The Unofficial Guide to Pronouncing Gaelic

Author: Mark Jackson

By popular demand (by which I mean at least two separate requests from Club members) I hereby present the sequel to my Welsh Guide, a guide to pronouncing Scottish Gaelic hill names.

Let’s get a couple of things straight before we begin. Firstly, it’s pronounced (in English) ‘gal-ick’. Irish Gaelic is pronounced (in English) ‘gay-lik’. The (Scottish) Gaelic name for (Scottish) Gaelic is Gàidhlig, pronounced ‘gaa-lik’, not to be confused with the Irish (Gaelic) name for Irish (Gaelic), which is written Gaeilge and pronounced ‘gail-gyuh’. Both languages are descended from 6th-century Old Irish, and are about as mutually intelligible as Cockney and Glaswegian (i.e. somewhat, if you speak slowly). Welsh is a more distant relation (compare Welsh pen and Gaelic beinn; Welsh moel and Gaelic meall).

Second, Gaelic pronunciation is a lot more complex than Welsh, and I enjoy writing about it, so I’m not going to give you short shrift. This is going to be a long guide.

Some ground rules

  • Gaelic has only eighteen letters in its alphabet, so no J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y or Z.

  • A consonant + H denotes a completely different sound to the same consonant without an H following it.

  • Gaelic has a system of broad vowels (AOU) and slender vowels (EI). It’s a strange feature of Gaelic spelling that a consonant – or bunch of consonants – only ever has broad vowels on both sides, or slender vowels on both sides. So aonach and coire are both valid words, but not aonech or core. After a while, these sorts of words just start to look wrong.

  • When many - but not all - consonants are surrounded by slender vowels (called a slender consonant), they change their sounds to sound as though they have a Y following them. Consonants do exactly the same in English when followed by a U. Thus the initial sounds of the words ceanndearg are the same as the initial sounds of curedune.

  • There is also a distinction that needs to be understood in certain places between back vowels (vowels that sound in the back of the mouth, that is 'aw', 'ur', 'oo', 'ow', 'aa', 'o', 'u', 'a') and front vowels (everything else).

  • Gaelic words are stressed on the first syllable. There, that was simple. The whole discussion about vowels only applies in stressed (i.e. initial) syllables, because anywhere else in the word, vowels only make a couple of sounds (to be covered later).

Simple vowels

Gaelic uses the grave accent on vowels, so suddenly we have ten to cope with. The use of the accent is consistent though and just signifies a longer version of the vowel.

  • A like in cat, or more accurately, like the first part of the vowel in cow.

  • À is a longer version of the above, as in father.

  • E like a short version of the sound in bay before the Y sets in; like French é.

  • È longer version of the above.

  • I is a short version of the sound in see.

  • Ì as in see.

  • O as in cot usually; but [8] before BBHGGHM and MH it makes a sound more like the French au in jaune.

  • Ò as is law.

  • U is a short version of the sound in food; like French ou.

  • Ù as in food.

These rules aren’t applicable all the time, but they’re a good starting point.

Broad consonants

(that is, consonants surrounded by broad vowels.)

  • FLLLMNNN and S; as in English. Well, I wanted to start you off with the easy ones.

  • H as in English, but only when it's found in isolation (which isn't often). When it comes after a consonant, it modifies the sound of the preceding consonant instead of having a sound of its own. See below.

  • PT and C; as in English, except that in the middle or end of words you should add a very slight 'kh' sound before them, almost no more than a little extra breath. (That 'kh' is the back of the throat sound as in loch or German Bach. Practise it.) E.g. càrn 'caarn', baca 'ba(kh)-kuh'.

  • BD and G; as in English only at the beginnings of words. Elsewhere they sound like English P, T and C respectively. E.g. bàn 'baan', fada 'fat-uh'.

  • R and RR; rolled, and never left out. Ever. If you can't roll your R's (and I can't) you can approximate a single tap of the roll (which is all most Gaels ever say anyway) by bending your tongue back until the underside of the tongue is touching the roof of your mouth, and then flicking the tongue forward while trying to say an English R. The tongue should catch behind the teeth, producing a sharp tapping sound rather unlike the English R.

  • BH and MH; both pronounced as the English V. For example, mhòr 'vaur'.

  • CH; as in loch or German Bach. If you can't make this sound, you might as well give up now, because there's no surer sign that you're a Sassenach than being unable to pronounce loch as anything other than 'lock'.

  • GH and DH; these are to CH as G is to C, i.e. with the mouth and tongue in the same place but with the vocal cords vibrating. (You can tell if your vocal cords are vibrating or not by placing your hand against your throat and seeing if you can feel a buzzing sensation.) It's a bit like gargling, or sitting on a G for several seconds. E.g. dhorain 'ghorrin'.

  • FH is silent. E.g. fhuaran 'uaran'.

  • PH as in English.

  • SH and TH; as the English H. For example, thuilm 'hoolim'.

Combinations of consonants

Only one rule here: for some reason best known to itself Gaelic inserts a SH sound into the combinations RD and RT. Therefore aird 'aarsht'.

Slender consonants

As discussed above, in most cases, 'slenderising' a consonant just involves sticking a Y after it. Thus slender B is like the BY in English beauty at the beginning of a word, and like the PY in English puke elsewhere. Slender C is just like the CY in English cute, slender SH is like the HY in hew, slender L is like the LY in million and slender BH is just like the VY in English view. This process is also done to R and NG although their modified forms aren’t found in English. E.g. cìr 'kyeery'.

The difficulty for English speakers is ending a word with this kind of slenderised sound. For example, cìr above only has one syllable, and it ends with what sounds like an R and a Y run quickly together. Writing out the pronunciations for these things isn't easy either!

Of course, there are a lot of exceptions.

  • Slender S is pronounced as the English SH. E.g. clais 'clash'.

  • Slender CH is pronounced like the German ich; that is to say, rather like an H and a Y run together and said with more force. E.g. lapaich 'la(kh)-piçh'.

  • Slender GH and DH are a voiced version of the above, i.e. as above, but with the vocal cords vibrating. It can sound rather like a severely overdone Y. E.g. dhearg 'yyerrak'.

  • The consonants BBHMMHFFHPPHSH and TH only slenderise before a back vowel (see the Ground Rules section). E.g. bealach 'byal-uhkh' and meall 'myowl', but beag 'behk' (not 'byehk'), caibe 'kap-uh' (not 'kap-yuh') and tìm 'teem' (not 'teemy').

  • L only slenderises at the beginning of a word. E.g. leum 'lyehm' but cuilean 'ku-luhn'

  • N only slenderises initially or after a back vowel. E.g. nead 'nyet' and duine 'duwn-yuh', but teine 'tyen-uh'.

  • R slenderises everywhere except at the beginning of a word. Honestly, who makes these things up? So we have rèidh 'ray' but bhuiridh 'vui-ryee'.

LLNN and RR slenderise as expected, you will be glad to hear.

Finally, ever hear the English word tune pronounced 'tchoon' rather than 'tyoon'? This is a common trend, and the same is happening in Gaelic. Thus it's fine to pronounce teallach 'tchal-uhkh' rather than 'tyal-uhkh', and of course it means the word nid comes out as 'nyitch' (because the D is pronounced as a T because it's not at the start, but it's also slender, so it becomes TY which then becomes TCH...)

Enjoying yourself? Just wait till we meet the vowels...

Combinations of vowels

The trick with this stuff is knowing which vowels are actually supposed to be sounded, and which have been inserted to mark the surrounding consonants as broad or slender. Also, Gaelic vowels have a habit of changing before certain consonants, much as the A's in the English words ''half'', ''hand'', ''hall'', ''halt'' and ''hallow'' are all pronounced differently. Just be grateful you aren't having to learn as many rules as a learner of English!

  • As a general rule, an I following a vowel does not change its pronunciation, thus AIEI and ÒI are pronounced the same as AE and Ò respectively. E.g. caisteal 'kash-tchuhl' and coire 'corruh'.

  • AO is a new vowel, and we all love those. It's like the OO sound in English ''food'', but with the lips unrounded, and sounded further back in the throat. To some, it sounds like a cross between that OO sound and the UR sound in burn. E.g. aonach 'uw-nuhkh'.

  • EA: this combination sounds just like a Gaelic E before the letters D, G and S. Elsewhere, it mostly has the sound of the English E in ''bed'', e.g. beag 'behk' but geal 'gyel'.

  • EO and  sound just like the Gaelic O and Ò, except that a Y sound is added before them when they come at the start of a word. E.g. beoil 'byaul' and eòin 'yawny' (note the slender n).

  • EUIA and ÌO sound like a Gaelic I and A run together, that is, like the English word ''ear'' (without the R). E.g. riabhach 'reea-uhkh'. One exception; before MEU becomes a long E sound instead. Thus leum 'lyehm'.

  • IO just sounds like I. E.g. biod 'bit'.

  • IU and IÙI sound just like the Gaelic U and Ù, except that a Y sound is added before them when they come at the start of a word. E.g. iubhar 'yoo-uhr'.

  • UA and UAI sound as in English pure or Northern tour. Thus bruach 'bruakh'.

  • UI normally just sounds like U (as you'd expect from the first rule in this section) but before M, N, NG and S it sounds like the Gaelic AO instead. E.g. uisge 'uwshk-yuh'.

Vowels in unstressed syllables

  • AEEA make an 'uh' sound as in the second syllable of butter. E.g. bidean 'bit-yuhn'.

  • AIEIIOIUI make a short 'i' sound as in pin. E.g. tarsuinn 'tar-sin'.

Simples. No other vowels appear in unstressed syllables.

Vowels before LL, M and NN

Much as in English hall, almost every vowel in Gaelic changes its sound before these letters. This only happens in stressed syllables.

  • A and EA now make the sound of English cow. E.g. meall 'myowl' and ceann 'kyown'. In the case of EA, a Y sound is added before it when it starts a word, and it doesn't change before M.

  • AI now makes the sound in English sky. E.g. caill 'kyle'.

  • EI now sounds like English vein, e.g. beinn 'beyn' and greim 'greym'.

  • I and U simply get lengthened, e.g. till 'tcheely'.

  • IO (and this is a weird one) becomes the long OO sound (but not before M). What's more, it gains an extra Y sound in front if it begins a word. E.g. fionn 'fyoon', fhionnlaidh 'yoon-lee' - don't forget the FH is silent!

  • O is lengthened to a sound similar to that in English home. E.g. tom 'tohm'.

  • OI becomes the sound of the Welsh EI, that is, a sound formed by running together a short 'uh' and an 'ee'. E.g. broinn 'brueyn'.

  • UI becomes a difficult sound formed by running together the back-of-the-throat Gaelic AO sound and an 'ee'. E.g. druim 'druuym'.

An important rule to remember is that this does not happen if a vowel follows the LL/M/NN. It's the same in English with the words fall and fallow. Most of the time a following vowel just causes the preceding vowel to fall back to how it would have been had the LL/M/NN not been present (e.g. mullach is 'mu-luhkh' not 'moo-luhkh'), but there are a couple of exceptions:

  • EA becomes a Gaelic short A, but still has a Y preceding it if it starts a word off. E.g. teallach 'tchal-uhkh'.

  • IO becomes a Gaelic short U. It also still has a Y preceding it if it starts a word off. E.g. sionnach 'shu-nuhkh'.

Vowels before RR/RN/RD

A similar lengthening takes place before the combinations RRRN and RD. This one is simpler though.

  • AAI and EA lengthen to make a long À sound. E.g. aird 'aarsht' and fearna 'fyaar-nuh'.

  • O and U lengthen to sound like Ò and Ù, e.g. sgurr 'skuur'. Similarly, IU lengthens to sound like .

As in the previous section, this lengthening does not happen if a vowel follows the RR (note: it does happen if a vowel follows an RN or an RD), e.g. corranaich 'korruh-niçh'. Also as in the previous section, under these circumstances an EA ends up sounding like a short A (e.g. earrach 'yarruhkh').

Those pesky BH, DH, GH and MH

The most annoying thing about these four consonants is their tendency to disappear when following a vowel. If you come across one of these four in that situation, you're safer assuming that it's silent than that it sounds as it should: e.g. dubh 'doo', labhar 'laa-uhr', sidhein 'shee-in', buidhe 'buuy-uh', mheadhoin 'vey-in' (often contracted further to 'vein'), braigh 'bruey', nighean 'nyee-uhn'. But then there are words like abhainn 'av-in', laogh 'luwgh', damh 'dav' and caoimhin 'kuw-vin'... It helps to know that DH almost always disappears and that MH rarely does.

One thing a consonant disappearing like this often does is lengthen the preceding vowel. This explains why the common ending -aidh is pronounced 'ee'.

But sometimes (and whether they disappear or not!) these four consonants change the sound of the preceding vowel instead. As follows:

  • A/EA before DH/GH; the DH/GH is not silent, and the A/EA becomes another new vowel, like the ur in English burn but further back in the throat and shorter. E.g. feadh 'fyeugh', ladhran 'leuu-ruhn' (in this instance the vowel is lengthened by the disappearance of the DH).

  • AI before BH/DH/MH; lengthens to the sound of English sky. E.g. aibhne 'eyev-nyuh'.

  • AIGH and OIGH make the sound of OI before LL, that is, 'uh' and 'ee' run together. E.g. mhaighdean 'vuey-tchuhn' and oighreag 'uey-ryuhk'.

  • AOI plus BH/DH/GH/MH; like an AO and an 'ee' run together. E.g. laoigh 'luuy'.

Extra vowels

Gaelic isn't a fan of having too many consonants of certain types stuck together, so it tends to stick extra vowels in between them, even when there's no vowel written. To be precise: where an L, N or R is followed by a B, BH, CH, G, GH, M or MH, or preceded by an M, an extra vowel comes between the two. Usually this vowel is a copy of the previous vowel; e.g. bhalgain 'val-a-kin', gorm 'gorom', garbh 'garav'.

An exception is that when this would lead to the sound combination E-R-E, an A is sounded instead. This explains why the common word dearg is pronounced 'jerrak'.

A guide to the respelling used

Yeah, trying to write out how these words are pronounced isn't very easy when English doesn't contain half the sounds involved. Here's a roundup of all the conventions used:

Spelling Meaning
'by' etc. as in beauty, even at the end of a word.
'çh' like the German ich; that is to say, rather like an H and a Y run together and said with more force.
'eh' like a short version of the sound in bay before the Y sets in; like French é.
'eu' A new vowel, like the 'ur' in English burn but further back in the throat and shorter.
'gh' to CH as G is to C, i.e. with the mouth and tongue in the same place but with the vocal cords vibrating. It's a bit like gargling, or sitting on a G for several seconds.
'kh' The back of the throat sound as in loch or German Bach. Practise it.
'uey' A sound formed by running together a short 'uh' and an 'ee'.
'uh' As in butt_er_ or comm_a_.
'uuy' A difficult sound formed by running together the back-of-the-throat Gaelic AO sound (see below) and an 'ee'.
'uw' Like the OO sound in English ''food'', but with the lips unrounded, and sounded further back in the throat. To some, it sounds like a cross between that OO sound and the UR sound in burn.
'yy' as 'çh', but with the vocal cords vibrating. It can sound rather like a severely overdone Y.



Right, now that you've been reminded of what all my garbled pronunciations are trying to say, cover up the right-hand side of the page/screen and have a go at these Munro names:

Name Pronunciation
Stob Bàn 'stop baan'
An Stuc 'uhn stu-(kh)k'
Creise 'kreh-shuh'
Aonach Mor 'uw-nuhkh maur'
Stob Coire an Laoigh 'stop corr-uhn luuy'
Stob Ghabhar 'stop ghow-uhr'
Meall Chuaich 'myowl khua-çh'
Càrn a' Gheoidh 'caarn uh yyoy'
Sgurr an Doire Leathain 'skuur uhn dorruh ly-e-hin'