The Pronunciation and Spelling of Modern Irish

Some initial observations:

The following summary is intended to cover only the broad principles of spelling and pronunciation. The English sounds used to show the value of the Irish letters are sometimes only approximate, although they are always reasonably close. You should consult a textbook for the fine points, which vary somewhat from dialect to dialect.

I. Word Stress:

Except for a few common words with an unstressed prefix, all words are strongly accented on the first syllable.

II. The Vowels:

Irish has both short vowels and long vowels. The long vowels are generally indicated in writing by an acute accent.

The long vowels are:

(This is the same “a” as in the BBC pronunciation of “law” or “walk”. )

There are three combinations of letters that are always pronounced as long vowels, even though they do not have the acute accent:

The short vowels are:

Short vowels differ from long vowels in one important respect. They are given their full pronunciation ONLY in the first syllable of a word. In all other syllables, they are all reduced to the neutral “uh” sound of English “but”. The same thing happens in English, where “Benjamin” is pronounced “BEN-juh-muhn”. Thus the Irish word for Irish, “éireannach”, is pronounced “AY-ruh-nuhkh”.

There are two important diphthongs that you should recognize, both written using a combination of vowels and consonants:

The “ow” diphthong, as in “ow, I stubbed my toe”:

...and the “eye” diphthong:

III. The Consonants:

Except for “h”, all Irish consonants come in two flavors, called “broad” and “slender”. Basically, broad consonants are pronounced with a “-w” off-glide, and slender consonants are pronounced with a “-y” off-glide. Broad consonants are always written with the letters a, o, or u next to them. Slender consonants are always written with the letters i or e next to them. Examples:

Slender “b”

Broad “b”

In speech, the difference between “beo” and “bó” is only the y-glide heard in “beo”. Likewise, the difference between “bí” and “buí” is only the w-glide heard in “buí”. As a result of the need to show the broad or slender qualilty of all consonants unambiguously, a consonant in the middle of a word cannot be flanked on one side by an “i” and on the other by an “a”. For exmaple, if you wrote “misa” the pronunciation would be uncertain. Do you mean a word that sounds like “MISS-uh” or one that sounds like “MISH-uh”? If you mean MISS-uh, you need to write “miosa”, so the “s” is clearly broad. If you mean MISH-uh, you need to write “mise”, so that the “s” is clearly slender. (Slender “s” is pronounced “sh”, as in Seán, Sinéad, etc.)

English uses combinations of letters to indicate a single consonant sound, such as “ch” in “church” and “sh” in “shape”. Irish does the same sort of thing, only there are more of them. Here is a basic list of the values of these combinations, which can be either broad of slender, depending on the adjacent vowels:

Irish also has another set of consonant combinations at the beginning of words that result from an initial mutation called eclipsis. These are pronounced as follows (with broad and slender versions in each case):

In every case of eclipsis, all you do is pronounce the first consonant and ignore the second, except for “ng”, which is pronounced together as the “ng” in “thing”.

IV. Examples

Here are some samples of Irish words, some of which you may encounter in books or e-mail, to further illustrate the principles discussed above:

file FILL-uh poet
draoi DREE druid
filíocht FILL-ee-uhkht poetry
draíocht DREE-uhkht druidry, magic
bile BILL-uh sacred tree
tobar TOE-buhr well, spring
SHEE fairy mound
bean sí BAN SHEE fairy woman
an slua sí uhn SLOO-uh SHEE the fairy host
Samhain SOWN (rhymes with “clown”) November 1
Oíche Shamhna EE-huh HOW-nuh Halloween
Lá Fhéile Bríde LAW AY-luh BREE-dyuh February 1
Bealtaine BYAHL-tuh-nuh May 1
Lúnasa LOO-nuh-suh August 1
cara KAH-ruh friend
X, a chara, X, uh KHAH-ruh Dear X (X, O friend)
A chairde, uh KHAHR-dyuh Dear Friends
beannachtaí BYAN-uhkh-tee blessings
dia DYEE-UH, JEE-uh god
bandia BAHN-JEE-uh goddess
Dia duit! JEE-uh ditch God to you! = Greetings!
Slán go fóill SLAWN guh FOE-ill Bye for now
2009-08-04 CPD