Gaelic Orthography in a Nutshell

Ever wondered what all these strange h's and the lots of vowels strings are about? I will give a brief description here that should get you started on cracking Gaelic orthography successfully. First, we will have to take a look at how the Gaelic sound system is organised, and then there will be a tiny bit of basic grammar. Once you have these two points straightened out, you shouldn't have too much difficulty taking it from there.

Leathann ri leathann agus caol ri huh?

The first thing you notice when you look at something written in Gaelic is the abundance of vowels following each other. What's up with that? First, we need to take a look at how Gaelic consonants work. That's right, the consonants.

In Gaelic, there are two versions of each consonant (usually). One of them is the so-called broad or leathann one, and the other one is termed slender or caol. Here are a few examples:

Table 1. leathann / caol
OrthographyBroad / leathannSlender / caol
tA t pronounced against the back of the teeth.A bit similar to <ch> in English "church", but it is just one sound instead of two – you will have to raise the back of the tongue to the roof of your mouth.
ssLike English sharp <s>.ʃLike English <sh>.
chxLike German "ach" or Scottish "loch".çLike German "ich".
ghɣLike <ch>, but voiced (put your finger on your throat and let your vocal chords vibrate).ʝLike <ch>, but voiced (put your finger on your throat and let your vocal chords vibrate).

Of course, the list goes on. Now, what does this have to do with vowels? The problem here really is the Latin alphabet; how do I spell two different t's, s's and so forth? Remember, there are many more of these consonants...

The solution for the problem is to divide the Gaelic vowels into broad and slender ones as well, then surround each consonant with the appropriate vowels. Thus, e and i have been declared slender, and a, o and u as broad. This of course has the consequence that a lot of vowels are only there in order to tell you how to pronounce the consonant next to it!

The mystery of the h's

The other thing you notice when reading something in Gaelic is the letter h which seems to be just all over the place. This has to do with a grammar rule called lenition, which changes the first consonant of a word. Gaelic adds an h behind the consonant to mark this change. While this looks a bit unusual at first, it really helps you to track down the words in a dictionary. Some examples:
Table 2. Lenition
UnlenitedLenited
OrthographyPronunciationOrthographyPronunciation
bbhv
pphf
broad cchx
broad gghɣ

Now; if lenited b were written as v, you would need to study the lenition rule in order to be able to "undo" the lenition and figure out where to look for the word in a dictionary. The way Gaelic orthography handles it, you simply get rid of the h and there you are. So, while it might look a bit cumbersome at first glance, this sort of spelling rule actually does have its advantages.

You will find the letter h not only at the beginning of words, but also at the middle and end. In this case, the h also marks the pronunciation of the preceding consonant, which will be the same as if it would be lenited. This way, you sensibly won't have two spelling variants of the same sound, but it makes for a lot of h's indeed. However, there is a slight complication (isn't there always): a lot of these consonants have been dropped over the centuries, so today many of them only mark the boundaries between syllables and aren't pronounced as such. So, you will have to watch out for that.

And is that all?

Of course not. In most orthographies you will have to deal with some words that are just different, and there will usually be quite a bit of historical baggage attached to them. Gaelic orthography is no exception to that.

Furthermore, I haven't said a thing about the vowels themselves. I suggest you check out the pronunciation guide and the sound files at Akerbeltz.org for further reading, or Michael Bauer's book "Blas na Gàidhlig".

Happy Gaelic reading!
An deasachadh mu dheireadh: 12a dhen Chèitean 2014 17:45:11