Gaelic Orthography

Ken writes:

When I lived in Fife, I tried to learn Scots Gaelic but I got nowhere partly because the teacher seemed to spend most of the class time nattering in English. But partly also because she wouldn’t explain the spelling conventions to us. I should have simply googled them, but strangely it didn’t occur to me. Without knowing how anything was pronounced, I found I couldn’t practice at home between the lessons because I’d forget how to say all the phrases (or rather, I remembered some phrases but wouldn’t know which written phrases they were). When it comes to language and reading, I definitely have an auditory understanding. To me it’s nothing until I know how it’s pronounced. It’s the same way when encountering novel notations in mathematics or logic; I have to be told how to say the new symbolism or else I can’t use it. I can’t learn foreign words from their written forms alone. I need their spoken forms.

I’ve taken a year’s worth of evening classes at UCD in Irish Gaelic and to some extent the problem still applies. I don’t really get Gaelic spelling. This post is my attempt to explain it as far as I understand it and formulate the questions I still can’t answer.

(People in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones. I think English spelling is shockingly bad. In fact, I’d like to see Europe impose English spelling reform on Ireland as a condition of bailing her out. In fact, It’s been argued that English spelling actually holds children back (in comparison to the literacy levels achieved in children learning to read and write their native languages with more phonetically transparent spelling conventions). But this isn’t about English. And anyway the fact that I’ve even been able to formulate questions about Gaelic shows it’s rational in a way English is not. There are no rational answers in English spelling only historical explanations of how it got that way. It is given that the spelling doesn’t adequately represent the sound of the word.)

There are, I think, two ways in which Gaelic orthography departs from an ideal alphabetical system (i.e. a system in which each phoneme is represented by a distinct letter). Both these ways add extra letters that aren’t sounded in the spoken form of the word. The first is the séimhiú, an ‘h’ following ‘f’, ‘p’, ‘b’, ‘m’, ‘c’, ‘g’, ‘d’ and ‘t’, which changes the pronounciation of the affected letter in various ways (making some silent and changing plosives into fricatives, in a process known as lenition). The name itself offers an example of the feature in question. It is pronounced, ‘shay-voo’. The ‘h’ after the ‘m’ changes ‘m’ to a vee-sound.

The other departure is the addition of vowels before and after consonants to preserve the spelling principle ‘broad with broad and slender with slender’. In Gaelic the vowels come in two varieties broad (a, o, u) and slender (i, e). The spelling principle rules that if you have a vowel of one variety before a consonant cluster, you have to have another vowel of that variety after the cluster too. For example, in ‘Dun Laoghaire’ the ‘a’ after the ‘gh’ is there because a broad vowel is needed. For example, in Ireland ‘Michael’ is spelled ‘Micheál’ because the English spelling violates the principle.

The ‘broad with broad, slender with slender’ principle is clear and simple, but itself stands in need of explanation. The explanation offered by Micheal O’ Siadhail is that Gaelic equally has two sets of consonants, also broad and slender. For example, ‘s’ is pronounced as in English when it’s broad, and as English ‘sh’ when it’s slender. Two esses. This has analogues in other languages like French and especially Italian. ‘C’ is pronounced one way with ‘a’ and another with ‘e’. What happens if you want to combine a soft/slender ‘c’ with a broad vowel? In French, they use the cedilla. In Italian, they add a silent ‘i’ as in ‘buongiorno’. Gaelic behaves as Italian but maintains different broad and slender pronunciations for almost all consonants instead of just two (and an auxiliary vowel also has to precede the consonant).

So the reason for the ‘broad with broad slender with slender’ principle is that spelling has to indicate whether the consonant is pronounced broad or slender. The consonant is broad (or slender) exactly when the vowels are.

But this explanation still leaves some unanswered questions.
First, how does one know whether a letter is being used as an actual vowel, to indicate a sound, rather than an auxiliary, to affect the sound of the consonant?

Second, when a letter is used to indicate the quality of the consonant, what determines which of the broad (respectively, slender) vowels is used. Unlike Italian, Gaelic doesn’t have a single dedicated auxiliary letter like ‘i’. It uses them all.

Third, when following the ‘broad with broad, slender with slender principle’, sometimes the same letter precedes and follows the consonant cluster, but at other times, another letter from the same class is enough. What determines whether the vowel is repeated or complemented by another vowel from the same category?

Regarding the first question, I have noticed that whenever there’s a long vowel (vowel length is denoted by a diacritic ‘´’), the letter functions as a vowel not simply an auxiliary, but I think that at other times, the same letter doubles up and performs both roles.

Regarding the second, I am thinking about names like ‘Seán’, which has a slender vowel ‘e’ to force a ‘sh’-reading of the ‘s’. Why not ‘Sián’?

Regarding the third, I am thinking about a word like ‘Dun Laoghaire’. Why ‘LaoghAire’, where the broad vowels differ, rather than ‘LaoghOire’ which would use the same broad vowel?

So, some answers but still some questions. I hope readers more familiar with the rules of Irish orthography can help.


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