Our Fada: The Importance of the Accent Mark in Irish Gaelic

Accent Mark in Irish Gaelic(If you prefer to learn from video, see our How to type the fada videos.)

One of the thing that frustrates me, living where I do, is the complete and utter lack of respect for diacritic marks.

I don’t know if it’s an American thing or an English language thing (I rather suspect the former), but to those of us who speak and use languages that have diacritic marks (including Irish Gaelic), it’s really a frustrating situation.

Most American registries, including the American Kennel Club and most DMVs, don’t allow diacritic marks (also sometimes called “accent marks”). You typically can’t put them on birth certificates. It’s enough to drive a linguist mad!

What difference does it make?

Diacritic marks aren’t just there for decoration. They supply a lot of information about the word in question, including how certain letters should be pronounced and often which syllables should be emphasized.

In most languages that use them, a letter with a diacritic mark is considered to be a different letter from its unmarked equivalent, and words that are supposed to have diacritic marks and don’t are considered to be misspelled.

Also, in many languages (and Irish is one), sometimes the only difference between one word and another is the presence and placement of that little mark!

The Síneadh Fada

Irish Gaelic only has one diacritic mark: the síneadh fada (SHEEN-oo FAH-duh), or “long accent.” It’s also known in linguistic circles as an “acute accent.” Most Irish speakers and learners simply refer to it as a “fada.”

The fada is a right-slanting line placed over a vowel (as in the í in síneadh, above). It indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced “long.” In the Munster (southern) dialect of Irish, a syllable with a long vowel is typically emphasized (in other dialects, emphasis is typically on the first syllable, regardless of accents).

Pronunciation of accented and unaccented vowels

The presence of a fada can make a huge difference in how vowels are pronounced:

– “a” as in cat (sometimes closer to a short “u” sound)

á – “ah” as in bought

– “eh” as in bet

é – “ay” as in bay

– “ih” as in bit

í – “ee” as in beet

– “uh” or “ah”: kind of a cross between dug and dog

ó – “oh” as in go

– “uh” as in dug

ú – “oo” as in boo

Irish has a lot of words that are identical in spelling except for the presence and placement of the fada.

The importance of the accent

Here are a few Irish words that can take on very different meanings if the fada is omitted, added where it isn’t needed, or misplaced (Bitesize members can access an entire lesson on this topic, complete with audio, at Lesson: The Importance of Accent Marks) Uppercase indicates a stressed syllable:

Éire (AY-reh): “Ireland”

Eire (EH-reh): “Burden”

Céad (kayd): “First” or “a hundred,” depending on context

Cead (kad): “Permission”

Té (chay): “Person”

Te (cheh): “Hot/warm”

Císte (KEESS-cheh): “Cake”

Ciste (KISS-cheh): “Fund” or “treasure coffer”

Bríste (BREESS-cheh): “Trousers”

Briste (BRIS-cheh): “Broken”

Cáca (KAH-kuh): “Cake”

Caca (KA-kuh): “Excrement”

Seán (shawn): A man’s name; a form of “John”

Séan (shayn): Noun: “characteristic,” Verb: “deny/refuse”

Sean (shan): “Old”

And these just scratch the surface! As you can see, it really is a major deal.

So how can I type a fada?

If you’re in Europe, you may be in luck: Your computer keyboard probably has an “ALT GR” key. All you have to do is hold down that key while typing the vowel you want and voila! The accented vowel will appear!

If you’re in the U.S. or Canada and running Windows on a PC, you pretty much have two choices: choose an alternate keyboard layout or use ALT codes.

THE U.S. INTERNATIONAL KEYBOARD

The U.S. International Keyboard Layout lets you type a variety of special characters. For our purposes, you can get a fada over a vowel by typing first the apostrophe key and then the vowel. For example:

‘ + O = Ó

To set up this keyboard layout on your computer, follow the instructions in the link above.

USING ALT CODES

Sometimes it’s not practical to use an alternate keyboard layout. In those cases, ALT codes are a good alternative, assuming you have a keyboard with a separate number pad on the right-hand side. To use ALT codes:

  • Make sure your NUM LOCK key is on
  • Hold down the left ALT key while typing the following combinations

ALT + 0225 = á

ALT + 0193 = Á

ALT + 0233 = é

ALT + 0201 = É

ALT + 0237 = í

ALT + 0205 = Í

ALT + 0243 = ó

ALT + 0211 = Ó

ALT + 0250 = ú

ALT + 0218 = Ú

This may seem like a lot of effort at first, but if you write Irish a lot, you’ll be surprised at just how quickly you’ll start to automatically touch-type these combinations!

TYPING FADAS ON A MAC

If you’re using a Mac, as you might expect, this is quite a bit simpler.It’s not too bad.

Hold OPT + e and then type the letter you want accented.

For example:

OPT + , then type a = á

USING A SMART PHONE

If you have a smart phone and you need an accented character, all you have to do is hold down the letter. A selection of accented letters will appear above the keyboard. Then you simply slide your finger up and tap the one you want.

It’s all about respect

Now that you know how easy it is to type fadas, there’s no avoiding them. They’re an essential part of the Irish language, and knowing how to produce them is an essential part of learning the language.

Just because English tends to avoid diacritic marks is no reason for people who love and respect other languages to avoid them.

Now, if we could just persuade those U.S. government agencies and registries to show that same respect!

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Comments

  1. Skyler says:

    With Windows 8 you can have many keyboard layouts installed. It makes the process very easy for adding a fada.

    windows key + space will switch the layout and the right ALT key becomes ALT GR (assuming the second layout is Irish).

    Once you have tried it a few times, you should find it to be very easy to switch keyboard layouts. Plus no need to remember ALT codes.

    • Audrey Nickel says:

      That can work well if one isn’t on a shared computer. I used an alternate keyboard layout on a little netbook I had once (it didn’t have a separate number pad).

      As it is, though, I’ve long since memorized the alt codes for Irish, and touch type them without thinking.

  2. Ed Tiernan says:

    Starting to learn Gaelic…rather different from American English

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  8. Steffanie in California says:

    Sadly, I have Windows 7 Home version. Microsoft no longer allows an upgrade to an international keyboard. My workaround is to keep a Word document open with all fadas at the ready (“Insert Special Character”). Then, I can go there, type the word I want, and copy/paste. Once a word is created, I just leave it for later. It’s a pain, but still a lot better than no fadas. Thanks for a great explanation on this subject!

  9. kathleen says:

    I ordered a CD from an Irish musician. When it was sent to me, the handwritten address put a fada over a vowel in my last name. It was the first time that this diacritic came to my attention. I felt ingathered.

  10. On a US physical keyboard, the best method is to install the Moby Latin keyboard:

    http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/gaidhlig/sracan/Whacking/MobyLatinKeyboard.html

    (unless you are prevented by having insufficient rights on the computer)

  11. Tim Kelley says:

    There’s a simple way to accent vowels MS Office applications that’s not mentioned here. Use the Ctrl key (like a shift key) and hit the single quote, then the vowel. This doesn’t require shifting keyboard layouts or anything like that. It’s a feature implemented in applications, though, not the operating system, so it depends on which program you’re using and whether this feature has been implemented:

    Ctrl-‘ + o = ó
    Ctrl-‘ + Shift-a = Á

    You can even make tildes in Spanish, using the squiggle character to the left of the number 1 key:

    Ctrl-Shift-~ + n = ñ
    Ctrl-Shift-~ + Shift-n = Ñ

    And umlauts in German, using the colon key:

    Ctrl-Shift-: + o = ö
    Ctrl-Shift-: + Shift-u = Ü

    And backslanted accents, using the character on the same key as the ~, to the left of the 1 key:

    Ctrl-` + e = è

    If I’m working in an application that doesn’t support this feature, I quickly create the character I need in Word, then copy it to where I want it to go. That’s how I created the characters above, since it doesn’t work in most browsers.

    For things that don’t work with this method, I use “Insert Symbol” in Word, which gives access to nearly everything without having to shift keyboards.

  12. Victoria Hannah says:

    Actually if you’re using Office 365 or Office 2016 and you only need type a few names or words with the fada mark used then there is slightly an easier way to do so. Say I wanted to type Ciarán in Word and that was the only name I was going to use throughout my document. Proceed to the File Tab on Word. Select Options. Select proofing options. Click “Auto Correct Options.” In the replace with button, type it without the Fada, i.e. Ciaran. Then find the accurate spelling online using a typical google search. Copy and paste it in the box next to it. Click Ok in the AutoCorrect Options dialog box. Click ok in the Options dialog box. Now every time you type Ciaran it will automatically change to Ciarán. It sounds twistier but it’s helping with a novel I’m writing and there’s a lot of Celtic names in there. It’s a little difficult at first to set it all up but it’s well worth it in the end when you don’t have to utilize alt keys or inserting special characters or installing a new keyboard (all of which can be more work than it’s worth).

  13. Seán Connolly says:

    Thank you very kindly, everyone! I’m halfway there. Now I just need to Gaelicize my surname…

  14. I can see no difficulty with calling Gaeilge “Irish Gaelic”. It seems clear enough to me and I have no argument at all about it. The accent marks over the vowels are very important, and as said above if they are misplaced or missing then the whole meaning can change:
    Tá an fear ar an bhféar = The man is on the grass
    Tá an féar ar an bhfear = The grass is on the man
    Tá an fear ar an bhfear = … just be very careful with the síneadh fada / accent mark

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