The Sounds of Irish Gaelic – Part 1

Authentic Irish
This is authentic Ireland: Conamara in Co. Galway in the west of Ireland. Now how about some authentic Irish pronunciation? Read on.

One of the challenges of learning a language is learning correct pronunciation. One of the reasons this can be such a challenge is that the language you’re learning may have sounds that your native language doesn’t.

While sometimes these sounds can be approximated by using similar sounds from your own language, the closer you can get to pronouncing them correctly, the more authentic your speech will sound, and the more understandable you will be to native speakers and more experienced learners.

In this post, we’re going to talk a bit about some of sounds that Irish has and English doesn’t (and, just to give tit for tat, we’ll mention some English sounds you typically won’t find in Irish as well!).

Audio is best

Of course, the best way to learn authentic speech sounds is to listen to native speakers. If you’re a Bitesize subscriber, you know that’s one of the strengths of the program: It’s audio-rich.  We have several lessons on how to pronounce the various distinctive sounds of Irish, including:

Whether or not you’re currently a Bitesize Irish Gaelic subscriber, you’ll also want to take advantage of every opportunity to hear Irish spoken. The more you listen, the better handle you’ll get on these sounds.

It’s not within the scope of a single blog post to describe all of the sounds that make a given language unique.  In this post we’ll talk primarily about those that are early stumbling blocks for learners, focusing on consonants.

First, some terminology

When you start learning Irish, you hear a lot about “slender” and “broad” consonants. Those are important terms, as they describe how consonants sound, based on the vowels that surround them.

  • A consonant is “broad” if the vowels on either side of it are “a,” “o,” or “u.”
  • A consonant is “slender” if the vowels on either side of it are “i” or “e.”

These sounds are so important that there’s even a spelling rule about them that Irish learners learn right off: “caol le caol agus leathan le leathan” (slender with slender and broad with broad).

What this means is that, with the exception of a few older compound words, within any given word, if there is an “i” or “e”  on one side of a consonant (or consonant group), there will be an “i” or “e” on the other side as well, and the consonant is said to be “slender.”

The same, of course, is true of “a,” “o,” and “u” — if you have one of those “broad vowels” on one side of a consonant or group of consonants, there will be a “broad vowel” on the other side, and that consonant is said to be “broad” as well.

(Bitesize subscribers can delve into this a bit more deeply in Lesson: Spelling Rule.)

With the definitions down, let’s get on to the sounds!

Broad T and Broad D

These two sounds really get people in the beginning, because they sound, at first, very like “T” and “D” in English (maybe a bit “foreign,” but similar enough). There’s a subtle difference, though, and it has to do with how these sounds are articulated in Irish.

Try this exercise:

Say the man’s name “Tom.” Do you feel how the tip of your tongue touches the ridge of your mouth just above your front teeth? That’s the English “t.”

Now say the name “Tom” again, but instead of touching the tip of your tongue to that ridge, press the TOP  of your tongue against the back of  your top teeth (as if you were trying to push your teeth out — gently, please!). Do you hear the difference in how that first consonant sounds when you do this? That’s the Irish broad “t.”

Broad “D” works in the same way. Try the same exercise using the English word “dog.” Feel how your tongue touches that upper ridge. Then say the same word while gently pressing the tongue against the back of the top teeth. That’s the sound you’re going for when you encounter a broad “d” in Irish.

Don’t make the mistake of letting the tongue slip between your upper and lower teeth, resulting in an English “th” sound, as in “thin” or “then.” Those are two of the sounds that Irish DOESN’T have (the other sound Irish doesn’t have is a true “z,” as in “zebra” or “zodiac”).

Broad and Slender “CH”

Here’s a video we recorded before about the sounds of Irish, and read more below.

These are two of the sounds that gives learners a lot of trouble at first, because we really don’t have anything like them in English.  There’s a tendency among beginners to default to a “k” sound for broad “ch” (as in loch: lake) and an “h” sound for slender “ch” (as in oíche: night).

Resist that temptation! These sounds are easy to learn, once you know how they’re articulated.

Let’s start with broad “ch”: Try saying the English word “lock.” Do you feel how your throat closes to make that “k” sound at the end of the word?

Now say it again, but don’t allow your throat to close all the way, so some air escapes. It should feel a little like you’re trying to make an “h” sound, but having to push it through a slight barrier. That’s broad “ch” (and if you’ve done this correctly, you’ve just said the Irish word loch!)

Slender “ch” is similar to “h,” but it’s a harsher sound. As you start to make that “h” sound, you raise the back of the tongue slightly and push a bit more air through it. When it occurs in the middle of a word, there will usually be a slight “y” sound after it as well, so that oíche sounds a bit like EE-hyeh.

If you’ve ever studied German, you have a leg up on these sounds, as they’re the same sounds you encounter in words such as Bach and ich in that language.

Broad GH and DH

The tendency with these sounds is to default to a hard “g” sound, as in “goat.” Once again, resist the temptation! If you’ve mastered the broad “ch” sound above, you’re only one step away from mastering broad gh/dh as well.

In fact, the only real difference between broad “ch” and broad “gh” or “dh” is that “ch” is “unvoiced” (that is, the vocal chords don’t become involved in producing the sound). With “gh” and “dh,” your vocal chords get into the act.

Try saying the English word “goat.” Do you feel how your throat closes to make the sound, just as it did when you made the “k” sound in “lock”? The difference is that, with the “g” your vocal chords also vibrate.

Now make that same hard “g” sound, but let a little air escape as you do so. If you’ve got it right, it should feel just a little like you’re gargling. That’s the sound broad “gh” and “dh” make when they occur at the beginning or in the middle of a word (at the ends of words, “gh” and “dh” are often silent, depending on dialect).

Finally, slender “r”

I have to admit, the first time I heard a native Connacht speaker say the word athair (father), I thought I’d misheard him. It almost sounded like he said “AH-hid” or “AH-hids,: when I was expecting “AH-hir.”

And I’ll never forget the first time I heard a person from Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore) say the name of that region in Donegal: “Gwee DOH-ee.”

There’s a great deal of regional variation in how slender “r” is pronounced, especially at the ends of words and, to an English speaker, it can sound like there’s no “r” there at all.

Generally speaking, you’re best going with listening carefully to a native speaker of the dialect you’re learning, but in case that’s not an option, here are some basic guidelines:

  • Regardless of dialect, at the beginning of a word, there’s no difference between slender “r” and broad “r” (both make a slighly harsher version of the English “r” sound, with the middle of tongue raised slightly and a little more air coming through).
  • In the middle of a word, slender “r” is “tipped.” This is similar to what singers do when they need to sing an “r” and don’t want to make an “rrrrrr” sound: The tip of the tongue flicks off the hard palate, as if you start to say “d,” but change it to an “r” at the last moment. Note: This is just a single flick of the tongue…it’s not a trill.
  • At the end of a word, slender “r” will vary depending on dialect. In Connacht, you’ll hear something of a “d” or “ds” sound. In parts of Ulster, you’ll hear that “ee” sound. In some areas, there may be little difference between it and the broad “r.”

Coming next week: the vowels!

Of course, these aren’t the only sounds that new learners of the language struggle with, but they are the ones that learners will really benefit from spending a little extra time on. Paying attention to these sounds, both hearing them and saying them, will go a long way toward making your Irish sound more authentic.

In our next post, we’ll talk a little about how Irish vowel sounds differ from those of English, and give you some tips to help you pronounce them better as well.

By the way, if you want to learn the rules of Irish pronunciation of written words, check out our Pronunciation Cheat Sheets for Irish Gaelic.

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3 thoughts on “The Sounds of Irish Gaelic – Part 1”

  1. Thanks for the extra help on these different sounds Audrey, especially “T” and “D”. And I just came across the same issue with the slender “R” ending of a word sounding like an “s”. It really threw me off for a second when I heard it.

    Oh, and I knew studying German in college would come to some use later, but I had no idea it would actually help me learn Irish!

    1. Glad I could help, Joanna! I sing in an Irish-language Christmas choir (www.coraingli.com) and, over the years, these are the sounds I’ve found that most beginners in the language struggle with.

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