Dialects of Irish
Irish dialects today
Dialects and the teaching of Irish
( Click on the any of the location labels in the above map to listen to typical sound files )
Irish dialects today
The term for an Irish-speaking area is Gaeltacht ‘Irish region’. This term is used collectively, referring to all those regions in which Irish is still spoken as a first language in a living community. Occasionally, the English-speaking areas are referred to as Galltacht ‘region of the non-Irish’, the stem Gall- being the same as in Dún na nGall / Donegal ‘fortress of foreigners’.
The standard dialect survey of Irish is Heinrich Wagner’s comprehensive atlas (see Wagner 1958-64). But even when this was being compiled, almost 60 years ago, the speakers were older males whose Irish was frequently moribund. The situation today is that large tracts of the country have no historically continuous Irish-speaking areas any more, for instance there are no such areas in Northern Ireland or in Leinster.
Irish in Mayo has declined considerably that the studies of de Búrca (1958) and Mhac an Fhailigh (1968) are of largely historical interest today. The areas along the southern coast of Co. Galway (South Connemara) and on the Aran Islands, as well as that around Gaoth Dobhair and on Tory Island in Donegal, represent the most vibrant communities today.
There are many language enthusiasts throughout Ireland who put much effort into maintaining the language outside the historically continuous areas. These speakers are concentrated in urban centres, chiefly in Dublin and Cork, but also in Belfast, Derry and many other smaller cities and towns. Virtually all these individuals are not native speakers, but their dedication to the language makes it most likely that this group will be that which will survive among coming generations and carry the language forward. There are also Irish-medium schools throughout the country, especially in the larger cities. These have experienced a surge in popularity among the English-speaking Irish public in recent years. There has been much discussion about why this increase in interest should happen now, but apart from a genuine interest in the language other factors, such as favourable teacher to pupil ratios, may well have played a role.
The survival of non-native varieties of Irish and the demise of the historically continuous communities of native speakers will have consequences for the structure of the language, some of which are already to be observed. Enthusiastic non-native speakers of Irish frequently neglect many distinctions of the language, such as the initial mutations, the distinction between palatal and non-palatal sounds and grammatical gender, to mention some of the more obvious ones.
Dialects and the teaching of Irish
There is no standard pronunciation of present-day Irish and textbooks and grammars do not normally make any reference to pronunciation. Given that this is the case, how do students of the language learn pronunciation? The answer is quite simple: for grammar and vocabulary students learn from textbooks and dictionaries. They are taught pronunciation by their teachers. These will have a single pronunciation based on the dialect which they in turn followed when they were learning the language. In general, one can say that people from the south follow a southern pronunciation and those from the north a northern pronunciation. Those from the centre or east of the country follow a western or southern pronunciation but rarely if ever a northern one.
Put in terms of colleges and universities this rule of thumb works out as follows. At the universities in Cork and Limerick a southern pronunciation is the rule, at the university in Galway a western pronunciation is usual. At northern universities, i.e. at Queen’s University in Belfast and at the various campi of the University of Ulster (in Belfast, Coleraine and Derry) a northern pronunciation dominates. In Dublin universities (University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University) either a western or a southern pronunciation is common as these institutions tend in the main to service students from the Republic of Ireland, south of Ulster. It is true that Donegal is in the republic, but in language it receives its greatest support from universities in Northern Ireland. Similar to the universities, the institutes of technology tend to follow the accent of the region in which they are located, assuming that they have academic programmes for Irish.
An additional factor is the question of where students of Irish go to practice the spoken language. There are three choices here: the summer schools and colleges in the Kerry, Connemara or Donegal Gaeltacht. For students, spending time in a Gaeltacht area will strengthen their pronunciation for that region. And of course students are encouraged by their college teachers to decide on one dialect and keep to this. For students of Irish it is important to grasp what features are typical of what dialect region.
In the following sections, the main phonological differences between the dialects of Irish, as recorded in the available literature, are given in summary form. The references are to individual studies. More general literature is also available, from the mid-19th century grammar by O’Donovan (1845) to the influential study by O’Rahilly (1932) to later works like Ó Cuív (1951) and Ó Siadhail (1989) as well as Hickey (2011). The main differences between the dialects are to be found among vowels which is why it is so difficult to arrive at a common pronunciation for all three main dialect areas (but see Ó Baoill 1986 and Ó Baoill (ed.) 1990). Most general works on Irish often fudge the issue by not giving pronunciations (the official standard does not either). One or two are based on a particular dialect, such as Ó Siadhail (1980) which relies on western Irish pronunciation.
This refers to a few areas in the southern province of Munster. The main one is the end of the Dingle Peninsula (Irish: Corca Dhuibhne). The others comprise a small area on the Iveragh Peninsula, an inland area in Co. Cork, the island of Cape Clear as well as the area of Ring in West Waterford (see map above).
For all dialects areas, the reflexes of historical vowels before former geminate sonorants play an important role in differentiation. In Southern Irish the following realisations are found: /i/ > /ai/ cinn ‘heads’, /o/ > /au/ trom ‘heavy’, /a/ > /au/ crann ‘tree’. The following features are also important in delimiting southern Irish from forms in the west and north.
The realisation of <ao> This is pronounced /e:/, e.g. glaoch /gle:x/ ‘call’. See O’Rahilly (1932: 27-38) for an overview in all the dialects including Scottish Gaelic.
Sonorants A two-way distinction is found for N and L. Velar stops are retained in post-nasal position, i.e. teanga is [tjæŋgə] ‘tongue’.
/v/ before a back or low vowel is realised as [v].
The realisation of coronal stops These are realised with very slight palatalisation. The non-palatal stops /t/ and /d/ are alveolar.
The word-initial sequences cn-, gn-, mn- These are pronounced with [n], e.g. cnoc [knʌk] and mná [mnɑ:]. There is, however, some placename evidence which points to [r] for /n/ in this position in the earlier history of Southern Irish.
Word stress Long vowels in non-initial syllables attract stress, e.g. cailín /kaˡlji:nj/ ‘girl’. This may be the result of Anglo-Norman influence (in the south-east) after the 12th century as older authors like O’Rahilly assumed (1932: 86-98) and certainly applied to many French loanwords, e.g. buidéal /bəˡdje:l/ ‘bottle’. See Hickey (1997) for further discussion.
Déise Irish, Ring (South Co. Waterford), Henebry (1898), Breatnach (1947), Sheehan (1944).
West Muskerry (West Co. Cork), Ó Cuív (1944).
Dunquin (Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry), Sjoestedt-Jonval (1931, 1938), Ó Sé (1995, 2000).
This refers to forms of Irish spoken west of Galway and on the Aran Islands. Irish is still a daily language for most of the population in Cois Fhairrge (immediately west of Galway city) and the areas around An Cheathrú Rua (Carraroe), Ros Muc, Cill Chiaráin, Carna (on the peninsula known in Irish as Iorras Aithneach) further along the coast. This encompasses the area known as Ceantar na nOileán ‘district of the islands’, especially because the largest of these, Leitir Móir ‘Lettermore’ is a strong Irish-speaking area. Western Irish also includes the two smaller Aran Islands (in Galway Bay), Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr as well as the main island Inis Móir, especially outside the main town of Cill Rónáin. Western Irish would also include the area of Corr na Móna in north Galway and Túr Mhic Éide (Tourmakeady) in south Mayo.
Reflexes of historical vowels before former geminate sonorants: /i/ > /i:/ cinn, ‘heads’, /o/ > /u:/ trom ‘heavy’, /a/ > /a:/ [ɑ:] crann ‘tree’.
The realisation of <ao> This is generally pronounced /i:/, e.g. glaoch /gli:x/ ‘call’.
Sonorants A three-way distinction is found for N and L, i.e. /nˠ – n – nj/ and /lˠ – l – lj/. Velar stops are not retained in post-nasal position in Cois Fhairrge, i.e. teanga is [tjæŋə] ‘tongue’, but these are found in this position further to the west.
/v/ before a back or low vowel is realised as [w].
The realisation of coronal stops These are realised in western Irish as true palatals without noticeable affrication. The non-palatal stops /t/ and /d/ are dental.
The word-initial sequences cn-, gn-, mn- These are pronounced with [r], e.g. cnoc [krʌk] and mná [mrɑ:]. However, Árainn (Inishmore - the largest of the Aran Islands) has [n] in these and similar words.
Word stress Initial stress applies to virtually all words with the exception of one or two loanwords such as tobac /təˡba:k/ ‘tobacco’.
Cois Fhairrge (Mid-West Co. Galway), de Bhaldraithe (1945, 1953).
Iorras Aithneach (West Co. Galway), Ó Curnáin (2007).
Inishmaan (middle Aran Island, Galway Bay), Finck (1899).
Tourmakeady (South Co. Mayo), de Búrca (1958).
Erris (North-West Co. Mayo), Mhac an Fhailigh (1968).
Achill (West Co. Mayo), Stockman 1974.
Remnants of Irish in Co. Clare (transitional between the west and south) are described in Holmer (1962-5).
The Irish language is spoken today in two main areas on the coast of Co. Donegal. The first is in the south-west of this country (Wagner 1979 ) and the second and larger area is in the north-west, particularly the region around Gaoth Dobhair. Irish is also spoken on Tory Island off the north-west coast. The Irish term for the Donegal Gaeltacht is Tír Chonaill (‘country of Connell’). The region in the vicinity of Gaoth Dobhair is often referred to as Cloich Cheannfhaola (‘Kineely’s stone’).
Reflexes of historical vowels before former geminate sonorants: /i/ > /i/ cinn ‘heads’, /o/ > /ʌ, ɔ/ trom ‘heavy’, cor ‘movement, budge’, /a/ > /a/ crann ‘tree’.
The realisation of <ao> This is pronounced as a retracted high front vowel: /ɨ:/, e.g. glaoch /glɨ:x/ ‘call’. The degree of retraction for this vowel is greatest in the north of Donegal.
Other vowels There is a general fronting of vowels in northern Irish. The /u:/ is pronounced as a high rounded vowel, much as in the rest of Ulster (an areal feature covering both Irish and English), e.g. cúl [kʉ:l] ‘rear’. The long low vowel, pronounced [ɑ:] in western Irish, is often fronted to a value nearer [æ:] or [ɛ:], e.g. tá [tæ:, tɛ:] ‘(it) is’. A lowered and retracted variant of /e:/ is found as the reflex of /a/ and a velar fricative, e.g. slaghdán [slˠɛdˠənˠ] ‘cold (illness)’. The mid back vowel /o:/ is also lowered, e.g. pósta [pɑ:stə] ‘married’. A final unstressed schwa tends to be realised as /i/, e.g. cinnte [kʲɪnʲtʲi] ‘certain’, éasca [e:ski] ‘easy, free’.
Sonorants A three-way distinction is found for N and L, i.e. /nˠ – n – nj/ and /lˠ – l – lj/. Velar stops are variably retained in post-nasal position, i.e. teanga is [tjæŋ(g)ə] or [tjæŋ(g)i] ‘tongue’.
/v/ before a back or low vowel is realised as [w].
The realisation of coronal stops These are realised in northern Irish as palatals with audible affrication. The non-palatal stops /t/ and /d/ are dental.
The word-initial sequences cn-, gn-, mn- These are pronounced with [r], e.g. cnoc [krʌk] and mná [mræ:].
Word stress Stress is on the first syllable though there is considerable shortening of post-initial long vowels (as opposed to western Irish), e.g. sceireog ‘fib, lie’ /ˡsjkjɛrəg/.
The Mayo dialects in the north-west of this county, which are spoken by very small numbers today, are not simply transitional between the central western and the northern dialects. They show a large number of Ulster features due the resettlement of people from Ulster in north-west Mayo in the 17th century. The Irish of this region has been studied, in particular in Erris (North-West Co. Mayo) by Mhac an Fhailigh (1968) and in Achill (West Co. Mayo) by Stockman (1974). For East Co. Mayo, see Ó Catháin (forthcoming). See Ó Dochartaigh (1987) for a general overview.
Teilinn (South West Co. Donegal), Wagner (1979 ).
Glenties (Central South Co. Donegal), Quiggin (1906).
Torr (Gweedore, Co. Donegal), Sommerfelt (1922).
Tory Island (North West Co. Donegal), Hamilton (1974).
Ros Goill (North Co. Donegal), Lucas (1979).
Breatnach, Risteard B. 1947. The Irish of Ring, Co. Waterford. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
de Bhaldraithe, Tomás 1945. The Irish of Chois Fhairrge, Co. Galway. Dublin: Institue for Advanced Studies.
de Bhaldraithe, Tomás 1953a. Gaeilge Chois Fhairrge. An deilbhíocht. [The Irish of Cois Fhairrge. The morphology] Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
de Búrca, Seán 1958. The Irish of Tourmakeady, Co. Mayo. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Finck, Franz N. 1899. Die araner mundart. Ein beitrag zur erforschung des westirischen, 2 Bde. Marburg: Elwert’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.
Hamilton, Noel 1974. A phonetic study of the Irish of Tory Island. Belfast: Institute for Irish Studies.
Henebry, Richard 1898. A contribution to the phonology of Déise-Irish. PhD thesis: University of Greifswald.
Hickey, Raymond 1997. ‘Assessing the relative status of languages in medieval Ireland’, in: Jacek Fisiak (ed.), Studies in Middle English linguistics Berlin: Mouton, 181-205.
Hickey, Raymond 2011. The Dialects of Irish. Study in a Changing Landscape. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Hindley, Reg 1990. The death of the Irish language. A qualified obituary. London: Routledge.
Holmer, Nils 1962-5. The dialects of Co. Clare. 2 vols. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
Lucas, Leslie 1979. Grammar of Ros Goill Irish. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.
McCone, Kim et al. 1994. Stair na Gaeilge. In ómós do Pádraig Ó Fiannachta [The history of Irish, in honour of Patrick O’Finaghty] St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth [National Unversity of Ireland]: Department of Irish.
Mhac an Fhailigh, Éamonn 1968. The Irish of Erris, Co.Mayo. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Ó Baoill, Dónall 1986. Lárchanúint don Ghaeilge. [A common pronunciation for Irish] Dublin: Linguistics Institute.
Ó Baoill, Dónall (ed.) 1990. Úsáid agus forbairt na lárchanúna. [Use and development of the common pronunciation] Dublin: Linguistics Institute.
Ó Buachalla, Brendán 2003. An teanga bheo: Gaeilge Chléire. Dublin.
Ó Catháin, Brian forthcoming. The Irish of East Mayo: A Phonetic Study. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Ó Dochartaigh, Cathair 1987. Dialects of Ulster Irish. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.
O’Donovan, John 1845. A grammar of the Irish language. Dublin: Hodges and Smith.
Ó Cuív, Brian 1944. The Irish of West Muskerry, Co. Cork. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Ó Cuív, Brian 1951. Irish Dialects and Irish-Speaking Districts. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Ó Cuív, Brian (ed.) 1969. A view of the Irish language. Dublin: Stationary Office.
Ó Curnáin, Brian 2007. The Irish of Iorras Aithneach, County Galway. 4 vols. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Ó Murchú, Mairtín 1969. ‘Common core and underlying representations’, Ériu 21, 42-75.
O’Rahilly, Thomas F. 1932. Irish dialects past and present, with chapters on Scottish and Manx. Dublin: Browne and Nolan. Reprinted in 1976.
Ó Riagáin, Pádraig 2007. ‘Irish’, in: David Britain (ed.) Language of the British Isles. Cambridge: University Press.
Ó Sé, Diarmuid 1995. An Teanga Bheo. Gaeilge Corca Dhuibhne. [The Living Language. The Irish of Corkaguiny (Dingle Peninsula)] Dublin: Linguistics Institute.
Ó Sé, Diarmuid 2000. Gaeilge Corca Dhuibhne. [The Irish of Corkaguiny (Dingle Peninsula)] Dublin: Linguistics Institute.
Ó Siadhail, Mícheál 1980. Learning Irish. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Ó Siadhail, Mícheál 1989. Modern Irish. Grammatical structure and dialectal variants Cambridge: University Press.
Ó Siadhail, Mícheál and Arndt Wigger 1975. Córas fuaimeanna na Gaeilge. [The sound pattern of Irish] Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Quiggin, E. C. 1906. A dialect of Donegal being the speech of Meenawannia in the parish of Glenties. Cambridge: University Press.
Sheehan, M. 1944. Sean-chaint na nDéise. [The old dialect of the Deise (Co. Waterford)] 2nd edition Dublin.
Sjoestedt-Jonval, Marie-Louise 1931. Phonétique d’un parler irlandais de Kerry. Paris: Ernest Leroux.
Sjoestedt-Jonval, Marie-Louise 1938. Description d’un parler irlandais de Kerry. Paris: Champion.
Sommerfelt, Alf 1922. The dialect of Torr, Co. Donegal. Christiania: Dybwad.
Stockman, Gerald 1974. The Irish of Achill. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.
Wagner, Heinrich 1958-64. Linguistic atlas and survey of Irish dialects. 4 Vols. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Wagner, Heinrich 1979 . Gaeilge Theilinn. [The Irish of Teelin] 2nd edition. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Wigger, Arndt 1970. Nominalformen im Connemara-Irischen. Hamburg: Lüdke.
Williams, Nicholas 1994. ‘Na canúintí a theacht chun solais’ [The coming to light of the dialects], in: McCone et al. (eds), pp. 447-78.