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    The spelling of Irish


The orthography of modern Irish presents difficulties for three main reasons: (1) the many changes which the language has undergone since the Early Modern Irish period are not always reflected in the orthography, (2) the present-day written standard as laid out in the Caighdeán Oifigiúil, ‘official standard’ (Government of Ireland 1958), does not represent any one particular dialect exclusively but is rather an amalgam of features from all three main dialect groupings in the North, West and South and (3) there are inherent difficulties in representing the phonology Irish via Latin letters.

The alphabet of Irish consists basically of the following 13 consonant and 5 vowel graphemes: b, c, d, f, g, h, l, m, n, p, r, s, t; a, o, u, i, e. Eight Latin letters, which are found in English, do not occur in Irish, namely j, k, q, v, w, x, y, z (some of these may occur in technical loanwords but are not significant for the spoken language). The consonant graphemes are adequate for representing the consonant phonemes of Irish given a few combinatory devices, notably (1) the use of ng to indicate the velar nasal [ŋ], (2) the use of h after a consonant grapheme to indicate a fricative corresponding in place of articulation to the stop represented by the simple grapheme, e.g. ch represents the fricative /x/ going on the convention of indicating /k/ by means of c. However, historical developments have served to render this principle opaque, e.g. dh indicates /ɣ/ and sh, th both indicate /h/. In word-medial and word-final position both dh and gh, and frequenlty bh and mh as well, are indicators of vowel quality and are not pronounced as consonants.

With its consonant inventory Irish must fulfill several functions. It must show the quality of two sets of consonants, non-palatal and palatal respectively. Here Irish is presented with the same problem as the Slavic languages written with the Latin alphabet (west and some south Slavic languages). But it has neither a palatal sign nor in some instances two vowel graphemes (for a vowel preceded by a yod and one without this) as in Russian. The indication of consonant quality is a task performed by vowels. An additional complication is that many consonant graphemes have no phonetic realisation as they are simply left over from an earlier stage of the language when they were pronounced. While it is true that the spelling reform of 1948 did away with the most obvious inconsistencies in spelling it by no means created a phonetically accurate alphabet. In the following the functions of written vowels and consonants in Modern Irish is outlined briefly. The principles laid out here are those of the government’s standard. Literature in the dialects may show somewhat different spelling practices.


Written vowels in Irish can represent phonetic vowels or they can serve to indicate the consonantal quality of adjacent consonants. A rule of orthography requires that each consonant be flanked on both sides by a similar consonant quality indicator, the phrase in Irish is caol le caol, leathan le leathan ‘slender with slender, broad with broad’. The vowels in question are the following:

non-palatality (velarity) indicators a, o, u
palatality indicators i, e

If Irish orthography were consistent each syllable would consist of three vowels: a phonetic vowel indicator flanked on both sides by a consonant quality indicator. This is in fact found in a few cases.

feoil /fjo:lj/ ‘meat’
e, i palatality indicators
o phonetic vowel indicator

However, most vowel graphemes serve the function of indicating consonant quality and the vocalic nucleus of a syllable at the same time. A vowel grapheme may indicate the quality of the consonant to the left or right of it or both, e.g. teach /tjax/ ‘house’, lóin /lo:nj/ ‘lunch’-GEN, lón /lo:n/ ‘lunch’-NOM.

The principle whereby consonants in writing are flanked by vowels of the same quality (palatal or non-palatal) applies to word stems and endings but not to prefixes, e.g. foréigean ‘violence’ (< for + éigean), frithbhuaic ‘anti-climax’ (< frith + bhuaic).

The phonetic value of vowels is not always that which one would expect, going on known Latin values. Thus while a usually represents a variety of low vowel it may be shifted to /ɛ/ in an appropriate consonantal environment, e.g. blas /blas/ ‘taste’-NOM, blais /blɛsj/ ‘taste’-GEN.

One clue to the quality of the phonetic vowel indicator is to be found with the síneadh or fada. This is a right-slanting stroke which is placed above a vowel and has the primary function of indicating that it is long. Normally, the vowel with this sign has the quality one would expect, i.e. ó = /o:/, í = /i:/, etc. Furthermore, it does not change when a consonant which flanks it alters its quality because it is only used to indicate phonologically long vowels. But not all phonologically long vowels have a síneadh over them. For example, the word feoil above has a long vowel but no orthographic length mark. This is because the sequence eo always indicates a long vowel and that the preceding consonant is palatal. The following one is always non-palatal unless preceded by an i. Consider the alternations, e.g. ceol /kjo:l/ ‘music’-NOM, ceoil /kjo:lj/ ‘music’-GEN.

Due to vowel shifts in the history of Irish many vowel combinations have unexpected realisations. This applies above all to the digraph ao which not only has the function of indicating non-palatality (velarity) for the consonants both before and after it but also of showing /i:/ (or /e:/ in Southern Irish) as the phonetic vowel in the syllable in question.

ao  =  C [non-palatal] /i:/ C [non-palatal]
saol /si:l/ (/se:l/) ‘life’
aon /i:n/ (/e:n/) ‘one’

A number of graphotactic rules also apply in Irish. For example, ao does not occur in a final open syllable (with very few exceptions, e.g. lao /li:/ ‘young calf’). Here i is used to close it without having any phonetic value: caoi /ki:/ ‘way, method’.

Further aspects of Irish orthography make the prediction of the phonetic value of orthographic sequences problematic. There is no one-to-one correspondence between a given vowel grapheme and a given phonetic value, e.g. ai can be /ai/ or /a/ as in aimsir /aimjsjɪr/ ‘weather’, ainm /anjɪmj/ ‘name’; oi can be /ɛ/ or /ai/ as in troid /trɛdj/ ‘fight’, soilse /sailjsjə/ ‘lights’. In these cases the diphthong /ai/ has arisen in a pre-palatal environment but not with the other words although the environment is the same.

Another difficulty is posed by the vocalisation of voiced fricatives. In intervocalic position with most words the four stops /b, m, d, g/ have been historically lenited to /v/ or /ɣ/ which then have been vocalized producing an /i/ or an /u/ off-glide from the preceding vowel depending on whether the consonant was palatal or non-palatal (velar). This applies to stressed syllables. In unstressed ones the vowel and lenited fricative sequence resulted in /ə/, cf. bogadh /bʌgə/ ‘moving’, unless a new vowel developed analogously to a vowel acting as a marker for this category, bogadh /bʌgu:/ ‘was moved’. The glide which occurred in stressed syllables combined with the preceding vowel to either lengthen it or produce a diphthong: dubh /du:/ ‘black’, guígh /gi:/ ‘pray’, feabhas /fjaus/ ‘improvement’.

Irish orthography seeks to conform to a morphological system where this is possible. Thus while am ‘time’ is /ɑ:m/ (in western Irish) it is not written ám as the morphological relation to ama /amə/ ‘time’-GEN would no longer be obvious. This principle can also be seen with other vowel-initial words which have vowel alternation due to a change in the quality of the following consonant: ubh /ʌv/ ‘egg’, uibheacha /ɪvəxə/ ‘eggs’.


The letter /h/ which is placed after stops to indicate that they are lenited, e.g. b + L = bh, d + L = dh, etc. It is also found to indicate the glottal fricative which appears on zero mutation before vowel-initial words, e.g. a h-ainm /a hanjəmj/ ‘her name’, go h-iondúil /gə hʌndu:lʲ/ ‘usually’.

Among the fricatives of Irish only S is an original independent phoneme. F arose in pre-Old Irish from the fortition of /w/, cf. Old Irish fer and Latin vir, and of course it later came into the language with loanwords. The other fricatives, V, X, ɣ, derive from historical lenition. Irish does not use one grapheme for these but two, the Latin letter for the corresponding stop followed by h. There is a graphotactic rule specifying that those consonants which result from lenition must be represented by the original consonant plus a postposed h. This explains the orthography of words such as seilbh /sjɛljəvj/ ‘possession’ and the fact that V does not occur initially in Irish except as the result of lenition and also that F has two graphemic representations in Irish: fáil /fɑ:lj/ ‘getting’, a phíopa /ə fji:pə/ ‘his pipe’ depending on whether it stands for an independent (non-lenited) or a dependent (lenited) phoneme.

The mutation nasalisation is indicated by placing the consonant resulting from nasalisation before the consonant subject to it: bád ~ a mbád /ə mɑ:d/ ‘their boat’, teach ~ a dteach /ə djax/ ‘their house’. There are difficulties with this procedure, however. Firstly, as there is no single grapheme for V in Irish, bh must be prefixed to F when this is nasalised: feoil ~ a bhfeoil /ə vjo:lj/ ‘their meat’. Secondly, as Irish has no grapheme for /ŋ/ n is prefixed to g and read as a velar nasal before the velar stop. Vowels which are nasalised also take a prefixed n, cf. bhur ngalar /vu:r ŋalər/ ‘your-PL disease’, ár n-óige /ɑ:r no:gjə/ ‘our youth’.


Government of Ireland 1958. Gramadach na Gaeilge agus litriú na Gaeilge. An Caighdeán Oifigiúil. [Grammar of Irish and spelling of Irish. The official standard] Dublin: Oifig an tSoláthair.