Manx spelling as compared to Gaelic spelling

by Mark Kermode
(message to GAELIC-L list, 12 December 1996)

I do not fully understand the Gaelic spelling system myself but will endevour to learn since it has clear advantages for representing the Gaelic languages, including Manx. Nor am I any sort of expert in the Manx language or its orthography; I simply like to speak it and write it as best I can. The following must be treated with that understanding in mind.

I don't think it's quite accurate to say that Manx orthography is based upon English, although it clearly leans heavily on it. The first *accredited* writing in Manx (apart from ogham) was by Bishop Phillips in the 16th century. He was a native Welsh speaker and did not appear to suffer from any of the English linguistic colonial aspirations of some of his successors. It would appear that he used certain characteristics of the Welsh orthography in his work. For instance, the use of "y" for the non-descript vowel sound that most closely equates to "a" in Gaelic. It is represented by an upside down "e" in international phonetic alphabet.

The letter "w" can have two values, its English one or more like "ú" in Gaelic. As Daibhidh has correctly deduced, "ee" corresponds to "í" and "oo" to "ú". The thing that causes many problems is the ending "ey" which can equate to either "-a"or "-ea". Unfortunately, there is an amount of inconsistency in the spelling and although the difference can be signalled by the presence of a short vowel before the consonent, this is not always the case. This leads to mispronunciation amongst students, and those who do not understand the language at all normally say "í" when encountering this one.

Certain vowels and/or vowel groups can indicate slender/broad consonants. For instance, the verbal noun "keeping" is "freayll". This comes out something like, "fríal" in Gaelic. Its stem is "freill" which comes out as "frél" (or something like).

The use of English type orthography to represent lenition is certainly a drawback since "mh" and "bh" both appear as "v" in Manx. Similarly, "dh" and "gh" both appear as "gh". There are many instances where an "h" may be lengthening/broadening a consonant. In Cregeen's Dictionary (published 1835), he states:

"Some say that this letter (L) admits of no aspiration and is pronounced as l (in English).....but I think that there is a distinction between lie or ly in English and LHIE in Manks.....for without the h the sound is too narrow, except for those who know that they require that sound."

"TH" in Manx NEVER makes the English sound as in "thin", but a dental "t". A lenited "t" is represented simply by an "h", as is "s".

The grouping "ch" in Manx can represent either a lenited "c" or "k" or a slender "t". Hence Gan Teanga gan Tír appears as Gyn Chengey Gyn Cheer in Manx. Some people favour the use of a cidilla under the "c" in the latter case.

An entire book could be written on Manx orthography, but it would appear never to have been particularly popular with those who used it. The Vicars General who assisted Phillips apparently dismissed it as unintelligable (and they were native speakers) but had to perservere with the wishes of their Bishop nonetheless. The orthography established in this initial exercise has remained virtually unchanged over the subsequent history of the language.

The advent of computer technology has now presented us with an opportunity to revise the orthography if we so desire, but I am sure that you will appreciate that it is, nonetheless, an awesome task and may not be seen for some time yet!

As fy-yerrey, t'eh orrym gra "Nollick Ghennal erriu"
(As fa-dhiara ta é orm gré "Nolaic Gheanal eriú")

Mark Kermode / Mark Mac Dhiarmaid

1997-02-26 CPD