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Irish Gaelic: The Problem of Phonetics

Fógra/Announcement in Irish
Think you could figure out how to pronounce something like this without help? Photo: 2008 by Audrey Nickel

One of the first challenges of learning a new language is learning how to reproduce the sounds of that language correctly. That’s why often the first question a new learner asks when seeing an Irish word in print is “how is that pronounced”?

A related challenge faced by those of us who communicate with newer learners on-line is how to  CONVEY the sounds of the language in such a way that, in the absence of a recording or a live person to emulate, the learner can at least come close to the correct pronunciation.

A greater challenge than you might think

If you’re a Bitesize Irish Gaelic member, or if you have access to some other learning program with audio, this isn’t a big problem for you. But for people who must rely on the written word, it can be a real challenge.

One major issue: our own dialects

You may already know that the Irish language has dialects. Most languages do, English included. As a native speaker of the dialect of English spoken in the northwestern United States, I speak a different dialect of English than someone who grew up in Dublin, Sydney, or Liverpool.

Most of the time we don’t think about our own dialects all that much. If I’m speaking English with another native English speaker, even if we come from different regions, have different accents, and use different expressions, I can figure that, for the most part, we’ll be able to understand each other.

If we’re writing rather than speaking, even those issues pretty much disappear.

We may run into problems, though, when we try to explain the sounds of a second language to each other.

For example, when I first started trying to learn Irish, I had a little booklet printed in the 1940s that attempted to explain the sounds of the words. Reading the introduction, I immediately ran into trouble.

One vowel sound, the book told me, sounded like the vowel sound in the word “nought.” Another sounded like the vowel sound in the word “knot.” There was only one problem: In my dialect of English, those vowel sounds are the same.

I ran into a similar situation recently on a discussion forum. I had given the standard pronunciation for the Irish word “grá” (love) as “grah.” Another relatively fluent speaker said he thought it was more like “graw.”

Once again, in my native dialect, there is no distinction between these two sounds. How best, then, to convey the ACTUAL sound to the reader?

We often find myself having to resort to further description, in the hopes that we’ll hit on a sound that is familiar to the reader. For example, I might say that, in some dialects of Irish, that á sound is rather like they way a person from New Jersey might way the word “awe” (and hope that the reader is familiar enough with that dialect of English to find the reference useful!).

Sometimes we have to resort to a physical description. For example, I might say  “Well, it’s like the sound of “ah,” but the lips are more rounded, and the sound is produced closer to the back of the mouth.”

Often how much detail we need to go into when explaining the sounds depends on the reader. Is this a person who wants to learn to speak Irish, or simply someone who has asked for a tattoo or engraving translation and just wants a rough idea of the pronunciation?

Another issue: “foreign” sounds

Most languages have sounds that aren’t necessarily shared by other languages. For example, Irish lacks the both the voiceless “th” sound (as in “thin”) and the voiced “th” sound (as in “that”).

Likewise, English lacks the guttural sounds of the Irish broad ch, dh, and gh, and the “buzzed” or “tipped” sound of slender “r.” It also articulates “d,” “t,” “l,” and “r” slightly differently, resulting in a sound that is simultaneously “familiar” and “foreign” to the English speaker.

A matter of emphasis

Then there’s the question of which syllables to emphasize. In a way we’re lucky with that one, as most Irish words are stressed on the first syllable (most, but not all!). If stress isn’t indicated in some way, you have a better than average chance of getting it right if you default to emphasizing that first syllable.

If the reader isn’t learning Irish, though, or is a very new beginner, we have to find some way to indicate which syllables are stressed.

There are several possible ways to do this. For example, I prefer typing emphasized syllables in all caps (especially in these blog posts, where we use bolding for other purposes):

Madra (MOD-ruh): Dog

Others prefer underlining:

Madra (mod-ruh): Dog

Still others use bolding:

Madra (mod-ruh): Dog

No one method is perfect, however, and whichever is used, someone is bound to ask, at some point, “what is the meaning of those caps/that underline/that boldface type?”

What about IPA?

There is at least one written method that can be used to render the sounds of a language accurately: The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

The IPA was devised by the International Phonetic Association as a standardized representation of the sounds of oral language, and is used by a variety of people, including linguists, speech language pathologists, and (sometimes) language students.

The problem with the IPA is that it’s fairly complicated (almost like learning another language!), and most people who don’t NEED to know it for work or school don’t learn it and can’t read it.

It all comes down to what you need

In the final analysis, how useful phonetic renderings are comes down to what the reader actually needs and to how close his or her English is in overall sound to that of the one who is offering the phonetics.

If all one wants to know is the rough pronunciation of something for a tattoo, an engraving, a boat name, etc., written phonetics will GENERALLY be close enough to keep one from completely mispronouncing a word or phrase.

For a person who is actually learning the language, however, or for someone who wants to say or sing something in the language with real accuracy, nothing substitutes for hearing, and emulating, a good speaker of the language — preferably a native speaker, though if that’s not an option, a very good, careful, learner of the language will do.

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13 thoughts on “Irish Gaelic: The Problem of Phonetics”

  1. Tina Gallagher

    Thank you for your help. I guess mistaking that pronunciation is kind of like reading “wouldn’t you,” and hearing someone say what sounds like “wooden chew.”

    I think I’m in for a fun time learning Irish, but I’ll always check again before assuming.

    Maureen O’Hara started something wonderful.

    1. That’s a really good analogy, actually!

      It’s a very common phenomenon when learning a new language, and it’s a special problem with Irish because of the initial mutations. You do develop an ear for it, but it takes time and lots of listening.

      Here’s an extreme example of mishearing. Whoever posted this lovely version of Clannad singing An Mhaighdean Mhara on YouTube apparently transcribed the lyrics as he thought they sounded rather than with any idea of their meaning (I think he may have actually used some kind of voice recognition software). In case you’re unfamiliar with the song, I’ve posted the actual lyrics in follow-ups in the “comments” section (my username there is faolrua).


      Anyway, take heart! Mis-hearing sounds is very easy to do when you’re starting, but it really does get easier with practice!

  2. I’ve never used videos much, personally. I know that people at ILF have used free on-line resources, though…if you ask there, someone should be able to steer you toward something with good audio.

  3. Tina Gallagher

    I’m learning slowly and it is indeed confusing. For example, the article mentions madra as (mod’ ruh), while on a UTube lesson, the Irish speaker pronounced it as ma’ jah.

    Which is correct?

    1. “Ma’jah” is completely wrong. I can’t think of any dialect in which it could be pronounced that way, as the “d” is broad. “MOD-ruh” in Munster and the Caighdeán. In Ulster and Connacht it’s pronounced a bit differently, but it’s also spelled differently (“madadh”). It could be what you heard was a Connacht pronunciation for “madadh,” but that would be MA-duh, not MA-juh.

      1. Tina Gallagher

        I’m grateful for your reply and have corrected my notes. I did find the Utube video that I got the word from. It is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvBSZb6y5FA It is from Dino Lingo Irish for Kids. I think it is the first one in the series.

        I noticed that the different Utube and other sites (especially the online language translation dictionaries) do not identify which dialect is being used. The same problem would be faced if someone were to use an American English dictionary.

        So what do I do? Would it be wise to learn first from one site only and then use what I’ve learned with someone who speaks Irish? (Can’t wait for that lucky day.)

        I’m sure there are others out there that may be experiencing the same trouble.

        I truly do appreciate your help. Thank you

        1. I had a listen, and they are definitely saying “MOD-ruh” (or slightly closer to “MAD-ruh”…there’s no “j” sound in there. You may have been thrown off by the sound of the “r” coming after the “d.”

          That said, I wouldn’t follow those videos too closely. The sounds aren’t very authentic (the sound of the broad “d,” for example, is based on English, rather than on Irish, in which it is articulated with the tongue pressed against the back of the top teeth).

          There are lots of free resources out there…some good, some not so good. When you find something like this video, I recommend running it past the people at ILF (www.irishlanguageforum.com) before using it.

          1. Tina Gallagher

            Thank you so much for your help.

            Is there a video series you would recommend?

  4. Gearóid Ó hAnnaidh

    Téim go Ghleann Cholm Cille i mhí Lúnasa.
    Aon duine eile ag dul ann, ag an am chéanna?

    Táim ag súil go mór leis 🙂


  5. I agree, they’re certainly a good compromise. At Bitesize Irish Gaelic, we add phonetics to the lessons due to members’ requests. For a new learner, it’s nice to have extra prompts, even if you can hear the word pronounced.

    In case anyone is struggling with deciphering the written Irish language, and how it’s pronounced, check out our Pronunciation Cheat Sheets.

    1. I agree that phonetics can be a useful tool for the beginner when used in conjunction with aural methods (as they are with Bitesize). The problems we run into are trying to explain how words are pronounced in the absence of audio aids, which is often the case on internet forums.

      One thing I would caution beginners against, however, is becoming TOO dependent on phonetics. It’s a very easy thing to do, and it can really inhibit your learning. Use the phonetic version as a rough guide, but then practice looking at the word as actually written while listening to it and repeating it. Otherwise you can become so dependent on phonetics that you never really learn to read Irish as written (I actually know a couple of people who have been learning Irish for quite some time — in one case, years — and still can’t get by without phonetics…that’s what the beginner wants to work to avoid).