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Their pronunciation and orthography

The Modern Irish Alphabet consists of 18 letters:

A A a ailm
B B b beiṫ
C C c coll
D D d duir
E E e eaḋa
F F f fearn
G G g gort
I I i ioġa
L L l luis
M M m muin
N N n nuin
O O o oir
P P p peiṫ
R R r ruis
S S s suill
T T t teine
U U u ur
H H h uaṫ

It will appear in the sequel how the powers of the letters V, W, and Y, are expressed in Irish. C has always the pronuncation of K; and X is expressed by cs, as Ecsodus, Exodus.

Contractions in common use

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The vowels are five, viz. three broad, a, o, u, often used promiscuously in ancient manuscripts; and two slender, e and i.

The following are the sounds of the vowels; and note, that there is but one accent in Irish, to wit, that drawn up from left to right, as bás; and it always denotes a long syllable: it is called síne fada.

A— 1. Long and broad, as in war bán, white
  2 Long and slender, like i in fine aḋarc, horn
  3 Short and broad, as in warrant mart, beef
  4. Short and slender, as in can brat, a garment
  5. Short and obscure, as in funeral coṁarsa, neighbour
  6. At the end of words, and before dh, it has a peculiar sound, like oo in cuckoo peacaḋ, sin
E 1. Long, as in there , the moon
  2. Short, as in egg fel, strife
  3. Short an obscure, like the feminine e in French poetry, or as in broken fillte, folded
I 1. Long, as ee in feel mín, fine
  2. Short, as in pin inis, an island
O 1. Long, as in store mór, great
  2. Short, as u in buck stoc, a trumpet
U 1. Long, as in rule , a hound
  2. Short, as in but uċd, the breast

It is to be observed of vowels—

1st. That there are no quiescent vowels at the end of words, as in English, ex. done. 2dly. That no vowels are ever doubled in the same dyllable, as in poor. And 3dly. That there are never two distinct syllables made out of vowels following one another; but diphthongs and triphthongs always form one syllable, though the several vowels may be heard in the pronunciation.

The CONSONANTS are either immutable, as l, n, and r ; or mutable, as b, c, d, f, g, m ,p, s, and t; so called, because that, by placing over them a mark of aspiration, they either lose their primitive sound, or are altogether, suppressed in pronunciation. The letters thus printed are said to be mortified, and the change thus expressed marks some of the most material inflections of the nouns and verbs. This is indeed a peculiarity in the Irish language, among European tongues, that requires the particular attention of the reader ; who, if acquainted with the Hebrew, will perceive something analogous to it, in the dagesch point in that language. When the Irish is printed in the Roman letters, the effect of the point is expressed by the addition of an h. This greatly tends to confound learners, who, when taught the power of h in Irish books printed in Roman character, will have to unlearn this, when they come to read English books in the same letter. Thus they will be told, that th (in Irish) is to be a mere aspirate ; but, when they learn to read English, they find it must be strongly sounded ; and, what adds to the confusion, very much in the same manner as they were told to pronounce the simple t, when learning to read the Irish. The point remedies this evil ; and therefore Neilson, although he published his Grammar in Roman character, had dotted letters cast for his purpose.

We shall first treat of the mutables — B, F, M, and P, unaspirated, are pronounced as in English.

is like either the English w or v ; it is to be observed, that the difference of the broader or more slender sound of , forms one provincial difference in the pronunciation of Irish. O'Brien's rules for the pronunciation of are thus : — At the beginning of words, when followed by a slender vowel, and when it terminates a word, it is usually sounded v ; but, in cases where it is connected with a broad vowel, he says, " there is no certain standard ;" neither does there seem to be any fixed rule for its pronunciation in the middle of words.

C is always as K.

ċ has a gutteral sound, which has nothing analagous to it in the English tongue, but is quite similiar to that of the Greek x, and Spanish X. There are two varieties of this sound ; 1 . At the beginning and end of words, when followed or succeeded by a broad vowel, , or used in the middle of words in connexion with one, it has a sound like gh in the word lough ; strongly pressed out through the throat. 2. When thus connected with a slender vowel, its sound is only that of a very strong aspiration.

D has two sounds: — 1. Like d in Italian, or th in there, but with a greater emphasis — the other like the d in French, more light and liquid, but similar to the former. It seems that the breadth of the following vowel influences the choice of sound.

is the Irish Y. If followed by a broad vowel at the beginning of a word, it has a pronunciation to which there is nothing similar in the English language ; it is then guttural, and like the German Y, and may be expressed by a strong forcing of this letter. 2. In the beginning of a word, and before a slender vowel, or in the middle of a word followed by any vowel, it is simply Y. And 3. Whenever it is followed by a consonant, or terminates a word, it is either silent, or weakly aspirated. This letter, at the end of a word, (not a monosyllable,) gives to the preceding vowel, if a broad one, a pronunciation like oo.

becomes quiescent ; it is never used but at the beginning of words, or as the initial of the second part of compounds.

G is always pronounced as in gall, never as in gin.

Ġ is liable to the same rules as , only that at the end of words it is always silent.

is liable to very much the same rules as . Dr. O'Brien in his Dictionary, (remarks on M.) says, "that the vowel or vowels which precede are pronounced with a stronger, clearer, and more open expiration than those which precede " — we must allow for provincial varieties. O'Brien the Grammarian says, "that, preceding a slender vowel in any part of a word, or terminating a word, is always sounded as v." ( Grammar.)

is always f.

S, as in son, and also as sh. It is perhaps impossible to give any fixed rule for the use of these ; but the latter pronunciation is most common, where s is preceded or followed by a slender vowel, or when it terminates a word.

is always as an h.

T is sounded as th in thick, but often somewhat thicker, as if it were preceded by a d. Sometimes more slender. When aspirated it is pronounced as h.

The immutable consonants, l, n, and r, never suffer change from aspiration, or eclipsis.

L, however, has two sounds, simple and liquid : the first as in the English word leap ; the second like the last l in million.

N has also two sounds; 1st. Like n in never; the second like n in news

R has likewise two sounds ; the first like r in road, the second like r in clarion. The single r "is formed by slightly touching the sound of ee, before as well as after the r." — Neilson

We come now to the consideration of compound letters, as I. Vowels, which are either 1, diphthongs, or 2, triphthongs ; and II. Consonants, which are either 1, doubled, or 2, joined to others.

The diphthongs are 13 in number, and the triphthongs 5: of these the following diphthongs, and all the triphthongs, are always long ; and in printing or writing them the accent may be omitted —

ae, ao, eu, ia, & ua; O'Reilly adds eo & iu.

The examples are chiefly from O'Brien's Grammar, and Lynch — authorities relied on by O'Reilly.

1. ae always long, as ay in say —Gael, Irish
2. ai long, as aw —táin, rumour
    short, as e in err —gairim, I call
3. ao always long, as ea in bear —caoimh, beautiful
4. ea long, as a in care —sméar, a blackberry
    short, as a in art —ceart, right
    short, as e in leg —beag, little
    obscure, like the feminine e in French poetry —síneadh, stretching out
5. ei long, as in feign —déirc, alms
    short, as e in egg —reic, sell
6. eo long, as eo in yeoman —ceól, a song
    short, like you in young —deoch, drink
7. eu always long, as ay in mayor —meur, a finger
8. ia always long, as ee in peer —grian, the sun
9. io long, as ee in keen —fíon, wine
    short, as i in kiss —lios, a fort
10. iu long, as ew in few —fiú, worthy
    short, as the French eu in feu, but shorter —fliuch, wet
11. oi long, and stress on o, as oe in sloe —cóis, just
    long, and stress on i, as i in mile —oíghreachd, inheritance
    long, as ee in bee —croidhe, heart
    short, as ea in thread, and not common —oide, teacher
12. ua always long, as oo in poor —fuar, cold
13. ui long, as two syllables; pronounced as soo-il —súil, the eye
    long, as uee in queen —búidhe, yellow
    short, as ui in quill —fuil, the blood

It is to be observed of these pronunciations that some of them are not common.

The five triphthongs all end in i, and are often used to express the genitives, and other inflexions, of words in which diphthongs occur.

1. aoi like ee in queen caoin, tender
2. eoi like two syllables, with the force on o, and i short Eoin, John
3. iai as ea in year, with a kind of force on both i's (Neilson) iairceann, the pole of the head
4. iui like the pronunciation of ue in fuel, with the force on u, and the latter i gently sounded ciuin, meek
5. uai with a sound of all the vowels; there u as oo, and the force on it, the others very quick, as oo-a-ee uaiġ, graves

I. Consonants doubled are cc, pp, and tt ; they are used only at the beginning of words, and pronounced respectively as g, b, and d.

The double sound of l and n is formed, as Mr. Neil son well remarks, (p. 141,) "by placing the tongue to press on the upper fore-teeth and the gums, while the point is perceptible between the teeth — the only difference is, that the aspiration to l is guttural, and to n nasal." The latter is like the gn in the French Seigneur.

The sound of rr is peculiar, and cannot be explained by writing. Mr. Lynch gave the writer the following rule — " primum levigatum, secundum aspiratum."

II. Consonants joined together; these are of two kinds — 1. such as influence each other in the manner called Eclipsis ; 2. such as do not.

I. Eclipsis is of most important consideration in the study of the Irish language, as by it, and by the aspiration of initial letters, of which we have already treated, the inflexions of verbs and nouns are chiefly marked. It is when the leading consonant of any word is made to become entirely mute, or much altered in its sound, by having another consonant prefixed.

All the mutables, except m, are subject to eclipsis; the immutables cannot be eclipsed. And a consonant, to be eclipsed, must be followed by a vowel, by l or r, or by s before an l, n, or r.


b thus, ar mbron, our sorrow —ar mron
g c ar gcuairt, our visit —ar guairt
n d ar ndúil, our desire —ar núil
f ar ḃfuil, our blood —ar ḃuil
n g — see below  
b p ar bpáisde, our child —ar báisde
t s an tslat, the rod —an tlat
d t ar dtír, our country --ar dír

It is to be particularly remembered, that the eclipsing letters are added to the commencement of each word ; so that, in looking in the Dictionary for these several terms, we shall find them there under the second letter : thus look for gcuiart under C. From this it is clear, that, although the eclipsed letter be omitted in pronunciation, it must not be so in writing ; no more than we can omit k in writing the word knot.

F is said by Vallancey to be eclipsed by m, d, and t ; but he confounds with eclipsing certain cases, in which the possessive pronouns mo, bo, and co, for do, are united with the following noun : in such cases apostrophes should in propriety have been used, as d'fearg, for do ḟearg, thine anger. There is a peculiarity in the eclipsing of f by a b, which is, that if it be followed by a broad vowel, the b becomes mutable and is sounded as v or w ; thus in the instance adduced of ḃfuil, pronounced ḃuil.

The pronunciation of ng is very peculiar, and not to be described by a strict analogy : it is to be uttered with a nasal catch, like ng in longing, but much stronger ; and never as if written thus, fungus.

S does not suffer eclipsis, except when followed by a vowel, or by l, n or , and preceded by the article an.— O'Reilly.

A list of cases in which eclipsis takes place, as well as those where aspiration occurs, shall be given hereafter; and, note, the same circumstances which require eclipsis in consonants, require the use of n before vowels — O'Reilly.

2. Consonants joined together in the same word, where eclipsis does not operate.

gn has a peculiar sound, rather nasal ; and as if a very slender e, or the sheva, as in Hebrew, were pronounced between them.

dl as ll, as codlaḋ, sleep— pronounced collaḋ

ln as ll, as colna, flesh — colla

dn is pronounced as nn, as ceadna, , the same — canna; with the peculiar pronunciation of nn explained in p. 11.

In many cases the slight sound of e, of which we have spoken, is frequently heard between other consonants, when they occur united in the same word.

I must observe, that, in treating of pronunciation, I have advanced nothing but on the best admitted authorities.

Exercises, principally for the pronunciation of the aspirated, liquid, and double consonants ; extracted literatim from Patrick Lynch's For-oldeas.

  Meaning Pronunciation
a ċos his foot a ċuss
a ḃrat his cover a vrath
a ḋun his fort ayhoon
a ṁart his beef avarth
a ġort his garden ayhurth
a ḟir! O, man! a irr!
a ṗóg his kiss a foag
a ṡuil his eye a hoo-il
a ṫir his land a hee-ir


  Feminine Pronuncation
laṁ, hand a laṁ, her hand all hauv
neart, force a neart, her force ann yarth
riġ, a king a riġ, her king arrhee
cc as g ar cceart, our right ar garth
pp as b ar pprain, our need ar braw-in
tt as d ar tteine, our fire ar dinne
ng nasal ar ngrain, our hate ar-ngraw-in

Practice of words of more difficult or preculiar pronunciation, from the same.

  Meaning Pronuncation
aḋarc horn eye-arc
aġaiḋ face eye
aḋraḋ adore eyeru
aṁain river avvuin
aḋḃar cause awur
boġa a bow bow
buidean property buee-an
caḃair succour cowair
faġail to get fowill
folċa covering fullaccha
gaḃa smith gow
guiṁuis fir-tree gee-ooish
loḃar leper llowvar
oireaṁnaċ fitting errunach
raṁar fat rauwar
samlugaḋ pattern sawvloo
taiḋḃse apparition thoevshey
balḃ stuttering balluv
cealg a sting kallag
fearg anger farrag
seilḃ possession shelliv
sealg mild shallug
baiḋeaċasaċ thankful baechassach
coiṁ-ṁeasuġaḋ comparison covvassoo
gnoiṁ-eaċtac feat-performing gneeoveaghtach
laeṫeṁuil daily laehoo-il



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grammar of the irish language—mason—1842
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