A Beginner’s Guide to Old Irish Pronunciation

by Annie Loughlin. Do not reprint without permission.

Ogham inscription

Before Old Irish there was Archaic Irish (alternatively known as “Primitive Irish”), or Gaeilge Ársa, which is found on some of the earliest ogham inscriptions that survive in Ireland. These inscriptions are thought to date to as early as the fourth century C.E. (possibly a century or two earlier), and Archaic Irish is the earliest known form of a Goidelic language. It only survives in fragmentary form due to the fact that the ogham inscriptions are pretty limited in the kind of information they convey, so we don’t know too much about it.

Old Irish, or Sengoídelc, evolved from Archaic Irish, and it is the language that was spoken in Ireland from around the seventh to the tenth centuries C.E. It is also the language that is found in some of the earliest written sources that we have – manuscripts detailing the myths, annals, laws and literature of early Ireland – and these include the names of many deities, words and phrases that may be relevant to Gaelic Polytheism, and Gaol Naofa in particular.

A lot of the literature you will probably end up reading – whether it’s the myths or more academic literature that talks about them, or some of our articles and pages here – will default to the Old Irish spellings a lot of the time. Learning some of the basics of pronunciation for Old Irish can therefore be a big help, even if you don’t intend to learn the language in more detail. For one, it helps remove a potential distraction; you begin to read the words easily instead of fumbling and stumbling over them, so you can concentrate on the content instead of worrying about what the hell that word is. It can also help you gain more confidence in your practices. Really, it’s a win all round.

The Basics

The pronunciation of Old Irish can be very different when we compare it with modern Irish (or Scottish Gaelic, or Manx, which are also Goidelic languages), so things can get a little confusing sometimes. While there are some very obvious similarities between the languages, since they have a common origin, there are also some very obvious differences when it comes to pronunciation, so what applies to one language doesn’t necessarily apply to another.

As far as Old Irish goes, there are some very basic rules that can be followed, which can help you get the hang of things. Remember, though, while these rules apply to Old Irish, that doesn’t mean they necessarily apply to modern Irish or any other Goidelic language!

In Old Irish, the pronunciation of a letter can be affected by a number of factors, but the main ones are:

  • Where the letter is in the word — at the beginning, or in the middle/end of the word
  • Which letters come before or after it
  • In the case of vowels, whether they are accented or not (á ó ú é í, as opposed to the simple a o u e i)

 

Letters

The Old Irish alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet and consists of eighteen letters:

A B C D E F G H I L M N O P R S T U

Compared to our modern English alphabet, there are a few letters missing, then. As with English, specific combinations of letters can produce specific sounds, so once we get the hang of the basic rules, pronunciation is pretty straightforward. Sometimes there may be exceptions to the rules (aren’t there always!), but try not to worry too much about that.

Vowels

Before looking at how the vowels are pronounced, there are a few background details that we should look at. This will help you figure out pronunciations for yourself later on, and it will also introduce you to some terms that you will need to be familiar with if you decide to look into Old Irish in more detail. We’ll try to keep the jargon to a minimum, but some of these fancy terms are really necessary to know.

When it comes to vowels, one of the most important things you need to know is that vowels are split into two groups: broad and slender vowels.

Broad vowels are: a, o and u
Slender vowels are: e and i

This is why we tend to find the vowels listed in a different order than we might find in English — a o u e i, instead of a e i o u (as can be seen in discussions about the ogam alphabet, for example).

Slender vowels (e, i) can affect the way certain letters are pronounced, and can cause palatalization. In most cases — and in very simple terms — this is where a ‘yuh’ or ‘uh’ sound is introduced into a word, like with the word bile (meaning ‘sacred tree’), pronounced BIL-yuh.

Where slender vowels(e, i) are found with the letter s, we end up with a ‘sh’ sound. An example here is senchas (meaning ‘lore’) — pronounced SHEN-uh-chas. In this case, the slender vowel also slenderizes the syllable after it, giving an ‘uh’ sound between the sen- and -chas.

Generally, however, the vowels are pronounced like so:

a — in the first syllable of a word, it is lengthened, as in farther or arse (or rather, if you have a posh English accent!)
a — in the second syllable of a word, it is a shortened sound, as in ass
o — a short sound, as in hot
u — a short sound, as in but
e — in the first syllable of a word, a short sound as in pet
e — in the second (and subsequent) syllable of a word, it is often a shortened a sound, as in ass
i — a short sound, as in sit, but remember the sound can be changed by other vowels next to it

But! A vowel with an accent is often pronounced differently, with the accent lengthening it:

á — on its own, with no other vowels beside it, it gives an ‘ah’ sound, as in bra
áe — gives an ‘eye’ sound, as in bye
ái — gives an ‘a’ sound, as in and
 — gives an ‘ee’ sound, as in breed
ó — on its own, ‘ow’ or ‘oh,’ as in flow
óe — with an e after it, the sound changes to ‘ey,’ as in hey
ú — an ‘oo’ sound, as in food
é — an ‘ey’ sound, as in hey
í — an ‘ee’ sound, as in seed

Consonants

Sometimes consonants can change their sound depending on where they are in a word. As a general rule, b, c, d, m, p and t all change their sounds depending on whether or not they appear at the beginning, or in the middle or end of a word, for example. However, when the same letter is repeated — such as in the name Ólamm — the initial pronunciation is kept. In this case, the ‘mm’ will give a ‘m’ sound, whereas on its own (at the end or middle of a word), m would usually give a ‘v’ sound.

b — at the beginning of a word, it usually takes the same sound as in English. Elsewhere it may take a ‘v’ sound
c — at the beginning of a word, it always takes a hard ‘c’, as in cat or Celtic. Elsewhere it may take a hard ‘g’ sound, as in got
d — at the beginning of a word, followed by a broad vowel, it sounds as usual, as in dad
d — at the beginning of a word, but with a slender vowel, it can take on more of a ‘j’ sound. Danann is therefore DAN-ann, whereas is pronounced more like ‘jay’
d — elsewhere in a word, it becomes a hard ‘th’, as in the or that (as opposed to the softer sound in think)
f — a bit complicated! Stick with the usual ‘f’ sound
g — always a hard ‘g’, as in ‘gave’, but the sound changes slightly when it occurs at the middle or end of a word — it is still hard, but the sound begins at the back of the throat
h — does not generally occur on its own in Old Irish, but combines with other letters like ch and th (see below); if it does occur at the beginning of a word, it can give the usual ‘h’ sound, as in English
l — as in English, but slender vowels (e or i) can give it a palatalized sound — a ‘lyuh’ sound
m — as usual at the beginning of the word, but elsewhere it can take on a ‘v’, or sometimes a ‘w’ sound
n — as in English, but may also palatize with slender vowels — a ‘nyuh’ sound
p — a normal ‘p’ at the beginning of a word, but elsewhere it can take on a ‘b’ sound
r — as in English
s — when appearing with broad vowels (a o u), it gives a soft ‘s’, as in puss,
— when appearing with slender vowels (e i), whether they come before or after the ‘s,’ it takes on a ‘sh’ sound
t — as usual at the beginning of a word, but elsewhere it can take on a soft ‘d’ sound or a ‘ch’ sound when palatalized, with the exception of when it appears in combination with a ‘ch’ before it, such as in the name Dian Cécht; in this instance the t retains the same sound as at the beginning of a word

Other sounds:

ch — never a ‘ch’ sound like chance, always pronounced as in loch or when a Scottish person says och!
ph — a ‘f’ sound, as in philosophical
th — a soft ‘th’, as in thing (as opposed to the ‘h’ sound it now produces in modern Irish and Gaelic)

One final point on consonants… Nasalization:

n and m — sometimes you will see these letters coming before the consonants b, d, and g. An example can be found with the phrase nem nglas, “the blue sky.” The presence of the n in nglas indicates nasalization, where the n is formed in the back of the throat before pronouncing the rest of the word. It effectively kills the sound of the next letter, so in this case the g should not be heard, and the word should sound something like “nlass,” all one syllable, not “nuh-glass” or “nuh-lass.”

Stress

In most cases (for our purposes) the first syllable of the word is always stressed, and remember — this can sometimes change the way some letters are pronounced, as in the case of a and e, above.


Pronunciation Guide

Here are some names, words and phrases that you might find useful, with suggested pronunciations, which should give you an idea of how all of the above works in context.

Getting to grips with the basics can be confusing enough as it is, without having to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as well. For this reason, the pronunciations are given as simply as possible, although this means that they inevitably cannot be as nuanced or as accurate as they would be using the IPA. The capitalised syllable shows which part of the word should be stressed (where applicable).

For reference, ‘ow,’ as given in the guide below, will sound as in “flow” (as opposed to the sound you find in “cow,” for example). Because some letters produce similar sounds — where d can give a hard ‘th’ as in “the”, while th gives a soft ‘th’, as in “think — these will be distinguished in the guide by the use of:

dh — for a hard ‘th’ (the)
th — remains for the soft ‘th’ (think)

Likewise:

gh — to show the slight change in sound of a g in the middle of a word, where it should be sounded at the back of the throat as if you are almost swallowing it
g — remains for the initial sound
dj — denotes the slight softening of d when it occurs at the beginning of a word with a slender vowel
tch — giving a ‘ch’ sound like chomp

 

Names

Adomnán – A-dov-nahn (final syllable rhymes with “Khan”)
Áed
 — EYE-dh (to rhyme with “scythe”)
Aífe — EE-fuh
Aillenn AL-yan
Ailill — AL-il
Áine — AHN-yeh (or, later, AWN-yeh)
Airmid — AR-vidh (or ARA-vidh)
Amairgen — AV-ir-ghen
An Dagda — an DAGH-dha
An Morrígan — an MOR-ree-ghan
Anu — AN-oo
Badb — BADH-uv
Banba — BAN-va (or BAN-a-va)
Bóand (Bóann) — BOW-an (BOW- as in a “bow” and arrow)
Bodb Derg — BODH-uv DJER-ug
Boruma — BOR-u-wa
Brian — BREE-an
Bricriu — BRIK-roo
Brigit — BRIGH-id
Bres — BRESS (like “chess”)
Buí — BWEE
Cáer Íborméith — KYRE IV-ar-vayth (KYRE rhyming with “tyre”)
Cailleach — KAL-yach
Caílte (Caoilte) — KYLE-tcha (or KWEEL-tcha; the “w” sound being pretty soft/almost unheard)
Cermait Milbél — KYER-mad MIL-vayl (-vayl rhymes with “pale”)
Cessair — KESS-ar (or KyESS-ar)
Conaire — KON-ur-uh
Conall — KON-al
Conchobar — KON-chav-ar
Cormac — KOR-mac
Credne — KREDH-nya
Crom Crúach —
KROM KROO-ach
Crom Dub(h) —
KROM DUV
Cú Chulainn
 — KOO CHULL-an
Cú Roí — KOO ro-EE
Dian Cécht — DJEE-an ce-cht
Díarmait — DJEE-ar-mad
Domnall — DOV-nal
Donn — DON
Donnchadh – DON-a-chadh
Elatha
 — EL-ath-a
Emer — EH-ver
Eochaid Ollathair — YOKH-adh oll-ATH-ar
Éremón — AY-ra-vone
Ériu — EYHR-yoo
Étaín — AY-dine (in modern pronunciation it’s AY-deen, which some people favour over the OI)
Ethliu — ETH-lyoo
Fáelán — FAY-lawn
Fand — FANN
Fer Díad — fer DEE-a
Finnabair – FIN-av-ir
Finn mac Cumaill — fin mac KUH-vahl
Fintan mac Bóchra — FIN-tan mac BOW-chra
Flidais — FLIDH-ash
Fótla — FOHD-la
Gabrán — GAV-rawn
Goibniu — GOV-nyoo
Gráinne — GRAWN-ya
Grian — GREE-an
Indech  IN-yech
Iuchar — YUCH-ar
Iucharba — YUCH-ar-va
Lí Bán — LEE VAHN (sometimes given Lí Ban, in which case: LEE VAN)
Lir — lyir
Lochlann — LOCH-lan
Lóegaire — LOYGH-a-ra
Lug Lámfada — lugh LAH-va-dha (later, as Lugh, the pronunciation becomes LOO)
Lugaid — LUGH-adh
Macha — MACH-a
Mael Dúin — MAYL doon (or if spelled Máel: MYLE)
Manannán mac Lir — MAN-ann-ahn mac LYEE-r
Medb — MEDH-uhv
Miach – MEE-uch
Midir — MIDH-ar
Míl Éspáine — MEEL ESS-pahn-ya
Nemain — NyEV-an
Néit — NyADE
Noisiu — NOY-shoo
Núadu Argatlám — NOO-adh-oo AR-gad-LAHV (or NOO-adh-a for Núada as it’s sometimes spelled)
Óengus — OIN-ghas (or EYN-guss/ENG-guss, more of an Anglo-Irish pronunciation)
Ogma — OGH-ma
Oisín — OSH-een
Ólamm — OW-lam
Ollathair — oll-ATH-ar
Partholón — PARTH-al-own (like “Parth-alone”)
Rúad — ROO-adh
Rúadan — ROO-adh-ahn
Sadb — SADH-uhv (very different to the modern pronunciation for Sadhbh, which is SIVE)
Samildánach — SAV-il-dahn-ach
Scáthach — SCAW-thach
Sétanta — SHAY-dan-da
Sinand — SHIN-ann
Suibne — SIV-nyuh
Tadg — TADH-ug
Tailltiu — TAL-dyoo
Trénfher — TRAY-ner
Uisliu — ISH-loo

Words

Aisling(e) (‘vision, dream’) — ASH-ling(-a)
Beltain
 — BEL-tin-uh
Brithem (‘judge; brehon’) — BRITH-ev
Cairdes (‘friendship; pact; kinship’) — KARDH-yesh
Cethardúil (‘cosmos; universe; nature’) — KETH-ar-dhool
Cóiced (‘province; fifth’) — KOW-gedh
Comalnad (‘fulfillment; act of fulfilling’) — KOV-al-nadh
Dán (‘skill, art’) — dawn
Dindshenchas (‘placename lore’) — DIN-hen-chas (or sometimes DIN-shen-a-chas)
Dírgas (‘righteousness; uprightness’) — DJEER-gas
Dún (‘hill-fort’) — doon
Eólas (‘knowledge’) — OW-las
Feis (‘feast’) — fesh
Fían (‘war-band’) — FEE-an
Fidchell  (‘wood-sense’; a board game) — FIDH-chell
Fili, filid (p.) (‘poet, seer’) — FIL-ee, FIL-idh
Fír (‘truth’) — feer
Fir Bolg (‘men of bags’) — FEER VOL-g (or VOL-ug)
Fomoire (‘Fomorians’) — FOV-or-uh
Geis (‘prohibited act’) — gehsh
Imbolc — IM-ol-uhg
Immram (‘rowing-around; a voyage [usually overseas]’) — IM-rav
Lía Fáil (‘Stone of Destiny’)— LEE-a fahl
Lugnasad — LUGH-na-sad
Mide – MEEDH-uh
Muinter (‘community; group’) — MUN-der
Muir (‘sea; water’) — mweer
Óenach (‘assembly’) — EH-nach
Ollam (‘highest grade of the fili’) — OLL-av
Nem (‘sky’) — nev
Nemed (‘sacred; holy; sanctuary’) — NEV-adh
Samain — SA-vin
Senchas (‘lore’) — SHEN-chas (or SHEN-uh-chas)
Síabair, síabraí (‘phantoms, spectres’) — SHEE-av-ar, SHEE-av-ree
Síd (‘mound; brugh’) — sheedh (or shee)
Táin (‘cattle-raid; driving-out’) — toyn
Talam (‘land’) — TAL-av
Teglach (‘household’) — TEGH-lach
Temair (‘Tara’) — TE-vir
Tír Tairngire (‘land of promise’) — TEER TARN-gir-a
Túath (‘a people; a nation; a territory’) — TOO-ath
Túatha (‘peoples; nations; territories’) — TOO-ath-a
Uí Néill (‘descendants of Niall’) – EE NYAILL
Ulaid (‘people of Ulster’) — UL-idh

Useful phrases

Acallam na Senórach (‘Colloquy of the Ancients’) — AG-al-av na SHEN-or-ach
Áes dána 
(‘people of skill/the arts’) — ice DAHN-a
Áes síde
 (‘people of the mounds’) — ice SHEEDH-a
Auraicept na n-Éces (‘Scholar’s Primer’) — OW-ra-kept na NAY-gass
Bile Mór — BIL-yuh mowr
Brón Trogain (‘earth’s sorrowing’) — BRONE TROG-an
Cath Maige Tuired (‘[Second] Battle of Mag Tured’) — KATH MAG-a TOO-radh
Dé ocus andé (‘gods and ungods’) — DJAY oc-uss an-DJAY (or DAY oc-uss an-DAY)
Echtrae Chonnlai  (‘the adventure of Connla’) — ECH-tra CHONN-lee
Emain Macha — EH-vin MA-cha
Fír flathemon (‘ruler’s truth’) — feer FLATH-av-on
Glam Dícenn (‘extreme satire’) — glahv DIG-en
In Rúad Rofessa (‘The Red One of Great Knowledge’) — In ROO-adh ROH-fess-a
Imbas forosnai (‘great knowledge that illuminates’) — IM-ass FOR-oss-na
Lebor Gabála (‘Book of Taking’) — LEV-ar GA-vah-la (alternatively, Lebor may sound like LyOWER, to rhyme with “flower”)
Lebor na hUidhre  (‘Book of the Dun Cow’) — LEV-ar na HIR-a
Mag mBreg — MAGH mray
Mag Murtheimne — MAGH MUR-thev-na
Nem nglas, muir mas, talam cé (‘the blue sky, the beautiful sea, the present earth’) — nev nlas, mweer mas, TAL-uhv kay
Senchus Már  (‘Great Lore’) — SHEN-chas MAHR
Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’) — toyn bow KOOL-ngya (or KOO-loing-ya)
Tochmarc Étaíne (‘Wooing of Étaín’) — TOCH-vark AY-deen-ya

References and useful resources

  • Old Irish Spelling and Pronunciation by Dennis King
  • Sengoídelc — a list of useful links and resources
  • Sengoidelc: Quotations from Early Irish Literature
  • Old Irish — Wikipedia Page
  • Tales of the Elders of Ireland by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe — gives a useful and basic summary of pronunciation, plus a guide of all the names found in the book
  • A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly — has a good overview of Old Irish pronunciation, but slightly more advanced (using International Phonetic Alphabet)
  • Sengoídelc: Old Irish for Beginners by David Stifter
  • An Introduction to Old Irish by R.P.M. Lehman
  • A Grammar of Old Irish by Rudolf Thurneysen
  • Old Irish Workbook (Irish Studies) by Ernest Gordon Quin
  • A first Old Irish grammar and reader: including an introduction to Middle Irish by Kim McCone
  • Old Irish Verbs and Vocabulary by Antony Green