01 July 2008

Pronunciation Woes: Vowels II

I found it easy enough to figure out the "plain" vowels (a, e, i, o, u, á, é, í, ó, ú) and the whole idea that they tend to disappear in normal speech under certain circumstances. Even if I manage them as I would in English, I'm probably ok. 'Bat' vs 'ball' for the 'a' is pretty intuitive.

However, it's about this point that most books toss in the 'slender/broad' thing. This really relates to how consonants are pronounced, but it affects how vowels are combined, so let me explain:

In Irish, the vowels i and e, whether long or short, are considered slender vowels. A, o, u (and the combination ae) are considered broad vowels. This doesn't actually change the pronunciation of the vowels themselves, but it affects spelling in a predictable (but odd) way. The rule you'll hear quoted in every single Irish textbook is 'caol le caol agus leathan le leathan' -- slender with slender, broad with broad.

What this means in practice is that the 'type' of vowel on either side of a consonant must be the same. If there's an i before the consonant, then there must be an i or e after it (well, if there are any letters after it at all, of course). Because of the spelling rule, there are often vowels inserted into the word to ensure that the consontant is flanked by the same type. The tricky part is that these are not always pronounced, but they do change the pronunciation of the following consonant. I'll talk more about that later, but suffice it to say that sometimes the combinations of vowels that show up in words are a bit off: iúi, eoi, uai.

Most of the time, the i at the end of the vowel combination is not really spoken, it just adds a bit of a 'glide' to the pronunciation -- an i-sound or y-sound that is very subtle, like the difference between the vowel sounds in (American) English 'moot' and 'mute' or 'pave' and 'pail'. Actually, that's a fairly strong example, it's usually less obvious, at least to my ear.

It's the combinations of vowels that throw me (as they do in English, I guess.) Learning Irish doesn't really talk much about these, but the first time you venture into an Irish Dictionary, you'll be faced with some interesting spellings. Quite a few of these are pronounced almost the same as the basic vowel, just a tiny bit of that 'moot/mute' vowel changing.
ái → ai
ói → ói
éi → éi
eo → ə
íu → íy
aoi → uí → oí → í
eoi → yoi
iúi → yúi
uío → eeo
ia → íə
uai → úe
ao → é (munster) → í (connacht/ulster/standard)
ae → é
ei → eh
ea → a (in connacht like ae)
ai → a or o
ui → i
oi → between e and o
io → í
There are also a few combinations that are pronounced differently when they occur at the beginning of a word:
eo at beginning → ó
iú at beginning → ú
ui at beginning → i
oi at beginning → i or e
I'm sure there are others that I haven't managed to track down yet. As you can see, in most cases, you actually do pronounce all the vowels that are printed, some just get squashed into the 'glide' (usually i or o). I've printed out a chart and taped it to the inside of Learning Irish, in the hopes that these will start to look familiar.

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