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I've been having trouble realizing the /ɾʲ/ sound in Irish, and I wanted to know if I am interpreting the IPA correctly.

I find it very difficult to tap the alveolus with my tongue raised to the palete. I find [ɾˠ] much easier to make.

I've drawn the the following cross section based on what I think I am supposed to articulate. Is that accurate for [ɾʲ]?

Diagram of the vocal tract.

I might have mistakes in the oral anatomy, if that's a problem it would probably help me to know. The apex meets the back ridge of the alveolus, and the dorsal surface comes closest to the back ridge of the hard palate.

This seems to match descriptions of [◌ʲ], but for other consonants (e.g. [tʲ]) I would normally place my dorsal surface more towards the middle of the hard palate, but I find it impossible to make a tap with my tongue in that position.

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  • Why don't you ask an Irish speech therapist? You could just call them up and tell them your issue and they would tell you for free.
    – Lambie
    Oct 16, 2023 at 18:38

1 Answer 1

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The rhotics in Irish differ significantly from the other alveolar consonants in their production. First off, be aware that fortis /rʲ/ has mostly merged with fortis /rˠ/ (which in most dialects has also merged with lenis /ɾˠ/ as [ɾˠ]), so we needn’t worry about /rʲ/, only /ɾʲ/. (In initial position, fortis /rʲ/ has instead merged with lenis /ɾʲ/ in some dialects, but it’s still not a separate phoneme.)

Most salient to the production of /ɾʲ/ is that, unlike broad /ɾˠ/ (and /rˠ/ in the dialects that distinguish the two), slender /ɾʲ/ is rarely produced as an actual tap – it’s usually a fricative, or even an approximant.

There’s significant dialectal and individual variation in how it’s actually produced, but I think it’s fair to say that there are two variants that are particularly widespread among native speakers, dividing the country roughly into two along an east–west axis:

Southern dialects

The version most commonly heard in the southern parts of the country is, I would say, quite close to what your drawing shows (except with fricative noise rather than actual tapping). This is what Wikipedia refers to when it says that “/ɾʲ/ has the primary allophone [ɹ̝ʲ]”.

This variant often loses part or all of its voicing, even between vowels, and can sometimes sound almost like a sibilant, somewhat like a [z̠ ~ s̠].

Northern dialects

In the northern parts of the island (‘Greater Ulster’ Irish, including Donegal, Mayo and Northern Ireland), the most commonly heard variant has no ‘dip’ in the tongue between the dorsum and the tip: the whole of the dorsum makes an upwards arc (like ⌒) ending in the blade (not the tip) touching or nearly touching the alveolar ridge. I’m not entirely sure how best to transcribe it in IPA, but something like [ð͇ʲ ~ θ͇ʲ] (depending on position) wouldn’t be too far off.

This realisation is more [j]-like than [ɾ]-like, to the point that in some northern Donegal dialects (such as my Gweedore-based one), /ɾʲ/ has actually become [j] in many intervocalic environments, e.g., Máire ['mˠæːjɘ ~ 'mˠʌj(ː)ɘ] ‘Mary’, ariamh [ə'jiə̯ʊ] ‘(n)ever’, Críostóir ['kʲθ͇ʲiːst̪ʌj] ‘Christopher’.

Non-native

There is of course also a third very common pronunciation, found all over the island but associated especially with non-native speakers (which make up the majority of Irish speakers, of course), and that is a regular, unassimilated (Hibernian) English [ɹ]. If you’re going to the trouble of accurately learning Irish phonology, I would advise against going for this option.

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