B' àill leibh or fast speech

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Right now, we won't get into the discussion about how to write Gàidhlig regarding which sounds to write and which not to. Instead, we'll try to give you a feel for what happens when "sounds collide" in Gaelic.

There's a General Point - well, two actually. One rule that applies to many other languages also applies to Gaelic: unstressed vowels live dangerously. The second is that 'two of the same kind, together, are not good news'.

The Schwa [ə]

This little fellow leads a very dangerous life in most languages. Generally you get schwas when a "normal" vowel does not receive stress so over time it fades away. It can go like this:

[aː] ⇨ [a] ⇨ [ə] ⇨ nothing
long vowel ⇨ short vowel ⇨ schwa ⇨ meaning zilch

The Goidelic languages - Irish, Gaelic and Manx - are particularly fond of this. But to get back to the topic.

Gaelic has a lot of schwas, especially in non-initial syllables of words (which is a different story) but also in many little function words. Function words are little bits of word that have more of a purpose than hard meaning. Some English function words are with, a, her, this, on, no and so on. They tell you about some relationship between words or sentences, things in the world. For example, the negation no just tells you that the statement being made is in the negative; it's nothing that you can draw or point at.

For whatever reason, function words rarely receive a lot of prominence in the speech of any language. Sometimes they may receive stress when you're trying to emphasise the particular function word, for example, I did NOT kill her!. But normally, they lead a shadowy existence - I didn't kill her! is a nice example.

This applies to Gaelic too. Unfortunately you can't always tell from Gaelic spelling which vowels are schwas and which are not because the letter a has to stand in for the [a] sound and the schwa sound. But not to despair. One good starting point is to say that all function particles in Gaelic which are spelt a are schwas, except one:

Gaelic IPA Meaning
a [ə] his
a h- [ə h] her
ar n- [ər n] our
ur n- [ər n] your (plural)
an [ən] their
am [əm] their
a [ə] relative particle
a [ə] of (short for de)
a [ə] to (short for do)
a' [ə] at (with verbal nouns)
ag [əg] at (with verbal nouns)
na [nə] short for an do
an [əN/əNʲ/əŋ] definite article
a' [ə] definite article (nominative & genitive)
na h- [nə h] feminine definite article (genitive)
nan [nəN/nəNʲ/nəŋ] definite article plural
nam [nəm] definite article plural
gun [gəN/gəNʲ] that (relative particle followed by verb or adjective)
gu(m) [gəm] that (relative particle followed by verb or adjective)
gur [gər] that (relative particle followed by noun)
gun [gən] without
gu [gu/gə] to (preposition)
guma [gumə] may ...
bu [bə] was (past tense or conditional of is)
nas [nəs] more (comparative)
as [əs] most (superlative)
mura [murə] if not
mus [məs] before
mu [mə] about
sa(n) [səN/səNʲ] in the

Not an exhaustive list but all I can think of just now. And before you ask, yes, strictly speaking ar n- and ur n- are pronounced exactly the same way. It's not quite as mad as it sounds - Manx has just the one word nyn [nən] meaning our, your and "their". The context generally supplies enough information to tell you what someone is talking about. However, in Gaelic, sometimes for clarity, people pronounce ar as [ar].

The exception mentioned earlier (as far as the function words go) is the preposition á, which is pronounced with a clear vowel: [a]. Which, incidentally, is why there's an acute accent on it.

But now, back to fast speech. Generally, in fast speech, we can say that schwas drop out as long as the meaning of the resulting statement is still clear. Let's look at an example:

Tha a h-ogha a' dol a dh'iarraidh an cù as lugha

Which in careful speech you'd pronounce as:

[ha ə ho.ə ə dɔL ə ʝiəRɪ əŋ kuː əs Lɤɣə]

But normally people don't use careful speech. We talk much faster than that so things start running into each other and some things even drop out. Which of course happens in Gaelic, too, so in normal speech one would pronounce the above as:

[ha ho.ə dɔL ə ʝiəRɪ ŋkuː sLɤɣ]

Whut? OK, let's look at it step by step:

  1. The first a has dropped out because the [h] shows anyway that we're talking about her grandchild, because his grandchild would simply be [o.ə]. To save breath, you lose the schwa.
  2. The a' we can afford to lose because dol is always a verbal noun so there can be no confusion about its meaning.
  3. The next [ə] in front of dh'iarraidh we keep because it keeps two consonants (l and dh') from coming together which would be more effort to pronounce if not separated by a schwa. But the schwa gets fused to dol so it flows better.
  4. The an drops the schwa and the [n] assimilates into a [ŋ] to become more like the next sound (see the section on nasalisation). It can do that since we still know it's the dog we're talking about because no other combination would yield [ŋkuː].
  5. The next schwa we drop for basically the same reason because the only [s] that makes sense in front of lugha is that of the comparative particle.
  6. And since we're coming to the end of our statement, were running out of breath, so we can lose the final schwa because losing it doesn't affect the meaning.

And this happens all over the place. Most learners start out by pronouncing all words that are written down. That's OK as long as you remember to pronounce the words in the above list as schwas and not as clear [a] vowels. The important next step is that once you get more comfortable speaking the language and speeding up a bit, you start dropping sounds in the same way as native speakers do. Listening helps you a lot here, but it helps to know what to look out for.

Two of the same ain't good

Again, this is one of those things that happen in all languages when spoken at normal speed. In a nutshell, it means that when you get two vowels from two different words (the terminal vowel of one word with the initial vowel of the following word) clashing together, generally, one of them loses out. Especially, if the two vowels are the same.

When two [a] vowels for example bump into each other, one of them gets deleted:

__a + a__ > __a__

Let's look at some real life examples:

'S e cù a tha ann ə + ha + auN [ʃɛ kuː əˈhauN]
An cù a tha agad ə + ha + agəd [əŋ kuː əˈhagəd]
Bha athair ann a + a [vahərʲ auN]

Before vowels, the schwa in bu drops out so regularly that we don't even write it any more:

Bu mhór am beud [bə voːr əm beːd]
B' esan a thàinig ə + esən [besən ə haːnɪgʲ]
B' àill leat? bə + aː [baLʲəhd]
a b' uaine ə + bə + u [ə buəNʲə]

Same goes for noun + adjective, but to a slightly lesser extent (for why, see below):

duine òg ə + ɔː [dɯNʲ'ɔːg]
balla àlainn ə + aː [baL'aːRd]

You have to be careful here that things don't get ambiguous. In balla àrd, the schwa can be safely dropped because the resulting word can only mean wall. It can not be ball àrd a high member because we would have a diphthong [au]. Similarly, duin' òg can only mean one thing.

But say you were talking about a dun cow - bó odhar. Two of the same ain't good - true? True, but not to the extent of messing up meaning. If you dropped one of the vowels, the result would be [bo.ər] but unfortunately that means deaf (bodhar). So be careful you don't let your speech become ambiguous.

It's a little bit more complicated with the personal pronouns because there's a possibility for confusion with them. Consider the following two examples:

Tha e a' dol dhachaigh [ha dɔL ɣaxɪ]
Tha i a' dol dhachaigh [ha i dɔL ɣaxɪ]

Here we have three vowels coming together [a] [e] [ə], and [a] [i] [ə] in the second example. If we simply dropped all the vowels or reduced them to a schwa, we could no longer determine if the sentence is referring to a he or a she. So, in the first instance, we collapsed two vowels into [a], but in the second sentence, we retained the [i]. Why this way round? After all, we could drop [i] and retain [e]. Probably because [e] is closer in pronunciation to [a] and therefore easier to assimilate, bit [i] is much further away.


Are you ready for this? Prepositions basically work on the same principles although the outcomes can be a bit confusing at times. The tricky pattern arises when prepositions ending in a vowel combine with a "his", a h- "her", ar n- "our", ur n- "your" and an "their".

This situation varies slightly between the dialects, but essentially what happens is the following:

ri + a/a h- r' a (h-) [rʲə (h)]
ri + ar n-/ur n-/an r' ar ... [rʲəɾ] ...
do + a/a d' a [da]
do + a/a dh' a [ɣa]
do + ar n-/ur n-/an d' ar n-... [dar n]...
do + ar n-/ur n-/an dh' ar n-... [ɣar n]
de + a/a d' a [də]
do + a/a dh' a... [ɣə]
de + ar n-/ur n-/an d' ar n-... [dar n]
de + ar n-/ur n-/an dh' ar n-... [ɣar n]
gu + a/a g' a [gə]
gu + ar -n/ur n-/an g' ar n- ... [gar n]
mu + a/a m' a [mə]

And so on... you get the idea.

The beauty of all of this is that in most cases, it doesn't get ambiguous because you have lenition to guide you - r' a mhàthair can only mean to his mother because to her mother would be r' a màthair. Of course, there are elements of ambiguity, but every language has those and generally context will supply the necessary information. Few things we say are said in utter isolation. A statement like agus chunnaic e sin fo achlais (which on its own could either mean saw it under an armpit or under his armpit) will generally be preceded by a chat about something going on, for example, someone hiding something.

It's advisable to be clear in writing, especially in official texts when you don't want to be ambiguous. To that end, you can either write the silent vowel, or, if that looks weird to you, add the apostrophe where a sound has dropped out: fo achlais under an armpit - fo 'achlais under his armpit.

Two prepositions need further explanations, do and de. In colloquial speech, these can change shape quite a lot. Here's an overview of what can happen:

do [dɔ] dha [ɣə] a [ə]
don [dɔN/dɔNʲ] dhan [ɣəN/ɣəNʲ]
de [dʲɛ] dhe [ʝə] a [ə]
den [dʲɛN/dʲɛNʲ] dhen [ʝɛN/ʝɛNʲ]

To begin with, most living dialects of Gaelic have consigned don and den to higher functions (extremely formal speech) and only have dhan and dhen. Do and de, without the fused definite article, are somewhat more common.

However, dha is a very popular form in Lewis because for whatever reason it does not cause lenition - dha màthair 'to a mother', dha bó 'to a cow', and so on. And for many speakers, in colloquial speech, even that's too much work and both do and de have been reduced to a. Ambiguous? Well, a little, but not too much for native speakers. And it's not a modern thing either. Writers as far back as the 1900's have complained about native speakers doing this. So feel free.

This, incidentally, is where the Hebridean form na (more commonly presented as an do rinn, an do ràinig, and so on) comes from - an do ⇨ an a ⇨ na [nə] (an do rinn > na rinn, an do ràinig > na ràinig). The thought 'cool!' springs to my mind, but then I'm insane anyway!

More to come, watch this space.

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