Pronunciation is one of the hardest things for a learner of any language to get to grips with. The sounds of Irish and the sounds of English are very different from each other, and there’s always a temptation for the learner of Irish to use the English sounds closest to the Irish ones - that slender ‘t’ for example in words like teach or tiocfaidh, it sounds a bit like ‘ch’ in ‘church’ or ‘chapel’ so maybe it’ll do instead. And it’s not just individual sounds, Irish has its own intonation, and a different stress upon certain words. My experience of teaching pronunciation is that it brings out resentment in some learners. They see it as an attempt to change their accent, or as someone once said to me, to get them to speak ‘like Donegal ones’. Of course your accent is an important element of your personality, and it’s no surprise that people get touchy about what they regard as criticism of how they speak. But that isn’t really the proper way of looking at it. You can speak Irish with whatever accent you want, as long as the sounds are correct. I know very good speakers who have a strong Glens of Antrim twang, or a fairly heavy Dub accent. But they speak Irish very clearly and precisely because they do certain things right.
It’s fair to say that learners in different parts of the country have their own unique problems with certain sounds. Belfast people, I’ve noticed, have a real problem with broad ch, especially at the end of words. So someone might say tee-shack instead of taoiseach or chack towerna instead of teach tábhairne. Others find it hard to believe that that particular sound would give anyone any problems, because they hear it every day in their own English, in words like loch and so on. Even so, it’s a real problem for some people and my advice would be if you can’t say it, leave it out, at the end of words at least. Taoisea and tea are just as acceptable as taoiseach and teach and you’ll hear many a good native speaker of Irish letting the ch drop out at the end of words. Another East Ulster problem is the long u or u fada. Instead of Cú Chulainn someone might say ‘Coo Chulainn’. The u fada sound isn’t difficult in itself. If you’re saying it properly, your lips should be rounded. Just listen out for that one. And in case Belfast people think I’m picking on them, it’s worth mentioning that some Derry people have a problem with the broad c sound in Irish, that is the consonant c surrounded by a, o, or u. Cathal for example. They tend to have a slender c sound, like in words such as ceol.
People with a good ear for music are usually good at picking up the sounds of a language, but mimicking native speakers can get them into trouble at times. Here’s an example: Dhéanfadh muid an obair dá mbeadh an t-am againn - we would do the work if we had time. Dhéanfadh is in the conditional tense and, as all the books tell you, the adh is pronounced like a u. If you spend a while in the Donegal Gaeltacht, however, you’ll notice a different sound at the end of verbs in the conditional tense. It sounds like a cross between a d and a t. Dhéanfadh sé an obair dá mbeadh an t-am aige. That’s the type of thing that learners like to incorporate in their own Irish, and rightly so. It’s part of the authentic living speech of the Gaeltacht, and makes your own Irish seem more natural and flowing. Unfortunately they tend to over-generalise. You only ever hear that sound when the verb is followed by a pronoun that begins in ‘s’, such as sé, sí, sibh, siad, as in Dhéanfadh sé an obair. When you’re listening to the radio or watching television programmes in Irish, listen out for that sound. You’ll notice that native speakers always use it alongside sé, sí and so on, but that some learners use it all the time. Dhéanfad an Taoiseach an obair dá mbeadh an t-am aige. That’s just wrong and you should try to avoid it. Another point of difference between learners and native speakers is the emphasis placed on pronouns. A learner might say Rinne mé an obair a d’iarr sé orm a dhéanamh - I did the work he asked me to. That’s understandable, because mé and sé have a síneadh fada, and that usually means that they should be pronounced long. In everyday speech, however, they’re much shorter. In some old manuscripts the writers went as far as to leave out the síneadh fada in situations like this, just to show that the words should be pronounced short, so that it might look like this: Rinne me an obair a d’iarr se orm a dhéanamh.
It’s a pity more attention isn’t given to pronunciation in Irish teaching materials. There’s not much point having a good grasp of grammar and a wide vocabulary if your speech is a bit stilted or even hard to understand. The points we mentioned in this programme are far from being a full description of the sound system of Irish, but we’ll come back to the subject in other programmes. In the meantime just listen out for these things in other peoples’ speech and try to use them in your own Irish.