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The Sounds of Irish Gaelic – Part 2

In our last post, The Sounds of Irish Gaelic – Part 1, we talked about some of the consonant sounds in Irish that give learners trouble. In today’s post, we’re going to talk a bit about vowel sounds.

If you’re already a Bitesize subscriber, you can dig more deeply into these sounds, with the help of audio tracks, in the following lessons:

The long and short of it

There are two basic types of vowel sounds in Irish: long and short.  Long vowels are indicated by an acute (right-slanting) accent mark, called “síneadh fada” (SHEEN-oo FA-duh), which means “long accent.” Most Irish speakers and learners abbreviate this to fada, which simply means “long.”

These, then, are the long vowels:

á, é, í, ó, ú

Short vowels have no accent mark:

a, e, i, o, u

Don’t exaggerate!

There’s a natural tendency, when you first start learning, to want to exaggerate the short vowels, sometimes even to the point of getting them mixed up with the long vowels. They really are VERY short:

a as in cat

e as in let

i as in pin

o kind of a cross between the “u” in gut and the “o” in got

u as in gut

In fact, when a short vowel is in an unstressed syllable, it typically turns into a schwa: an undistinct sound kind of like the “a” in “another.”

The long vowels

The long vowels make the following sounds:

á as in the “a” in “father”

é as in the “ay” in “bay

í as in the “ee” sound in “meet”

ó as in the “o” in “go

ú as in the “oo” in “book”

Long vowels do get pronounced distinctly, even in unstressed syllables.

Watch out for dipthongs!


Probably the biggest challenge learners face with the long vowels, especially those who are native English speakers, is the tendency to turn them into dipthongs.

Try this: If you’re a native English speaker, say the word “bay.”

Do you feel how your mouth starts to close near the end of the word, almost (but not quite) as if it were spelled “BAY-ee”? That’s a very common feature of American English, even if you’re not from a region where a drawl is common. It’s subtle, but it’s almost always there.

The long vowels in Irish are much purer.  If you’ve studied Spanish or Latin, you probably have a feel for how they should sound, but if Irish is the first language you’ve studied, it may take some practice getting around this tendency.

Now try saying “bay” without sliding into that “ee” sound. That’s what you’re aiming for with the Irish vowel é.

Don’t obsess about this…you will be understood, even if you don’t have the sounds quite perfectly yet. As you progress in your language studies, however, it’s something to keep in mind and to work on.

Let long be long and short be short

On the other hand, it really is vitally important to make the distinction between long and short vowel sounds, as often the only difference between two similarly spelled words is that vowel. For example:

Te (cheh) means “hot.”

(chay) means “person”

Éire (AY-reh) is the Irish name for “Ireland”

Eire (EH-reh) means “burden.”

This chart, from Dublin-based Star Translation Services, offers several other examples.

A couple of challenging ones

There are a few sounds in Irish that are really challenging to reproduce without a lot of practice hearing and speaking the language. Two of these are the “ao” sound in gaoth (wind) and the “oi” sound in coill (wood/forest). If you can get these down, you definitely deserve a gold star! 

These two words are often phoneticized as “gwee” or “gee” (for gaoth) and as “kill” or “kwill” (for coill).  The problem is, the real sound lies about halfway in between.

Let’s start with gaoth:

  • Shape your lips as if you were going to say “gwee.”
  • As you start to say the word, don’t allow your lips to fold inward to make that “w” sound. Just keep them where they were when you started.

This will produce a vowel sound that we don’t have in English, but that is very close to the correct pronunciation of gaoth.

Now try it with coill:

  • Shape your lips as if you were going to say “kwill.”
  • As you start to say the word, don’t allow your lips to fold inward to make that “w” sound. Just keep them where they were when you started.

If you’ve done this correctly, you should be very close to the correct pronunciation of coill.

Listening is key

These subtle distinctions in sound is one reason why practice listening to Irish is almost as important as practice speaking it. When you first start out, you won’t be able to hear a lot of these distinctions. But if you’re aware that they’re there, you will eventually start picking them out. That will mark a real advance in your march toward fluency.

For opportunities to listen to spoken Irish, check out our post for November 3, 2012, Hear Irish Gaelic Spoken.

Did you find this post useful?

Did this post help you with some of the more challenging sounds of Irish? Let us know your thoughts below!

1 thought on “The Sounds of Irish Gaelic – Part 2”

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