I thought it might be nice, since this is one of my last blog posts, to give a little bit of an idea of what it’s like to sit down and learn Irish. I’m going to be talking largely about phonetics, the part of Irish which most often makes native English speakers raise their hands to the heavens in despair. It’s also the part of Irish which often makes native English speakers smile when they realize they finally understand it.
We’ll talk about my current favorite word in Irish: bhfaighidh. Bhfaighidh, as we all knew logically from our first glance at the word (or maybe because my teacher kindly explained it to me), is pronounced “wee.” It means “will get” in the future tense, but only if you are asking a question—“Will you get?”—or using a negative—“I won’t get.” If you want to use plain old “I will get,” you’re looking for gheobhaidh, which is pronounced “yo-wee.”
I had seen bhfaighidh before I came to the Gaeltacht, but I never felt comfortable using it. I wasn’t sure how to say it—my approximation would have been “why-gig,” and I knew that couldn’t be right. In retrospect, though, the pronunciation of bhfaighidh makes perfect sense and is an example of how consistent Irish phonetics are.
First, I should explain the bhf. In Irish, some words modify others by placing an urú on the second word. An urú is when a new letter or letters are placed in front of a word. The letters placed are specific to the letter that begins the word, and after they are placed, you pronounce them instead of the first letter of the word that’s being modified. Bh is the set of letters that modifies f, so it replaces the sound of f in pronunciation. In Irish, bh is pronounced like a w when it is followed by an a, o, or u. That is why “bhfa” becomes “w.”
After the beginning of the word, it gets simpler. In Irish, “ai” is pronounced “ee.” In the Ulster dialect, which is what they speak in Donegal, “gh” and “idh” at the ends of words are normally not pronounced. Even though “aigh” is not at the end of bhfaighidh, it is at the end of the root of the word, faigh. That’s it: Bhf+ai+gh+idh = wee. Everything has been pronounced as it should be.
It can be hard to get the old English rules out of my head sometimes. Reading out loud in Irish brings me back to the first grade, when I sounded out words one letter cluster at a time. Back then, I couldn’t believe anyone would be so silly as to give “th” and “sh” their assigned sounds. Now, it feels natural. It’s pretty amazing all of the different ways humankind has invented to write the same sounds. I still have a lot of Irish phonetics left to learn, and a lot about Irish in general, but it’s fun to sit down and learn about it. If you’re reading this, I hope you had fun, too.