Caibidil a Seacht Déag

Irish Orthography (Litriú na Gaeilge)

the alphabet
caol le caol
pronunciation and spelling
double consonants
the schwa
the auxilliary vowel
tongue twisters like mb, gc, nd, bhf, dt, ...
all those Hs
small letters in front of uppercase
foreign words
the spelling reform

The orthography of Irish is at first a bit confusing.
In addition, the pronunciation and written Irish are not identical, especially the pronunciation varies from dialect to dialect.
Although, the order in which letters appear is not random, but follows specific rules.
One can just as well develop a feeling for how a written word is to be pronounced, spelling and pronunciation are certainly closer knit as in English or French.

the alphabet (an Aibítir)


The names of the letters resemble those from the German:
á, bé, cé, dé, é, eif, gé, héis, í, jé, cá (k), eil, eim, ein, ó, pé, cú (q), ear, eas, té, ú, vé, wae, ex, yé, zae

Old tree names were once the alphabet,as taken over from the Ogham Alphabet:
a (ailm = white fir), b (beith = birch), c (coll = hazel), d (dair = oak), e (edad/eabhadh = poplar), f (fern/fearn = alder), g (gath/gort = ivy), h (uath = hawthorn), i (idad/íodhadh = yew), l (luis = rowan), m (muin = vine), n (nin/nion = ash), o (onn = gorse), p (peith = dwarf alder), r (ruis = holander), s (sail = willow), t (tinne/teithne = holly), u (úr = heather)

The Irish Alphabet consists of:

In old script there are also certain abbreviations in use, taken from tironic notes, a medieval short hand. Especially common is the symbol for agus (and):


In modern writings, this is replaced by a 7 (e.g. 7rl. = agus araile = and so on).
Still common is .i. the sign for id est, in English i.e.. Written out it would be in Irish: eadhon = es (is) (an emphatic form of ea)

Caol le caol agus leathan le leathan

In English "slender with slender and broad with broad"
This is the most important rule in Irish spelling.
It is also to be found in Scottish Gaelic.

e, é, i, í are termed in Irish as slender vowels (gutaí caola)
a, á, o, ó, u, ú and also the ligature ae are termed as broad vowels (gutaí leathana)

Those "slender" vowels are accompanied by consonants which are slender (consain chaola)
And "broad" vowels are accompanied by consonants which are broad (consain leathana)

In German a slender consonant can be preceded by a slender vowel then follows by a broad one, differences in the pronunciation of the consonants are hardly noticed and are unimportant for the meaning.
Still, such differences are there: (i.e. im ch in ich and ach). In Irish, these differences are much more evident.

In Irish, it goes like this:

preceding and directly followingbroad consonants only a broad vowel is allowed.
preceding and directly following slender consonants only a slender vowel is allowed.

With that, it becomes very clear if the consonant is to be pronounced slender or broad.
i.e. combinations like abe or abi are next to impossible in Irish.
Possible is only e.g. aba, abo, abu, abae (broad b) or ebi, ebe, ibi, ibe (slender b)

What's the point?
While in German, one has consonants that automatically fit to the accompanying vowels (think "ich" and "ach"), in Irish a broad consonant can directly follow a slender vowel and vice versa; the consonants are independent of the vowels.
This is only true of the spoken language.
In the written language, there would be no clarity as to if a consonant is broad or slender, if it were not for this rule.
This clarity is very much needed and is made possible in writing through the use of vowels. It is for this reason that broad consonants may only be framed by broad vowels, and slender consonants only by slender vowels.
Many written vowels serve only as a marker of the "broadness" or "slenderness" of the neighbouring consonants. I.e. vowels are inserted, which are not to be spoken!


Depending if a broad or slender consonant is used, words differ often in their meaning, number or case:

e.g. bád = a boat, báid = boats, of a boat(gen.)
the i in id only serves to mark d as slender, it is not spoken [ba:d']
e.g. odh = it shall be
the o in odh denotes the dh as broad, and is not spoken [b'i:x]
It is through this that many vowels appear in written Irish.
This rule is practised consequently.
In compound words this rule is not put in use (e.g. neamhbheo = neamh + beo). Also with adverbs like arís, ansin, anseo, ansiúd, aneas, aniar a.o. as well as prepositinoal pronouns like ina, lena are originally also contractions, so that the rule does not take effect. There are hardly any other exceptions, and if so, then well substantiated. e.g.: ospidéal (s in sp- always is broad, therefore a broad vowel preceding sp, a slender vowel following)

Pronunciation and Spelling (Fuaimniú agus Litriú)

About the usage of vowels as a marker of the broadness or slenderness of consonants see above.
For information on Irish phonetics see Phonology
The following are only suggestions of the whole, without wanting to or being able to explain the pronunciation in full (due to the great variation in the dialects)

ao: ao is spoken like a long e [e:] (in Munster) or like a long i [i:] (in Connacht, Ulster, Standard). Despite the pronunciation it counts as broad, and is also framed by broad consonants. Should a slender consonant follow, one writes aoi. This is always pronounced [i:].
ao used to be, and partially still is pronounced in Donegal as an unrounded [ü].
ae: this is a long e [e:] (most not [æ:]). While and despite the appearance of an e, it is considered broad! It is treated almost as one single letter. (prior to the spelling reform it was written "aedhea" e.g. in Gaedheal > Gael).
So, an i must follow if the next consonant is slender: aei. (e.g.: Gaeilge earlier Gaedhilge)
ei, éi: Even though e is a slender vowel, it's followed by a (voiceless) i preceding slender consonants: (éire = Ireland [e:r'@])
ea: the e actually serves only to the slenderness of a possible preceding consonant, so in the standard [a] following slender consonants (fear [f'ar]) Although in Connacht it's spoken like the German "ä" [æ (fear [f'æ])
Etymologically, it was often the case that e was the spoken part, the later a served the broadness of the following consonant (old ir.: fer = Mann, new ir.: fear)
ai: also often as "ä" [æ
eo: almost always a long o [o:]. In a few words as a short o [o]: deoch, seo.
"eo" takes the place of "ó" after slender consonants.
abh, odh, ogh: at the beginning or within a word often like German "au"(ow!) [au] (e.g. umlabht = Umlaut)
amh: at the beginning or within a word in Cois Fhairrge also "au" [au], in remaining Connemara more like[av].
adh, agh, eidh: at the beginning or within a word often like the German "ai"(aye) [ai]
aidh, aigh: at the beginning or within a word like the German "ai" [ai]
omh(a): long o [o:]
umh(a): long u [u:]
-th-: actually [h],but in Cois Fhairrge the inital h is mostly omitted, neighbouring vowels fuse and become long: athair [ah@r'] or [æ:r']
-ch-: slender ch [x'] as an initial often pronounced [h] and treated like th: fiche [fih@] or [fi:]

pronunciation of the suffix -(a)idh, -(a)igh
-(a)igh appears as a verb root and imperative (e.g. éirigh = climb!) and as the preterite of the 2nd conjugation (e.g. d'éirigh sé = he climbed) but also as the genitive of the noun -(e)ach: (e.g. an mharcaigh = of the rider).
-(a)idh takes its place next to genitive forms of the noun -adh (an tsamhraidh = of summer) and in prepositional pronouns of the 3rd person masc (uaidh = from him) as well as in verbal suffixes (e.g. ólfaidh sé = he will drink)

all                     [ig'][@][i]/[@][i:] shalaigh sé na bróga = he soiled the shoes

In Ulster, this suffix is spoken [@] in the case of verbs preceding pronouns (mé, tú, sé, etc.) otherwise [i].

The future verb suffix -óidh is pronounced in Munster [o:ig], in Connemara only [o:] and in the Lárchanúint [o:i:].
In Ulster the old suffix -ochaidh is used instead (pronunciation [ahi]/[ah@] or [ohi]/[oh@])

pronunciation of the suffix -(e)adh
This suffix performs many functions, not only as verbal noun suffix, but also as a suffix of the analyt. verb form in the imperfect tense (as well as the conditional and imperative) and last but not least as the autonomous form in the preterite.
This is why it is pronounced differently in the dialects, also depending on the function.
The original pronunciation according to the written [að, later [aγ]. It is no longer pronounced like this in any of the Gaeltachts (da [γ] only at the beginning of a word).

Imperfect preceding noun [@x][@x][u] ghlanadh an fear = the man cleaned (habit.)
Imperfect preceding sé/sí/sinn/sibh/siad [@x][@t'][@t'] ghlanadh sé = he cleaned (habit.)
autonomous form preterite [@g]*[u:][u] glanadh an bord = one cleaned the table
verbal noun [@][@][u] Tá sé ag glanadh = he is cleaning (now)

*same in Muskerry and Ring, but in Kerry (Dingle) [@x], in Southwest-Cork (Cléire) [@v]
The Lárchanúint form is comparable to that of Connemara.
The Donegal forms apply also to Mayo (autonomous form in Mayo also [@f])
The verb suffix -íodh is similar, but with a preceding [i:] (in Munster [i:x], in Connemara [i:@x])

pronunciation of the suffix -(e)abh, -(e)amh
This is purely a noun suffix, that appears often in many verbal nouns.

noun     [@v][@][u][@v] talamh = ground, ollamh = professor, seasamh = sitting

pronunciation of the suffix -(a)ibh, -(a)imh
The suffix -(a)ibh is the old dative plural suffix of nouns, -(a)imh is a noun suffix.

p.o.s.MunsterConnacht  DonegalLárchanúintexample
noun     [iv'][@], [i:][iv'][iv'] do na fearaibh = for the men, Gaillimh = Galway

The pronunciation [i:] in Nord-Connacht (Mayo) and Ulster is (outside of Donegal, now extinct, there also[u:]) commonplace.
In Connemara rather [@] (Gaillimh = Galway [gaL'@])
The genitive form -(a)imhe is universally pronounced [iv'@] (Contae na Gaillimhe = County Galway [koNde: n@ gaL'iv'@])

Double consonants (consain dhúbailte)

Only l, n, r may be written double: ll, nn, rr (only between vowels, next to other consonants only l, n, r)
This affects the pronunciation. So werden e.g. in many dialects vowels in monosyllabic words preceding ll, nn, rr are spoken mostly long or diphthongised. (as opposed to German, where only short vowels precede double consonants)
e.g. donn [daun] = brown; barr [ba:r] = tip, fearr [f'aur] = better
On the other hand, ll, nn, rr in are in some dialects rather elongated ("stretched") (e.g. donn [doN]), but also both (e.g. donn [dauN]).
In Munster there is no stretching phenomenon for double consonants, nn is however pronounced (e.g. Waterford) [ng] (e.g. the name of the Gaeltacht found there: An Rinn [@ Ri:ng'], engl. ring)

Other consonants appear only once.
Should by compound words or after presyllables it come to pass that other identical consonants follow, this must be prevented with a hyphen.(e.g. mo chos-sa = my feet). The hyphen has no effect on the pronunciation: e.g. [m@ xos@]

Also -rd, -rl, -rn, -m. -ng, at the end of a word will have a similar effect on preceding vowels as do -ll, -nn, -rr. Also in this case, the vowels are lengthened or diphthongised: cam [kaum], ard [a:rd], etc.

the Neutral- or Schwa-vowel

This vowel is in many languages the most common, and certainly is in Irish.
In only a few languages have meade the effort to transcribe this vowel, and so it is lacking in Irish as well.
In German the "e" does the most of the dirty work (like e in Blume [blu:m@], the so-called "mumbly e").
In Welsh it's a non-terminalsyllabic "y", that's why there are so many Ys in Welsh.
In Irish is can be an a, e, i, o, or u, and in many dialects close to every short vowel in an unstressed syllable.
e.g. consain leathana = [cons@n' l'æ@n@]

the Auxilliary Vowel (an guta cúnta)

l, n, r are not just any old consonants, but liquids and have noch so manche Besonderheit. Here, an important one:
Between  l, n, r, following vowels and preceding b, bh, ch, g, m, mh,
(so in combinations like: lb, nb, rb, lbh, nbh, rbh, lch, nch, rch, lg, ng*, rg, lm, nm, rm, lmh, nmh, rmh, rn) one speaks an [@] (spoken wie e in Blume) , but it is never written.
This is the auxilliary vowel (cúnamh = help) It is also called the epenthetic vowel (epenthetic = inserted).

*: The consonant cluster ng are mostly to denote the velar nasal (like English"ng"), then no aux. vowel is needed.
only in a few cases would one pronounce n and g separately and only then is an aux. vowel inserted. (e.g. tháinig > thangamair = we came [han@g@m@r'])

examples: gorm [gor@m] = blue; dearg [d'ar@g] = red; leanbh [l'an@bh] = child; ainm [an'@m'] = name; Colm [Col@m]; dorcha [dor@cha] = dark
If this aux. vowel was to be written, then most likely as "a" or "i": e.g.: *goram, *dearag, *leanabh, *ainim, *Colam, *doracha. But it is not done.
Today the writing of the aux. vowel is only following a double-l,n,r, e.g. farraige = sea (earlier fairrge)

The aux. vowel allows for easier pronunciation. It is necessary due to the shortness of Irish vowels.
(very different from German: e.g. dt."Holm" is easy to pronounce without help, but the dt. o in Holm is much longer as the Irish o in Colm)

In Munster, by cases of e.g. cn, mn, gn, also those at the beginning of a word (mná, gnó, cnámh)[ 1 ] and other connections with l,n,r, an aux. vowel is inserted.

Tongue Twisters like mb, gc, nd, bhf, bp, dt....

such combinations come up due to eclipsis (urú). only the 1st consonant is spoken (so m, g, n, bh, b, d in the example)

All those Hs...

The h serves as a notation of lenition (séimhiú): bh, ch, dh, fh, gh, mh, ph, sh, th
It took the place of the earlier system of [ 2 ] the old script; a dot (ponc séimhithe) above the consonants (much clearer)

Here, a sample text (the Lord's Prayer)

Other usage as the h-prefix: hA, ha, hE, he, hI, hi, hO, ho, hU, hu
Within a word, or the lone h is only common in foreign-/borrowed words (e.g. hata = hat)

small letters in front of uppercase...

e.g.: nA, nE, tS, tA, tE, nD, nG, mB, bhF, bP, hA etc.

In cases of eclipsis and t-,h-,n-prefixes of capital letters (e.g. in titles) the added consonant is written small directly followed be the capital letter.
e.g. Poblacht na héireann = Republic of Ireland; Tir na nóg = Land of Youth, Dún na nGall = Donegal
Sometimes in compound words the 2nd part is written large: e.g.: an tSeanGhaeilge = Old Irish

Foreign words

Foreign words are tailored to meet the rules of Irish pronunciation and spelling. In this way they become almost impossible to recognise.
The flood of foreign words comes mostly via English, and their pronunciation of Latin words e.g. is often taken on and then set in writing.
When possible, Irish suffixes or. word stems are used
e.g. teilifísean = television, síceolaíocht = Psychology (síc from the Greek psych + Irish. eolaí = sage+ Irish -cht as noun suffix)

the spelling reform

In the 40s, a spelling reform took place, in which relatively thoroughly the written word was matched up with the pronunciation. The problems arising in the dialectical differences, making the necessity of a central "middle of the road" dialect.
With this, the written Irish became more similar to the pronunciation, but a complete congruence is not the case. The artificial Lárchanúint (central dialect) came into being as a result of this reform; in which the written Irish mirrors the pronunciation the most.
In the spelling reform, one omitted many of the letters that were voicelss in the majority of dialects, e.g. -óchaidh > -óidh, -uchadh > -ú, -aedhea- > -ae-, -amhail > -úil,-ighe > í, -idhe > í, etc. In addition to this, there were conventions of spelling, whose roots are in the pronunciation: , -ighea > ío, ln/nl/dl > ll, dn/nd > nn, etc.
Parallel to the spelling reform one switched from the Gaelic script (sample text ) to the modern script.

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[ 1 ] in the North (Connacht, Ulster) this is spoken [kr, mr, gr]
[ 2 ] In Old Irish only the lenited letters f and s were noted with a dot (the dot was generally used as a sign of deletion, punctum delens. Since a lenited f loses its voice, and a lenited s is spoken as h, they were, quasi, "deleted").
lenited c, p, t were denoted with an h (ch, ph, th) , as "ch", "ph", "th" were known from the Latin (or from the Greek).
lenited b, d, g, m were completely without notation, because letter combinations like "bh", "dh", "gh"  and "mh" were unknown to Latin speaking scholars.
First later, in Classical Irish became the dot over all lenited consonants the rule. Now, in the age of modern script, the h in its place (supposedly because typewriters had no key for dotted letters)
The letters l, n are lenitable in spoken Irish, but in the written form they remain unlenited.