May 23, 2013 | Irish

Irish Pronunciation: Wow!

I flee my grammar book for Forvo.

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I Am Studying Genitive in Here Now

I Am Studying Genitive in Here Now

Tonight I was working along in Basic Irish: A Grammar and Workbook by Nancy Stenson when I reached my limit, not for the first time, of the number of Irish words I could go through in one sitting without knowing how to pronounce them. I hate reading things that I don’t know how to pronounce, plus I feel that doing so develops bad habits as bad imaginary pronunciations fill my brain.

Therefore, I decided to temporarily lay off my grammar book, which I am in fact enjoying very much, in order to visit the Forvo website. Forvo is a pronunciation guide that promises “All the words in the world. Pronounced.”

Naturally it is not quite true that all the words in the world are pronounced there, but many, many words are, by nice people all over the planet who just happen to feel like going to the site and uploading their versions of various words in their native tongues.

Forvo is like the language-pronunciation equivalent of Wikipedia, I suppose, with hundreds of languages represented. Many words have multiple people pronouncing them in different ways from different places in a given country, so Forvo is a great vehicle for investigating dialects and regional variations. They even display a map so you can see where the different pronouncers are located.

Forvo's Irish Section

Forvo’s Irish Section

Also, if you want to know how to pronounce a word, you can add it to a list of words awaiting pronunciation.

The five biggest languages on the site—meaning the ones with the most pronunciations contributed—are German, English, Russian, Portuguese, and, bizarrely, Tatar.

I know nothing about Tatar, so I had to go look it up. According to the Omniglot website, “Tatar is a Turkic language with about 7 million speakers in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, and also in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkey (Europe), Turkmenistan, Ukraine, USA and Uzbekistan.” Although Tatar has been written with a number of different alphabets, what I saw on Forvo was rendered with the Cyrillic alphabet, which I gather is the norm nowadays.

I have wondered previously about the prominence of the Tatar language on Forvo, so today I took a closer look. There are 128,361 Tatar words pronounced, and 110 pronouncers. That is an average of 1,167 words per pronouncer. For Spanish there are 58,640 words and 20,509 pronouncers. That’s less than three Spanish words per person.

I went to the Tatar section to investigate further and immediately noticed the same person popping up repeatedly among the pronouncers. AqQoyriq, a male in Russia, has pronounced 67,374 words, more than half the words in the Tatar section and more words in total than are in the entire Spanish section on Forvo. It is pretty easy to get a handle on Spanish pronunciation, but I think it is also safe to say that AqQoyriq has an unusual degree of commitment to the Tatar language.

Who is this Mr. AqQoyriq?

The sad thing is, I did conspicuously better guessing the pronunciations of Tatar words than I did of Irish. So I have some work to do.

There are currently 7,120 Irish words pronounced on Forvo, with 726 pronouncers. BridEilis, who describes herself as “a Connemara speaker of Irish,” has pronounced 3,564 of them. I decided to keep clicking the “random” button at the bottom left of the page to bring up random Irish words and test myself. I went through several dozen.

On Forvo, You Can Click an Arrow to Hear a Pronunciation from a Specific Place in Ireland

On Forvo, You Can Click an Arrow to Hear a Pronunciation from a Specific Place in Ireland

Some of them I got right.

Some of them I might have gotten right, but I couldn’t tell whether the difference between my pronunciation and the speaker’s was a question of regional variation or just a mistake on my part.

Some of them I got somewhat wrong.

Others I got wildly wrong.

I will share with you some examples of Irish words to illustrate the challenges. Try guessing the pronunciations of the words and phrases listed below (no fair if you actually speak Irish!), then click the links to go to Forvo and hear the correct version of each. Or at least a correct version of each.

How did it go?

It did not go all that well for me, I am afraid. I have concluded Irish is not an easy language to learn to pronounce on your own. The way those familiar-looking Roman letters are used is just very different from how they are used in English. I have now read multiple times about strong versus weak consonants, lenition, eclipsis, etc., but reading through long lists of rules does not translate automatically into correct pronunciation, as language students (excluding some language savants perhaps) well know.

As I kept going through my Forvo Irish words, I thought I would start getting a higher percentage of pronunciations right, but that did not seem to be the case. I think I will have to wait a little longer for improvement to be perceptible to the naked ear.

Do not think I am discouraged, however! Guessing what to do with those heaps of consonants and vowels is entertaining and makes me laugh at myself. 

Laughing at yourself is good for the soul.

Comments (9)

Farschied • Posted on Sat, May 25, 2013 - 8:30 am EST

But I bet it’s not harder than Russian or Chinese pronunciation!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, May 25, 2013 - 8:58 am EST

Ha. Perhaps not. I actually like the sounds of Irish. With a few exceptions so far, they feel kind of natural to me. However, I just can’t always figure out which sounds to make when I am staring at the printed page!

I didn’t feel as though Russian was too hard in terms of pronunciation, though as I have commented before, self-assessment is a dicey game. But this one word always killed me: Здравствуйте. Since the word happens to mean “hello,” that was sort of a problem. There are sound files of it here for anyone who’s curious:

Diane • Posted on Sat, May 25, 2013 - 10:07 am EST

I know Brid from another forum and have sent her a link to this post.  :-)

This pronunciation issue is a big deal with Welsh, too, though Irish seems even more extreme.  My solution was to stick with audio until I had instincts developed.  At that point, it was much more a matter of ‘oh, is that how cymryd is spelled?  Interesting!’ 
(FYI, in Welsh, cymryd = taking/to take = CUM-rihd)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 10:54 pm EST

It’s so funny when you first see in print a word that you have been pronouncing for a while without knowing how to write it. In Russian I think I found the word for “friend” very funny-looking when I first saw it.

Here it is:

    друг - pronounced droog

This one means soup in Russian:

    суп - pronounced “soup”

But my Roman-alphabet-based brain looks at them and for a split second wants to say “spur” and “sin.”

Diane • Posted on Mon, May 27, 2013 - 6:37 am EST

It’s funny that you mentioned
друг - pronounced droog
because it’s a cross-language homophone.  In Welsh,
drwg - pronounced droog - means bad or evil.

Cian Ó Cionnfhaolaidh • Posted on Mon, May 27, 2013 - 1:04 pm EST

You might not believe me put Irish spelling and pronunciation is far more phonetical and simple than English. There are irregularities and of course, like all things in Irish, there are strong and varying dialectal features.

Irish spelling is more a combination of sounds that are fused together to create a word, with multiple letters having the the ability to create the same sound when put with other vowel and consonant combinations. You might say, so this English but English is the most unphonetical language I know.

Let’s look at the word “scéal” or story:

Before the spelling reform of 1949:

Scéal could be written as:

scéal, sgéal, scéul, sgéul, sccéal, sccéul, all pronounced the same.

Many people, when writing privately ignore the standard and write in their dialect using combinations that are not allowed in the Caighdéan “Official Standard”. I am one of these people.

You might find Whombat’s Guide to pronunciation useful, though it needs updating:

Not everything presented is true for all the dialects, instead a mainstream account is given.

Likewise, Whombat’s guide on Irish spelling may be useful:

Find a complete index of Whombat’s short articles geared towards beginners and intermediate learners here:

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, May 27, 2013 - 1:10 pm EST

Cian, thank you, and I actually do believe you that Irish is more regular than English! It’s just that the regularities haven’t yet made their way into my brain.

Thank you also for the links! I was looking at Wombat’s just this morning. I like the way the pronunciations are rendered. I did in fact find it useful.

Farschied • Posted on Mon, May 27, 2013 - 1:18 pm EST

Wow! It looks like there is a lot to Irish pronunciation! I’m glad I started the comments of this entry!

John Burton • Posted on Thu, June 13, 2013 - 11:00 am EST

Love the investigative journalism around the mysterious Mr. AqQ!

Btw, Russian is completely easy to pronounce; unlike Irish (however regular it may be) and English, Russian pretty much has one and only one sound for each letter.  Once you know the alphabet you can pretty much pronounce everything.  “Hello” (no cyrillic keyboard here) is no exception, just some of the syllables are a bit more swallowed than usual.

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