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   Glossary for Irish

aspiration A traditional term for lenition.

base The citation form of an uncompounded word in Irish. It may consist of a monosyllabic root, as in dán ‘poem’, or of a root plus an extension as in marcach /mark + əx/ ‘rider’.

Breton A P-Celtic language still spoken in Britanny in France. The standard view is that Breton derives from Cornish which was transported across the English Channel when speakers in the south-west of England were under pressure from encroaching Anglo-Saxons in the Old English period (from about the 6th century onwards). Some scholars believe, however, that a Celtic language survived here after Gaul was Romanised.

Cois Fhairrge An area immediately west of Galway city where Irish is still spoken. It has been investigated in detail by Tomás de Bhaldraithe (see de Bhaldraithe 1945, 1953). The name means ‘by the sea’.

Common Gaelic A term used to refer to Q-Celtic before the split of the language into Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx.

consonant pair notation A notation introduced in Hickey (2011) and continued in Hickey (2014) to refer to two consonants which share all features but have opposing values for palatality, thus T is a cover symbol for both /t/ (non-palatal) and /tʲ/ (palatal). This notation allows greater economy in the description of phonological and morphological processes which apply to both the palatal and non-palatal members of a consonant pair.

dependent A term introduced in Hickey (2011) and continued in Hickey (2014) to refer to consonants which only occur in word-initial position of a word as the result of applying an initial mutation. For instance, Ɣ only occurs word-initially in Irish as the result of leniting G or D. It is not found in the citation form of words, i.e. it is not contained in the lexicon of Irish but is confined to the output of a morphological operation.

eclipsis A traditional term for nasalisation.

epenthesis A low-level phonetic process in Irish which breaks up a heavy syllable coda – one consisting of two sonorants – by introducing a schwa vowel which triggers resyllabification, e.g. arm /arm/ > [ar.əm] ‘arm’.

gemination A reference to phonological length with consonants. This was lost after the Old Irish period, but the reflexes of former geminates are still present in the language, e.g. in the lengthening of vowels in monosyllables closed by former geminates, e.g. tonn /tu:n/ ‘wave’, gearr /gʲa:r/ ‘sharp’.

independent A term introduced in Hickey (2011) and continued in Hickey (2014) to refer to consonants which are not confined to the output of an initial mutation and hence can occur in the lexicon of the language, e.g. S, P, K. There may be some overlap among segments, e.g. B is both an independent phoneme and the output of nasalising P.

Irish (Irish Gaeilge) A Q-Celtic language, first attested in interlinear glosses from the 7th century and still spoken today in three separate areas in the south, middle and north of the western seaboard of Ireland. Four broad periods are recognised in the language’s history, Old Irish (600-900), Middle Irish (900-1200), Early Modern Irish (1200-1600) and Modern Irish (1600 to the present).

italics, capital See consonant pair notation.

lenition (Irish seimhiú ‘softening’) In present-day Irish this is a morphological operation in which the first consonant of a word is lenited – usually fricativised – to indicate a certain grammatical category, e.g. glac /glak/ ‘take’, ghlac mé /ɣlak mʲe:/ ‘I took’. Historically, lenition refers to the voicing of voiceless consonants, the fricativisation of voiced consonants and the absorption of the latter into the nuclei of the vowels which precede them. For example, gadhar /gair/ ‘beagle’ has dh internally which points to a very early fricativisation of d to /ð/, then a shift to /ɣ/ and finally a coalescence with /a/ to render the diphthong /ai/ in the present-day pronunciation.

Manx A branch of Q-Celtic on the Isle of Man attested from the early seventeenth century in a translation of the Book of Common Prayer by John Philips (c 1610). The language died out in the early twentieth century.

metathesis An attested process in all dialects of Irish where the linear order of segments within a syllable (occasionally across syllables) is altered. The most common form involves /r/ and a short vowel, but there is also metathesis among sonorants and in many cases metathesised and non-metathesised forms co-exist in the language, e.g. galar, galra, garla ‘disease’.

mutations, initial (Irish athrú tosaithe ‘initial changes’, also claochlú tosaigh) A set of phonological processes which play a decisive role in the morphology of Irish. There are two main mutations, Lenition and Nasalisation. It is important to also recognise Zero mutation, the lack of either lenition or nasalisation as this is grammatically significant in Irish, i.e. it signals feminine gender with possessive pronouns of the third person.

nasalisation (Irish urú ‘eclipse’) A morphological operation in Irish in which the first consonant of a word is changed. It is a process which involves the changing of one feature, i.e. voiceless stops become voiced and voiced ones become nasal. For example, peaca /p- / ‘sin’, bhur bpeacaí /b- / ‘your sins’; brá /b- / ‘captive’, a mbrá /m- / ‘their captives’.

Northern Irish The Irish language as spoken today in pockets along the coast of Co. Donegal (particularly the region called Gaoth Dobhair) and on Tory Island off the north-west coast of the county.

palatality An inherent and unalterable property of segments in a lexical word. For instance, in seomra /sʲo:mrə/ ‘room’ the initial consonant cannot change to a non-palatal sound – there is no /so:mrə/ – because the palatality of the first segment is part of the lexical structure of the word.

palatalisation (Irish caolú ‘slendering’) A morphological process which is used to indicate grammatical categories in Irish, i.e. a consonant may change its value for palatality, i.e. become phonetically palatal on the operation of some process such as pluralisation or marking of the word as genitive rather than nominative case, e.g. arán /(ə)rɑ:n/ ‘bread’-NOM and aráin /(ə)rɑ:nʲ/ ‘bread’-GEN.

P-Celtic One of the two major branches of Celtic and consisting of Welsh and Breton and perhaps revived Cornish. it is distinguished by the survival of Indo-European /kw/ as /p/, e.g. Welsh pen ‘head’, cf. Irish ceann.

polarisation A feature of Irish phonology whereby consonants are either palatal or non-palatal, the latter being phonetically velarised. Polarisation is acoustically most obvious in the onset of stressed syllables, e.g. trí [tʲrʲi:], [lˠɑ:] ‘day’ or intervocalically after a stressed syllable, e.g. codladh [kʌlˠə] ‘sleep’, bainne [bæ:nʲə] ‘milk’. With N and L there are also cases of non-polarised articulations which acoustically resemble the pronunciation of /n/ and /l/ in syllable-initial position in English, i.e. without a noticeable palatal or velar quality. Historically, these derive from non-geminate sonorants in intervocalic position, e.g. baile [ba:lə], *[ba:lʲə] ‘town’.

Q-Celtic One of the two major branches of Celtic and consisting of Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. It is distinguished by the survival of Indo-European /kw/ as /k/, e.g. Irish ceathair ‘four’, Welsh pedwar.

radical A term used to refer to a non-mutated segment. Replaced here by the term independent.

root A minimal form of a word which is its citation form in the lexicon, e.g. nasc ‘tie, link’. In Irish roots tends to consist of a single syllable but there may be a root extension added. Some of these are productive and semantically identifiable e.g. -án: maol ‘bald, bare’, maolán ‘bald person, hornless cow’. Because of phonetic reduction in the historical development of Irish many disyllabic words are actually former compounds, e.g. deirfiúr ‘sister’ < deirbh-shiúr < ‘genuine, own’ + ‘sister’, or they may be borrowings which are no longer recognised as such, e.g. fuinneog /fɪnʲo:g/ from Old Norse vindauga ‘window’.

Scottish Gaelic A form of Q-Celtic which was introduced to Scotland from Ireland from about 500 AD onwards. By the end of the Middle Irish period (900-1200) Scottish Gaelic, as attested in entries in the twelfth century Book of Deer (associated with the abbey of Deer in Buchan), is taken to have diverged significantly from Irish, something confirmed later by the early sixteenth century Book of the Dean of Lismore.

sonorants A set of segments in Irish characterised by high phonetic resonance. Nasals and liquirds (l and r sounds) exist in the language and play a significant role in the sound system. Their phonological interpretation is a matter of dispute among linguists.

Southern Irish A reference to forms of Irish spoken in the southern part of the western seaboard of Ireland, i.e. on the tip of the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry. Irish was spoken in other parts of the south as a daily language into the twentieth century, e.g. in parts of Co. Cork and on Ring peninsula in Co. Waterford but has all but disappeared there.

svarabhakti See epenthesis.

syncope (Irish coimriú ‘contraction’) A process in Irish whereby an unstressed vowel in immediately post-tonic position is lost on suffixation. The phonological basis for syncope is the re-syllabification on suffixation which shifts the final coda of the non-syncopated form into the onset of the suffixed form through deletion of the unstressed vowel, i.e. (C)ˡVC1.ˌVC2 > (C)ˡVC1.C2V(C) with ˌV > Ø, e.g. ˡcos.ain ‘defend’ à ˡcos.naím ‘I defend’.

velarisation (Irish leathnú ‘broadening’) A process in Irish morphology where a palatal consonant becomes non-palatal, i.e. velarised. This is a common phenomenon in the nominal area – a mirror image of palatalisation so to speak – and is found with nouns in the genitive singular from the 5th declension, for example: an abhainn ‘the river’ : dath na habhann ‘the colour of the river’.

Welsh A P-Celtic language still spoken by considerable numbers in present-day Wales. The phonology of Welsh is different from Irish in that it does not have a palatal ~ non-palatal distinction and in general is more symmetrical in the distribution of consonants. The grammar does have a similar system of initial mutation, but there is one more subdivision as lenition is split into voicing and fricativisation. Nasalisation does not involved the voicing of voiceless segments as in Irish.

Western Irish A reference to forms of Irish spoken in the middle of the western seaboard of Ireland. The only places in which Irish is a daily language are located west of Galway city, particulary in Cois Fhairrge and the areas around An Cheathrú Rua (Carraroe), Ros Muc, Cill Chiaráin, Carna and on the two smaller Aran Islands (in Galway Bay), Inis Meáin and Inis Oir. Irish used be spoken in parts of northern Co. Galway around Túr Mhic Éide (Tourmakeady).

zero mutation One of three types of mutation which it is necessary to postulate for the grammatical description of Irish. It is defined by the absence of either lenition and nasalisation and by the prefixing of /h/ to words which begin with a vowel, e.g. a h-ainm ‘her name’, a gruaig ‘her hair’. Historically zero mutation arose from a geminate mutation in Old Irish (Pedersen 1909: 87-92) which became vacuous on the loss of phonological consonantal length in Middle Irish.



Hickey, Raymond 2011. The Dialects of Irish. Study of a Changing Landscape. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton, 508 pages + DVD.

Hickey, Raymond 2014. The Sound Structure of Modern Irish. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton, 481 pages.