Irish/Unit 1/Lesson 1

< Irish‎ | Unit 1
In This Lesson

In this lesson, you will learn about:

  • The Irish language and its dialects
  • The Irish alphabet and the síneadh fada, or long accent mark
  • How to pronounce your first few Irish words and letters
  • The Verb-Subject-Object (VSO) word order in Irish


Gaeilge | The Irish LanguageEdit

Vocabulary
Gaeilge the Irish language pronunciation
Gaeltacht Irish-speaking region pronunciation

Irish (Gaeilge) is the traditional language of the island of Ireland, where some version of Irish has been spoken for at least 1,500 years.

Decline and RevivalEdit

The Norman and later English invasions of Ireland made first French and then English the language of government, law, and commerce, and by the mid-19th century, English had crowded out Irish in much of the country. This was in part intentional, with English-run government schools teaching only English.

In the late nineteenth century, prominent Irish patriots and nationalists started the Gaelic Revival movement. The Revival encouraged an Irish identity in all aspects of society, but one major focus was the Irish language.

Ulster, Connacht, and MunsterEdit

Main page: Dialects

At the time of the Revival, Irish was still spoken as a living, daily language in parts of three of the four provinces of Ireland: Ulster in the north, Connacht in the west, and Munster in the south. These Gaeltachtaí, or Irish-speaking areas, were often isolated, leading to differences in grammar and pronunciation.

Most languages have some regional variation, but language learners usually learn one standardized dialect and accent; English has Received Pronunciation and Chinese has Pǔtōnghuà or Standard Chinese. Irish is unusual in this respect. While there is an official standard of written Irish used in official government documents, it is a compromise between the major dialects, and not a language anyone actually speaks. It is also purely written, and speakers from different parts of Ireland will pronounce some words of "standard" Irish differently. Instead, all three major dialects of Irish have equal stature in Irish culture.

This makes many students of Irish nervous about which dialect of Irish they should learn, and makes the authors of textbooks like this one nervous about which they should teach. But all of us should relax. The dialects are mutually intelligible and many Irish people, especially those who studied Irish at school rather than growing up in a Gaeltacht, speak a mixed dialect.

Which dialect you want to focus on will depend on your reasons for wanting to learn the Irish language, and especially who you want to speak to. We will note in the text when there are major differences between the three major dialects: Ulster, Connacht, and Munster. The most notable differences have to do with pronunciation. To get an idea of the difference between dialects, follow this link to teanglann.ie, a site which provides audio examples for many Irish words in all three major dialects:

The vocabulary lists in this textbook will contain links to this site where available. For more information on Irish dialects, please see our reference page on Irish dialects.

The Irish Alphabet: Deceptively FamiliarEdit

Languages like Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew or Georgian challenge the learner with an entirely new and unfamiliar alphabet. Irish uses the familiar Latin alphabet used in English, but it brings its own challenges by assigning some familiar letters unfamiliar sounds.

The LettersEdit

Main page: Alphabet
Vocabulary
sínead fada long accent mark fada pronunciation

There are two important differences between the English and Irish versions of the Latin alphabet.

First, there are eight consonants in the English alphabet that rarely appear in Irish. They are:

j k q v
w x y z

These letters were not traditionally part of the Irish language, but many of them have found a place in modern Irish, especially for writing foreign names or loanwords. Some, like "v", are fairly common, while others, like "y", are much rarer, and "k" is all but unknown.

The second difference is that Irish has ten vowels:


a e i o u
á é í ó ú

As you can see, each of the five standard English vowels has a long variant, which is Irish is indicated by a mark called a síneadh fada.

A vowel with or without a síneadh fada, or fada for short, is considered a different letter in Irish, and adding or removing a fada can completely change the meaning of a word. For example, the Irish word briste is an adjective meaning "broken." The Irish word bríste is a noun, meaning "trousers".

Be careful! Some language learning platforms, including Duolingo, do not mark an answer with a wrong or misplaced fada as incorrect. Don't let that lull you into thinking that the fada is unimportant. Be sure to study the exercises and lessons until you get the fadas correct, just as you would with any other letter.

If you wish, you can learn more about the Irish alphabet on the [Irish/Alphabet | Alphabet] page in the Grammar section. For now, all you need to know is how to generate fadas on any device you plan to use to study Irish. Here is an external link that might be helpful:

Bitesize Irish: Our Fada

Pronouncing the LettersEdit

Main page: Pronunciation

There is a well-known Irish language author and podcaster named Darach Ó Séaghdha. If you guessed how he pronounced his last name based on English spelling, you'd be unlikely to hit on the correct pronunciation, which sounds something like O'Shea to an English ear. To an English speaker, some Irish words seem to have long strings of silent letters, while "v" sounds sometimes pop up unexpectedly in the middle of a cluster of "m"s, "h"s, and "d"s.

The good news is that Irish pronunciation is not as hard as it looks at first glance. It's more regular and predictable than English, and those letters and clusters that are pronounced very differently from English are easy to recognize once you know what to look for.

Rather than present you with a list to memorize, the goal of Unit One will be to introduce you to a few letters and sounds at a time. Let's start with the words that will make up your first Irish language sentence.

Your First Irish SentenceEdit

Vocabulary
léigh read pronunciation
leann [he or she] reads pronunciation
leabhar book pronunciation
Niamh [personal name] pronunciation

Verb-Subject-ObjectEdit

In English, most simple sentences follow the word order Subject - Verb - Object:

Jane (subject) reads (verb) a book (object)

Irish instead uses a 'Verb - Subject - Object, or VSO, word order for most sentences:

Reads (verb) Jane (subject) a book (object)

Many Irish sentences follow this basic structure. Now let's learn the words we need to say this sentence in Irish.

The Verb "Léigh"Edit

The Irish verb leigh, meaning "read" or "to read", has two or three sounds, depending on the dialect. The first two are straightforward:

spelling IPA phoneme English equivalent
L /l/ "l" as in "lure" (this can sound more like "ly" in some dialects)
éi /eː/ "a" is in "acorn", or "ay" as in "may"
gh

The final two letters, gh, are pronounced differently depending on the dialect:

Connacht Irish [silent]
Ulster Irish short "-i" like the last "i" in "Hawaii"
Munster Irish "g" as in "wig"

So in Connacht, we end up with something like the English "lay"; in Ulster, "lay-ee", and Munster "lay-g". This is a good example of dialectical variation, and hopefully you can see from this example that whichever dialect you end up speaking, most Irish speakers will have no problem understanding each other.

"Leigh" is the root form of the verb, which is the form listed in most dictionaries. To use it in a sentence, we need a different form; in this case, the present tense third person singular, Léann.

This is pronounced in two syllables, with the accent on the first. The first, stressed syllable is pronounced like the Connacht version of "leigh," and the second syllable like the syllable "-an" in "woman." Just as in English, many Irish vowels in unstressed syllables are pronounced with a neutral schwa sound.

The Noun "Leabhar"Edit

Next, we need the word for book, which in Irish is leabhar.

This is where we see our first warning sign. Any time you see a letter "h" following another consonant, you should leave your English language expectations at the door. In modern Irish writing, the h often indicates a change in pronunciation, in a process we'll talk about more in the next few lessons. For now, just know that the "bh" in "leabhar" makes what English speakers think of as a "w" sound.

spelling IPA phoneme English equivalent
l /l/ "l" as in "lure"
ea /a/ "a" as in "hat"
bh /w/ "w" in "wood"
ar /ər/ "-er" in "better"

The end result roughly rhymes with the English word "power." (Ulster pronunciation is more compressed and may sound more like "lore" or "lure" to the English ear). Be sure to follow the pronunciation links in the sidebar above to listen to the pronunciation in all three dialects.

The Name "Niamh"Edit

Our English example sentence was "Jane reads a book." But Jane isn't a very Irish name, is it?

The Irish name Niamh comes from an old Irish word meaning "bright" or "glorious". It's the name of a figure from old Irish mythology, the queen of Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth, and the lover of Oisín, son of the mythical Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill.

Today it's a popular girl's name in Ireland, and is sometimes seen in anglicized forms in other countries.

The pronunciation is straightforward, until we come to the last few letters, where we see another warning "h".

spelling IPA phoneme English equivalent
n /n̠ʲ/ "n" as in "new" (in some dialects this may sound more like "ny")
ia /iə/ "ea" as in "year"
mh /v/ "ve" in "save" (in Ulster this may sound more like a "w")

This name is sometimes anglicized to "Neve," and it roughly rhymes with the English "sleeve".

Putting It TogetherEdit

Now we have all the words we need to make our first sentence. Remembering our V-S-O word order, we have:

Leann (he or she reads) Niamh (the subject, Niamh) leabhar (a book).

Irish does not require an equivalent of the English "a"--"leabhar" can mean "a book" or just "book" depending on the context. We'll explore this more in a later lesson.

ExercisesEdit

When learning a language from a book, it can be tempting to neglect proper pronunciation. Every time you read a sentence or drill a flash card, you are drilling a pronunciation into your mind as well--and if it's the wrong one, it will take a lot of extra work to correct it.

If you're using this textbook for self-study, rather than working with a native or fluent speaker who can give you regular feedback on pronunciation, it is critical to get your pronunciation right the first time. That is why the exercises in Unit One will focus on pronunciation.

Exercise 1Edit

Follow the links below to teanglann.ie and listen to how each word is pronounced in the three major dialects of Irish. Try to pronounce each word out loud both before and after you listen to the example. When you reach the end of the list, go back to the beginning. Repeat until you can predict the pronunciation with reasonable accuracy. You don't have to be perfect, but you should not be pronouncing any words in inappropriate "English" ways--for example, pronouncing leabhar as if it had an English "b" or "h" in the middle.

le (with) leann (read) céile (spouse) leabhar (book) siúil (walk)

Next LessonEdit

Next Lesson

In Lesson 2, you'll learn about:

  • Broad and slender vowels and consonants
  • Definite and indefinite articles
  • How to use a copula to create simple Irish sentences
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