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Terms in phonetics
Lexical sets
L and N sounds

The purpose of this website is to offer students and beginners to Irish an easy-to-use introduction to the sounds of Irish. There are many audio files which will help users understand what the varieties of Irish sound like and there are guidelines which should be useful when users are attempting to produce the sounds of Irish themselves. Information is also contained on the different dialects of Irish and the linguistic terminology used to describe the sounds of Irish. In order to understand what is being referred at the different points of the website, users should read this introduction and consult the glossary as well. Users should furthermore be acquainted with the basic principles of phonetic transcription.


The level which concerns itself with the smallest units of language is phonetics. Phonology on the other hand is the functional classification of the sounds of a particular language. It is the system of sounds by means of which meanings are differentiated in a language and which serve as the building blocks for the higher linguistic levels, e.g. morphology.

Phonetics is the study of human sounds in general without saying what function which sounds may have in a particular language. The term ‘phonetics’ is, however, often used with reference to one language when the emphasis is on the pronunciation of this language. For instance, a book on The phonetics of English would be about how to pronounce English correctly and not necessarily about the functions which the sounds may have in the phonological system of the language.

It is customary to divide the field of phonetics into three branches as follows.

   1)    articulatory phonetics   (emission of sounds)
   2)    acoustic phonetics        (transmission of sounds)
   3)    auditive phonetics        (reception of sounds)

Sounds can be divided into consonants and vowels. The former can be characterised according to 1) place, 2) manner of articulation and 3) voice (voiceless or voiced). For vowels one uses a coordinate system called a vowel quandrangle within which actual vowel values are located. See the detailed discussion below

Terms in phonetics

In any language there will be sounds which are used to differentiate meaning and those which do not serve this function. To cope with this situation descriptively one needs a number of terms to start with.

Phone This is the smallest unit of human sound which is recognisable but not classified. The delimiters used are square brackets: [ ]. Examples: [p], [i:], [t] all of which are found in English peat, [b], [ʌ], [g] all of which are found in Irish bog ‘soft’. Phones are unclassified in that nothing is said of their function in the sound system of a language. They are thus different from allophones (see next paragraph but one).

Phoneme This is the smallest unit of language which distinguishes meaning, it is the organisational unit of phonology, the study of the sound system of a language or languages. Phonemes are written in slashes: / /. Examples of phonemes are /k/ and /g/ in Irish or English. Their status is shown by finding minimal pairs in which the only difference is between the two sounds in question, e.g. cot and got in English or clé ‘left-hand (side)’ and glé ‘clear, lucid’ in Irish.

Remember that phonemes are sound units and independent of letters which are the representation of sounds in writing without, however, a necessary one-to-one relationship between each. In Irish there is a general rule that palatal sounds are flanked by either <i> or <e> and non-palatal (velarised) sounds by <a>, <o> or <u>. This rule for writing is called ‘caol le caol, leathan le leathan’ in Irish, i.e. ‘narrow with narrow, broad with broad’.

Allophone This term has two basic meanings. a) the realisation of a phoneme; b) non-distinctive variants of a phoneme. Allophones are written in square brackets: [ ]. Examples of allophones are provided by different sounds in a language which do not change the meaning of a word, e.g. the aspirated and unaspirated /t/ in Irish in tuí [tʰi:] ‘straw’ and stad [stad] ‘stop’ of Irish. An English example would be the alveolar (word-initial) and the velarised (word-final) /l/ of English as in leap [li:p] and deal [di:lˠ] respectively. Note that in Irish the latter two sounds are not allophones but phonemes as minimal pairs like [lˠɑ:] ‘day’ and leá [lʲɑ:] ‘melt’ demonstrate.

Procedures for determining a phoneme In the majority of cases it is clear what phonemes are, /p/ and /t/ or /s/ and /f/ are clear instances in Irish and English. There are however borderline cases. Consider the case of English /h/ and /ŋ/ as in hat [hæt] and sing [sɪŋ]. The former does not occur in syllable-final position and the latter only occurs in syllable-final position, i.e. [ŋæt] and [sɪh] are impossible sound sequences in English. So one could imagine that they are allophones of the same phoneme in complementary distribution, like [l] and [lˠ]. However, the sounds are so phonetically dissimilar that it would be nonsensical to consider them as two realisations of the same phoneme. In Irish, the matter is clearer as both /h/ and /ŋ/ can occur in word-initial position, cf. a hainm ‘her name’ and a nguíonna [ŋ-] ‘their prayers’, and so their phonemic status is obvious.

Not all phonemes in a language have the same functional load. For instance, the difference between /s/ and /z/ or /f/ and /v/, i.e. the distinction between voiceless and voiced sounds, is essential to the English language as the many minimal pairs prove, e.g. sue /su:/ : zoo /zu:/, feel /fi:l/ : veal /vi:l/. However, the number of words which are distinguished by a voiceless ambidental fricative and a voiced ambidental fricative are few and far between: in initial position the only word pair is thy [ðai] and thigh [θai]. In final position there are a few more with pairs like teeth [ti:θ] and teethe [ti:ð]. The reason why the two sounds /θ/ and /ð/ have not collapsed to a single one in the history of English is probably because the distinction in voice is so central to the phonology of the language.
   In Irish, the functional load of /ɣ/ is much lower than /x/. The latter occurs in many more words than does the former which is additionally restricted to mutated words (a ghualainn /ə ɣuəlˠɪnʲ/ ‘his shoulder’) and a few grammatical words like [ɣo:] ‘for him’.

Structural considerations Another instance where one may have difficulties determining phonemes is where one is dealing with more than one sound. Clusters of consonants may exist in different languages on a phonetic level but have a different status in each. For example, in English and Irish the sound sequence [tʃ] is found. In Irish, however, it really occurs only when /x/ and /s/ come together as part of a verb structure, e.g. bheadh sé /ve:x/ + /sʲe:/ > [ve:tʃe:] ‘he would be’. This means that there is always a morpheme boundary between the /x/ and the /sʲ/ in Irish. In English, however, one has [tʃ] as part of lexical stems as in chop /tʃɒp/ and cheat /tʃi:t/. Hence one can analyse /tʃ/ for English as an indivisible cluster, i.e. as a single phoneme.

Minimal pairs It was said above that the phoneme is the smallest unit of language which distinguishes meaning. This definition implies that one can find sets of words which are differentiated only by the sounds in a single slot. Any such set of words is called a minimal pair as the words in question are minimally different on the sound level. This principle applies to all languages as each language avails of the contrasts which can be constructed using the distinctive sounds of that language. Pairs like stop /stɒp/ vs. step /stɛp/ or railing /reilɪŋ/ vs. sailing /seilɪŋ/ illustrate the principle in English as do Kunst /kunst/ ‘art’ and Gunst /gunst/ ‘favour’ in German, zub /zub/ ‘tooth’ vs. sup /sup/ ‘soup’ in Russian, fiach /fʲiəx/ ‘hunt’ vs. liach /lʲiəx/ ‘calamity’ in Irish.

Bracketing Slashes (also called obliques) are used to enclose phonological units (phonemes), e.g. /i:/, /k/, /au/ while square brackets [] enclose the realisations of these units. If two realisations are non-distinctive, that is do not cause a different in meaning, then they can be assigned to one phoneme, e.g. in Irish /a/ has the realisation [a] after non-palatal consonants and [æ] after palatal ones as in slacht and teacht respectively. In addition these realisastions can occur long, as in Cois Fharraige Irish (on the coast west of Galway city). The length distinction is not distinctive because [tʲæxt] and [tʲæ:xt] are still the same word, teacht, i.e. they do not cause a change in meaning.
     In Irish phonetic studies, bracketing is not normally used. Instead transcriptions are usually given in bold type.

Phonotactics This is the area which is concerned with the possible sequences of sounds in a language. For instance, there is a word in English with a syllable-final /-kt/ but there is no word ctaf as /kt-/ cannot occur at the beginning of a syllable. Another example of a phonotactic restriction can be seen with the vowel /ʌ/ which occurs in closed syllables but not in open ones, e.g. dove /dʌv/ is a permissible word in English but /dʌ/ is not because the syllable is not closed by a consonant at the end. Irish is different in this respect as it does allow this vowel word-finally, cf. scoth /skʌ/ ‘pick, choice’ (adj.). It also permits sequences at the beginnings of words which are not possible in English, e.g. /sr-/ as in sráid /srɑ:dʲ/ ‘street’, /tn-/ as in tnuth /tnˠu:/ ‘envy’ or /dl-/ as in dlí /dʲlʲi:/ ‘law’.

Prosody This area is concerned with features of words and sentences above the level of individual sounds, e.g. stress, pitch, intonation. The stressed syllable of a word is indicated by a superscript vertical stroke placed before the syllable in question, e.g. scadán /ˡskʊdɑ:nˠ/ ‘herring’ (Western Irish). Stress varies in Irish with Southern Irish showing stress on non-initial long vowels, e.g. scadán /skəˡdɑ:nˠ/. Western and Northern Irish both share initial stress with such words.


These are sounds which involve some constriction of the vocal tract during their articulation. The degree of constriction can be very slight as with /w/ or /j/, cf. wet /wet/ and yes /jes/ respectively, or can be total as with stops, e.g. /p, t, k/ in words like English pea, tea, key, Irish pioc ‘pick’, tacú ‘support’, cabhair ‘help’.

In order to characterise the articulation of consonants, reference is usually made to three aspects, yielding so-called three-term labels. These cover the majority of cases in English and most other languages. The first term of these labels refers to the point in the vocal tract where constriction occurs. The second term refers to the manner of constriction. e.g. whether there is complete closure as with stops or only approximation as with fricatives. The third aspect refers to the presence or absence of voice, i.e. whether the vocal folds are vibrating during the articulation of a sound or not. For Irish an additional factor plays a central role, namely whether the consonant in question is palatal or non-palatal.

     1) Place
     2) Manner of articulation
     3) Voice (voiceless or voiced)
     4) Palatal or non-palatal

Places of articulation

When discussing places of articulation one distinguishes various points in the vocal tract as indicated in the graph below. Not all of these points are used in the sound system of every language. There are no fricatives in English produced at the velum and there are no ambi-dental sounds in Irish, for instance.

labial (< Latin labium ‘lip’) Produced at the lips. The plain stops /p, b/ and the nasal stop /m/ in English and Irish are examples for these sounds, cf. pit /pɪt/, bit /bɪt/, man /mæn/; péire /pe:rʲə/ ‘pair’, bean /bʲanˠ/ ‘woman’, mála /mɑ:lˠə/ ‘bag’.

labio-dental Produced between the lower lip and the upper teeth. Examples from English are /f/ and /v/ as in fine /fain/ and vine /vain/ and in Irish fíona /fʲi:nˠə/ ‘wine’ and an-bhog /anˠ vʌg/ ‘very soft’.

ambi-dental Produced with the tongue just behind the teeth when these are slightly apart. This is true of the sounds /θ/ and /ð/ in English thin [θɪn] and this [ðɪs]. Such sounds are relatively rare in the world’s languages and do not occur in Irish although they existed in the Old and Middle Irish periods.

alveolar (< Latin diminutive of alveus ‘cavity’, referring to the sockets for the upper teeth) The alveolar ridge is the bony protrusion behind the top teeth before the arched roof of the mouth which forms the palate. This is the most commonly used passive articulator and the tip of the tongue is the most frequently used active one, as in such common sounds as /t, d, s, z, n, l/ and (without contact) the /r/ found in most varieties of English.
   In Irish the (non-palatal) stops /t/ and /d/ are pronounced with the tip of the tongue just behind the teeth, i.e. further forward than English /t/ and /d/. One speaks of a dental realisation for the Irish stops.

alveolo-palatal The region immediately behind the alveolar ridge is used for the broad-grooved fricatives of English, /$/ and /g/, and found in the affricates /tʃ/ and /dž/ as well. These sounds are articulated with attendant lip-rounding. The [ʃ] sound is used in Irish as the realisation of the palatal /sj/, e.g. séimh /sʲe:vʲ/ > [ʃe:vʲ] ‘mild, gentle’.

palatal (< Latin palatum ‘roof of mouth’) The palate is the arched roof of the mouth which consists of bone covered by a thin layer of skin. The typical sounds produced here are /j/ and /ç/, the former in yes /jes/, year /jiə(r)/ and the latter in some English pronunciations of huge [çu:dž]. Stops in this region occur as well and are to be found allophonically in English when the following sound is a high front vowel, e.g. keel /ki:l/ [ci:l]. Historically, palatal stops they tend to shift further to affricates as in the development from Latin to Romance: camera /k-/ > chamber /tʃ-/ (a French loan in Middle English). The process of shift from a back to a front articulation for stops is called palatalisation and is attested widely in Slavic languages as well, for example in Russian where it can be seen in present-day inflections, e.g. dukh /dux/ ‘spirit’-NOMINATIVE : dusha /dʌˡʃa/ ‘spirit’-GENITIVE. In Irish and Scottish Gaelic there is a whole series of palatal sounds which are used both to distinguish the lexical forms of words and to indicate grammatical categories, e.g. Irish ceo /kʲo:/ ‘fog’ : comh- /ko:/ ‘co-’ (word-formational prefix).

Articulation of palatal sounds, typical of Western Irish

velar (< Latin velum ‘covering’, here of nasal opening at rear of mouth) The velum is the soft palate between the hard palate and the uvula at the back of the mouth. Here a number of common sounds are produced such as /k, g/ as in call /kɔ:l/ and got /gɒt/. Many languages also have a velar fricative, e.g. German Tuch /tu:x/ ‘cloth’, Spanish trabajo /traˡbaxo/ ‘work’, Russian ploxo /ˡploxə/ ‘bad’. The voiced velar fricative is much less common, but does occur in Spanish, e.g. bodega /boˡðeɣa/ ‘shop’ and in Irish, e.g. a ghort /ə ɣʌrt/ ‘his field’.
   The non-palatal sounds of Irish are pronounced with secondary velarisation. By this is meant that the body of the tongue is lowered and the back raised towards the velum (see following graph) yielding a characteristic hollow sound.

Articulation of non-palatal sounds, common to all dialects

glottal (< Greek glotta/glossa ‘tongue’) The glottis is strictly speaking the gap which arises when the vocal folds are kept apart. The most frequent sound to be produced here is /h/ which is a voiceless glottal fricative. A plosive can be articulated here as with the glottal stop used as the allophone of /t/ in British English dialects, such as Cockney (and many colloquial varieties of present-day urban English in Britain) as in butter [bʌʔə] or in popular Dublin English, e.g. letter [leʔər].

Active articulator

The points of articulation are complemented by references to the active articulator. This is nearly always the tongue. With labial sounds it can be the lower lip when raised towards to upper teeth as in English /f/ and /v/ in few /fju:/ and view /vju:/, for example. Glottal sounds have no active and passive articulators as they are produced by a movement of both vocal folds.

The tongue is normally divided into three regions, each of which can be the active articulator. The adjectives used to refer to this parts of the tongue are apical ‘tip of tongue’ (< Latin apex ‘peak’), laminal ‘blade of tongue’ (< Latin lamina ‘plate’) and dorsal ‘rear of tongue’ (< Latin dorsum ‘back’). The tip of the tongue is used for /t/ and /d/ in English, but some languages like Swedish use the blade with a large contact area, e.g. tala [tɑ:lə] ‘speak’. This is true of Irish too, cf. ‘is’ [tɑ:] which is pronounced using a similarly largely area of the front of the tongue placed immediately behind the front teeth. The fricatives /s/ and /z/ are pronounced with the blade of the tongue touching the alveolar ridge in English, but other languages, notably Spanish, Dutch, Finnish and Greek among the European languages, use the tip of the tongue which makes their s sound like something intermediary between /s/ and /ʃ/, a phonetic feature of those languages which do not have a phoneme /ʃ/ anyway.

Consonants phonemes of Irish (Western Irish)

p, pʲ; b, bʲ
t, tʲ; d, dʲ
k, kʲ; g, gʲ
f, fʲ; v, vʲ
s, sʲ
x, xʲ; g, gʲ
m, mʲ
nˠ, n, nʲ
ŋ, ŋʲ
lˠ, l, lʲ; r, rʲ

For stops and fricatives the left pair of each group is voiceless, the right one voiced. Note that in Irish there is no /z/, as in English seize, or /ž/, as in English leisure. These sound should never be used in Irish.

The phonemes of Irish (based on Western Irish) arranged in columns of non-palatal and palatal sounds with keywords to illustrate them.


These are sounds which are produced without any constriction of the vocal tract. They are nearly always voiced and are usually produced with airflow solely through the oral cavity. In some languages, such as French and Polish, a number of vowels are produced with the velum lowered so that there is resonance in the nasal cavity as well, cf. French chanter ‘to sing’. Nasals vowels are not important for either English or Irish.

Cardinal vowels In order to characterise vowels satisfactorily a system was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century by the English phonetician Daniel Jones. This is the cardinal vowel system whose basic principle is that extreme positions for the articulation of vowels are taken as reference points and all other possible vowel articulations are set in relation to them. The four corner positions are: /i/, /a/, /ɑ/, /u/ which represent the extremes in the vowel quadrangle of an idealised human mouth in a sagittal view. There are two further horizontal levels of vowels between these vertical extremes: /e/, /ɛ/; /o/, /ɔ/. All the cardinal vowels exist in rounded and unrounded versions (but a low front rounded vowel does not seem to occur as a phoneme in natural languages). The vowel quadrangle used for the representation of vowels is derived from a side view of the oral cavity with the face turned to the left, that is the position of /i/ is maximally high and front, the position of /u/ is maximally high and back while the low vowels /a/ and /ɑ/ are maximal low front and low back respectively.

Cardinal vowels. The left symbol of each pair above is unrounded; the right one is rounded. There is a general correlation between unroundedness and frontness and roundedness and backness, i.e. these value combinations are much more common than their opposites.

Vowels of Irish

Vowels before ‘tense’ sonorants

There are certain letter sequences in Irish, usually at the end of words, which point to special sounds. The sequences are mainly -nn, -ll, -rr, -rd (strongly palatal or non-palatal sounds, see section on L- and N-sounds below), along with some cases of -m, and the vowels before them vary greatly across the dialects. In the North the vowels are usually just short, in the West they are long monophthongs while in the South they are diphthongs. More information on the realisation of the vowels in these positions is given in the module Dialects - main differences in pronunciation (click on option Main differences on the desktop) and in the module on Vowels before sonorants in the sections The Sounds of Irish, also accessible from the desktop. Along with the realisation of the <AO> vowel, the vowels in the present positions represent the main phonetic differences between the dialects of modern Irish.

Lexical sets for Irish – Consonants

Lexical sets for Irish – Vowels

L- and N-sounds

For Western and Northern Irish there are three different types of n- and l-sounds. It is important for students to grasp this and to learn how to pronounce these correctly.

The first type is a strongly velarised l or n as in /lˠɑ:/ and ‘not’ /nˠɑ:/. Both the l and the n are pronounced by (i) placing the tip of the tongue behind the upper teeth, (ii) lowering the body of the tongue and (iii) raising the back of the tongue towards the velum as shown in the figure Articulation of non-palatal sounds above.

The velarisation of non-palatal sounds is indicated in phonetic transcription by placing a superscript gamma after the consonant in question. This is IPA practice; in Irish phonetic studies the l or n is written as a capital letter and without any superscript following it and without bracketing, e.g. Lɑ: and Nɑ:

The second type of l or n is strongly palatalised and is found in words like leaba /lʲabə/ ‘bed’ and neart /nʲart/ ‘strength’. Both sounds, and the corresponding stopy /tʲ/ and /dʲ/, are articulated by (i) raising the body of the tongue towards the palate and (ii) placing the tip behind the lower teeth as shown in the figure Articulation of palatal sounds above. This holds for true palatals in Connemara Irish. However, in Northern Irish and on the Aran Islands there is a tendency to pronounce palatal /tʲ/ and /dʲ/ with affrication, i.e. somewhat like the sounds in English church and judge respectively. In Southern Irish palatal /lʲ, nʲ, tʲ, dʲ/ tend to be pronounced as alveolar sounds, much like the initial sounds in English <let, neat, tee, deep>.

The palatalisation of non-palatal sounds is indicated in phonetic transcription by placing a superscript yod after the consonant in question. This is IPA practice; in Irish phonetic studies the l or n is written as a capital letter and with a superscript prime following it and without bracketing, e.g. L´abə and N´art.

The third type of l- and n-sounds lies between the palatalised and the velarised variants in terms of articulation, that is this type is produced without any pronounced palatalisation or velarisation as in leis /lɛsʲ/ ‘with-him’ or nimh /nɪv/ ‘poison’. These neutral variants correspond most closely to the l- and n-sounds of English.


More information on the dialects of Irish and how they can be analysed linguistically can be found in the following two books:

Raymond Hickey 2011. The Dialects of Irish. Study of a Changing Landscape. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.

Raymond Hickey 2014. The Sound Structure of Modern Irish. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.


Ashby, Michael and John Maidment 2005. Introducing phonetic science. Cambridge: University Press.

Catford, J. C. 2001. A practical introduction to phonetics. 2nd edition. Oxford: University Press.

Clark, John, Colin Yallop and Janet Fletcher 2006. An introduction to phonetics and phonology. Third edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cruttenden, Alan 2001. Gimson‘s Pronunciation of English. 6th edition. London: Arnold.

Crystal, David 2002. A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics. 5th edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Davenport, Mike and S. J. Hannahs 1998. Introducing phonetics and phonology. London: Arnold.

Davis, John F. 2004. Phonetics and phonology. Stuttgart: Klett Verlag.

Fry, Dennis B. 1979. The physics of speech. Cambridge: University Press.

International Phonetic Assoc., 1999. Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge: University Press.

Laver, John and William J. Hardcastle (eds) 1995. Handbook of phonetic sciences. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ladefoged, Peter 2000. A course in phonetics. 4th edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Ladefoged, Peter 2000. Vowels and consonants. An introduction to the sounds of languages. Oxford: Basel Blackwell.

Wells, John C. 2006. English intonation. An introduction. Cambridge: University Press.


Carr, Philip 1999. English phonetics and phonology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Carr, Philip 2004. Phonology, nature, and mind. Oxford: University Press.

Goldsmith, John 1996. The handbook of phonological theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Goldsmith, John (ed.) 1999. Phonological theory: The essential readings. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Gussmann, Edmund 2002. Phonology. Analysis and theory. Cambridge: University Press.

Lacy, Paul de (ed.) 2006. The Cambridge handbook of phonology. Cambridge: University Press.

McMahon, April 2001. An introduction to English phonology. Edinburgh: University Press.

Odden, David 2005. Introducing phonology. Cambridge: University Press.

Poulisse, Nanda 2000. Slips of the tongue. Speech errors in first and second language production. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Smith, Norval 2003. Phonology. The basics. Oxford: Blackwell.