Phonology of Irish

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Phonology here refers to the sound patterns of the Irish language, which vary by dialect but share certain features. Phonologists have traditionally classified most of the language's 33 or so consonants into 'broad' and 'slender' pairs, i.e. respectively velarised or palatalised, involving different placement of the tongue. This difference is phonemic: substituting one for another produces a different word, e.g. 'cow' and beo 'alive'. Such consonants also affect which of Irish's 15 or so vowels may acceptably co-occur with them.

Another interesting feature of Irish phonology concerns consonant clusters, i.e. sequences of consonants. Words may begin with two or three consonants, which usually agree in being broad or slender. Two-member clusters consist of an obstruent consonant followed by a liquid (e.g. pleidhce /ˈpʲlʲəicə/ 'idiot') or nasal consonant (e.g. cnaipe /ˈkn̪ˠapʲə/ 'button'); three-member clusters start with a sibilant as in sparán /ˈsˠpˠaɾˠaːn̪ˠ/ 'purse', preceding a voiceless stop and a liquid.[1] However, under consonant mutation (changing consonants according to some rule), other sequences can occur: e.g. bhlas [wɫ̪asˠ] 'tasted', mbláth [mˠɫ̪aː] 'flower'.[2]

t̪ˠaː mʲeː ˈklɪʃtʲaːl ə ɡɔl haɾˠəmˠ ɡə mʲəi ˈsˠavˠɾˠə fʲlɔx sˠə ˈmʲliənə aɡən̠ʲ aɡəsˠ ˈçiːt̪ˠəɾˠ ɣɔmˠ pʲeːn ɡəɾˠ ˈaʃtʲəx ə ʃceːl eː ʃɪn

Tá mé ag cloisteáil ag dul tharam go mbeidh samhradh fliuch sa mbliana againn, agus chítear dhom féin gur aisteach an scéal é sin.

'I have heard tell that we'll have a wet summer this year, but it seems to me that that story is strange.'

- speech sample from the Aran dialect[3]


Stress is generally predictable in Irish: it is placed on the first syllable of the word, e.g. easonóir [ˈasˠən̪ˠoːɾʲ] 'dishonour'.[4] Exceptions are often adverbs or loanwords, such as amháin [əˈwaːnʲ] 'only' and tobac [təˈbak] 'tobacco'. In compund words, such as lagphórtach [ˈɫ̪agˌfˠɔɾˠt̪ˠəx] 'spent bog', primary stress falls on the first member. When a short vowel is unstressed, it generally surfaces as the schwa [ə], similar to the vowels beginning and ending the English word aroma.


  1. Ní Chiosáin (1999).
  2. Ní Chiosáin (1999); Ó Sé (2000: 33).
  3. Finck (1899: II.1–2).
  4. Stress is indicated by [ ˈ ] immediately before the stressed syllable.