30 July 2008


Irish threw me for a loop when I first started: nowhere in English do the fronts of words change! Sure, we add prefixes to words to change meaning, but we don't start mucking about with the starting letters to denote plurals or present vs past tense and things like that! Most languages change the endings of words to indicate case/time/person (or sometimes the middles - life and live are an example of mutation in a word).

But not the Celtic languages. Nope - they, like Malay, Paiute, and a few languages in western Africa, have initial consonant mutation. What that really means is that Irish changes the beginning of words, as well as the endings of words. It can be a bit confusing, since quite often, both happen at the same time, and it accounts for the surprising number of 'h's" that show up in a language that doesn't actually have a letter H.

The two primary inflexions are lenition (séimhiú) and eclipsis (urú).

Lenition, or aspiration, affects the letters b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s, and t. I remember the rule about which consonants can be aspirated with the common HALORAN—the consonants in Haloran are never lenited. There are exceptions, of course - 'sl', 'sn', 'sr' are affected, but none of the other words starting with s, since they would be impossible to pronounce. In linguisitic terms, a becomes a fricative -- that is b, which is made by closing the lips and then allowing a puff a air through, is changed so that the sound is constant. This is most obvious with the pair of sounds b and w, but the rest are easy enough. Vowels don't lenite, they are already spoken without any sort of stop.

The sounds are easy:
b, m --> bh, mh --> pronounced as v or w
c --> ch --> as in Scottish loch
d, g--> dh, gh --> like the sound for ch, but with a gh-sort of guttural sound
p--> ph --> pronounced like f
s, t --> sh, th --> pronounced like hy- or h-
f --> fh --> silent
It's when they are used that gets a bit more complicated. I have pages of notes on when lentition occurs and in what situations it does not. Suffice it to say that whole chapters in grammar books can be devoted to lenition and the various rules (after articles, in the genetive case, in compound words, etc.) Nouns. adjectives, and some verbs can be lenited -- including names, which was a big surprise to me.

Your name is your name! The pronunciation of your name shouldn't change just becuase I am speaking directly to you (the vocative case). Máire becomes a Mháire, which is just freaky.

In any case, I don't understand all the situations where lenition occurs yet, so I'm just getting comfortable with the way it occurs so that I can correctly predict whether a letter can be aspirated and what the resulting sound is. For now, that's good enough.

The other kind of mutation is eclipsis, which replaces an initial sound with a different one. It's used in different situations from lenition, but is also effects nouns, adjectives, and verbs as well. Eclipsis affects b, c, d, n, f, p, t -- you can use MS HALORAN to remember the consontants that don't eclipse.
b-->mb, c--> gc; d --> nd, g--> ng; f --> bhf; p --> bp; and t --> dt.
all vowels are eclipsed by n-
Pronunciation is easy -- just replace the sound of the eclipsed letter with the new one. bád --> mbád --> pronounced mahd. Thess are usually pretty easy to spot, and the best hint I've read: if the combination of consontants at the beginning of a word look unpronounceable...chances are you just ignore the last one. I mean, how would you pronounce bpáirc? buh-puh-....ah, no.

So what does all this mean to a beginner, like me? Well, it makes looking up words in the dictionary pretty hard! Since I spend a fair amount of my time trying to decipher Irish in the many Yahoo! Groups and sites that I come across, knowing how to figure out what the real word is to look up is half the battle!

The very helpful folks at GaelMinn have put together a one-page guide to using the dictionary. It's helpful to learn the 'rules' when you start out, until you get a feel for the vagaries of the base words that are indexed.

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