Over 4,500 years ago, the people who would eventually spread from the steppes of southern Russia to the rest of Europe and India spoke a language which we now call Indo-European. Although no record of this language exists, it has been reconstructed from similarities between the various languages which descended from it. One of those descendants was Celtic, probably the earliest to hit Europe. The Celts were a fierce, noble race which easily overran and assimilated the indigenous peoples of Europe at the time. For several hundred years Celtic was the predominant language throughout Europe. Even today, most European countries have some placenames which can trace their origin back to their local Celtic dialect.
The rise of the Roman Empire spelled doom for the Celts in Europe. Although they sacked Rome several times in the early days, the Celts were no match for the organized armies of the Roman Empire, and faced with the expansion of the Roman Empire, they pushed ever farther north and west. About 300 B.C.E., a Celtic tribe, which later became known as the Gaels (although the Romans would call them Scotti), took themselves and their language to the island which is now called Ireland. (A later migration to modern day England formed the basis for what is now Welsh, Cornish and Breton.)
Around 500 A.D. the Ui Neill clann, then rulers of Ulster, established a settlement in Scotland at Argyll, called Dal Riada. Through peaceful assimilation, the Gaelic culture and language eventually replaced the local Pictish. Scotland's name was derived from the Roman name Scotti.
For the next 1,000 years, the Gaelic culture flourished in Ireland and Scotland, also spreading eastward to Man, a small island in the Irish Sea between Ireland and England. While there were local variations, the Gaelic was mutually intelligible from south-western Ireland to north-eastern Scotland. In the last 300 years or so, with the expansion of England into Scotland and Ireland, the Gaelic culture and language has been forcibly supressed and Gaelic has become isolated in increasingly smaller regions. In this isolation, local variations have developed into distinct dialects, and today the Gaelic spoken in Ireland, Scotland and Man are regarded as distinct, although related, languages.
Irish underwent an extensive spelling revision about 50 years ago, while Scottish did not. As a result, some Scottish Gaelic words have extra "silent" letters which the corresponding Irish words do not -- e.g., Gael (Irish) vs Gaidheal (Scottish). Manx Gaelic, on the other hand, never had a strong written tradition, so today Manx is written with more-or-less English phonetics, even though it sounds much like Ulster Irish.
Irish is enjoying a resurgence of interest at home and abroad as people of Irish descent throughout the world, especially in the U.S. and Canada, are taking an interest in their ancestry and seeking out Irish classes. Baby-boomers in Ireland are insisting that their children be taught in Irish. While the Irish Government has lately given only token support and encouragement to the Irish language, this seems likely to change as this new generation of Irish-speakers is poised to enter the workplace and public office.
A Word of Caution to Beginners -- Because all three of these languages (Irish, Scottish and Manx) belong to the Gaelic language family, they can collectively be called Gaelic. However, in Ireland the language is called Irish, or Gaeilge. No one involved with the Irish language calls it Gaelic, unless they're referring to a collective trait of the language family. In Scotland the language is called Scottish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic or, more commonly, just Gaelic; the Scottish word for their language is Gaidhlig. In Man the language is called Gaelg. To illustrate the confusion, there is a popular series of self-teach books and tapes which has "Teach Yourself Irish" and "Teach Yourself Gaelic" sets, both of which are excellent. But many Irish students mistakenly purchase the latter, only to find that it is Scottish Gaelic.
Irish Gaelic Learning Center
The other letters - j k q v w x y z - are used in foreign words, mathematics, scientific terms, etc.
Most of the letters can have more than one sound, and these different sounds are indicated either by diacritical marks (accents or dots) which are added to the letters, or by proximity to another letter.
All letters have a property we call either leathan (broad) or caol (slender). A, O and U are always broad; E and I are always slender. This property is usually indicated for consonants by the vowels which surround them - i.e., a broad consonant will be surrounded by broad vowels and a slender consonant will be surrounded by slender vowels. This rule is relaxed for some prefixes, for foreign words, and for some words which were historically two or more words.
All vowels can have an accent added to them, which lengthens the sounds. These accented vowels are called a fada, e fada, etc. Fada means long. See Lesson 2 for more on vowels.
In the old script (which has pretty much been abandoned except for signage or emphasis) many consonants can have a dot placed above the letter which changes the sound, as outlined in Lesson 3. The dotted consonants are called b buailte, c buailte, d buailte, etc. Buailte means hit or struck.
Traditionally, the 18 letters of the old alphabet were named for plants, but now the letters are often named just like in English. In some more rural areas, where English has a less secure footing, the letters take on more European-sounding names. The following table lists the old plant names and the modern Irish names for the letters.
Old names (note the absence of some letters)
(a) ailm, (b) beith, (c) coll, (d) doire, (e) edad, (f) fern, (g) gort, (i) idad, (l) luis, (m) muin (n) nin, (o) onn, (p) pin, (r) ruis, (s) sail, (t) tinne, (u) úr
Modern names (how they're spelled)
á, bé, cé, dé, é, eif, gé, héis, í, jé, ká, eil, eim ein, ó, pé, cú, ear, eas, té, ú, vé, wae, ex, yé, zae Irish uses the same five vowels as English, but they can be accented. So in reality, there are ten vowels - a e i o u á é í ó ú. (If you don't see the five accented vowels here, you should download the lessons marked 1a, 2a, etc.) The vowels are pure, meaning that they only have one sound. No single vowel in Irish has a 'moving' sound like the y in "by", which sounds like ba-ee. If a diphthong (double vowel sound) or triphthong (triple) is intended, then more than one vowel will be written. There are a few single vowel + consonant combinations which are diphthongs.
BROAD (leathan) vs SLENDER (caol)
Broad sounds are formed in the back of the mouth with a more open passage of air over the tongue, while slender ones are formed at the front of the mouth with a more constricted air flow. Broad vowels are A O U; slender vowels are E I. Try it and you'll see what I mean. It is practically impossible to make an E or I sound without raising the back of your tongue and partially closing off your throat. At the same time, your lips are drawn tighter, further closing off the airway. Because a vowel sound will naturally 'slide' into a consonant sound, consonants are also either broad or slender. A hard rule (rarely broken) is that consonants and vowels next to each other must agree in type. In other words, a broad consonant must have broad vowel before AND after it, and a slender one have slender vowels around it. This is the reason for many of the two and three vowel combinations in Irish. The extra vowels are often inserted only to ensure that the 'slender with slender, broad with broad' rule is obeyed. These extra vowels are often not pronounced.
Stress in Irish always comes on the first syllable of a word, except for a handful of words (almost all adverbs) which were historically two words, and some foreign words like tobac (tobacco). In addition, any syllable with a long (accented) vowel sound is stressed.
SHORT VOWELS (gutaí giorra)
The short vowels are written without accents - a e i o u. The a sounds like in father; e like in get; i like in hit; o like in cup; u like in push or book. When a vowel appears by itself in a syllable, it takes the above sound, unless it is an unstressed syllable, in which case, the vowel often becomes a short uh sound (schwa for those of you who know these things).
LONG VOWELS (gutaí fada)
The long vowels are written with accents - á é í ó ú. The accent is called a síneadh fada (long stretching) or just síneadh. The long vowels are called 'a fada', 'e fada', etc. The á sounds like in caught; é like in hay; í like in feet; ó like in show; ú like in pool. There are a few vowel combinations and vowel-consonant combinations which have a long vowel sound, even though the accent is not written.
VOWEL & VOWEL-CONSONANT COMBINATIONS, DIPHTHONGS, TRIPHTHONGS
Some vowel and vowel-consonant combinations sound long, even though the accent is no longer written. Except for those examples below, an accented vowel will always dominate a short vowel next to it (iú, ái, etc).
arr ár (only at the ends of words)
ae é (consonants are broad on both sides)
ao í (rarely é)
eo ó (short o in seo, anseo, deoch, eochair)
obh ó (generally óv at the ends of words)
omh ó (generally óv at the ends of words)
umh ú (generally úv at the ends of words)
Some vowel combinations have a single sound, and the extra vowel is only there to ensure the 'broad/slender' rule is followed. Some vowel combinations are never found in Irish (although they are used in Scottish Gaelic). In addition, e will never be followed directly by a consonant (except in the case of ae) - instead, i will be inserted between e and the consonant. Also, vowels are never doubled in Irish.
ai a or i
au (not found)
eu (not found)
ie (not found)
io i or o
iu i or u
oa (not found)
oe (not found)
oi i or o
ou (not found)
ue (not found)
ui i or u
uo (not found)
Some vowel-consonant combinations are diphthongs, meaning that they sound like two vowels. The consonants are generally not heard as consonants.
abh (like the English ow)
amh (like the English ow)
adh at the beginning or middle of a word like the English eye
adh at the end of a word like uh or ú
ann sometimes like in English clown
Where possible, I will try to provide rhyming English words to help you understand the sounds, rather than rely on phonetic spellings or symbols.
Irish only uses 13 consonants - b c d f g h l m n p r s t. The other letters - j k q v w x y z - are only used in foreign words, mathematical equations, scientific terms, etc. Sometimes a word's beginning sound can change, depending on the use of the word in the sentence (subject, object, possessive, past tense, etc). Anytime a sound changes, the spelling will change to indicate the sound change. In general, words with foreign letters do not undergo these changes; however, speakers will modify the sounds automatically if they are similar to existing Irish sounds (k vs c).
BROAD (leathan) vs SLENDER (caol)
Broad sounds are formed in the back of the mouth, while slender ones are formed at the front. As indicated in Lesson 2, broad vowels are A O U - meaning that the throat is more open and the lips more rounded. Slender vowels are E I - meaning that the airway is more closed off and the lips more drawn back. Try it, and you'll see what I mean. It is practically impossible to make an e or i sound without raising the back of your tongue and partially closing off your throat. At the same time, your lips are drawn tighter, further closing off the airway.
This change in the airway affects the sound of the consonants which are adjacent to the broad or slender vowel. Hence we call them broad and slender consonants. Most broad consonants are alot like their English counterparts. You can approximate the slender consonants by inserting a (very slight) y sound between the consonant and the vowel. When a broad consonant is next to a strong slender vowel, you can approximate the broad sound by inserting a (very slight) w sound. A few examples should explain:
bó (cow) sounds like bow (as in bow and arrow) while Irish beo (alive) sounds like b(y)ow and rhymes with bow.
bí (to be) sounds like bee while buí (yellow) sounds like b(w)ee and rhymes with bee.
As mentioned in Lesson 2, a 'helper' vowel will be inserted to indicate the consonant's quality if the vowel doesn't match the consonant. For example, both bó and beo have the ó (broad) vowel sound, but beo starts with a slender b, so the e is inserted to remind you to make the b slender. Both bí and buí have the í (slender) sound, but buí starts with a broad b, so the u is inserted to remind you to make the b broad. The inserted y or w sound is very subtle and should NEVER be sounded as a separate vowel sound. Remember, it is actually a part of the consonant sound, not the vowel sound.