The Irish Accent

It’s been a very busy day, as Tuesdays tend to be this term, so I thought I’d wind down with a little blog post.

Some time ago I got an email from Maynooth University about Irish language classes. Still feeling a bit ashamed about not having learned Welsh in all my time in Cardiff, I thought I’d sign up for the Beginners class and fill in a Doodle Poll to help the organizers schedule it. Unfortunately, when the result was announced it was at a time that I couldn’t make owing to teaching, so sadly I’m not learning Irish properly yet.

I have picked up a few things about the language, however, which it might be worth passing on here. Although Irish and Welsh are both Celtic languages they are from two distinct groups: the Goidelic group that comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group that comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, the Picts, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish. Also incidentally, Breton was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people from South-West Britain which peaked somewhere around 500 AD. I guess that was the first Brexodus.

Welsh and Irish don’t sound at all similar to me, which is not surprising really. It is thought that the Brythonic languages evolved from a language  brought to Britain by people from somewhere in Gaul (probably Northern France), whereas the people whose language led to the Goidelic tongues were probably from somewhere in the Iberia (modern-day Spain or Portugal). There are nevertheless some similarities. For example, `Merry Christmas’ is Nadolig Llawen in Welsh and Nollaig Shona in Irish..

Anyway, back to the topic of this post, there is only one accent in Irish (in the sense of a diacritic mark), which is the síneadh fada (`long accent’), sometimes called the fada for short, which looks the same as the acute accent in, e.g., French. There’s actually one in síneadh if you look hard enough. It just means the vowel is pronounced long (i.e. the first syllable of síneadh is pronounced SHEEN).

One does find quite a few texts (especially online) where the fada is carelessly omitted, but it really is quite important. For example Cáca is the Irish word for `cake’, while the unaccented Caca means `excrement’…

I took the above text in Irish and English from the front cover of an old examination paper. You can see the accents as well as another feature of Irish which is slightly similar to Welsh, the mysterious lower-case h in front of Éireann. This is a consequence of an initial mutation, in which the initial character of word changes in various situations according to syntax or morphology (i.e. following certain words changing the case of a noun or following certain sounds). This specific case is an an example of h-prothesis (of an initial vowel).

In Welsh, mutations involve the substitution of one character for another. For example, `Wales’ is Cymru but if you cross the border into Wales you may see a sign saying Croeso i Gymru, the `C’ having mutated. The Irish language is a bit friendlier to the learner than Welsh, however, as the mutated character (h in the example above) is inserted in front of the unmutated character. Seeing both the mutated and unmutated character helps a person with limited vocabulary (such as myself) figure out what’s going on.

Mutations of consonants also occur in Irish. These can involve lenition (literally `weakening’, also known as aspiration) or eclipsis (nasalisation). In the case of eclipsis the unmutated consonant is preceded by another denoting the actual sound, e.g. b becomes m in terms of pronunciation, but what is written is mb. On the other hand, lenition is denoted by an following the unmutated consonant.

In older forms of Irish the overdot (ponc séimhithe) -another diacritic – was used to denote lenition. Had this practice continued into the modern era there would be two Irish accents, but nowadays there is only one.


20 Responses to “The Irish Accent”

  1. Many many years ago, I was finishing my D.Phil and applying for jobs. There was a potentially interesting physics postdoc post advertised at the University of Galway. I wrote to ask for the application forms (many years pre-internet, you understand). A pack duly arrived, with a note on the cover saying “every attempt will be made to ensure interviews are held on the same day as the examination in Gaelic”. I deduced they did not want me….

    • No, it was more likely the case that many years ago a proficiency in the Irish language was required for civil service jobs, and I think that university posts came under this heading.

      I studied both French and Irish at the same time and must admit I found Irish a lot more difficult. Perhaps because I wanted to study French while Irish was compulsory.

      • People around here complain, not that their kids have to learn Irish at school, but that it is taught in a very boring way.

  2. This is interesting and I’ve learnt something. I had wondered why some proper nouns sometimes have an extra letter before them in Irish.

    • Does Welsh only have initial consonant mutations?

      • Yes, that’s right, only initial consonant mutations (with ll and rh being regarded as single letters).

      • You can find the h-prothesis (thanks, I didn’t know it was called that) in Welsh too, but these days maybe only in chapel as in “Gras ein Harglwydd Iesu Grist …. “

      • Is that the same process? The “H” in “Gras ein Harglwydd Iesu Grist” is an extra letter that is pronounced along with the “a” of “Arglwydd”, of course. Is this the same as in Irish, or is it a different process?

      • Apparently it’s the same. See here.

      • Ah, I see. I had misunderstood what happened in Irish.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    It is thought that the Brythonic languages evolved from a language brought to Britain by people from somewhere in Gaul (probably Northern France), whereas the people whose language led to the Goidelic tongues were probably from somewhere in the Iberia (modern-day Spain or Portugal).

    Conjectures like this will be settled soon. A wonderful book called “Who we are and how we got here” was published earlier this year by David Reich. He is the man who first applied whole-genome testing to paleo-DNA from ancient bone marrow, teeth pulp etc and compared the results against a library of whole-genome DNA from multiple persons from differing identifiable people groups today. The aim is to infer ancient migrations much more accurately than from merely a small number of the sites on the human genome that show variations. Whole-genome results are much more reliable and have already confirmed some things that we thought we knew and disconfirmed others. This research has only been going on for about a decade and new results are coming in monthly; we are in the middle of a revolution.

    ‘Brythonic’ is presumably a variation on ‘Briton’ and ‘Breton’. The people who fled south across the Channel to what is now Brittany were getting out in the face of the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the lifetimes after the Romans quit (in 410AD).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      PS There is a good deal of cluster analysis in the book. It’s ad hoc and I know how to do it properly using Bayes (in the 1994 MaxEnt Conference proceedings, tackling an isomorphic problem!)

  4. I’m attending Irish conversation classes at NUIG that are free to staff. I also applied for a 2 year diploma course that requires 3 hours a week and costs 800 euros but could be provided free if the Head of School agrees, but since it was my first year at NUIG, I was not eligible to have the fees waived. Also attending conversation classes for 5 euros at the local Conradh na Gaeilge, where we do simple conversation and work through childrens books. A useful tip is to look for kids books and textbooks in charity shops aswell as trying the school textbooks. The on-line Irish course accessed via a public library card is good for conversation, as is the Independant course by Hothouse Flowers member Laim O’Maonlai and his sound files are also available. sh-with-liam-o-maonlai-26460087.html

    I previously attended free classes at Manchester Irish Language Group funded by the Irish Government; they provide lots of free events and support for Irish culture in the UK. We worked through “Progress in Irish” and other on-line material, and before that, Scottish Gaelic with An Comunn Gàidhealach Manchester Branch, taught by a retired Professor of Russian, John Dumbreck from Manchester University, who interestingly was an expert in diverse Russian and German dialects and worked for the secret service during WW2 and as a translator during the war crimes tribunnals. He could definately tell which island and village a Gaelic speaker was from, and would spend his holidays in the Hebrides staying with native Gaelic speaking guesthouses and quizzing the local children on their Gaelic usage.

    Despite all this, I’m not very good and I tend to speak Scottish gaelic rather than Irish, and my Irish sounds Scottish because the vowel sounds are different, so I’m attempting to learn the Connemara dialect here. I also listen to Irish and Scottish songs which helps with vocab, I already had a large collection of CDs, also TG4, BBC Alba with subtitles and Radio Na Gaeltachta. My current favourite Irish singer is Roisin Elsafty, she has a lovely CD of Christmas Carols “Amhráin na Nollag: Favourite Christmas Songs in Irish”, and my current favourite Scottish gaelic singer is Julie Fowlis. Both have beautiful pronunctiation and gentle voices, and provides a wide range of styles.

    • That reads like a very interesting learning experience, particularly the contact with the expert academic linguist. I wish you every success on your journey to learning Irish, a magnificent objective. I can see some parallels with my attempts to learn Welsh, and hope you achieve fluency soon.

      • I found more about Professor John Craig Dumbreck on the internet from family trees of the Dumbrecks. His story was very interesting and I offered his photo to Manchester University but they didnt seem that interested, even though they have his papers in their archives. He was recruited from Glasgow University where he studied Russian and German, and based at R A F Bletchley Park, but as he could speak five languages, Russian German Dutch Spanish and Italian, he was sent out to Massterick in Holland to dress and live like the natives, as he spoke Dutch, fitted in very well and also with German as well. He was able to pick up intelligence and send back to Britain. John was trapped in Berlin during the blockade.

        John was recruited for the Nuremberg Trials as an interpreter for those who couldn’t understood what was being said. John was then employed as a civil servant to translate documents and discussions in the postwar allied government, but was made redundent immediately as the governments and treaties were disbanded and reformed. John joined University of Manchester as a lecturer and then became a professor of Russian at Manchester University retiring in 1988 and then given the honour of emeritus professor, John sadly passed away in Stepping hill hospital in August 2013.

        He only spoke about his alternative career a few months before he died to some children. He often disppeared into USSR for his summer vacations from Manchester, driving there from UK in a clapped out car and roaming in the forests for what he called his “peasant holidays”. He was often followed and had his car impounded and his hotel rooms searched, and he enjoyed telling of his adventures.

        John was a great teacher of the Gaelic languages. He was able to explain how words were derived from Latin, Old Irish and the Indus European roots of the languages. It was fascinating and he used to strictly tell the other members of the class, a set of elderly ladies, off for forgetting their Gaelic grammar and verb declensions. He was more tolerant of me as I was an academic.

      • telescoper Says:

        It is very strange how I have virtually perfect recall of so many bits of Latin grammar from my schooldays but have such difficulty remembering the PIN for my bank card.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        That’s an interesting story about Prof. Dumbreck. A remarkable life.

    • Following the Gaelic/Celtic rock theme, Runrig are a Scottish Gaelic rock band
      who toured from 1973 to 2018. They retired this summer and have a huge back catalogue of Gaelic and English songs. They did great things for the Scottish Gaelic language and laid the foundation for bands such as Capercaillie, Manran, Julie Fowlis.

      As Runrig retired this summer, a “dedicated learning unit has been launched by Gaelic educational resource organisation Storlann Naiseanta na Gaidhlig aimed at celebrating the contribution Runrig have had on the Gaelic language over their lifespan.”….

      look for Foghlam Farsaing Coitcheann to download.

  5. Here’s the link to my favourite Irish Christmas carols

    Another tip is your own Maynooth Uni service Vifax, which provides a weekly news and sport summary in simple slowly spoken Irish with a written transcript, list of vocab and comprehension questions set suitable for beginners and intermediate. It allows picking up of expressions and vocab for current affairs and sport, plus practising pronunctiation and getting used to the spelling-pronunctiation which I find most difficult.

  6. […] As we head into next week’s study break in the middle of which is the St Patrick Day Bank Holiday, I thought I’d share this video. It’s the first episode of a series in which comedian Des Bishop, who missed out on Irish language lessons at school, moves to Conamara for 9 months to learn Irish. In the Name of the Fada is not to be confused with famous film, the “Fada” of the title referrring to the síneadh fada, the only diacritic mark in modern Irish. I wrote about it here. […]

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