22 July 2008

To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to

Sometimes, having a couple of different audio references really isn't a help. One of the things that many textbooks do early on is highlight the differences between the three primary dialects of Irish. Ulster, Munster, and Connacht Irish often have different pronunciations -- much like Boston, Atlanta, and California speakers pronounce words differently in English. So far, so good.

This became an issue for me because my first exposure to Irish was via Ulster Irish in Irish on your Own. The primary textbook that I am using is Learning Irish (Connacht Irish -- and even more specifically, Cois Fhairrge). And now I'm focusing primarily on Rosetta Stone (Munster Irish).

This is getting a bit confusing. No, confusing is not really the right word -- I'm not having any problems understanding what is meant by the vocabulary or word forms, but I find myself blurring the pronunciation of specific words in a way that would probably make a native speaker cringe.

For example, "maith". (good, well). This comes up constantly in all the courses --
go raibh maith agat (thank you),
oiche mhaith (good evening),
tá mé go maith (I am well).
I've heard 'maith' pronounced as moy, my, mah on the different CDs and tapes that I have. Go online to listen to native speakers, and the variations abound.

Ulster Irish (at least according to the Irish on Your Own folks), pronounces this as something close to 'myee' or 'moy'. So, go raibh maith agat --> gur moy uh-gut (pardon the rude phonetics, but that comes pretty close).

Enter Pimsler...and 'maith' is clearly 'mah'. Well, except for 'oiche mhaith', which suddenly becomes 'ee-hah WHY', and the nifty phrase 'ba mhaith liom' that I learned in Ulster Irish as 'buh why lum' is inexplicably 'buh va lum' in Munster and 'buh wah lum' in Connacht. This isn't really a problem, and all three pronunciations are valid, but I catch myself refusing to say 'ba va lum' when talking to the Pimsleur speakers because it sounds wrong to me. It isn't, I just got the pronunciation sounds in my head from my first exposure and apparently that is what I "hear" when asked to repeat things.

Of course, Rosetta also uses Munster Irish -- well, not entirely, the native speakers are primarily Munster speakers, but there is quite a bit of variation in the spoken prompts. The catch here is that Rosetta Stone checks your pronunciation with rather sophisticated voice-recognition software, so you can't fudge it! Turn sensitivity up enough to catch the big gaffes, and it's definitely expecting 'mah'. I get a rather depressing raspberry sound when I respond 'my' brightly to the software.

Is this all really such a huge problem? No, not really. It might spark long and contentious arguments over the 'proper' pronunciation of things among advanced speakers (which just confuses those of us who are struggling with the basics), but any of the pronunciations given is probably going to be understood and you can tweak your pronunciation as you get more fluent. At least that's my opinion.

Of course, I'll probably end up speaking some strange mish-mash of different dialects. I don't see a problem with this -- all of us incorporate new words into our vocabularly, or hold on to our learned pronunciations. How do you pronounce 'aunt' -- ant? or awnt? It's a recognized variant, so no one blinks when you stick with the pronunciation you learned. The purists will not accept this, of course - there are a number of Irish speakers on various boards who insist that there is a "right way" and a "wrong way" to pronounce everything, and that anyone who does not recognize the differences is doomed to be an utter failure as a learner.

Part of learning a language is learning to mimic the pronunciation and intonation of native speakers -- it is important, and I don't mean to make light of the fact that to speak a language you do have to learn to speak it properly and understandably.

However, go online and check the variety of pronunciations offered for even this single word and it's easy to see how people get confused.
Transparant Language: go raibh maith agat, oiche mhaith, and others.
Daltai.com: tá mé go maith

Irish Times online Irish lessons:
Nóra: Tá mé go maith, agus conas tá tú féin? (TAW* may* goh MAH, AH-guhs KUN-uhs TAW* too fay*n).

Irish Lessons with Dennis Doyle:
Tá mé go maith--> tah may go mah or Táim go maith-->tah-im go mah
oíche mhaith-->ee-ha-why

Irish Lion (a restaurant, but with quite a bit of Irish culture notes)
Tá mé go maith go raibh maith agat, pronounced
taw may guh moh, gurrah mah hahgut, or taw may guh moh, guh row moy ah-gut,

Wiki Travel:
Táim go maith (TAW'm guh MAH)
Go raibh maith agat/agaibh. (GUH ROH MAH ug-ut/ug-iv)
Oíche mhaith. (EE-hah why)
And dozens of others - search irish pronuciation in Google and have fun!

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