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The Irish Language

Introduction

The first thing I should mention is that Irish is not Gaelic. The language may be called gaelige in Irish, but in English, Gaelic is the name of a language family that includes Scots Gaelic and Manx as well as Irish.

Having got that out of the way, I can go on to say that Irish is one of the most confusing languages I’ve come across (although it doesn’t even begin to compare with Welsh.) I think it’s mostly because they use most of the standard Roman alphabet, but half the letters don’t make the same sounds they do in English, French, or any other language I know that uses the Roman alphabet. They used to have their own alphabet, similar to ours, but it fell victim to government policy in the mid-20th century. So even though I know it’s a foreign language, I can’t help but think of the English pronunciation of the letters. As I am about to explain, this is a big mistake.

Pronunciation

If you ever visit Ireland, you can amuse the locals by trying desparately to pronounce Irish words phonetically. Dublin, for example, is written Baile Áth Cliath. It is pronounced (ball’-ya ahh clee-aw’). The Irish word for prime minister is taoiseach, but is pronounced (tee’-shok). There are patterns that emerge once you’ve been exposed to it for a while, but overall it’s very confusing. I’m using very approximate pronunciations, because a) I am not a dictionary, and b) some of the sounds in Irish aren’t found in English at all. The word for the police (gardai), for example has an unusual /d/ sound. The best I can explain it is this: the same thing you do with a /t/ to make a /th/ sound – you do that to the /d/

There are 17 letters in the Irish alphabet. Vowels can have an acute accent (fada) added, and consonants can be modified by a following h. The h is not a letter, it’s just like an accent (if you think about it, the h sometimes serves this purpose in English, with ch, gh, ph, sh, and th.) It used to be represented by a dot (sí buailte) over the letter, but that was discarded when they switched over to the Roman alphabet. Here’s a rough pronunciation guide, although there are all sorts of exceptions, as with any language.

Letter Pronunciation
Broad* Slender*
a ah
á aw
b b b
bh v w
c k k
ch guttural
ch
guttural
ch
d d j
dh guttural
gh
ee
e eh
é ay
f f
fh silent silent
g g g
gh guttural
gh
ee
i i
í ee
l l l
m m m
mh w v
n n n
o aw
ó oh
p p p
ph f f
r r r
s s sh
sh h h
t t ch
th h h
u uh
ú oo

*Broad and Slender

Consonants are considered broad when surrounded by a, á, o, ó, u, or ú. They are considered slender when surrounded by e, é, i, or í. The vowels on either side of a consonant are required to be the same class, except with some foreign words.


Place Names

For anyone wanting to visit the country, here’s a list of common words that you’ll see in town names. Keep in mind many of these were anglicized during British occupation. So, for example, Dun Moíre, which originally meant “the large fort,” would be called Dunmore. (Irish is similar to French, in that adjectives usually come after the noun they are modifying.)

Irish word English adoption translation Example
baile bally town Ballymun
bun bun foot (of a river) Bunratty
carrig carrick/carrig rock Carrick-on-Suir
cill kill church Killester
cluain clon field Clontarf
dubh dub black Dublin
dún dun fort Dundrum
inis ennis/innis land Inniskillen
leitir letter hillside Letterkenny
loch loch/lough lake Glendalough
moír more big Tramore
noc knock hill Knock
rath rath fort Rathmines
trá tra beach Tramore

Common Words

Some other words you might come across…

Irish English pronunciation
Éire Ireland (air’-a)
Éireann Irish (air’-an)
fáilte/fáilte isteach welcome/welcome in (fawl’-cha)/(fawl’-cha ish’-tock)
fir men (feer)
garda/gardai a police officer/the police (gar’-da)/(gar-dee’)
iarnród railroad (ee-arn’-rod)
an lár city centre (on lar)
mná women
slán/slán abhaile goodbye (slawn)
Taoiseach prime minister (tee-shok’)
Tánaiste deputy prime minister (taw’-nish-ta)
uisce water (ish’-ka)

Names

There are some unusual names, or common names with unusual pronunciation. I’ll give the English equivalent if it sounds the same, or the pronunciation if it doesn’t.

Irish Pronunciation
Aisling (f) (ash’-ling)
Eithne (f) (et’-na)
Emer (f) (ee’-mer)
Eoin (m) Owen
Grainne (f) (grawn’-ya)
Kieran (m) (kee’-ron)
Micheál (m) (mee’-hall)
Niamh (f) (neev)
Nuala (f) (noo’-la)
Oife (f) (ee’-fah)
Oisin (m) (oh’-sheen)
Padraig (m) (por’-ig)
Ruaraidh (m) Rory
Róisín (f) (rosh’-een)
Seán (m) Shawn
Siobhán (f) (shuh-vawn’)

English Usage

The Irish have a unique way of phrasing many English constructions; often this is related to how the same phrase is used in Irish. The most noticeable example is the use of the word “after” as a verb modifier. “I’m after having seen that new film,” which would mean that the speaker has just recently seen the film. This phrasing is a literal translation from the Irish. This literal translation also results in a question such as “How long are you a teacher?” The speaker is asking how long the person has been a teacher. Fairly straightforward, but it can be confusing if you are living in Ireland and people ask, “How long are you in Ireland?” What do they mean? How long have I been here? Or how long will I be here?

Another notable construction is in responses to questions. “Will we see you tonight at the pub” could (but likely wouldn’t) be answered by “You will not.” Similarly, “Can I have a biscuit?” could be answered by, “You can of course,” or just “You can.” Some sources I’ve seen claim that this stems from a lack of words for yes and no in Irish, but my understanding is that there are such words, at least in modern Irish. Similar sounding but unrelated, if you were offered a biscuit and declined it, you could expect your polite host to insist, “You will.” (or, “You will of course.” Irish hostesses can be very insistent.) Beware! Further refusal may be met with cries of “Go on!”

Questions are often followed by the answer the speaker expects to recieve. For example, “The film was crap, yeah?”
And whereas the American use of “like” is to insert it as a placeholder in the middle of a sentence (“That was, like, so funny.”), the Irish put it at the end (“That was real funny, like.”) In both cases it is, of course, completely useless.

External Links

I find the English language to be endlessly fascinating. Likewise with others’ use of it. Here are a few pages I’ve found interesting that relate to the Irish use of English.

18 thoughts on “The Irish Language

  1. We’ve named our garden (!) fraschana (watering can), but have no definite idea how to pronounce the word “frashana”. Can you help with the pronunciation ? Thanks……our family’s from Kerry, with most of our cousins and other relatives still there………….Michael

    1. The word looks like a compound from fras and canna, literally “shower can.” From my limited knowledge, I think you’d be best pronouncing it like “frashCANa.”

  2. dia dhuit Mike.
    cén chaoi a bhfuil tú? Is maith liom an blog seo atá agat!
    tá conaí ormsa anseo in Eirinn.

    Mícheál

  3. Dia dhuit Michael Rice, Your word “Fraschana” is made up of two elements:
    1. “Frais” (pronounced “Frash”), meaning shower or spray, and
    2. “Canna” , meaning a can.

    When they are put together the C of the second word is softened becoming Ch, which is pronounced as in Loch etc

    So then you get “Fraischanna” pronounced “Frash-channa”.

  4. LOL I love it. I am desperately trying to learn Irish since I’ve crazily chosen to send my daughter to an all Irish school. Thanks for the tips. I also had a good laugh when I read the rest of your page. My Irish partner always likes to tease me about how I originally pronounced Mikado (as in the biscuits) and Kilmacanogue (the junction on the M50- not even sure if that is spelled correctly.) My family always says I sound Irish when I come home but I am conviced it is not a real accent but the use of all their strange phrases. My sister particularly likes, “My mot doesn’t do a tap in the gaff,” or “It’s a piece of piss.” They don’t make much sense until you’ve lived around it and then somehow you just get it! LOl

  5. I’m trying to come up with a name for my Irish Band in America. My family. the MacDermotts, once had a stronghold on the island of Lough Key. I don’t know the pronunciation of “lough” however. Can you help me?

    1. Easiest would be to pronounce it like “lock” as in the Scottish Loch Ness. It’s actually a guttural sound but (speaking from personal experience) English speakers can sound a bit silly trying to pronounce it.

      The Irish (and Scots Gaelic) loch means lake, so the castle would have been on an island in Lough Key.

  6. your blog is a good start mike i read a bit of historyand have come into lots of old irish words and the pronunciation and what they mean. endings like taig are pronounced y so marcarthaig is macarthy and so forth d is the same as ith which is hunger so an endind id which i think comes from the norse the dain the viking means the same as ith eithne is eidne the clildren of hunger theywere all seeking somthing to eat . the english wrote down the phonitc they heard such as ai is pronounced in old irisih e so the english wrote e all the double vowels would have an eglish sound pronuchation and with a list of the old double vowels pronuciation you can wrtie them back frrom the phonitc and get meaning.
    the other factor in modern irish is the damn ‘h’s there is no h in old irish take out the hs and you ge the old irish spelling usually this iis also usualy in the irish dictionary and the meaning of it.
    th other factors to consider is the latin injections fo spelling particulary of names and places the priests after 1200 ad were from the continental churchs and spoke read and wrote in latin not iri irish or english therfeore much of the annals were written in latin with a spotting of irish sometimes a half a word in irish half latin .
    the old irisih was pure befoe the norse came in 840 ad and that is avialabe but the few letters left over in the writing from the greek such as p=r and the r shape for s can easily be resymboled into the western alphabet ‘et ‘is the latin bythe way .
    i have just got into time for this myself some on ‘irish women of web’ but you need to get a gilr or have one handy .am sure youcan arrange such slan jd

  7. studying the entrance of the’h’ into the irish word and have found the ‘h’ determines the pronunciation as the norse heard the irish speak it.
    Therefore Domhnaill is spoken Do naill or Donell becoming O don nell.

    the Domhnall becomes spoken by the irish Donall that is the Donalle

    The Donghaille is spoken by the irish Donaille or as the ai is pronounced as e Donelle the elly
    the’ g’ is not pronounced by the irish as in Brighde Bride.
    in the latin Briget or in the norse Brigid or Brigith.

    But with the injection of the ‘h’ in donghaille the ‘g’ is not pronounced and the saying is donaille ,don desire of the le

    Donnelle Where the second n comes from is the nall domhnall or donall
    so donghaille becomes Donnaille or Donnelly.

    voila there you are guys a name at last.

    and it seems to mean basically the world of nall the all or in the creation of the don of the gaille the don aille.
    the dun of the desire of the le .thats us.
    Domhnall was the first kid of Aed FindLiath ard ri and Niall the second.
    Domnall never became hk but was tigerna of ai leach up there in the peninsilla
    and the ai le a woud be the saying of the irish ‘elea’

    ai le ach = e le a as the h eliminated teh c taht is in the written form
    acht is the agreement or teh at
    connacht= connat.

    Toirdhealbhach= tur eal ach= turealac turlough toir of the loc
    raghallaigh= ra ally- reilly.

    the h removed both the gs and the g at the end of the word.

    the use of ‘h’ had to do with elements of the unpronounced letter in the irish writing and was introduced into the writing by the icelandic or Norse in 835ad and continued by the english normans.
    today the ‘h’ is overused in the modern irish making the language almost indeciferable to anyone at all including the native speakers.

    by removing many of the hs in the modern word the letters will come up as old irish the word than taking on mening. most modern words are combined words like the german somtimes whole sentances together but we are getting familiar with that readingagain via the internet logs ins and links.

    part of the loss of the literature of this country was in the transplantation of the mass population of peassants laborers and small cottiers from the country to emigrant states and they had never been educted in the written word there were no books except inthe church or the princes librarys.
    these people were in addition ignorant and poverty stricken and the language to tehm was not of any value in earning a living. it still is not.
    therfore they made great effort to speak and each their children the language of the emigrant lands particularly english .
    without instruction in their own literature the language was completly lost.
    it again creeps up in small ways in the new wars in the middle east in iran iraq islamic names and sometimes in mongolia and japan some american english and bantu north africa words as wellas many english word and german ones.
    it is not a dead language but an emigrated one.

    judi donnelly
    @ august 26 2010

  8. some examples of the pronuniciation of the irish as in the written word with the millions of Hs.

    this writing is taken from a cronology by martin moody and byrne published in 1982 which would be the modern irish now in use in the school system at Eire.

    1501

    Sliocht Aodh Ui Neill divided a territory between
    Mathghmhna Rossa agus Reamoinn.

    the pronunciation would be:

    [Sliot Ao Ui Neill divided the territory between Mamna Rossa and Reamoinn.}

    1502

    Tadhg m Tomaltach m Diarmada tanaiste Magh Luirg morbad do clann Ruaidhri
    Sloicht Concobhair excluded from succession

    {Ta m Tomalta m Dermada taneste Ma Lor marbad[slain by] do
    clannRuairi [Rory]
    sliot Concoer [Connor] excluded from succession.}

    1503

    Clann Mhathghamhna Ui Briain Iar Connacht intervenes Iar Connacht in support of Eoghan O Flaithbheartaigh.

    [Clann A ana Ui Rien interviens Iar Onnact or onat in support of Eoan O Flaieartai]

    Flai ear tai= Fle aurty= Flaherty in the modern name.

    These are 3 good examples in written modern Irish /english historys used today.

    this inclusion of the pronouncing asteric’h’ for not pronouncing the letter before the ‘h’ is much to hard for any person to read and it would be more sensible to convert the words to the old irish and use this as the written guide not the venacular peasant pronunciation still extant in ireland from the people who speak these words and still cant read or write it.

    raeading and wrting under the Gaelic order and the Church order was the porvince of the nobility and the ollams and sometimes the bards.
    the rest were not expected to have these professional skills .
    althouh the emigrtants lost the language completey including the venacular speach the natives ramaining in ireland did retain pronciation and that is what the Hs in all the irish words of today represnt. what the people say.

    A word like mahon is now which was name of prince is the reduction of mathghamna to ma amna or maon or mahon.

    if in the old Irish useage of ‘D’ for ‘th’ a norse useage like Thane or thing
    the word would have been Madamna

    the madam.

    an intersting Irish designation for the king of the hostages and our famous ancestor Niall of the nine hostages.

    He did have 5 sons as well and a few daughters. 8 kids they say.
    perhaps the origninal pagan gaelic gay.

    Gae in the gaelic said to be the spearmen.
    They all joined the Church when Pat came to save their souls from the De’vil these sons of de Bile do Spain siol of the pen.

    judidonnelly

    copyright august 27 2010

  9. Message # Search: Advanced Start Topic
    6 VERBS TO GET AROUND Message List
    Reply | Delete Message #1497 of 1556

    SIUIL – TO WALK
    SIULAIM- I WALK

    DAR ,RA, ASAIR- TO SAY
    DEIRIM- I SAY

    CLOIS- TO HEAR
    CLOISIM- I HEAR

    TAR, TEACHT, TAGTHA- TO COME
    TAGIM- I COME

    FIAFRAIGH- TO ASK
    FIAFRAIM- I ASK

    FAIGHIM- I GET

    FOR THE SEASON

    SONA NOLLAIG
    AGUS
    SONA BLIATH NUA

    Tue Dec 15, 2009 1:26 pm

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    Irish Celtic jewelry
    http://www.addanto.com – We offer a collection of handmade Irish Claddagh and Celtic jewelry. Including rings, crosses and pendants. Give the gift of love, give the Claddagh.

    SIUIL – TO WALK
    SIULAIM- I WALK—–SIULAIM A BAILE-I WALK HOME

    DAR ,RA, ASAIR- TO SAY
    DEIRIM- I SAY——-DEIRIM SONA NOLLAIG-I SAY HAPPY CHRISTMAS

    CLOIS- TO HEAR
    CLOISIM- I HEAR——CLOISIM TAGANN TU- I HEAR YOU COME[ING]

    TAR, TEACHT, TAGTHA- TO COME
    TAGIM- I COME———-TAGIM LE TU-I COME WITH YOU

    FIAFRAIGH- TO ASK
    FIAFRAIM- I ASK———FIAFRAIM CA BIET?–I ASK HOW IS IT

    FAIGHIM- I GET——–FIAGHIM AIRGEAD-I GET MONEY

    FOR THE SEASON

    SONA NOLLAIG
    AGUS
    SONA BLIATH NUA

    Now we have a sentance in broken Irish horrah for the gals of the web

    Tue Dec 15, 2

    EISTIM A TU –I LISTEN TO YOU { A IS PROABLY APPROPRAITE FOR TO}

    TOGAIM SE OR E –I TAKE IT [ SI OR I CAN BE USED FOR TEH FEMININE IT]

    GLANAIM NA TEACH OR ARAS – I CLEAN THE HOUSE

    AMHARCAIM AR OR AG NA LEABAR –I LOOK AT THE BOOK

    CEANNAIM NA LON– I BUY THE LUNCH

    DRUIDIM NA DORAS – I SHUT THE DOOR

    Fri Jan 22, 2010 12:56 pm

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    “judiann22”
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    THe COPULA — IS

    Copula is alinkSomething that connects

    In Language it is a link between subject and predicate in the form of the verb
    TO BE
    ie; he is –not he makes

    IS ME SE –I AM

    IS BADOIR ME– IS BOATMAN I

    ATA IS USED IN ULSTER

    BADOIR ATA –I AM BOATMAN

    TENSE OF IS

    BA MISE– I WAS

    BA TUSA– YOU WERE

    BA EISEAN– HE WAS

    B’ISE –SHE WAS

    BA MUIDNE {MAR]– WE WERE

    BA SIBSE- YOU WERE

    BA IADSAN– THEY WERE

    BA SE FILE– HE WAS POET [was he poet]

    BA SI CHARA– SHE WAS FRIEND

    BA SIAD TIGERNAS THEY WERE PRINCES

    B’ AILTIRE E — HE WAS ARCHETECT [ B’ for ba as the subject begins in a vowel
    e for se standing for he]

    This tense is always in the past as it links the subject spoken of to what was
    what has already happened.
    Its use is easily detected by the change of the pronouns ie: me to mise ,etal]

    Mon Dec 7, 2009 4:34 pm

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    Delete Message #1496 of 1556

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    the copula

  10. More Verbs in Gaelic

    TO SIT———–SUIGH
    I SIT————SUIM

    TO LET OR ALLOW——-LIG
    I LET OR ALLOW——–LIGIM

    TO GO OR LEAVE——–IMIG
    I LEAVE——–IMRIM

    TO BURN———–DOIG——[ANNALS USE THE WORD LOSCAD]
    I BURN————DOIM

    TO GET————FAIGH OR FAIL
    I GET————-FAIGHIM

    TO CLEAN———–GLAN
    I CLEAN————GLANAIM

    TO PRAISE———-MOLAD
    I PRAISE———–MOLIM

    TO WRITE———-SCRIOBH
    I WRITE———–SCRIOBAIM OR SCRIOAIM

    THE BEST COMPILATION OF THESE VERBS AND OTHER PARTS OF SPEECH ARE AVAILABE IN

    BOOK OF GREAT VERBS THE GAELIC SPEECH
    PUBLISHED IN BELFAST 2000 OR SO
    WRITTEN BY PROFESSOR AT QUEENS UNIVERSITY

    have his name somplace about here but not handy you can look up at university site or any of the book compilations world cat or irish retail outlets.

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