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Irish Pronunciation

As I was getting gas a few days ago, a fellow pulled up behind me and asked about the various Irish words on my car (with three window stickers and a license plate in Irish, there’s plenty to ask about!)

I told him what each meant, then, at his request, read each one aloud. He just shook his head and asked “how in the heck do you get THOSE sounds from THOSE letters?

Fear of spelling

When I ask a group of new students what concerns them the most about learning Irish, the first answer is almost always “the spelling.”

Upon further questioning, it usually turns out that it isn’t the spelling per se that worries them, but rather how to pronounce letter combinations that seem, at first glance, to be unpronounceable.

Inevitably, someone eventually says “it would be easier if they’d just spell it the way it sounds!” My answer to that is “They do. They spell it the way it sounds in Irish.”

Different language, different phonics

It really seems to come as a shock to many English speakers that letters don’t always work the same way from language to language.

That’s surprising, really, when you consider just how inconsistent English spelling and pronunciation are.

For example, why are the vowel sounds different in “couch,” “cough,” and “enough”? Why does “through” rhyme with “threw,” when “tough” is pronounced “tuff”?

For that matter, why do we pronounce the second word in that previous sentence (does)”duz” in that context when, if we were talking about female deer, we’d pronounce it “doze”?

(Kind of makes you take pity on people who have to learn English as a second language, doesn’t it?)

Regularity is the key

The thing that makes Irish pronunciation a lot less daunting than most beginners anticipate is that it’s a highly regular language. Once you’ve “cracked the code,” so to speak, you’ve essentially got it.

There are exceptions, of course. All languages have them. But the exceptions are usually common words that you pick up quickly, or dialect variations that you don’t need to worry about as a beginner.

So how do you crack the code?

Step 1: Avoid written phonetic renderings

The first and most important step to learning correct Irish pronunciation is not to depend too heavily on written phonetic renderings. There are several reasons for this:

  • Written phonics can only give you an approximation. Irish has sounds that English doesn’t have (and vice versa).
  • Not all English speakers render sounds the same way. If you’re from New Jersey and you’re looking at a phonetic rendering by someone from Dublin you’re unlikely to get the sounds just right.
  • Written phonics can become a crutch. I know people who struggled for years with Irish pronunciation because they relied too heavily on written phonics in the beginning.

Step 2: Get a program that includes both audio and print

If you’re unable to work with a teacher, you will want a learning program that includes both print and audio…particularly audio recorded by native speakers.

(If you’re a Bitesize subscriber, of course, you already have this! If you’re not a Bitesize subscriber, now might be a good time to consider trying our free, no-obligation, mini-course!)

There’s a place, as you progress, for audio-only or print-only programs, but until you’re comfortable with pronunciation, you really do need to both see the words and hear them pronounced.

Step 3: Don’t just practice; practice well

Set aside a little time every day to practice pronunciation. It’s also a good idea to vary how you practice, both to train your eyes and ears (they learn better with variety) and to keep from getting bored.

How to practice pronunciation

Look, listen, look, repeat

When you start, the most important thing to practice is seeing the Irish word or phrase as you listen to it being pronounced by a native speaker.

Important! Don’t look at a written phonetic rendering while you’re doing this!  Your brain needs to make the connection between the way the words look and the way they sound.

(If your program has written phonics, you can cover them with your hand or a bit of paper while you’re doing this).

Next, practice saying the word or phrase while looking at it. This part is harder, but it’s important.

You need to connect the way the words look not only with how they sound, but with how they feel when you say them.

As you progress, or for variation, here are some other good methods of pronunciation practice:

Sing it out!

Music is a great mnemonic aid (as anyone who has ever hummed the alphabet song while looking for something in a filing cabinet — most likely all of us — can attest!)

One way to use music to help you practice pronunciation is to get a CD of Irish singing and sing along as you follow the written song.

CDs geared toward children, such as Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin’s A Stór is A Stóirín, tend to work best for this, as the songs are sung with clear diction and minimal instrumentation.

Write it down

A fun exercise I do with adult students is have them try to write English using Irish phonics. For example:

Aigh lubh raightinn Ínglis iúsinn Aighris fánoics. Iots fonn…laidhc a cód! (I love writing English using Irish phonics. It’s fun…like a code!)

Read aloud

As you get better at pronunciation, it’s a good idea to spend time each day reading aloud. Start simple: Maybe a children’s poem or nursery rhyme, or a practice conversation from your learning program.

Cheat sheets!

Are you ready to start practicing your Irish pronunciation right now?

If you have Bitesize Irish membership, you might want to check out our Pronunciation Cheat Sheets for Irish PDFs which is part of our Crack Irish Pronunciation Course, a four-step method for working out the pronunciation of any Irish word, available for immediate download!

Practice means progress!

With just a little practice every day, you’ll be surprised at just how quickly Irish pronunciation becomes second nature!

Did you find this post helpful?

Did this post dispel some of your concerns about tackling Irish pronunciation? Has it helped your language practice? Let us know your thoughts below.

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13 thoughts on “Irish Pronunciation”

  1. Steven Lindsley

    IPA I can understand and might prefer, but like you said, not even that can represent a language’s sounds completely accurately, because each language has their own nuances of how they make sounds. So yes, the audio is what’s important. 🙂

  2. I think, rather, they’re as accurate as phonetic renderings can be. Unless you’re using IPA (which, to be honest, most of us — myself included — can’t make head nor tails of), it really isn’t possible to accurately render the sounds of one language using the phonetics of another. All phonetics ever are is a “get-you-in-the-ballpark” guideline (or perhaps a mnemonic when you can’t QUITE remember what a certain letter combination sounds like)…it’s the audio you want to rely on.

    I wouldn’t want to see written phonetics go away entirely…I think there’s a real place for them, especially with beginners. What I worry about (because I’ve seen it) is people getting so dependent on them that they can’t even begin to guess how a word might sound unless they have them.

  3. Steven Lindsley

    To try to answer your question Eoin, I don’t mind having the phonic rendering there. The real key to the lessons is, of course, being able to listen to the pronunciations, and I love that. I no longer have to feel shy about trying to pronounce Irish as I continue to get “the system” of Irish spelling down.
    Honestly, the phonic renderings aren’t very precise anyway, and what I try to do now is this: before listening to a word, I try to pronounce it myself first looking at the Irish spelling and glancing at the phonic rendering for some clues, then I listen to the word and if I was off a little I repeat it the correct way. Since the phonics aren’t always accurate, I don’t think they’re a crutch for me; I really have to depend on the audio. So I guess what I’m saying is they don’t bother me to the point that I’d feel I should be able to switch them off, but that’s just me.

  4. GOA! It’s easy to do in Irish too…when I was in Ireland a few years ago, I kept mixing up “léamh” (read) with “leamh” (boring/bland), to the despair of my teachers!

  5. I think the big thing with phonics is that people sometimes rely too heavily on them. They can be helpful at first, as an aid to making sense of what your ears are hearing. The people who get into trouble with them are the ones who never really try to wean off of them…who write every new word down using English phonics.

  6. Interesting point about not relying too heavily on phonetic renderings.

    Would any Bitesize Irish Gaelic members like an option in their lesson, to be able to switch phonetic pronunciation on and off?

    The lessons have phonetics almost throughout (we’re working on having it in every single lesson). But I can also understand how it may get in the way for more advanced learners.