans.  Even Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett mastered the sound for their song of the same name, although at one point Ball has to coach Burnett to make the sound more guttural.  The song is easy to find on YouTube, if you want to listen.

Here are some examples in Irish:

seacht [shakht] seven

ocht [okht] eight

a Cháit! [uh khawtch] Cáit! Kate! (in direct address)

Donncha [DUN-uh-khuh] Donncha or Dennis

Sorcha [SOR-uh-khuh] Sorcha or Sarah

dorcha [DOR-uh-khuh] dark

ach [ahkh] but

och [okh] alas

teach [tchakh] house

beach [bakh] bee

i mo chónaí [i muh KHOH-nee] living (1st person singular form)

Contae Chorcaí [KON-day KHOR-kee] County Cork

Irish words and phrases spelled with a “ch” that DON’T have this sound (though I sometimes hear them pronounced that way!) are:

oíche [EE-hyeh], as in “Oíche mhaith” [EE-hyeh wah], Good night

a Chiaráin! [uh HyEE-ur-aw-in], Ciarán! (in direct address)

a cheann [uh hyun] his head

an chiaróg [un HyEE-uh-rohg] the beetle

Contae Chiarraí [KON-day HyEE-uh-ree] County Kerry

These all have a breathy “h” sound, like English “human” or “hew,” which is completely different.

How do you tell the two “ch” sounds apart?  It’s quite consistent and is based on the vowels (once again).  The broad (“guttural” / voiced) “ch” is next to a broad vowel (a, o, u) and the slender “ch” (the breathy “hy” sound) is next to a slender vowel (e, i).

The actual IPA symbol for the broad “ch” is /x/, which I used to use in my pronunciation guides.  But it seemed to generate more confusion than it was worth, as people constantly read it as the “x” sound of either “ox” or “xylophone.”  The Irish-modified IPA for the slender “ch” is /x’/ but overall, I found that adding the indication for slender (a small tick mark) to the side of an already non-intuitive symbol didn’t seem to offer much assistance.

So, there ye are now!  Voiceless and voiceless velar fricatives in two easy lessons.

And here’s the quizeen:

What happens to the name “Donncha” as a noun of direct address?  How many velar fricatives will it have?

Freagra: You say, “a Dhonncha,” as in “Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú, a Dhonncha?”

Transcribed as [uh γUN-uh-khuh] it has both the voiced and voiceless velar fricatives, so the answer to the second question is “two.”

Slán go fóillRóislín

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  1. Siobhan Nic Chathail:

    This is great stuff!

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