The pronunciation of Old Irish is quite straightforward if somewhat counterintuitive at first glance, but it is not standardised and varies considerably over time. This short guide will provide a quick introduction to the main aspects of the spelling system.
There are five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and these can be pronounced long or short (the long vowels are written with an acute accent or fada). At the start of words, all the consonants are pronounced as in English. Note that ‘c’ at the start of a word is always pronounced with a /k/ sound as in ‘cat’, never as a soft ‘c’ as in ‘cite’.
Between vowels and the end of words, the consonants p, c, and t are pronounced /b/, /g/ and /d/. So Old Irish bec ‘small’ is pronounced /beg/ (and you can see where Modern Irish beag comes from). Note that it was never pronounced /bek/, despite the spelling.
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In the same way, in the middle of words between vowels, and at the end of words, the consonants b, g, and d were pronounced as ‘lenited’ (meaning ‘softened’) or ‘aspirated’ varieties of these – like with Modern Irish séimhiú. So ‘b’ sounded like /v/, ‘d’ sounded like the ‘th’ in words like ‘this’, and ‘g’ was a guttural sound similar to gargling without water.
The letter ‘m’ can be ambiguous. When written doubly (‘mm’) it is pronounced /m/, but when written singly it can be either /m/ or /v/.
All consonants can be lenited, some of which we have already seen (b, d, g, m). ‘S’ is pronounced as it is written, but when lenited it becomes ‘sh’, sounded as /h/. When ‘f’ is lenited, it becomes silent altogether but is usually still written (as ‘fh’). So ‘h’ after a consonant generally indicates that the consonant is lenited.
The letters p, c, and t can be lenited, and then are written ph, ch, and th. ‘Ph’ is pronounced as /f/, ‘ch’ as a guttural as in the Irish or Scottish pronunciation of ‘lough’ or German ‘nacht’, and ‘th’ is pronounced like the ‘th’ in English ‘thank’ (now /h/ in Modern Irish).
You will come across various doubled letters such as ll, nn, and rr, which can be pronounced as you see them. Other combinations such as ‘ld’ and ‘nd’ can be pronounced as combinations of their constituent parts (/ld/ as in ‘wild’ and /nd/ as in ‘find’) but they later become assimilated to ‘ll’ and ‘nn’ and appear interchangeable.
Some changes occur in the later language as it starts to move closer to the pronunciation and spelling of Modern Irish. What you should notice is that the lenited forms of ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘g’, and ‘m’ start to be spelled in late Middle Irish as in Modern Irish, that is, ‘bh, ‘dh’, gh’ and ‘mh’. This spelling system continues throughout most of the Early and Late Modern Irish periods, that is from around 1200 CE, but scribes are not always entirely consistent in their application of it and they often revert to the older representations.
For those who know Modern Irish, the standardisation of the spelling system in the 1940s has created a visual gulf between the modern language and the earlier texts. Over time, various consonants, particularly between vowels, were lost, and often these are no longer shown in the current spelling. We can track such changes in the word for ‘seat’. This was suide in Old Irish (with ‘d’ pronounced as ‘th’ as in ‘this’). In Early Modern Irish, this was commonly written suidhe and in terms of pronunciation the ‘dh’ came to be sounded as ‘gh’. This sound eventually disappeared in most dialects other than at the start of a word, and so it is written suí in modern standard Irish.
Modern Irish has an ea (pronounced /a/) that comes from Old Irish e (pronounced as the ‘e’ in English ‘mend’). So Old Irish ben ‘woman’ becomes Modern Irish bean (pronounced /ban/).
If you are interested in learning more Old Irish, try one of the following books:
Ranke de Vries, A Student’s Companion to Old Irish Grammar (Marston Gate 2013).
David Stifter, Sengoidelc: Old Irish for Beginners (Syracuse University 2006).
Or try the following website: https://www.asnc.cam.ac.uk/spokenword/texts_irish.php