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    The phonetic framework

   Consonant pair notation
   Property and process
   Vowels in Irish
   Places of articulation

The sound structure of Irish shows the usual division into consonants and vowels. There is a length distinction for vowels, much as in English, but there is none for consonants, again like in English. However, consonantal length was probably a feature of Irish before the Middle Irish period (900-1200) and the effects of long consonants on the vowels preceding them can still be seen today and the reflexes of these vowels are an important defining criterion for the different dialects of modern Irish.

For dialects of Irish today the dominating feature is the distinction between palatal and non-palatal consonants. The distinction applies to all consonants, with the exception of /h/, and is an essential element of both the morphological and lexical structure of the language. Phonetically, palatal consonants are produced by raising the middle of the tongue towards the palate. This provides the oral constriction which is the acustic cue for such segments. Palatal sounds are indicated in transcription by placing a superscript [j] after the sound in question.


Non-palatal consonsants are generally velarised, that is the tongue is not just in neutral position, but lowered to produce a more open oral cavity. Acoustically, this gives a hollow sound to non-palatal segments which indicates clearly that they are the opposite of palatal sounds with the constriction just described. Non-palatal sounds are indicated in transcription by placing a superscript [ɣ] after the sound in question.


For the sonorants n and l in western and northern dialects there are three distinctions on the palatal – non-palatal cline: apart from palatal and non-palatal segments there are also sounds with a neutral value, i.e. where the tongue is neither lowered for velarisation nor raised for palatalisation. A word like baile ‘townland’ illustrates this well. It is pronounced [ˡbalə] where the l is phonetically similar to syllable-initial /l/ in English.

Three-way distinctions among sonorants (western and northern Irish)


Pair notation for consonants in Irish

When describing the sound structure of Irish there are distinct advantages to be gained from treating the palatal and non-palatal versions of sounds as pairs indicated by a single symbol as shown in the following table.


This notation captures a linguistically significant generalisation: there is no morphological process in Irish which is sensitive to the distinction between palatal and non-palatal sounds. For instance, the initial mutations apply to words irrespective of whether they begin with a palatal or non-palatal segment.

Property and process in Irish

In the sound system of Irish it is important to distinguish the status which palatal and non-palatal segments can have. On the one hand palatal – non-palatal sounds are part of the lexical structure of words. For instance, the initial palatal sound in [nji:] ‘wash’ distinguishes this word lexically from naoi [nˠi:] ‘nine’. This is not part of a process but is a property of words in Irish. For that reason, the pair of terms palatalitynon-palatality is used here to denote this property.

1a Palatality Lexical property of words
1b Non-Palatality Lexical property of words
2a Palatalisation Morphonological process
2b De-Palatalisation Morphonological process

On the other hand palatal – non-palatal sounds are involved in an essential process of Irish morphology. The process is called palatalisation with its mirror counterpart, de-palatalisation. This is the change in the feature [palatal] from a positive to a negative value, or the reverse, to indicate a change in grammatical category, e.g. from nominative to genitive or from singular to plural. This change takes place in the codas of syllables: the final sound or sounds in a syllable shift in value. All consonants in a coda are affected by this as is the vowel preceding these, assuming that it is phonemically a short vowel, e.g. olc [ʌɫk] ‘evil’-NOM and oilc [ɛljkj] ‘evil’-GEN.

Because the change from [+palatal] to [-palatal] was triggered historically by an ending in which the vowel was non-palatal in character, de-palatalisation in modern Irish is associated with suffixation, e.g. cáin ‘tax’-NOM and méid na cánach ‘the amount of the tax’-GEN.

Vowels in Irish



Places of articulation for consonants and vowels




As in any other language, there are restrictions in Irish on the possible combinations of consonants which are permitted. The study of such combinations is known as phonotactics.

One can start with the simplest case, that of CV (consonant plus vowel in initial position in a word). Any consonant can occupy the position of C in this structure. In the structure CCV any of the nine lenitable consonants followed by either /l/ or /r/ are permissible.

CCV C1[+lenitable] C2 /l/, /r/ V

Some sequences are very rare, e.g. /ml/ seems only to exist in the word mléach ‘grist’. However it is common when it results from nazalizing /b/ which is followed by /l/.

a mblas ‘their tastes, accents’
i mbliana ‘this year’

The occurrence of /n/ as C2 is somewhat more restricted:

CCV C1 /m/, /t/, /k/, /g/, /s/ C2 [+sonorant] V

mná ‘women’ tnúth ‘envy’
cnagach ‘tough, hardy’ gnó ‘busiess, affair’
snaidhm ‘knot’

The restrictions increase still further when one looks at CCCV:

CCCV C1/s/ C2/p/,/k/, /t/ C3/l/,/r/ V

spleách ‘dependent’ scléip ‘showiness; row’
spreagadh ‘excitement’ scrios ‘tear, scrape’
stráice ‘strip’

Lenition only applies in those cases where the second consonant is a sonorant:

a bhláthanna ‘his flowers’
an-chnagach ‘very tough’
a threise mheabhrach ‘his intellectual power’

No consonant cluster CCCV can have lenition applied to its initial element:

an-spleách ‘very dependent’
Scrios sí a gúna. ‘She ruined her dress.’

Syncope (coimriú)

Syncope is a phonetic phenomenon and does not indicate a grammatical category in Irish. It is, however, triggered by certain grammatical categories as these can create the phonotactic environment for it to occur. Basically, it is a process whereby the short vowel in an unstressed syllable at the end of a word is lost when an ending is added to the word. The unstressed syllable usually consists of a consonant (stop or fricative), a short vowel and a sonorant (n, l, r). There are a few instances where there is a cluster at the beginning of the unstressed syllable, e.g. oscail ‘open’ with /sk-/. Some cases are found where the edges of the unstressed syllable each contain a sonorant, e.g. ceangail ‘tie’ (there are, however, dialects where word-internal -ng- is pronounced as a velar nasal + stop rather than just as a velar nasal). One further environment for syncope is found with unstressed syllables in which the onset is a sonorant /n/ and the coda has /s/, e.g. inis ‘tell’.

The reason for syncope is that when a vowel follows the sonorant (or /s/) of the unstressed syllable then the latter forms the onset of the syllable with this vowel and so the preceding consonants are no longer relevant because these now belong to the coda of the preceding syllable (see the syllable boundary indicated by a dot below) which they belong to.

Syncope in Irish

–CVS# > –C.S–

C = stop or fricative, occasionally ng or the cluster sc /sk/
V = short vowel (schwa)
S = sonorant (n, l, r) or /s/
# = word boundary
. = syllable boundary

When the sonorant is in final position in a syllable it cannot be immediately preceded by a stop, i.e. the sequence -CS. is not permissible in a syllable coda in Irish. What his means is that for phonological analysis, syncope is the default case and the insertion of a short vowel between a tautosyllabic consonant+sonorant sequence is part of the ‘alteration’ which takes place because of syllable structure restrictions in Irish. Put in actual terms, one can claim that the deacr- in the comparative form of the adjective – níos deacra ‘more difficult’ – is the default, syncopated form (the underlying form in phonological analysis) and that the base form of the adjective, deacair, has a short vowel inserted because the c /k/ and the r /rʲ/ are not allowed to adjoin within a single syllable (in phonological terms deacair is the derived form). This analysis is purely phonological, because in grammatical terms deacair is the base form and níos deacra is the derived, comparative form of the adjective.

The following tables show instances of syncope from the major word classes which undergo it in Irish. Because it is a low-level phonetic phenomenon (what is called in phonological terms a ‘post-lexical rule’) there are no exceptions to it. Any sequence which matches the conditions for syncope will show it, any which does not will have short vowel insertion.

Syncope with verbs

sheachnódh sí é
‘I defend’
‘she would avoid him’
iompróidh siad
labhróinn leis
‘they will carry’
‘I would speak with him’

Syncope with nouns

Plural formation

‘a father’

Genitive case

ag scríobh litreach
solas na coinnle
‘a letter’
‘writing a letter’
‘a candle’

Syncope with adjectives

íseal níos ísle domhain níos doimhne
‘low’ ‘lower’ ‘deep’ ‘deeper’