Liquids or - L N R in Gaelic

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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Gearr leum gu: seòladh, lorg

Undoubtedly, this is one of the most challenging bits of Gaelic grammar and phonology a learner will come across. Ever.

There are several reasons for it being so difficult. For one thing, unless you're a learner from an Irish speaking background, Gaelic has a number of sound distinctions which English, and most other European languages, simply don't have. That makes it very difficult for the learner to even begin to distinguish those sounds. Dialectical differences aside, the other reason is that the system inherited from Common Gaelic is not 'clean', not for learners anyway.

However, there's, no need to despair. In spite of what linguists might tell you about Second Language Acquisition, Performance, Representation and stuff, it is feasible to learn how to produce the right sound in the right place, even though you might never learn how to "hear" the difference. Not being able to hear the differences is not as significant because in 99% of all cases, context will clarify whether the fine distinction you have just missed means A or B. But, if you make the right sounds, you will shed the Blas na Beurla air do chuid Ghàidhlig.

A last word of advice: Try not to be Anglo-centric. Some learners might think a lot of the following consists of nit-picking about "irrelevant" detail. But, just because from the point of view of the English language a distinction is irrelevant, or minor, that does not mean that the same irrelevance goes for another language. To many German learners of English then sounds like den and thin like fin. This happens because German does not have a th, much less a "minor distinction" between two versions of "th". So, a native German speaker substitutes with the closest sound that his native language can come up with. While that does not make communication impossible, most people would agree that it does not constitute "good English". The same goes for Gaelic, so making the wrong L does not constitute "good Gaelic".

Common Gaelic and why "simplification" doesn’t always make things easier

Not to worry, this is not going to turn into a lecture in historical linguistics, but it just might help clarify things a bit. If you find it confuses you more than it helps, just jump down to the "hardcore" stuff.

Until the 16th/17th century, Common Gaelic's literary (i.e. formal and especially written) language, that was common to both Ireland and Scotland, had a "clean" system of liquids that were spoken with a clear, 4 way distinction. Sounds scary, but from the point of view of a learner it might have actually been easier to learn. Symmetry and all that. Those Common Gaelic forms are shown below with IPA symbols in slashed brackets and the annotation commonly used amongst Celticists shown in in round brackets. Both forms are given as you might find it useful to correlate the two:

/l̪ˠ/ (L)
latha
mall
/ʎ/ (L')
liath
caill
/n̪ˠ/ (N)
nàire
ceann
/ɲ/ (N')
nèamh
binn
/rˠ/ (R)
ràmh
barra
/*/ (R')
rionnag
girre
(obsolete form of giorra)
/lˠ/(l)
balach
màl
/l/ (l')
baile
càil
/nˠ/ (n)
manach
làn
/n/ (n')
faoineas
coin
/ɾ/ (r)
caran
mar
/rʲ/ (r')
fireann
fir

* no one actually knows exactly which sound this was, and no Gaelic, Irish or Manx dialect has preserved initial slender R. All three languages have merged them with initial broad R.

So, this system was very symmetrical and symmetry is something which languages seem to favour. It was even symmetrical from the point of view of lenition, that is, a lenited sound at the top row is the corresponding sound in the bottom row.

Ulster

Moving on after Common Gaelic, both Irish and Gaelic lost phonemes. The most "complete" set can be found in Ulster Irish which has the following:

/l̪ˠ/ /ʎ/ /n̪ˠ/ /ɲ/ /rˠ/
/lˠ/ /l/ /n̪/ /n/ /ɾ/ /rʲ/

East Sutherland

East Sutherland Gaelic has a very "reduced" system. Please understand that by "reduced" we do not mean it is a degenerate dialect - it's simply reduced in comparison to Common Gaelic:

/l̪ˠ/ /ʎ/ /rˠ/
/l/ /n̪/ /n/

Most other dialects in Scotland

Most Scottish Gaelic dialects have established a three way system and that's the one we'll present here. For those interested in a four way system, Harris Gaelic has all four L's:

/l̪ˠ/ /ʎ/ /n̪ˠ/ /ɲ/ /rˠ/
/l/ /n/ /ɾ/ /rʲ/

In itself, this reduction would not constitute a problem, after all, it means that there are fewer sounds for the learner to master. But, it does become a problem because the "lost" category had to be distributed into the remaining categories. That did not always happen in a clear and straightforward fashion so that makes it very tricky for learners. Later on, we'll see some examples of this. For now, enough historical linguistics and some nitty-gritty useful guidelines.

Give me an L!

There are three L sounds in Gaelic. Former non-initial single broad /lˠ/ has now been grouped with /l̪ˠ/ - which is the L in the simplified IPA letter set we're using:

L l
Broad Initial l
Broad ll
(Also called Dark l)
Slender Initial l
Slender ll
(also called Palatal l)
Non-initial Slender l
(Also called weak l)
latha, lorg
balla, talla, call, mall
balach, ealan, màl, gal
leapaidh, leum
cailleach, maille,
caill, cill
baile, cuilean,
càil, sùil
1) Tongue in an l position
2. Tip of tongue rests against the incisors
3. Body of tongue lowered
4. Back of tongue raised slightly
This produces a hollow sounding "dark l"
1. Tongue in an l position
2. Body of tongue pressed against the palate
This produces a palatal l sound. If it helps, think of it as squeezing the l against your palate. For those with foreign language skills, this is the same as Spanish ll, Portuguese lh, Italian gli and French ill.
Note that this is ONE sound, so do NOT make an l followed by a y sound.
This is essentially the same "neutral" or "weak" l as in English, German etc.
This means the tip of your tongue is at the alveolar ridge, not the teeth.

By weak I mean l sounds without any fancy tongue stuff going on

Leniting l sounds

Because the /ɫ/ sound has been lost, only slender [Lʲ] is lenited.

Normal Lenition

By "normal" we mean lenition caused by anything except the definite article, e.g. possessives, vocative particles, relative particles, and noun induced lenition.

Lʲ ⇨ l leapaidh ⇨ mo leapaidh
L ⇨ L làmh ⇨ mo làmh (no change)
sL ⇨ L slaodach ⇨ glé shlaodach
ʃLʲ ⇨ l sleamhain ⇨ glé shleamhain
ʃl ⇨ l sleamhain ⇨ glé shleamhain (NB: both pronunciations of sl- are found, depending on the dialect)

In traditional Harris Gaelic with the "extra l" the lenition would work as follows:

Lʲ ⇨ l leapaidh ⇨ mo leapaidh
L ⇨ ɫ làmh ⇨ mo làmh (to produce this sound, make an /l/ sound but lower the back of your tongue to "darken" it).

Article Lenition

There are a few peculiarities regarding article lenition. Since lenition is blocked for words beginning in DNTLS, the only exception here is with words beginning with fl-

Lʲ ⇨ Lʲ leapaidh ⇨ air an leapaidh (no change)
L ⇨ L làmh ⇨ air an làmh (no change)
fl ⇨ Lʲ fleasgach ⇨ air an fhleasgach

Give me an N!

There are three N sounds in Gaelic. Former non-initial slender /nˠ/ has now been grouped with /n/:

N n
Broad Initial n

Broad nn
(also called Dental n)
Slender Initial n
Slender nn
(also called Palatal n)
Non-initial Single n
naoi, nàire
ceannaich, beannaich,
gann, teann
nì, nead,
fàinne, cainnt,
cruinn, binn
ainm, faoineas,
mìn, sin
dona, dèanamh,
làn, bean
1. Tongue in an n position
2. Tip of tongue rests against the upper incisors
3. Body of tongue lowered
4. Back of tongue raised slightly
This produces a hollow sounding "dark n"
1. Tongue in an n position
2. Body of tongue pressed against the palate
This produces a palatal n sound. If it helps, think of it as squeezing the n against your palate. For those with foreign language skills, this is the same as Spanish ñ, Portuguese nh, Italian and French gn.
Note that this is ONE sound, so do NOT make an n followed by a y sound.
This is essentially the same "neutral" or "weak" n as in English, German etc.
This means the tip of your tongue is at the alveolar ridge, not the teeth.

By weak I again mean an n sound with no funny business.
Note that many dialects pronounce slender non-initial single n as /Nʲ/ (e.g. ainm, duine...)

Leniting n sounds

Seeing that the /nˠ/ vs. /n/ distinction has been lost, we would expect lenition of n sounds to work like that of l sounds. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Both /N/ and /Nʲ/ lenite to /n/:

Normal Lenition

By "normal" we mean lenition caused by anything except the definite article, e.g. possessives, vocative particles, relative particles, and noun induced lenition.

N ⇨ n nàire ⇨ mo nàire
Nʲ ⇨ n nead ⇨ mo nead
sN ⇨ n snàthaid ⇨ mo shnàthaid
ʃNʲ ⇨ n sneachda ⇨ mo shneachda

Article Lenition

Again, there are a few peculiarities regarding article lenition. Since lenition is blocked for words beginning in DNTLS, the only exception here is with words beginning with sn-

N ⇨ N nàire ⇨ an nàire (no change)
Nʲ ⇨ Nʲ nead ⇨ air an nead (no change)
sNʲ ⇨ -N tr sneachda ⇨ anns an t-sneachda /ãũN səN trɛ̃xgə/

And the article itself actually

Even though the plural definite articles na and nan start with n, those at the beginning are pronounced with weak /n/. Before vowels and lenited f, the final -n strengthens to /N/ and /Nʲ/, depending on the environment.

n ⇨ N an ⇨ anns an fhàrdach
nan ⇨ nan aibhnichean
n ⇨ Nʲ an ⇨ air an fheur
nan ⇨ nan eun

And one more - possessives

As if life wasn't difficult enough already, we must include a note on the pronunciation of n after possessives. The plural possessive pronouns prefix n- to a noun beginning with a vowel. Although one might be tempted to follow the rules under (1), this n- is always pronounced as weak /n/.

ar n-ubhal /ar nu.əL/
'gur n-iarraidh /gər niaRɪ/
an ubhal /a nu.əL/

Note for the curious: the reason for this is that historically the n- was not part of the noun, but of the possessive - as you can see in the third person possessive an-, where the spelling still reflects that. So way back ar and ur were aron and svaron - which is, incidentally, the reason that in Irish these eclipse i.e. 'our cat' is ár gcat.

So why shift around the n? It's all to do with syllable structure and things like that - happens in all languages, e.g. English nickname used to be an eekname - but let's leave it at that.

Give me an r - hang on, almost there!

And there are three R sounds in Gaelic. Former slender initial r has has now been grouped with /R/:

R r
Initial r
Double r
Non-initial Broad r Non-initial Slender r
rùn, ràmh,
rionnag, ruith (< rith)
barra, urram,
giorra (< girre)*
cearr, barr
caran, darach,
cur, cor
mìrean, céire
cìr, air
1. Tongue tip at the alveolar ridge
2. Back of tongue lowered
3. Trill the r
This is close to the "Scottish Rolled r". Rather difficult for English monoglot speakers.
1. Tongue tip at the alveolar ridge
2. Back of tongue lowered
3. Tap the r
Another sound difficult for English monoglots. You can also think of this sound as an extremely quickly said (English) <d>, but tapped more with the very tip of your tongue rather than the blade as for <d>.
This sound is like /r/ but pronounced closer to your incisors. A variant of this sound is /ð/as in English the, where instead of your tongue being at your teeth, it is pushed in between your teeth.

*Here the change in pronunciation is reflected in the spelling

Note that the preposition ri, and its conjugated forms, are pronounced with /rʲ/.

Leniting r sounds

Once you have actually mastered trilling and tapping your r sounds, leniting them is easy, since there is only one initial r sound left in Gaelic.

Normal Lenition

Again, by "normal" we mean lenition caused by anything except the definite article, e.g. possessives, vocative particles, relative particles, and noun induced lenition. Note that the whole /sdr/ cluster gets reduced to /r/.

R ⇨ r rathad ⇨ mo rathad
R ⇨ r rionnag ⇨ mo rionnag
sdr ⇨ r sruth ⇨ mo shruth

Note that loanwords, usually written with str rather than sr, are unlenitable, for example, stràbh ⇨ mo stràbh.

Article Lenition

Again, there are a few peculiarities regarding article lenition. Although lenition is NOT blocked after the definite article, r does not lenite after the definite article. After fr, r is "strengthened" to /R/.

R ⇨ R rathad > air an rathad (no change)
r ⇨ R fraoch > anns an fhraoch

Sin agad e - That's it, you've done it. Now all you need to do is remember it.




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