REFLECTIONS ON THE IRISH LANGUAGE 1 b) FOR ADULT LEARNERS

I B

Diarmuid Breatnach

Among the many spurious difficulties about learning Irish quoted by people there are some genuine ones.

A PRONOUNCEMENT

A problem with learning Irish, according to some people, is the spelling of Irish words. When this difficulty is expressed by English-speakers, I am tempted to ask them to pronounce the English word “Ghoti”. It was a word invented by George Bernard Shaw and unless they are familiar with it, they will be unable to pronounce it correctly. Shaw took the “f”-sound from “gh” in words like “enough”; the “i” sound from the “o” in “women” and the “sh” sound from the “ti” in words like “mention” — hence the correct pronunciation is “fish”. Shaw invented the word to illustrate how illogical – or at least unpredictable – is the pronunciation of many English words. Perhaps he was replying to someone who was accusing the Irish language, an Ghaeilge, of having a similar problem; I don’t know but would like to think so.

In fact, the vowel sounds in Irish can be entirely predicted from the written word with the exception of the “A”, which has something of a narrow range of possible pronunciations and some vowel combinations. In English, combinations of vowels produce different sounds to that of each individual letter also and with a greater variety and less predictability than is the case in Irish: take the different pronunciations of the ‘a’ in ‘cat’, in ‘day’, ‘rain’, ‘contraindicated’ (true, the latter is a compound word).

Where a long vowel is indicated in Irish by an accent, the “síne fada” (“sign of length”, unlike in Castilian, for example, where the accent indicates only where the stress falls in the word), the sound to make when reading it is unmistakeable.

To illustrate, the á will produce a sound like “aw” in English (as in “law”); the ó a sound like “oe” in “toe”; ú like “oo” in “loot”; í like “ee” as in “fee” and é like “ay” as in “bay”. These will not vary, no matter where they appear in the word.

But hang on”, the observant complainer may protest, “you mean to tell me that é is pronounced “ay”, like the letter “A” in English? And that í is pronounced “ee”, like the letter “E” in English also? Why is Irish so contrary?”

Well,” I may reply, “I’m very glad you asked me that. Because in many other languages, the letter “I” is also pronounced like “ee” in English and the letter “A” — which in English is pronounced “ay” as you pointed out — in many other languages, probably most, is pronounced “ah”. In this case, my friend, it is the English language which is being contrary!

Furthermore, English has made a broad vowel into a slender one.”

Huh?”

Yes, they don’t commonly teach about broad and slender vowels in the schools now, yet the difference between them affects not just Irish pronunciation but also English, Castilian, Italian and other languages. Why is it, for example, that the “G” in “Gerry” is pronounced differently from the same letter in “Gary”? Why is that the “C” in “Cede” and “Citrus” is pronounced differently from the same letter in “Cat, Cot” and “Cut”? The answer has everything to do with broad and slender vowels.

In Irish, a, o and u are broad vowels and i and e are slender (the same in English except that y can also be a slender vowel, e.g in words like only, why etc). The most notable effect of the different pronunciations effected in Irish by whether a vowel is slender or not is with the letter S, viz: Sorcha, Saidhbhín, Súil but Sinéad, Seán.

Now, the problem with the pronunciation of the name of the vowel “a” in English is that “ay” is a slender vowel sound while the letter itself is a broad vowel. In Irish that letter is pronounced “ah” as it is in many other languages around the world (perhaps all). When we speak the vowels, our mouths make a horizontal shape for slender vowels and tend towards a vertical one for broad (try it and see). Which shape does “ay” make? Yes, horizontal, the shape of a slender vowel!

Ok,” says the complainer, “but what about the consonants? You can’t tell me that reading them and pronouncing them is not complicated!”

Actually, the complainer here does have a point. It is over-emphasised, perhaps, but the point does have some validity.

The pronunciation of the consonants in Irish is pretty straight-forward, with the variations in the “S” according to slender or broad vowels either side (discussed above) and to some extent the same effect on the “D” and “T”. And the double “L” and “N” in Irish followed by a slender vowel have the same pronunciation as the “ll” and the “ň” in Castilian respectively, which is to say they are like “n’y” and “l’y”, for example “bainne” (“milk”) is pronounced “ban-yeh” and “sailleach” (“fatty”) is pronounced “sal-yach”.

A learner can soon get used to these peculiarities in Irish or in other languages. But what about all the consonants followed by a “h”?

Irish does not have all the consonant letters that English has – we don’t have the J, K, Q, V, W, X Y or Z. We don’t really have a H either, come to that, as we’ll see in a moment. The sound of Q in English can be reproduced in Irish as “cua” or “cui” in Irish and we can make the sounds of some of those ‘missing’ letters by employing an effect on consonants called lenition, in Irish “séimhiú” (softening). During the last two centuries, this was shown by a dot on top of the consonant to be lenited but is now indicated by a H after the consonant in question. All the other ‘missing’ consonant sounds with the exception of the Z are available in this way – not only those but in fact another two not available in English: the Irish “ch” and “gh”.

Lenited consonant at the beginning of a word

Consonant sound equivalent in English

B

Bh + i, e

V

Bh + a,o,u

W

C

Ch

Ch as in “loch”

D

Dh + i, e

Y (not as a vowel)

Dh + a,o,u

Gh (sound not available in English)

F

Fh

Mute (no sound)

G

Gh

Gh (sound not available in English)

L

Cannot be lenited

M

Mh + i, e

V

Mh + a,o,u

W*

N

Cannot be lenited

P

Ph

F

R

Cannot be lenited

S

Sh

H

T

Th

H

* In some Irish dialects the Mh will be pronounced as “V” whether followed by a slender or broad vowel.

Ok, so the lenited consonants do introduce some complication to reading-pronunciation but hardly an insuperable one. To balance that, we have the more reasonable vowel letter A pronunciation than does English (i.e as a broad vowel instead of a slender one) and the ability to read the pronunciation of vowels off a text. Also, to compare with English, some sounds in English are shown by combining consonants, such as ‘tch in ‘catch’, ‘ph’ as in ‘pharmacy’, ‘sh’ in ‘shake’ and ‘th’ in ‘think’.

And what about the ‘ch’ combination in English – it’s not pronounced the same in the words ‘chant’ and ‘character’ or ‘chaos’. Add to that the ‘h’ in ‘rhetoric’ or ‘rhythm’ seems to have no role in pronunciation at all and that the ‘w’ will be heard at the beginning of a word and may or not be heard in the middle (compare ‘award’ with ‘lower’). The ‘w’ will not be heard at all at the end of a word but instead governs the pronunciation of the vowel before it (‘raw’, ‘row’, ‘few’)!

This governing of the pronunciation of the vowel before it also happens with ‘gh’ in ‘dough’ or ‘rough’ – but note that in each of those cases the pronunciations of the ‘gh’ are completely different! In order to indicate the sound of the Irish ‘ch’ in loan words, English uses “gh” yet again, as in ‘lough’ and ‘bragh’ (in “Erin (sic) go bragh”) and “Drogheda”. Confusing, isn’t it?

Although pleading the feature of the pronunciation of consonants as a difficulty in learning the Irish language does have some validity it is overdone – particularly when the complainant is an English-speaker. It seems to me that the difficulty is magnified by those who do not wish to go to the trouble of learning the language but want to have a good excuse for not doing so.

A chríoch

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One thought on “REFLECTIONS ON THE IRISH LANGUAGE 1 b) FOR ADULT LEARNERS

  1. OK I still think this is not a good approach to teaching Irish pronunciation as it continues the confusion of writing with language. My experience in language teaching and learning indicate that it’s best to start by talking about the *sounds* (ie phonemes) of the language, and then move on to the system for representing them (the writing system or orthography). If the sound system is understood then the writing system makes sense and follows quite naturally. Of course there are a small number of languages where this is not the case, English being one of them (another is Tibetan), and this really messes English monolinguals up when they come to learning another language.

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