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Studies in Irish phonology

   Phonological theory

Linguistic investigations into the sound structure of modern Irish begin at the end of the 19th century. The milestone among these is definitely Pedersen (1897), the same scholar who wrote the monumental comparative grammar. Unfortunately, no English version of this work was published (it is in Danish), but it nonetheless set the tone for many investigations of Irish dialects in the 20th century. Pedersen had done fieldwork for his work in the west of Ireland and had indeed been to the Aran Islands collecting data where Finck also did research (see Finck 1899). The study of Irish dialects can be said to date from both their works. Henebry’s 1898 thesis on Irish in Waterford is slight in comparison to the works just mentioned. A bridge between Pedersen and Finck on the one hand and the dialect studies described in the next paragraph on the other is formed by Sommerfelt’s 1922 study of a dialect of Donegal Irish and by Sjoestedt-Jonval’s two studies of Irish in Co. Kerry (Sjoestedt-Jonval 1931, 1938).

Mid-20th century dialect studies

Between the early 1940s and the late 1960s a number of dialect studies appeared which cover the major dialect areas, indeed in many cases they record varieties in communities which have all but ceased to exist. These studies are from areas where Irish was still spoken in the first half of the 20th century from Co. Cork in the south to Co. Donegal in the north (see locations marked on the map of all the Gaeltacht areas in tree on left). The dialect studies were instigated by Thomas O’Rahilly and published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (which has also produced books on Scottish Gaelic, see Dorian 1978 and Ó Murchú 1989).

There was a rough blueprint for each of these books. The first half consists of a phonetic description of sounds and texts and the second half of remarks on the historical development of the dialect in question. The studies are good phonological taxonomies, but little linguistic analysis is offered and they all share certain inaccuracies, for instance in transcription and in the systemic assignments made for certain sounds. As a rule they contain little information on morphology (but see de Bhaldraithe 1953a, a comprehensive treatment of the morphology of the Cois Fhairrge dialect) and none on syntax. To this day they still serve as standard sources for information on varieties at a time when they were still relatively vibrant. The main studies in this group are the following.

Bhaldraithe, Tomás de 1945. The Irish of Chois Fhairrge, Co. Galway. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Bhaldraithe, Tomás de 1953. Gaeilge Chois Fhairrge. An deilbhíocht. [The Irish of Cois Fhairrge. The morphology] Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Breatnach, Risteard B. 1947. The Irish of Ring, Co. Waterford. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Búrca, Seán de 1958. The Irish of Tourmakeady, Co. Mayo. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Ó Cuív, Brian 1944. The Irish of West Muskerry, Co. Cork. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Mhac an Fhailigh, Éamonn 1968. The Irish of Erris, Co. Mayo. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Wagner, Heinrich 1979 [1959]. Gaeilge Theilinn. [The Irish of Teelin (Co. Donegal)] 2nd edition. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Some of the loopholes in the coverage of historically continuous varieties of Irish were filled somewhat later with publications by the Institute of Irish Studies in Belfast, e.g. by Stockman (1974) on the Irish of Achill, Hamilton (1974) on the Irish of Tory Island and by Lucas (1979) on the Irish of Ros Goill, the latter two locations in north Co. Donegal. A study of east Mayo Irish based on recovered material from a mid 20th century study by Thomas J. Lavin is to be found in Ó Catháin (forthcoming). Ó Curnáin (1996) is an unpublished thesis on the Irish of Iorras Aithneach (the western edge of the Connemara Gaeltacht) in Co. Galway. A very comprehensive treatment of this dialect, based on the thesis, is to be found in Ó Curnáin (4 vols., 2007).

A further overview of the dialects of present-day Irish based on a collection of several hundred sound files of speakers from all present-day Irish-speaking areas is to be found in Hickey (2011). The sound files are to be found on the DVD accompanying the book and can be listened to with the supplied software.

Phonological theory and Irish

Linguistic analyses of modern Irish phonology are not very common. In the past 50 years there have been a number of dissertations, mostly produced in America, with a few others from Germany and Poland. The earliest of these is Hughes (1952, PhD Columbia, New York) followed by Krauss (1958, PhD Harvard). Boyle [= Ó Baoill] (1973, PhD Ann Arbor, Michigan), entitled Generative phonology and the study of Irish dialects is the first work to consider the dialects of Irish within a theoretical framework (though Wigger 1970 had done this for the nominal area in one dialect). Boyle’s study does not suffer from the weaknesses of Ó Siadhail and Wigger (1975) (see below) but nonetheless often evinces too much abstraction in the underlying forms posited for surface forms. For instance, Boyle attempts (1973: 192) to derive all autonomous verb forms from a single underlying form. The criticism of too great abstraction also applies to Ó Baoill’s underlying forms for the prepositional pronouns in all the dialects including Scottish Gaelic (1973: 82-97). It should be said that this approach was common at the time and that the author has since presented studies with a different orientation.

Kelly (1978, PhD Austin, Texas) is a comparative work dealing with the interface of phonology and morphology and offers a comparison of Irish with the native American language Southern Paiute which has a partially comparable system of initial mutation. Nilsen (1975, PhD Harvard) is a largely non-theoretical study of the sound structure of a dialect in west Galway. Ní Chiosáin (1991, PhD Amherst, Mass.) is quite different in its theoretical orientation and its application of recent phonological approaches to synchronic Irish data. Cyran (1997, PhD Lublin) is in a similar vein, in this case dedicated to an analysis of Southern Irish within a government phonology framework as is Bloch-Rozmej (1998). Both these Polish dissertations have been published.

There are two other monographs on the sound system of Irish from the past few decades. The first of these is Ó Siadhail and Wigger (1975). The title of this study, Córas fuaimeanna na Gaeilge, literally translates as ‘The sound pattern of Irish’, a direct reference to Chomsky and Halle (1968). One of the main aims of the authors is to posit abstract underlying forms which are taken to be those which form the basis of the different surface realisations in the various present-day dialects (see the discussion of nasalisation, Ó Siadhail and Wigger 1975: 32ff., as an example of this approach). While underlying forms may recapitulate history in that they are similar to those which were the outset for later changes, there is little justification in claiming that they still represent forms which speakers use to derive the surface forms of their respective dialects. The question of the possible psychological reality of underlying forms is not broached by the authors just mentioned, though Ó Siadhail seems to favour such reality, see the quotation in the following section.

The second monograph, Modern Irish. Grammatical structure and dialectal variants (Ó Siadhail 1989), is one of the most difficult to assess, given its strengths and weaknesses. The work offer a solid description of the pronunciation and grammar of Modern Irish by a writer who knows his material well. The difficulty is that Ó Siadhail adheres to a view, first proposed by him in Ó Siadhail and Wigger (1975) and explicitly continued in the current monograph (Ó Siadhail 1989: xv), that all the dialects can be linked up with each other by positing abstract underlying forms. This idea, propounded in the immediate aftermath of The Sound Pattern of English by such authors as Newton (1972) for Modern Greek, had already been abandoned by the mid 1980s when this book was being written.

It should be said that generative treatments of Irish often had a specific goal. All of them (with the exception of Wigger 1970) deal with several dialects and express the view that this method could provide a unified framework for all the dialects (Ó Murchú 1969), indeed that generative phonology could be a practical aid towards developing a synthesis of the dialects. This notion, that the dialects could be linked up to each other by common underlying forms, was prevalent in the later 1960s and early 1970s, but has now been abandoned.

A study of Irish phonology which is quite different in orientation is Hickey (2014). This is a typological work which attempts to reach linguistically significant generalisations about the sound system of Irish without being bound to a single phonological model. It includes comparisons of Irish with a wide range of languages to put such key features of Irish as palatalisation and the initial mutations in a broader framework and so better understand the genesis and manifestation of these phenomena.


Ball, Martin J. (ed.) 1993. The Celtic languages. London: Routledge.

Bhaldraithe, Tomás de 1945. The Irish of Chois Fhairrge, Co.Galway. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Bloch-Rozmej, Anna 1998. Element interactions in phonology. A study of Connemara Irish. Lublin: University Press.

Boyle, Donald (= Ó Baoill, Dónall) 1973. Generative phonology and the study of Irish dialects. PhD thesis, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Chomsky, Noam and Morris Halle 1968. The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper and Row.

Cyran, Eugenuisz 1997. Resonance elements in phonology. A study in Munster Irish. Lublin: Folium Press.

Dorian, Nancy 1978. East Sutherland Gaelic. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Finck, Franz Nikolaus 1899. Die araner mundart. Ein beitrag zur erforschung des westirischen. 2 Bde. Marburg: Elwert’sche Buchhandlung.

Hamilton, Noel 1974. A phonetic study of the Irish of Tory Island. Belfast: Institute for Irish Studies.

Henebry, Richard 1898. A contribution to the phonology of Déise-Irish. PhD thesis: University of Greifswald.

Hickey, Raymond 2011. The Dialects of Irish. Study in a Changing Landscape. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.

Hickey, Raymond 2014. The Sound Structure of Modern Irish. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.

Hughes, John P. 1952. A phonemic description of the Aran dialect of Modern Irish with a detailed consideration of problems of palatalization. PhD thesis, New York: Columbia University.

Kelly, Deirdre Mary 1978. Morphologization in Irish and Southern Paiute. PhD thesis, Austin: University of Texas.

Krauss, Martin 1958. Studies in Gaelic phonology and orthography. PhD thesis: Harvard University.

Lucas, Leslie 1979. Grammar of Ros Goill Irish. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.

Macaulay, Donald et al. 1992. The Celtic languages. Cambridge: University Press. Cambridge Language Surveys.

McCone, Kim et al. (eds) 1994. Stair na Gaeilge. In ómós do Pádraig Ó Fiannachta [The history of Irish. In honour of Patrick O’Finaghty] St. Patrick’s Maynooth: Department of Irish.

Ní Chiosáin, Máire 1991. Topics in the phonology of Irish. PhD thesis: University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Nilsen, Kenneth 1975. The phonology and morphology of Bun a’Cruc, Sraith Salach, Co. Galway. PhD thesis: Harvard University.

Ó Catháin, Brian forthcoming. The Irish of East Mayo: A Phonetic Study. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Ó Curnáin, Brian 1996. Aspects of the Irish of Iorras Aithneach, County Galway. Unpublished PhD thesis, National University of Ireland.

Ó Curnáin, Brian 2007. The Irish of Iorras Aithneach, County Galway. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Ó Murchú, Mairtín 1969.‘Common core and underlying representations’, Ériu 21, 42-75.

Ó Murchú, Mairtín 1989. East Perthshire Gaelic. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Ó Siadhail, Mícheál 1989. Modern Irish. Grammatical structure and dialectal variants Cambridge: University Press.

Ó Siadhail, Mícheál and Arndt Wigger 1975. Córas fuaimeanna na Gaeilge. [The sound pattern of Irish] Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Pedersen, Holger 1897. Aspirationen i irsk. [Aspiration in Irish] Copenhagen: Spirgatis.

Sjoestedt-Jonval, Marie-Louise 1931. Phonétique d’un parler irlandais de Kerry. Paris: Ernest Leroux.

Sjoestedt-Jonval, Marie-Louise 1938. Description d’un parler irlandais de Kerry. Paris: Champion.

Sommerfelt, Alf 1922. The dialect of Torr, Co. Donegal. Christiania: Dybwad.

Stockman, Gerald 1974. The Irish of Achill. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.

Wigger, Arndt 1970. Nominalformen im Connemara-Irischen. Hamburg: Lüdke.