Key to O'Growney Phonetics

Information taken from the summary in Part II of O'Growney's "Simple Lessons in Irish".

The symbol is sounded like in the English words
Long vowel sounds
aa a half, calf
ae ae Gaelic
ee ee feel, see
au au naught, taught
ō o note, coke
oo oo (long) tool, room, poor (also: u in rule)
Short vowel sounds
a a bat, that
e e let, bell
i i hit, fill
o o knot, clock
ŭ u up, us (also: o in son, done)
u oo (short) good, rook (also: u in full)
The obscure vowel sound
ă and ĕ a tolerable
ei ei height
ou ou mouth
oi oi boil
ew ew few
Consonant sounds
b, f, m, p, v, w, y as in English
h as in English except in combinations dh, th, CH, sh
th th thigh
t t tune
dh th thy
d d duty
N thick sound not in English
n n new
n n noon
L thick sound not in English
l l valiant
l l look, lamb
r r run
r no sound exactly similar in English; beginners may pronounce it like r
s s so, alas; note that s is never pronounced like z or zh (English: was, occasion), as there are no such sounds in Irish
sh sh shall, lash
K k looking
k k liking
G g begun, go; never soft as in gin
g g begin, give; never soft as in gin
NG ng long-er, song; never soft as in singe; beginners may pronounce it like N
ng ng sing; never soft as in singe
CH gh O'Loughlin
γ (sometimes
GH is used)
gutteral sound not in English;beginners may pronounce it like G
W is in Connacht like w
  is in Munster like v
V is in Connacht like v
  is in Munster silent
is placed after a stressed syllable in a word of more than one syllable.  Take care not to mistake this for a mark of slenderization.
- is placed between syllables in a word of more than one syllable

Note that the change of shape of a when italicised (a > a) is not significant in O'Growney phonetics.

Since italics and capitalization are significant in O'Growney's system, neither should be used for typographic highlighting of sounds in that system. Boldface is not significant in the system, and may be safely used for highlighting.

The Gaelic consonant system

The plethora of consonant sounds may obscure the many symmetries of the Gaelic consonant system, which may be seen with the help of three abstract diagrams, one each for the labial, dental and velar articulation points (the lettering on these diagrams is NOT O'Growney notation, but we will relate it to O'Growney notation in a moment):




h: is a one-dimensional sound which falls outside the system.


The front plane of each diagram contains BROAD (velarized) consonants, while the rear plane contains their SLENDER (palatalized) equivalents.  Grammatical processes (inflections) may cause a consonant to change from broad to slender or vice versa.  We represent the slender sounds on these diagrams by the broad sound followed by a prime; alternatively the broad sound could be followed by j or by y.

The upper plane of each diagram contains STRONG consonants (mostly stops and liquids), while the lower plane contains their WEAK (lenited) equivalents (mostly fricatives).  The grammatical process called lenition (or formerly, aspiration) may change a strong consonant into its weak equivalent.  For the most part, the strong consonants are the only ones which are found at the start of an isolated word (eg. in the dictionary); weak consonants can only occur at the start of a word in its morphological context within a sentence.  However, we must qualify this by saying three things: there are numerous words beginning with f, which in some ways functions both as a strong and a weak (ph) sound; a small number of words begin with a lenited consonant, even in isolation (chun, thart, liom, etc.); and ng, although we consider it a strong consonant, never occurs at the start of an isolated word and has no weak counterpart (though in Ulster ng medially is weakened to nasalized gh, analogously to the lenition of m to nasalized bh).  Lenition is inapplicable to weak consonants, except for f, lenition of which produces silence. We show the weak sounds on these diagrams by the strong sound surmounted by a dot; alternatively the strong sound could be followed by h; or weakened p could be represented by f.

The leftmost three planes contain respectively voiceless, voiced and nasal consonants.  The grammatical process of eclipsis applies only to the upper sounds in the two leftmost planes, and also, in the case of labials, to the lower sounds in the leftmost plane; that is, to a subset of the strong consonants and to f (this is another strong aspect of f); eclipsis moves these sounds one step to the right, as shown by the solid horizontal lines.  Eclipsis has no effect on other consonants.


Phonetic realization

Now we come to the phonetic realization of these abstract sounds, which is the concern of O'Growney (and of other systems of phonetics).  The first thing to note is that not all the points produce distinct sounds; rather there is much coalescence, especially in the weak plane.

If we try to place phonetic realizations on the diagrams, we meet with some difficulties.  Firstly, the realization may vary with the phonetic environment.  This is especially true of weak consonants, which are silent or vocalized in some environments.  We present here the realization which applies in a prominent environment. Secondly, the precise realizations vary with the dialect, both as to the set of consonant sounds required, and the mapping to them of our positions; we here present O'Growney's choice.

Note that, when the realizations are stated with reference to English sounds, a particular contrast may sometimes have its two members compared to different English sounds, and sometimes to varieties of the same sound.  Thus, the broad vs slender contrast may, in the weak voiced labials, be labelled as "w vs v", but in the strong voiced labials as "round b vs spread b".  It should not be thought that a contrast in Irish is any the greater for being stated in terms of distinct English letters, nor any the less for being stated in terms of varieties of the same English letter (unless we actually state that it is neutralized). 


1. All labial sounds are produced bilabially, including f and v.

2. The broad/slender distinction in labials is basically produced with rounded lips vs spread lips.  The distinction may be reinforced by a w-glide accompanying the broad sounds before long front vowels (uí, ae, á, ao), and a y-glide accompanying the slender sounds before long back vowels (eo, iú).

3. w and v, representing weak m, may be distinguished from the same symbols, representing weak b, by some nasalization, not shown by O'Growney.

4. For letters sounded as w in Connacht but as v in Munster, O'Growney achieves a unified transcription by using W; and for letters sounded as v in Connacht but silent in Munster, he similarly uses V.


1. The strong dentals (top plane) all share a common point of articulation, which is dental, not alveolar.  Some sounds are represented by capitals, and for these, small capitals may be used, but O'Growney uses normal capitals.

2. The broad/slender distinction in dentals is produced by the absence vs presence of palatalization.  For strong dentals and velars, O'Growney compares the slender sound to a rapid pronounciation of the broad sound followed by a y.  The broad/slender distinction is neutralised in the weak forms of t, n, l, s.

3. Weakened s and weakened t fall together, and weakened d falls together with weakened g as a voiced velar fricative.  Further, weakened d and g in many spelling contexts are silent or vocalized.

4. O'Growney's th is meant to show a dental stop t; this is the sound in thigh in southern Hiberno-English.  His dh is meant to show a dental stop d; this is the sound in thy in southern Hiberno-English.  O'Growney's th and dh do not stand for the fricatives of standard English or of Ulster English, nor is the h in them a sign of lenition.

5. The N and L (and their slender equivalents) are pronounced with the same dental point of articulation as the dental stops, whereas the weak l and n are alveolar.  O'Growneys says elsewhere: "if the upper part of the tongue be pressed against the back of the upper teeth, while the English word law or month is being pronounced, [the sound of L or N] will be heard."

6. Of slender r O'Growney says elsewhere: "a peculiar Irish sound, midway between the 'rr' of carry and the 'zz' of fizz."

(Query: O'Growney remarks that lenited r is almost like slender r.)


1. The broad/slender distinction in velars is produced by the absence vs presence of palatalization.  For strong dentals and velars, O'Growney compares the slender sound to a rapid pronounciation of the broad sound followed by a y.

2. Weakened g and weakened d fall together as O'Growney's γ which is a voiced velar fricative, the voiced equivalent of CH.  But remember that weakened d and g in many spelling contexts are silent or vocalized.

(Queries: For lenited k, does O'Growney say h? Ó hAnnáin uses h-y for this. (cheol vs sheol).
For slender ng, O'Growney speaks of ng as in sing, but in practice uses n.)


h can occur initially in (a few) isolated words, and never occurs non-initially. It is unchanged by lenition or eclipsis. It is undifferentiated as regards the broad/slender distinction.

The "Simple Lessons"

O'Growney's "Simple Lessons in Irish" (in five parts) were designed for those who must learn Irish Gaelic by analytical methods — because lack of a suitable teacher precludes "direct methods" or "phrase methods", let alone full immersion.  They are optimised for learners with no phonetic training, but who are familiar with the sounds of English, especially as spoken in Ireland — this was the position of many learners in the early days of the Gaelic League, when there was furthermore no possibility of help with learning sounds from recording technology.  Despite their emphasis on simplicity, the "Simple Lessons" are often surprisingly accurate phonetically; for example, in the pronunciation of beag or ceol, or in showing the lenited nature of the initial l in le, liom, leat, leis, etc.; these are things which will come as news to many who have learned Irish through the modern school system.  Ideally, study of the "Simple Lessons" should be followed by extensive reading of linguistically-reliable material.

Eoin Mac Néill saw to the publication of Parts I–III of the "Simple Lessons", and after O'Growney's death in 1899, Mac Néill continued the series by writing Parts IV–V.

Ciarán Ó Duibhín
Úraithe 2021/11/23
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