Lenition and why that is your mother's fault

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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Ease of articulation. Don't worry if you never heard of this, all will be revealed. It's a contentious concept in linguistic circles, but for our purposes it's rather helpful.

And feel free just to jump the explanation - it's a bit long - and go straight to the bit where we tell you how lenition works.

Why oh why do we lenite?

Ever noticed how things get slurred in fast speech? Suddenly whole sounds drop out, change into something else ... sometimes that becomes so established that even orthography will reflect that. The word in-pede had become impede long before it even reached Norman French. And be honest - when was the last time you pronounced in BHS as such rather than im BHS? This is where ease of articulation comes in - you are anticipating the next sound you know is to come and your mouth starts getting into position for that sound long before the preceding one has finished. So sounds next to each other become more alike or drop out, if it just gets too tricky for your mouth.

Funnily enough, this also applies to vowels and consonants. Consonants are (in articulatory terms) tricky bastards with a lot of things having to get shifted around (anything from your lips to your pharynx) and held in place, whereas vowels are relatively simple things - just move your tongue a bit this way or that way and you have it.

So when you speed up your speech and have a consonant between vowels, it tries to become more like a vowel. The first thing it loses is the closure that many consonants have, such as a [p]. Notice that your lips close up for a moment. Over time, it moves towards even easier articulation, towards becoming a fricative, an [f], in the case of [p], which is still a consonant but "easier" to say because less mouth movement is involved. This is revealed by the change from the Germanic *apōn > English ape, but German Affe. There may be many intermediate stages, but eventually the consonant either became a vowel or it disappeared altogether. Prove it? Easy. Look at the word for mother in the Indo-European languages and how it developed from ancient Indo-European to our ancestor languages to the modern day ones - watch out for the t:

Celtic Germanic Romance Slavonic Indic Other
(C. Celtic)
(C. Germanic)
(C. Slavonic)
(Old Indic)
(Old Irish)
(Old German)
(Old Slavonic)
(Ancient Greek)
(Old English)
(Old French)
(Old Norse)

So what? Well, if you look closely, there is some kind of consonant degradation going on - you start with a very strong consonant [t] which gradually is reduced to [d] then [ð] then [h] and then nothing at all (the words underlaid in red)!! So you see, it's a very common thing - even more so when you look at the Tocharian example. Tocharian is the most eastern Indo-European language, sadly extinct, but spoken in East Turkestan up until about 700 AD - but it had already changed the [t] to a [ʧ]!!!

There's another lovely example of several things which also happen in Gaelic happening in Bavarian. There's a slogan one often hears: Mia san mia, literally we're us (i.e. "we're the way we are and if you don't like it you can lump it"). Now in standard German this would be Wir sind wir and in some dialects of Bavarian, it comes out as Mia han mia. Gold dust. Now the bit you want to focus on is the 3rd person plural verb in the middle.

High German has a fairly conservative form, with initial s- and -nd at the end: sind. But in Bavarian, the final -nd cluster often ends up as -n (same as Gaelic, cf Latin candela > coinneal). But more to the point, in some Bavarian dialects s has become h. Textbook lenition - and also exactly what Gaelic does to s!

The Celtic twist

The mad thing about Celtic languages though is that this does not only happen within a word like màthair but also across word boundaries! In Celtic languages, a consonant between vowels got lenited, end of story. Well, as a rule of thumb. But pardon me, where is the consonant between two vowels in Irish an bhean? (Gaelic used to spell it that way too, it's just a better example.) And what about an fear? Same thing, isn't it? Unfortunately, not.

There is something very old going on here - there used to be an extra vowel. But for that we have to go back to Indo-European and Old Irish. The modern definite article an used to look very different then. It was sind-os, the -os was the ending for the nominative case of masculine nouns and sind-a was the ending for the nominative case of feminine nouns. You know where we're going now? Let's have the overview:

& Old Irish
Translation What's going on
sind-os fer-os the man Two consonants, so nothing happened, but the s- was lost at some point in history
ind-os fer-os the man Then we lost the endings
ind fer the man Look familiar? Lose the -d
in fer the man Change the spelling and the sounds a bit like ...
an fear the man And now Gaelic assimilates the an to am
am fear the man ... a 4000 year journey in 6 lines

So what about lenition? "Patience young Skywalker!" ... let's look at a feminine noun

& Old Irish
Translation What's going on
sind-a ben-a the woman Oops - consonant-vowel-consonant - we have to lenite! and also lose the s-
ind-a bhen-a the woman Aha. Now what? As before, we lose the endings ...
ind bhen the woman Look vaguely familiar? Now we lose thed-
in bhen the woman change the spelling and it sounds a bit like ...
an bhean the woman Irish! Gaelic now loses the -n (and changes the meaning slightly from the woman to the wife)
a' bhean the wife Bingo!

And that's why it's all your mothers fault!!! Hopefully it makes just a bit more sense now.

So how DOES it work?

A note to begin with - some people refer to lenition as "aspiration". However, try not to do so yourself because "aspiration" is something entirely different than lenition and should not be confused with leniton. In a nutshell, aspiration refers to a puff of air following a consonant, for example, in English <pat> where the <p> is followed by a puff of air. Lenition on the other hand means that a sound is changed into something else, such as pòg, with a [p] sound, becoming mo phòg with an [f] sound.

"Normal" Lenition

Not all Gaelic consonants can be lenited, but a lot of them can be. Some of these lenitions are not as straightforward as you might think because there are two different kinds of lenition. In this lesson, let's look at "normal" lenition, and for guidelines on how to produce these sounds, see the pages under Phonetics. As for the other kind, there's a twist to lenition when it's caused by the definite article.

Original Sound Lenited IPA Example Example in IPA
b (broad) bh /v/ bàta » mo bhàta /mə vaːhdə/
b (slender) bh /v/ or /vj/ beul » mo bheul /mə viaL/
c (broad) ch /x/  » mo chù /mə xuː/
c (slender) ch /ç/ cìs » mo chìs /mə çiːʃ/
d (broad) dh /ɣ/ doras » mo dhoras /mə ɣɔɾəs/
d (slender) dh /ʝ/ dìth » mo dhìth /mə ʝiː/
f (br. & sl.) fh - fuil » m' fhuil /mul/
g (broad) gh /ɣ/ gob » mo ghob /mə ɣob/
g (slender) gh /ʝ/ gille » mo ghille /mə ʝiLʲe/
m (broad) mh /v/ mac » mo mhac /mə vaxg
m (slender) mh /v/ or /vj/ meas » mo mheas /mə vɛs/
p (broad) ph /f/ pòg » mo phòg /mə fɔːg/
p (slender) ph /f/ or /fj/ piuthar » mo phiuthar /mə fju.ər/
s (broad) sh /h/ solas » mo sholas /mə hɔLəs/
s (slender) sh /h/ seanag » mo sheanag /mə hɛnag/
t (broad) th /h/ tobar » mo thobar /mə hɔbər/
t (slender) th /h/ or /hj/ teanga » mo theanga /mə hɛŋgə/

Consonant Clusters

One helpful thing to watch out for is that since there is only one broad L remaining in Gaelic, it is always [L]. For those of you who want to know how the above and below systems both make sense, click here, but be warned!

Original Sound IPA Lenited IPA Example Example in IPA
bl (broad) /bL/ bhl /vL/ mo bhlàr /mə vLaːr/
bl (slender) /bl/ bhl /vl/ o bhliadhna /ɔ vliəNə/
br (broad) /br/ bhr /vr/ o bhràigh /ɔ vraːj/
br (slender) /brʲ/ bhr /vrʲ/ bhris /vrʲiʃ/
cn (broad) /kr ̃/ chr /xr ̃/ a chnoc /ə xrɔ̃xg/
cn (slender) /krʲ ̃/ chn /xrʲ ̃/ chniadaich /xrʲĩə̃dɪç/
cr (broad) /kr/ chr /xr/ ro chruaidh /rɔ xruaj/
cr (slender) /krʲ/ chr /xrʲ/ mo chridhe /mə xeʲi.ə/
dl (broad) /dL/ dhl /ɣL/ ro dhlùth /rɔ ɣLuː/
dl (slender) /dl/ dhl /ɣl/ ro dhligheach /rɔ ɣli.əx/
dr (broad) /dr/ dhr /ɣr/ mo dhroma /mə ɣrɔmə/
dr (slender) /dr/ dhr /ɣrʲ/ o dhris /ɔ ɣrʲiʃ/
fl (broad) /fL/ fhl /L/ mo fhlasg /mə Lasg/
fl (slender) /fl/ fhl /l/ ro fhliuch /rɔ lux/
fr (broad) /fr/ fhr /r/ mo fhraoch /mə rɯːx/
fr (slender) /frʲ/ fhr /rʲ/ mo fhreiceadan /mə rʲeçgʲədan/
gl (broad) /gL/ ghl /ɣL/ ro ghlan /Rɔ ɣLan/
gl (slender) /gl/ ghl /ɣl/ ro ghlic /Rɔ ɣliçgʲ/
gn (broad) /gr ̃/ ghn /ɣr ̃/ mo ghnùis /mə ɣrũːʃ/
gn (slender) /grʲ ̃/ ghn /ɣrʲ ̃ mo ghnìomh /mə ɣrʲĩə̃v/
gr (broad) /gr/ ghr /ɣr/ mo ghràdh /mə ɣraː/
gr (slender) /grʲ/ ghr /ɣrʲ/ ro ghreannach /Rɔ ɣrʲɛNəx/
mn (broad) /mr ̃/ mhn /vr ̃/ mo mhnathan /mə vɾã.ən/
mn (slender) doesn't exist
pl (broad) /pL/ phl /fL/ mo phlaosg /mə fLɯːsg/
pl (slender) /pl/ phl /fl/ ro phliutach /mə fliuhdəx/
pr (broad) /pr/ phr /fr/ mo phrais /mə fraʃ/
pr (slender) /prʲ/ phr /frʲ/ mo phreas /mə frʲes/
sl (broad) /sL/ shl /L/ mo shluagh /mə Luəɣ/
sl (slender) /ʃLʲ/ shl /l/ mo shlighe /mə li.ə/
sn (broad) /sN/ shn /n/ mo shnaidhm /mə naim/
sn (slender) /ʃNʲ/ shn /n/ shnìomh /niəv/
sr (broad) /sdr/ shr /r/ mo shràid /mə raːdʲ/
sr (slender) /sdr/ shr /rʲ/ mo shreath /mə rʲɛh/
tl (broad) /tL/ thl /L/ ro thlachdmhor /Rɔ Laxkvər/
tl (slender) doesn't exist
tn (broad) /tr ̃/ thr /r/ mo thnùth /mə rũ/
tn (slender) doesn't exist
tr (broad) /tr/ thr /r/ mo thrachdas /mə raxkəs/
tr (slender) /tr/ thr /rʲ/ bho thrì /vɔ rʲiː/

Contrary to popular belief, /Lʲ/, /N/, /Nʲ/ and /R/ can be lenited in Gaelic, even though the orthography does not reflect that. For the lenition of these sounds, check the section on Liquids.

An odditiy or two

So there are initial consonant groups which don't generally lenite, like sm or st. ... I hear you going "uh-oh", what does he mean, generally?

Don't panic, overall those are rules you can rely on. But now and then one catches a glimpse that suggests that there may have been dialect variations to this rule. For example in the book Òrain, Marbhrannan, agus Duanagan Ghàidhealach by Allan MacDonald (1829) from Knoydard, there's this line:

Seobhag meartainneach nan ard-bheann

"Wait what?" I hear you go? Shouldn't that be mheartainneach since seobhag is feminine? Yes and no. So there are two ways of reading this. One is that it's a typo or grammatical error and someone missed out the lenition. The other is that for the author, the root form of the adjective is smeartainneach, which he duly lenited to (sh)meartainneach. I don't know which is the case but it's a fun thing to ponder, no?

Beagan gràmair
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