Pronouncing Gaelic Words

Many Gaelic sounds are governed by the difference between slender vowels, i and e, as in the word "diet," and broad vowels, a, o, and u. These vowels are pronounced in a progression down the throat as shown in the diagram at the left.

The following table shows the natural vocal logic of certain consonants with slender and broad vowels used in Gaelic.

Stressed

Unstressed, Inverted

Plain

Lenited

Plain

Lenited

di jee

dhi yee

id idge

idh ee

de jay

dhe yay

da da

dha gha

ad aht

adh a(g)

do dough

dho gho

du doo

dhu ghoo

ud oot

gi gih

ghi yee

ig ick

igh ee

ge geh

ghe yay

eg eck

ga ga

gha gha

ag ag

agh agh

go go

gho gho

og og

gu goo

ghu ghoo

ug ug

ugh ugh

ti chee

thi hee

it it(ch)

ith ee

te chay

the hay

eth ay

ta tah

tha ha

at aht

ath ah

to toe

tho ho

tu too

thu oo

ut oot

uth ooh

si shee

shi hee

is ish

se shay

she hay

es es

sa sa

sha ha

as as

so so

sho ho

os os

su soo

shu hoo

us us

Lenition

Gaelic marks cases, such as dative, genitive, and vocative, the adjectives of feminine nouns (all nouns are masculine or feminine), and other parts of speech, through a modification called lenition (or aspiration). Lenition means that an h is added after an initial consonant if it is one of b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s, t. For example, "fear" (fair) is the word for "man" (related to Latin vir), and "bàta" is the word for "boat." "The boatman," or literally "man of the boat," is therefore "fear a' bhàta," where "of the boat" is genitive and "bàta" is lenited (luh-nighted) to become "bhàta." Sometimes a vowel change occurs or an i is added. In the vocative case, "fear a' bhàta" becomes "fhir a' bhàta." Similarly, when I call James, Sèumas (shay-mus) becomes "a' Shèumais" (uh hame-ish), which is sometimes rendered in English as the name "Hamish."

The sounds made by the letters d, g, s, and t change with lenition depending on the vowel, as shown in the table. When both b -> bh and m -> mh, they create a v sound at the beginning or end of a word. In the middle of a word, bh and mh can be silent or like a v or w, depending on the dialect and what is easiest to say. A ch at the beginning of a word has a soft, guttural sound like the ch at the end of the word "loch." An fh is almost always silent, while a ph is an f sound as in English.

Stress

In most cases, the stress falls on the first syllable of a word. This is highly significant rhythmically, as the word stresses create the rhythms of the songs, which are often the basis of pipe and fiddle tunes and dance rhythms.

Vowels

The lilting character of Gaelic can be attributed to the combining of vowel sounds within a word. Only the vowel combination ao is considered a single sound, between English oo and ee. All the other combinations create a sound that is a rapid succession of two sounds, similar to grace notes or ornaments in piping or fiddling. For example, consider the word "cèilidh," meaning "a visit," and, by extension, all the entertainment that can accompany a visit. Americans usually pronounce this word kay-lee, but the more Gaelic pronunciation would be kay-ee-lee, where the kay-ee comes so fast that the ee is barely heard as a distinct sound. A spelling rule governs the vowels on either side of a consonant: broad to broad and slender to slender. Often a vowel added to follow the rule is not sounded, especially in an unstressed, second syllable: "fàgaidh" is pronounced fa-ah-gee, where the second a is not sounded.

Accents

Vowels can have grave accent marks to make the sounds longer. à lengthens ah to ah-ah; è lengthens eh to eh-eh or ay to ay-ay; ì lengthens ee to ee-ee. ò lengthens aw to aw-aw or oh-oh; and ù lengthens oo to oo-oo.

Added vowels or consonants

Multiple consonants in a row are often pronounced with an added vowel. For instance, "Alba," the word for "Scotland," is pronounced ah-luh-buh, "falbh" (go) is pronounced fall-uv, "gorm" (blue) is pronounced gor-um. Some dialects add an sh sound between rd or rt. For example, "bord" (table) is pronounced bo-orsht and "ort" (on you) is pronounced orsht. Double n's lengthen a sound: inn (ih-ing), ann (ahw-uhn), onn (oh-in), and unn (uh-uhn).

The alphabet and letter combinations

Gaelic does not have the letters j, k, q, v, w, x, y, or z. The sounds of some of these letters are made with other letters. di and de make a j sound. The letter c is hard for a stressed k sound, and c, chd, ig, and eg make an unstressed or ending k sound. bh and mh make a v or an unstressed w sound. dhi and dhe make a y sound.

Copyright © 1997 by Susan Self. All rights reserved.

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