Irish phonology

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The Phonemes of Irish


The consonant inventory of Irish is shown in the chart below. The symbol [´] indicates palatalization of the preceding consonant.

Broad Slender
Voiceless stops p t k
Voiced stops b d g
Voiceless fricatives f s x h
Voiced fricatives/Glides w~v
Nasals m n ŋ ŋ´
l r

l´ r´

"Broad" consonants are velarized, "slender" consonants are palatalized. The distinction is phonemic in Irish. Note that [h] is the only consonant phoneme without a broad/slender distinction.

As in English, voiceless stops are aspirated word-initally, and unaspirated after [s]. Also, as in English, voiced stops may not be fully voiced but are never aspirated.

Broad (velarized) consonants have a noticeable velar offglide before front vowels, thus [ti:] 'thatch' and [ki:] 'way, manner' are pronounced [tɰi:] and [kɰi:]. This velar offglide is labialized after labial consonants, so [bi:] 'yellow' is pronounced [bwi:]. The realization of the slender consonants varies somewhat from dialect to dialect; for example [t´] is an affricate [tʃ] in Ulster, a palatalized [tj] in Connacht, and an apical postalveolar [t] in Munster.

[w] and [v] are not separate phonemes. In Munster only [v] is found, and in Ulster only [w]. In Connacht [w] is found in syllable onsets and [v] in syllable codas. In older varieties of Irish, [f] and [v] were bilabial fricatives but today because of English influence most people make them labiodental.

The broad coronals [t d n l] have a dental articulation as in Romance languages, and as in the Hiberno-English pronunciation of the English th sounds of thin and this.

[s´] is not a palatalized alveolar but an alveopalatal fricative [ɕ] like Polish si or Mandarin x.

[r´] is a short palatalized flap similar to the tt in American English pretty.

Slender [x´] is a voiceless (post)palatal fricative like the German ich-Laut.

[j] is a palatal glide (like English y in yellow) before vowels; before consonants and at the ends of syllables it is a voiced (post)palatal fricative.

Usually all the consonants in a cluster have the same broad/slender quality, e.g. freagra [f´r´agrə] 'answer'. Cf. also seachain [s´axən´] 'avoid (imperative)' with slender [n´] but seachnaím [s´axni:m´] 'I avoid' with broad [n], because it is next to broad [x]. But there are some systematic exceptions:

[r] is always broad before coronals, even when the second coronal sound itself is slender, e.g. airde [a:rd´ə] 'height', eirleach [e:rl´əx] 'destruction', tuirne [tu:rn´ə] 'spinning wheel', cairde [ka:rd´ə] 'friends'
Word-initial [s] is always broad before labials, even when the labial itself is slender, e.g. smig [sm´ig´] 'chin', speal [sp´al] 'scythe'


The vowels and diphthongs of Irish are given in the chart below.

Short vowels Long vowels Diphthongs
i~u i: u: ai
e~o e: o: au

The front-back contrast in short vowels is not phonemic.

The allophone [i] appears:
before slender consonants (written i, ui)
between a slender consonant and a broad coronal or [h] (written io)
The allophone [u] appears:
between broad consonants (written u; also in uicht, uirs, uirt(h) where the first consonant of the cluster is broad)
between a broad consonant and a broad labial or velar (written io, iu)
The allophone [e] appears:
before a slender consonant except [s´] (written ei, oi)
rarely between a broad consonant and slender [v´] in raibh [rev´] 'was', saibhir [sev´ər´] 'rich', and daibhir [dev´ər´] 'poor'
rarely between a slender consonant and a broad consonant, e.g. bheadh [v'ex] 'would be', bheadh sé [v'et s'e:] 'he would be'
The allophone [o] appears:
between broad consonants (written o; also in oicht, oirs, oirt(h) where the first consonant of the cluster is broad)
before [s´] (written ois)
rarely between a slender consonant and a broad velar, e.g. deoch [d´ox] 'a drink', beag [b´og] 'small'

The front-back distinction is phonemic among long vowels, and all long vowels and diphthongs can stand next to both qualities of consonant. Exception: [iə] stands only word-initially or after a slender consonant, while [uə] stands only word-initially or after a broad consonant. Thus minimal pairs for these two diphthongs can be found only word-initially, e.g. iallach [iələx] 'constraint' vs. ualach [uələx] 'burden'.

The mid vowels are raised to high vowels before a nasal and orthographic mh [w, v´].

Short vowels are reduced to schwa [ə] in unstressed syllables.

Long [i:] is optionally diphthongized to [iə] before broad [x], [r], e.g. fíor [f´i:r] ~ [f´iər] 'true', eolaíocht [o:li:xt] ~ [o:liəxt] 'science'.

[o] is a slightly rounded lax mid central vowel; in effect, it is the vowel of the English word cup with slightly rounded lips. (This is in fact a common Hiberno-English pronunciation of that vowel.)

The back long vowels [a: o: u:] tend to be diphthongized before slender consonants, e.g. Máire [ma:ir´ə] 'Mary', go fóill [gə fo:il´] 'still', cúig [ku:ig´] 'five'.

Vowel-initial words

Vowel-initial words in Irish exhibit behavior that has led linguists to suggest they begin with a latent onset that, like consonants, can be either velarized (broad) or palatalized (slender).

For example, when the vowel-initial words arcán [arka:n] 'piglet' and uimhríonn [iv´r´i:n] 'numbers' (present-tense verb) are preceded by a proclitic ending in a consonant, that consonant is broad: m'arcán [marka:n] 'my piglet'; d'uimhrigh [div´r´i:] 'numbered'.

But when the words earc [ark] 'lizard' and imíonn [im'i:n] 'leaves' (present-tense verb) are preceded by the same proclitics, the consonant is slender: m'earc [m´ark] 'my lizard'; d'imigh [d´im´i:] 'left'.

This difference is not predictable, it is a lexical property of each individual vowel-initial word. Thus some linguists have argued that roots like arcán and uimhr- actually begin with a consonant containing no features except that of being velarized, and roots like earc and im- with a consonant containing no features except that of being palatalized.

When [f] is lenited to zero, its quality remains if a consonant-final proclitic takes its place, as in:

fargán [farəga:n] 'ledge' m'fhargán [marəga:n] 'my ledge'
fearg [f´arəg] 'anger' m'fhearg [m´arəg] 'my anger'
filleann [f´il´ən] 'returns' d'fhill [d´i:l´] 'returned'
fuilíonn [fil´i:n] 'bleeds' d'fhuiligh [dil´i:] 'bled'

Stress in Irish

An Irish word normally has only one stressed syllable, namely the first one: capall 'horse'; seoltóir 'sailor'; siopadóir 'shopkeeper'. Certain adverbs and loan words have stress on a noninitial syllable: amháin 'only'; anuas 'down from above'; tobac 'tobacco'; Atlantach 'Atlantic'; matamaitic 'mathematics'. In compounds more than one syllable is stressed: meánaois 'middle ages'; drochobair 'bad work'; dodhéanta 'impossible, hard to do'; droch-mheánscoil 'bad secondary school'.

Most compounds are like meánaois, the primary stress falls on the first member and the secondary stress on the second: dólámhach 'two-handed'; seanathair 'grandfather'; oiseoil 'venison'. The prefixes do- 'bad, hard to ..., un-X-able', so- 'good, easy to...' and in- '-able' take the secondary accent; the primary accent falls on the second member: dothuigthe 'incomprehensible'; sodhéanta 'easy to do'; inólta 'drinkable'. Some compounds have primary stress on both the first and the second member: bithbhuan 'everlasting'; comhbhrón 'sympathy'; gnátháit 'usual place' príomhoide 'principal (teacher)'

See also


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