Nasalisation or When to speak through your nose

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Like many other languages, Gaelic has nasalised vowels. In linguist-speak that means that you lower your velum while making the vowel sound.

In other words, instead of air passing just through your mouth, some air also escapes through your nose. It's quite easy to learn how to nasalise vowels - just try to additionally breathe out through your nose. You can check whether you are doing the right thing both by listening to your own voice and - if you're still unsure - holding your hand under your nose. If you're doing it right, you'll be able to feel your breath on the back of your hand.

So when DO you do this in Gaelic? Unfortunately, there is no simple rule and it also differs vastly from dialect to dialect which words are nasalised or not. Here are a few pointers though:

1) Nasalisation occurs mostly in the vicinity of nasal consonants m, mh, n and ng. Now you could argue successfully that due to the articulation process ALL vowels near a nasal are nasalised. However, we only talk about nasalised vowels if the nasalisation is audible throughout the vowel and fairly noticeable.

In some cases it is very important to nasalise the appropriate vowels as it affects the meaning of your statements, such as in:

cha bhi [xa viː] will not cha mhi [xa vĩː] I am not
a-bhàn [əˈvaːn] down (mainland) a-mhàin [əˈvãːn] only
a Dhia! [ə ʝia] Oh God! a dhiamh! [ə ʝĩã] yuck!
tàbh [taːv] hand-net tàmh [tãːṽ] rest

This is not only restricted to the vowel immediately adjacent to the nasal, but can spread through the whole word and even affect consonants, for example, in màthair [mãːh̃ə̃rʲ] 'mother' or seanmhair [ʃɛ̃nɛ̃və̃rʲ] 'grandmother'.

High mid vowels are almost never nasalised. Eh? I mean [e] [o] and [ɤ]. For example:

  • [e] feum, leum, fhéin, beum, ceum...
  • [o] mór, modh, coma...
  • [ɤ] coinnich, coinneamh...

Words with a helping vowel tend not to have nasalisation, even if they contain nasals, for example:

  • ainm [ɛnɛm] "name"

So should you now be looking for a bottle of hair conditioner to dye your hair grey? Not really, because nasalisation in Gaelic, for the most part, is "optional". In other words, it won't affect the meaning of a statement or confuse someone you're speaking to. It's really a bit like English nasalisation which, when it occurs, never makes a blind bit of difference to the meaning of what you're saying.

There are languages where it does matter ... in Lakhóta (what they speak in Dances with Wolves ... which incidentally is Šųkmánitu Thą́ka ų Wačhí ... not that you needed to know that), for example, the word ú means to come and the word ų́ (with nasalisation) means to live. In Gaelic on the other hand, whether you say [mãːh̃ə̃rʲ] or [maːhərʲ], it always means 'mother'.

By the way, this kind of nasalisation has nothing to do with what happens to stops after the definite article in certain dialects (and in Irish, as a matter of fact). For this phenomenon read the pages on Nasalisation after the definite article.

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