01 July 2008

Pronunciation Woes: Vowels I

I can only hope that my accent speaking Irish is as charming and sexy as we American English speakers find an Irish accent. (Really, several of the lovely barmen in Ireland could just read the phone book and I'd be enthralled). We have accents because we do not have the same sounds for vowels and our "native" pronuncation spills over into how we pronounce foreign words.

Americans have a hard time with the French nasal 'n', Spanish trilled 'r', and the rounded vowel sounds of some Scandinavian langauges (hell, we have problems with our own language, I shoudln't worry about examples!). Many speakers of western langauges have a very hard time even hearing the difference in many Asian languages, much less being able to reproduce the sounds accurately. Is that 'a' pronounced 'aw' or 'ah' or 'ay'? It is 'ee' or 'eye' for 'i'? The Irish speak English with that lovely accent because of the way letters are pronounced in Gaelic, and I will likely speak Gaelic with the flat vowels of American midwestern English unless I pay close attention and try to mimic native speakers and practice a LOT with recordings.

Which of course assumes I can find a native speaker. Not the easiest thing in the world, so I've been reduced to the CD sets that come along with my books, and online references (hopefully with sound files). In fact, one of the posters from Daltai has provided recordings of all the sounds in Ulster Irish, which I host on my website.

Vowels are actually easy. As I noted before, there are short forms and long forms of each vowel in Irish. And, unlike English, Irish Gaelic has the common decency to show when the vowel is long or short (instead of relying on incomprehensible spelling rules and rote memorization).

Short vowels are a, e, i, o, u. Long vowels are written with an acute symbol over them, like this: á, é, í, ó, ú. Because i and í look awfully alike, a font face that is Gaelic-friendly will not have a dot over a normal i, and you normally omit it when you write things out longhand.

botherában, bar
Of course unstressed syllables disappear into a generic 'uh' sound. The English word 'above' is not pronounced as an exaggerated 'ah-bohv', the 'a' and 'o' are subsumed into the sound of the syllable and it becomes 'uh-buhv'. The same occurs in Irish. Vowels -- long or short -- in unstressed syllables are reduced to the generic schwa. Occassionally whole words disappear -- as, ag, agus often are reduced to an 'uh' sound in normal conversation.

Learning Irish has a rather cryptic fold-out pronunciation guide, which I must admit confused me more than it helped. Partly this is because the "example" words are supposed to be pronounced as an English person would say them, not American English, which got me set off on the wrong foot. Even with a standard phonetic spelling, it can be difficult. Each word introduced in the lessons is provided with pronunciation notes in the vocabulary list, as well.

I will make a strong suggestion that you learn to read and use the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is used in some form in nearly all pronouncing dictionaries (including the Foclóir Scoile.) It takes a bit to learn, but it really is the most accurate (and non-accented) way to understand the sounds that you're supposed to be using. Be careful on websites to determine whether their are using 'English' pronunciation (American English and British English pronounce many vowels quite differently) so you know how it should be used.

There are dozens of online sources for pronunciation, here are a few:
Phouka.com (with sound)
Daltai (with sound)
Beginners Guide
Fios Feasa
Musical Traditions (simplified)
Nagail Magazine (with sound)

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