1/ Let’s talk about Irish (Gaelic) phonology. Firstly, what is phonology? Phonology is the most fundamental component when speaking meaningful language. Every language, dialect, etc. has its own phonology. Non-linguists generally use the term “accent”.
2/ An “accent” is socially perceived as being something unique to a person based on where they come from, not from the language they speak. It is a device that is often used, harmfully, for comedic effect or for general mockery. Forget about “accents”; think about phonology.
3/ Phonology is the pronunciation system for every lect (language, dialect, etc.). A phonology consists of a set of phonemes: a series of sounds with which our mind makes meaningful distinctions between. The difference between two phonemes can change the entire meaning of a word.
4/ For example: the difference between “bat” and “pat” is simply a difference of voicing in the first consonant. /p/ and /b/ are two distinct phonemes in the English language. They are almost pronounced in exactly the same way except that the vocal cords vibrate for /b/.
5/ What’s the significance of this? The subconscious rules that govern how these phonemes can join together in meaningful ways describe the makeup of a lect’s morphology, within which we have morphemes. Morphemes can either be individual words or meaningful parts of words.
6/ For example: “hats” can be split into two morphemes. “hat” = a noun referring to clothing you wear on your head; “-s” = a suffix to indicate plurality. In essence, we have two meaningful pieces of information that can combine within the rules. “-s” cannot stand on its own.
7/ On top of morphology we have more layers: e.g. different grammatical lexemes (e.g. nouns, verbs, etc.), grammatical inflection and general syntax. Finally we have idiom: contextually meaningful word combinations. We can now see how phonology provides the basic building blocks.
8/ Let’s apply that context to Irish. Irish approximately has 37 phonemic consonants (quite a lot more than the average) which are divided between 4 sets. In reality, the number varies depending on the dialect. Irish approximately has 15 phonemic vowels (including diphthongs).
9/ The Irish consonant has two distinctive qualities. It can either be palatalised or velarised, respectively “slender” and “broad”. Simultaneously, it can be “fortis” or “lenis” where the latter is a more sonorous form of the former. For example: /b/ > /v/; /k/ > /x/; /s/ > /h/.
10/ Let’s look at Hiberno-English (a range of lects spoken in Ireland) for comparison. Hiberno-English phonology approximately consists of 22 consonants and 17 vowels. The misconception is that Hiberno-English pronunciation is based on Irish. This is wrong.
11/ The Hiberno-English phonology is heavily based on phonology that came from Britain. In fact, of all the English lects, Hiberno-English has quite a small phonemic inventory. Some Gaelic intonation can be found among isolated older rural individuals, but is now mostly lost.
12/ Outside of the Gaeltacht (the shrinking communities that still natively speak the language), Irish is mostly taught with (Hiberno-)English phonology. General phonological awareness is lacking among the students and teachers, missing all throughout our language education.
13/ The main problem with replacing Irish phonology with English phonology is the serious reduction in the phonemic consonants: 37 > 22. Down 40%! Using only English consonants to approximate phones, there is little room to distinguish between fortis, lenis, broad or slender.
14/ This huge reduction in phonology has a chain reaction, breaking down morphology and grammar to linguistically unsustainable levels. Consider lenis broad and slender R (the fortis forms have largely disappeared): these two phonemes have two distinct sounds among natives.
15/ Broad R is represented by a tap and slender R is represented by a fricative. In the words “leabhar” (book) and “leabhair” (books), <-r> represents the broad form and <-ir> the slender form. English phonology approximates both of these phonemes with a single phoneme.
16/ The Hiberno-English R, an alveolar approximant, could represent either phoneme, losing any morphemic distinction as a result. Spoken with this reduced phonology, without any other indicators, it is impossible to tell if one is talking about a single book or multiple books.
17/ The consonant reduction would be comparable to removing 9 consonants from Hiberno-English, potentially removing any distinction from voicing, and reducing its number of distinctive nasals, sibilants and affricates. Instead of 22 distinctive consonants, there would only be 13!
18/ Consider Hiberno-English with a reduced phonology where one might not be able to make the phonemic distinction between “vision”, “fission” and “fishing”. Similarly, there could be no phonemic distinction between “dog”, “doc”, “tog” and “tock”; maybe all sounding like “tock”.
19/ An important Irish morphophonological feature is word initial consonant mutation. Fortis consonants can either be lenited or undergo nasalisation (“eclipsis”). Despite its grammatical importance, such as in declension, this feature is applied inconsistently among learners.
20/ Almost every Irish child between the ages of 4 and 18 studies the Irish language throughout their primary and secondary education. However, throughout all of this education, they are almost never taught the importance of these phonological distinctions or speech patterns.
21/ The vast majority, upon leaving the education system, struggle to form basic sentences, let alone understand (or be understood by) native speakers. Students who progress through Irish medium education are more successful, but still mainly utilise English phonology and syntax.
22/ The most disheartening factor is the disconnect between the natives and anyone else who occasionally speaks the language. The difficulty is largely down to the lack of mutual intelligibility. There are less than 100,000 native speakers and the numbers are rapidly declining!
23/ Gaelic, originating in Ireland, has arguably been around, in some form or another, for over 2,000 years. It also arguably has the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe. The native Gaeltacht speakers are an unbroken sociolinguistic connection to these Gaelic origins.
24/ In an ideal world, the Gaeltacht can be saved and expanded, and there would be no sociolinguistic disconnect between the learner and the native. When one learns a major language, like French, they typically do so to produce meaningful communication with native speakers.
25/ If we let the Gaeltacht community die, along with the dialects, the phonology, the morphology, the grammar and the idiom, what are we left with? A broken shell of a language, unrecognisable in comparison with its former self. Should we not treasure the native language?
26/ This isn’t to say that people can’t speak a language in a way that suits them. They absolutely have every right to speak in whatever way they please. I have no interest in correcting anyone’s language, be it how one speaks Irish, English, or any major or minority language.
27/ I simply wish to promote the features of the language that give it linguistic stability, to preserve the features of a living language of native speaking communities, to help the dialects survive and make them accessible to all, and to potentially revive lost forms.
28/ If more learners focus their studies on just some of these elements, we can help the Gaeltacht survive and expand their numbers. The Gaeltacht is the heart of the language, giving the language its richness and its strength. Without the Gaeltacht, the language is lost.

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