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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

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  • 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 Jul 5 '18 at 20:47
  • Broad consonants sound 'heavier' compared to slender consonants, as far as I remember. If it is of any help, it is like Arabic tafkhiim but a bit less heavy. Jun 17 at 13:53
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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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I've lived outside Ireland for well over 20 years but have been stuck in the country due to the pandemic. During the past few months, Irish has been on my mind for the first time since I left school, and I've been entertaining myself revising things I'd forgotten or never knew in the first place because, like most people, my Irish was never very good.

Looking at the information that's available online, every pronunciation guide makes a huge deal out of the slender/broad pairing for consonants, stuffing fiddly superscripts for velarised and palatalised sounds into their IPA transcriptions of words, and I began to get pretty baffled about this issue the more I read about it. I learned Munster Irish as a child and, to me, the addition of an i/e does precious little to most adjacent consonants but does a hell of a lot to adjacent vowels.

A poster above mentioned sloinn/slonn. To me, the "n" at the end is the same in both - just a plain "n", no glide. The difference is in the vowels: the pronunciation of the two words approximates to "slin" vs "slun".

To turn to your examples: "mar" vs "mear" - "mar" sounds pretty much like the EN verb "to mar", while "mear" has a sound much closer to the "a" in "apple" (as far as I can describe it, anyhow). The vowel sounds are by far the major source of distinction - personally, I wouldn't insert a big fat -y- sound after the "m" in "mear".

"fara" vs "fear" - again, the first "a" in "fara" sounds like the "a" in "to mar" and the "ea" in "fear" sounds quite like the "a" in "apple". "Fear" doesn't sound like "fʲæɾˠ", the IPA rendition in Wiktionary - at least, the "f" doesn't.

"ansin" vs "sean" - the "n" at the end of both words is the same. It's just an n, nothing like the Spanish n with a tilde.

EIf you haven't been able to hear the supposed differences, it's not surprising - they don't exist the way the literature suggests.

The online dictionary www.focloir.ie includes pronunciations in the 3 major dialects, and I've been surpised at how closely my intuitions about pronunciation match the Munster standard despite the fact that my schooldays are now so far in the past.

I can't for the life of me make out where the online literature's exaggerated treatment of slender/broad consonants came from. There are some clearly distinguished pairings like s, d and t. While slender/broad "s" is conditioned by the adjacent vowel, this vowel does more than just change the consonant - "san" sounds like EN "sun" but "sean" sounds like "shan", not "shun". Again, this fact seems to be ignored by online pronunciation rulebooks, which would have you believe that the only distinction is "s" vs "sh". My own pronunciation instincts sometimes have me add -y- at times though I have no textbook rationale for it (look up "philosophy" in focloir.ie and contrast Munster with the other two dialects), but I've begun to suspect that the rules surrounding pronunciation are far more complex than most books let on.

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  • The difference is absolutely real – just not in many speakers (albeit primarily L2 speakers) of Munster Irish. There are a few consonants which have merged elsewhere, but mostly, the merger of broad and slender consonants is a Munster thing. The differences in the vowels arose as a bi-product of the consonant qualities and are still best analysed as being just that – and in fact, outside Munster, there often isn’t a significant difference in the vowels, especially in long vowels (e.g., súil vs súl, which have exactly the same vowel to me). Jun 17 at 10:05
  • I went asking native speakers acquaintances yday and today about the issue and one of them sent me this re. Connacht: "...when a slender consonant follows a back vowel, there is an onglide [i̯] before the consonant, e.g. áit /aːtʲ/ is pronounced [aːi̯tʲ],óil /oːlʲ/ is [oːi̯lʲ], meabhair /mʲəuɾʲ/ is [mʲəui̯ɾʲ], and dúinn /d̪ˠuːn̠ʲ/ is [d̪ˠuːi̯n̠ʲ]." Looking at "úi" in "dúinn", it seems to imply that "súil" doesn't contain a simple "ú" but something more complex. This is the distinction I make anyhow. It might be L2 speaker-ese in Munster (and maybe Connacht too!), sure, but it works for me ;)
    – sól
    Jun 18 at 21:53
  • I think you may have misunderstood me – I meant that the phonetic distinction between the broad and slender consonants is real, not the difference in how the vowels are pronounced. The glides are definitely real, but they are inconsistent and differ a lot cross-dialectally. Conversely, the difference in the consonants themselves is fairly stable across dialects, except in some (primarily L2) Munster speakers, where a lot of the broad and slender variants have merged. This is why it still makes sense to write it with /ʲ/ and /ˠ/ instead of writing the glides. Jun 18 at 22:00
  • Ach no, of course I know that you're pointing out that broad and slender consonants differ - it's a canonical accepted feature. I also get that the onglide [i̯] doesn't get much of a look-in: to pick just one example, it's completely missing from /bʲlʲiənʲ/ - bliain - in Wiktionary, and basic pronunciation guides overlook it, afaik. Though that info I got sent does suggest it appears in 2 whole dialects - the example of Connacht and my experience of Munster, where I'd distinguish dún/dúin mostly via the "úi", not the "n". But I am only one of those L2 speakers, so I'm no expert.
    – sól
    Jun 20 at 11:14
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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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  • The relationship between single and double resonants is roughly equivalent to that between lenited and unlenited consonants elsewhere (only lnr appear doubled, and these do not lenite). The primary difference is that it’s not part of the initial mutation system, but entirely lexemic. The similarity is clearest with n, where virtually all dialects distinguish between at least /n/ and /N/, some also /nʲ/ and /Nʲ/. Fewer dialects distinguish all four equivalent /l/s, and I don’t think any current dialects still distinguish all four /r/s, though some Ulster dialects still have three. Jun 17 at 18:38

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