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I think I've got the distinction between broad and slender consonants in Irish more or less down, but a few details keep eluding me:

1. What on earth is the difference in pronunciation between "mar" and "mear"? I have listened to soundbites, and they sound exactly identical to me. Theoretically, I understand "mear" should have a bit of a y-glide after the 'm', but I cannot hear it anywhere in the soundbites I have listened to. The pronunciation "myar" even sounds unnatural to me.

2. Same question for "fara" versus "fear" (man): I cannot hear any y-glide in "fear" in any of the sound-bites. It sounds like the English word "far" to be, and I cannot make out what makes this a slender consonant… Help?

3. I learnt in grammar class many years ago that a slender double n at the end of the word is pronounced like ñ in Spanish, so "sinn" sounds like "shiñ". But then I learnt that a slender single n at the end of the word is slender, but without the y-glide, e.g. "ansin". My question here is: well, if the y-glide is not there with a single slender 'n' at the end of a word, then what on earth distinguishes it from a broad 'n'??? Isn't the whole point that slender consonants have a y-glide? How does the '-n' in "ansin" sound any different from the '-n' in sean?

Go raibh maith agat!

Yair MacClanahan

  • I don't speak Irish, nor have I studied it, but based on what I remember from reading Wikipedia articles and so on, word-final slender consonants may be realized with an on-glide rather than an off-glide ... also, while English speakers tend to think of the glide as the distinguishing feature of palatalized consonants, native speakers of languages such as Irish or Russian don't seem to think of the glide as a salient or distinguishing feature: they tend to describe soft/slender/palatalized and hard/broad/velarized consonants as being different in quality throughout their entire pronunciation – ewawe Jul 5 '18 at 20:47
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I don't exactly understand the question, but it sounds like this is in the real of "I don't get it, what do I do" problems. This database has good word recordings in Connacht, Ulster and Munster Irish, which will allow you to hear differences side-by-side (with enough browser windows open). Unfortunately, they do not use the same speakers for a given dialect.

If you listen to enough of the recordings, it should be clear that there is more to it than just details of the consonant. For some speakers there is a subtle difference in the consonant, and for others, well I'll say that I don't hear anything on the consonant. If you can edit samples in Praat and get rid of the preceding vowel (most or all), then you might be able to focus on whatever difference there is in the consonant. The pair sloinn / slonn in the Ulster samples should be pretty clear (apologies if you still can't hear a difference).

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The broad/slender contrast is one of (relatively) velarised vs palatalised consonants. Among native speakers, as far as I can tell, the entire consonant is either palatalised or velarised and any glides (on- or off-) are incidental, though often they're an important cue for us learners.

Re "mar" and "mear", (listening to them on https://www.teanglann.ie) they are very similar but there is a difference with the former being slightly velarised. I would not however be surprised if a native speaker had trouble picking which is which when uttered in isolation. I think rather than trying to pronounce them with an off-glide on "mear" you would be better off pronouncing the "m" in "mear" slightly palatalised and the "m" in "mar" slightly velarised. Here's a youtube video that teaches (in an exaggerated way) how to produce a velarised "m" and here's one that teaches how to produce a palatalised "m". You might notice the effect on the following vowel as the velarisation/palatalisation persists briefly and changes the vowel quality slightly—for learners this can be an important cue.

It's important to be aware that native speakers will often not aim for a careful, precise articulation of every sound so the contrast may be very hard to hear.

The same applies to "fara" vs "fear".

As for doubled consonants, I understand these to be a holdover in the orthography from Old Irish and that they have largely lost their original function but can still indicate the quality of the preceding vowel, though this varies with dialect.

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