Guide to Irish Pronunciation

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Guide to Irish Pronunciation

Post by Redwolf »


I call this “A very, very, very, very basic guide” for one “very” important reason: It really is impossible to learn to pronounce the sounds of Irish properly without hearing them spoken, preferably by a native speaker, or at least a fluent learner. That said, this “very” basic guide will at least get you into the ballpark, and keep you from making the “very” common mistake of assuming that vowels, consonants and dipthongs in Irish have the same basic sound as they do in English! If you really want to learn to speak the language properly, I highly recommend taking lessons, if possible, or at least using one of the many good audio-based learning programs out there.

Do bear in mind that there are exceptions to everything, including pronunciation guides. We're lucky in that Irish is actually considerably more regular in pronunciation than is English, but even so, you'll occasionally run into something that doesn't fit these guidelines. Still, you'll be in better shape following them, until you can get more direct aural guidance, than you would be without them!

I also strongly recommend that you take every opportunity you can to hear Irish spoken naturally. A good place to start with that is Ireland’s TG4 television station, which is available worldwide via WebTV at Most of the programs are subtitled, which make them quite accessible to the learner.

Two additional caveats:

1) I’m an American from California, and the phonetics I give here reflect my own West Coast U.S. dialect of English. If you come from another part of the U.S., or a different English-speaking country, you’ll want to take that into consideration. If you're not a native English speaker, you may find this less helpful than other guides.

2) My Irish is primarily influenced by the Ulster dialect. While all three dialects of Irish are mutually intelligible, there can be distinct pronunciation differences (think of the English spoken in New York vs. the English spoken in London). I say this mainly so no one will come back to me and say “Hey, that wasn’t right! I called my uncle in Cork (in Munster), and he said to pronounce it THIS way!” Chances are that both I and your uncle in Cork are correct.

A word about word stress:

In most cases, polysyllabic words in Irish are stressed on the first syllable. There are exceptions, most of which are either loan words from English (such as “tobác”: “tobacco”, pronounced “tuh-BAK”), personal names (such as Tomás, pronounced “tum-AHSS), or certain compound words (especially some of the words expressing time, such as “inniu” -- “today” -- which is pronounced “in-YOU”), but when in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of stressing the first syllable…you’ll be correct 7 out of 10 times! One exception: In Munster, a syllable with a long vowel in it is stressed. For example, a Munsterite would pronounce "cailín" -- "girl" -- as "kal-EEN," whereas a person from Ulster or Connacht would say "KAL-een."
Another important note: Vowel sounds in unstressed syllables almost universally become schwas, unless they are long vowel sounds (marked with an accent), in which case they take their usual value.

The not-so-helpful helping vowel:

English has silent “e’s,” Irish has “an guta cúnta” (the auxiliary, or “helping” vowel, or as I like to think of it, the “phantom vowel”). Sometimes a vowel is pronounced between certain consonants, even if one isn’t written (if you’ve ever heard an Irish person say the word “film” as "fil-lum" in English, you’re familiar with the concept. That practice comes directly from the Irish language). For the most part, you’ll just have to learn these words as you encounter them, but there are some basic guidelines. It generally happens in very short words between l and m, between r and m, between n and bh, between r and c or between r and g. For example, “colm” (dove) is pronounced KUL-um. “Gorm” (blue) is pronounced “GUR-um.” “Leanbh” (baby/child) is pronounced LAN-iv. “Sorcha” (a girl’s name) is pronounced SUR-uh-khuh. “Carghas” (Lent) is pronounced KAR-uh-gguss

Why Irish has both fewer and more letters than English:

Technically, the Irish alphabet has fewer letters than English, as it lacks the letters j, k, q, v, w, x, y and z. Every Irish vowel, however, has two possible values: short (written with no accent) and long (written with an acute accent…known as the “síneadh fada” –- “long accent" -- usually just called a “fada”). Please bear in mind that if a fada is left off when it should be on (or vice versa), not only is the word misspelled, it may even have an entirely different meaning. For example, “téann” is the present indicative form of the verb “to go,” but “teann” is either a noun meaning “strength/authority” or an adjective meaning “confident/assured/emphatic” (The vowel sounds are pronounced quite differently as well. The words are pronounced "chayn" and "chan," respectively). For all intents and purposes, it’s best to treat short and long vowels as distinct letters.

Likewise, every Irish consonant has two possible values: slender (when the consonant is next to an “e” or an “i”) and broad (when the consonant is next to an “a,” “o” or “u”). Some of these distinctions are difficult for English speakers to hear (let alone reproduce) without a lot of practice, but others are quite marked. In any case, they’re something every Irish learner needs to be aware of.

Irish also has two consonants that can be doubled: “ll” and “nn” (called “thick l” and “thick n”). These have a subtly different pronunciation from their single brothers, so I’ll treat them as separate letters. "R" can also be doubled in spelling, but the pronunciation isn't really effected.

Finally, most Irish consonants are subject to mutations caused by certain grammatical situations. One of these is “lenition” (or “softening”), indicated in modern orthography by placing an “h” after the consonant, or in older writing by placing a dot over the consonant. The other is “eclipsis,” in which the initial consonant of a word is “eclipsed” by a different consonant or combination of consonants placed before it (this causes a lot of angst among English speakers, who wonder how in the heck you are supposed to pronounce “bhf” or “mb” or “nd” at the beginning of a word!). To make things a little easier, I’m going to give the broad and slender value of each consonant, as well as the broad and slender values of these mutations (believe me…it’s much easier to understand than it is to write about!).

At the end of the list, I’ll also give the most common vowel combinations, and some guidelines for figuring out how they should be pronounced.

OK…here we go!

A: When it occurs as part of a word, “a” is pronounced like the “a” in “cat.” Americans should be aware, however, that it’s less “flat” than the way we would pronounce it. Think of a person from England or Ireland saying “cat” and you’ll have it. When “a” stands alone as its own word, or when it’s part of a very short word, such as “an,” it’s more like “uh.”

Á is generally pronounced “ah” (think of the “a” in “ball”). In parts of Donegal, however, particularly around Gaoth Dobhair, it takes on a flat, nasal quality and sounds rather like the vowel sound in “yeah.” Unless you’re planning to specialize in that particular dialect, “ah” is probably an easier pronunciation.

B (broad): Like the “b” in the English “ball” or “bat.”

B (slender): Similar to the English “b,” but said with the lips tightened and slightly spread…sometimes followed by a slight “y” glide.

Bh (broad): Pronounced as “w” (except in Munster, where both slender and broad "bh" are pronounced "v")

Bh (slender): Pronounced as “v”

mB or mb (“b” is always eclipsed by “m”): The “b” sound disappears and only the “m” is pronounced.

C (broad) is like the “c” in the English “cat” (note: “c” always makes a hard sound, like “k,” in Irish…never, ever an “s” or “ch” sound as it can in English”)

C (slender): Similar to the above, but with the lips tightened and slightly spread…sometimes followed by a slight “y” glide.

Ch (broad): Similar to the “ch” in the German “Bach” or Scottish “loch.”

Ch (slender): “Hyeh”…similar to the “ch” in the German “ich.”

(Note: The “ch” sound often isn’t pronounced at the ends of words in Ulster)

gC or gc (“c” is always eclipsed by “g”): The “c” sound disappears and only the “g” sound is pronounced.

D (broad): Similar to the English “d” as in “dad,” but the tongue is pressed against the back of the teeth instead of against the hard palate as the letter is pronounced, which gives it a slightly different sound.

D (slender): Pronounced as “J” in Ulster.

Dh (broad): This is a guttural “g” sound made in the back of the mouth…as if you started to pronounce a hard “g” (as in “goat”) but didn’t close your throat all the way, letting some air escape.

Dh (slender): Pronounced as “Y” in Ulster. In Connacht, can sound more like "ds."

(Note: At the ends of words, the “dh” sound has a tendency to disappear, but it changes the vowel sound before it to “oo”. So “madadh” -- "dog" -- is pronounced “MAD-oo.”)

nD or nd (“d” is always eclipsed by “n”): The “d” sound disappears, and only the “n” is pronounced.

E: As in the English “get”

É: “Ay” as in the English “way.”

F (broad): As in the English “fact.” It’s worth noting that some older speakers of Irish pronounce “f” by just pressing their lips together, rather than placing the bottom lip against the top teeth, which creates a slightly different sound. The sound difference isn’t significant, however, and a standard “f” is more likely to be encountered.

F (slender): Similar to the above, but with the lips tightened and slightly spread…sometimes followed by a slight “y” glide. It should be noted that, in Ulster, slender "f" at the beginning of a word sometimes becomes a "p," and occasionally are even spelled with "p" rather than according to the official standard. For example, the song "Fill, fill, a rún ó" ("return, return, my darling o"), which is a Donegal song, will occasionally be spelled "Pill, pill, a rún ó." This kind of dialect variation in spelling is perfectly correct.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE: In some cases, "f" can actually take on an "h" sound. The most commonly encountered case for most people will be in the future tenses of verbs. For example, "fanfaidh" (will wait) is pronounced "FAN-hee." "Íosfaidh" (will eat) is pronounced "EESS-hee." This holds true pretty much across the board for future tense verbs. There are other cases in which "f" takes on an "h" sound (for example, in Ulster, the word "féin" -- "self" -- is pronounced "hayn"), but these need to be learned as you encounter them.

Fh: ALWAYS silent (whether slender or broad)

bhF or bhf (“f” is always eclipsed by “bh”): The “f” sound disappears and only the “bh” is pronounced (see “b” for the slender and broad pronunciations of “bh”)

G (broad) is pronounced as in the English “gate.” Note that “g” NEVER makes a “j” or “zh” sound, as it can in English.

G (slender): Similar to the above, but with the lips tightened and slightly spread…sometimes followed by a slight “y” glide (note: If you’re getting tired of hearing that line, just wait!)

Gh (broad): Makes exactly the same sound as broad “dh.”

Gh (slender): Makes exactly the same sound as slender “dh”

(Note: At the ends of words, “gh” often isn’t pronounced)

nG or ng (“g” is always eclipsed by “n”): This is a challenging one for most English speakers, as it’s pronounced just like the “ng” in “sing”, but comes at the BEGINNING of a word. For example, “i ngrá” (in love) is pronounced “ing rah.” Might take a little practice!

H: “H” rarely appears on its own in Irish. When it does, it will always be in front of a vowel, and you can pronounce it just as you would in English. Most of the time when you see “h”, however, it will be leniting another consonant, and you’ll want to refer to the listing for that consonant.

I: “Ih, as in the English “bit.”

Í: “Ee,” as in the English “beet.”

J: “J” is not native to Irish, but I include it because you will encounter it occasionally, particularly in slang terms, some loan words, and in proper names. In those cases, it will be pronounced as the English “J” in “John.”

L (broad): This is pronounced rather like the French “l”…similar to English, but with the middle of the tongue pressed up toward the palate. If that’s too difficult, a standard English “l” will suffice.

L (slender): Similar to the above, but followed by a very slight “y” glide.

LL (broad):
Similar to broad “l,” but held for a beat longer.

LL (slender): Similar to slender “l,” but followed by a very distinct “y” sound. For example, “Ó Máille” (O’Malley) is pronounced “Oh MAHL-yeh.”

(Note: Neither “l” nor “ll” can be lenited or eclipsed)

M (broad):
As in English “mother.”

M (slender): Similar to the above, but with the lips tightened and slightly spread…sometimes followed by a slight “y” glide.

Mh (broad): As “w.” At the end of a word, broad “mh” will often disappear, and turn the vowel sound preceding it to “oo” (e.g.: “creideamh”: KREJ-oo). As with "bh," broad "mh" tends to be pronounced as if it were slender in Munster.

Mh (slender):
As “v”

(Note: “M” cannot be eclipsed)

N (broad): As in the English “now.”

N (slender): Similar to the above, but with the lips tightened and slightly spread…sometimes followed by a slight “y” glide.

NN (broad): Similar to broad “n,” but held for a beat longer

NN (slender): Similar to slender “n,” but with a distinct following “y” sound (for example, “inné,” “yesterday” is pronounced “in-YAY”).

(Note: Neither “n” nor “nn” can be lenited or eclipsed)

Pronounced about halfway between the English “dog” and “dug.”

Ó: Pronounced “oh” as in “oh my!”

P (broad): As in the English “park”

P (slender): Similar to the above, but with the lips tightened and slightly spread…sometimes followed by a slight “y” glide.

Ph: Always pronounced as “f,” whether broad or slender.

bP or bp (“p” is always eclipsed by “b”): The “p” sound disappears and only the “b” is pronounced.

R (broad): Similar to English “R” as in “roar.” There is a subtle difference, but I’m afraid I’ve never been able to describe it! Until you get a chance to hear it, an English “r” will have to suffice (and will be understood).

R (slender): If you’re a singer, you’ll find this one easy. It’s a “tipped r,” such as singers use to articulate the letter clearly without sitting on that “rrr” sound. As you pronounce the “r,” the tongue just “tips” off the hard palate, producing a sound ALMOST like a “d.” The exception is in parts of Donegal (particularly Gaoth Dobhair), where a slender “r” at the end of a word makes an “ee” sound (for example, they’d pronounce “Gaoth Dobhair” as “Gee DOH-ee”).

IMPORTANT: Irish “R’s” are never “rolled” or “trilled” as in Spanish.

(Note: “R” cannot be lenited or eclipsed. It can be doubled, but “rr” sounds just like “r”)

S (broad): As in the English “snake” or “hiss.” Note: The Irish “s” can never produce a “z” sound as in the English “his.”

S (slender): Produces an “sh” sound, as in the English “shame.”

Sh (broad): The “s” sound disappears, and only the “h” sound is heard

Sh (slender): The “s” sound disappears, and the “h” sound becomes an “hy” sound (as in the English “hew”).

(Note: “S” cannot be lenited when it occurs before the consonants “c,” “m,” “p” or “t.” An easy mnemonic for this is the sentence “scallions smell spicy in stew.” If you run across something like “shm” or “shc,” you’ll know someone’s got his spelling wrong!)

tS or ts: Technically, this isn’t “eclipsis,” as it occurs in different grammatical situations. It behaves the same way, however, in terms of pronunciation: the “s” sound disappears, and only the “t” is pronounced.

T (broad): Similar to the English “t” as in “toast,” but the tongue is pressed against the back of the teeth instead of against the hard palate as the letter is pronounced, which gives it a slightly different sound (compare: broad “d”).

T( slender): “Ch” as in the English “cheese.” In Connacht, the sound is closer to "ts."

Th (broad): The “t” sound disappears, and only the “h” is pronounced.

Th (slender): The “t” sound disappears, and the “h” sound becomes “hy.”

dT or dt (“t” is always eclipsed by “d”): The “t” sound disappears, and only the “d” is pronounced.

U: “Uh” as in the English “up”

Ú: “Oo” as in the English “blue”

V: “V” is not native to Irish, but does occur in certain loan words from English, such as “vóta” (“vote”). When it does occur, you can treat it exactly as you treat “v” in English.

Note: There is one other consonant combination of which you should be aware, because it occurs very commonly in Irish, and doesn’t necessarily behave in the manner you would expect. That’s “Cn”: In Ulster and Connacht, it’s pronounced as if it were “Cr” (as in the English “creek” or “crook”)…so the Irish word “cnoc” (“hill”) is pronounced “kruk.” In Munster, it’s pronounced “Cn” (so “cnoc” is somewhat like “K(i)nuk”)

Vowel groups:

Irish vowel groups (i.e., groups of vowels that occur together within a syllable…most are not technically dipthongs or tripthongs) can be very confusing. This is mainly because of the Irish spelling rule “caol le caol agus leathan le leathan” (“slender with slender and broad with broad”), which dictates that, within any given word, if one type of vowel is on one side of a consonant or consonant group, that same type of vowel must be used on the other side as well. Because of that, often a vowel is only there to obey the rules of Irish spelling! That said, however, there are some basic guidelines:

1) If any of the vowels in a combination is long (i.e., accented), that is the only vowel that gets pronounced. The rest can safely be ignored (well, most of the time), other than paying attention to the effect they may have on the consonants around them.

2) When in an unstressed syllable, pretty much any unaccented vowel combination will be pronounced as a schwa.

3) In a stressed syllable, unless there is an accented vowel in the group, it’s usually only the first two that will make a difference to the vowel sound. The third is almost certainly only there to ensure that the consonant following it is broad or slender.

The most common vowel groups are as follows:

Ia: "Ee," as in "beet."

Ea: Pronounced as the “a” in “hat.” Hence “feadóg” (whistle) is pronounced “FAD-ohg.”

Ae: Ay, as in the English “day” or “way”

Ao: In Ulster, this is pronounced “ee.” In other dialects, it is pronounced “ay” as in “way.”

Ai: Pronounced as the “a” in “hat”

Io: Pronounced “ih” as in the English “jib.” Sometimes, at the beginning of a word, it will take on more of an "uh" sound (for example "iomlán" ("complete/whole") is pronounced "UM-lahn").

There are also a couple of special vowel consonant combinations:

Aigh: At the beginning of a word, this is pronounced “I” as in “I am hungry” (for example "caighdeán" -- "standard" -- is pronounced "KY-jahn"). At the end of a word, however, it's often pronounced "ee." You'll especially find this in the root/imperative forms of verbs...for example "tosaigh" -- "buy" -- is pronounced TUSS-ee.

Aidh/Eidh/Idh: Pronounced “ee” as in “tea.”

Bain sult as! (have fun!)

...agus déanfaidh mé do mholadh ar an gcruit a Dhia, a Dhia liom!