We are often asked for some guidance on the language and pronunciation of our novels set in Ireland.
The language of pre-Christian Ireland was a proto-Celtic Indo-European language. Meaning there was a single origin for the Celtic languages, which later developed into regional versions and originated in Europe. Celtic arrival in Ireland brought Ancient Irish with it. Scholars think the arrival, whether by migration or invasion, might be as early as 500 BCE. Languages did exist before Ancient Irish arrived. However, by the time of Christ, Irish was the common language. Ancient Irish is known as Gaeilge Ársa (pronounced gwailga orsa) or Primitive Irish (a Goidelic language), which survives only as ogham inscriptions. As such, historians have little understanding of how the words sounded.
That said, pronunciation in the different Kingdoms was likely to be different. This is, of course, still true of the country today. A Cork man speaks with an entirely different lilt to say a Dubliner or someone from Ulster. This further complicates what is already a complex topic.
It is a reasonable assumption that Ancient Irish evolved into Old Irish, carrying some pronunciation with it.
Medieval monks used Old Irish (Sengoídelc) when they transcribed Irish Mythology. Sengoídelc was spoken in Ireland from about 700 to 1000 in the common era (formerly anno domini). As such, the examples adhere to Sengoídelc.
The pronunciation rules for Old Irish could fill a book. Rather than provide them, the following lists some names and places in After Gáirech and The Last Five Swords. When reading the examples, keep the following in mind:
Not necessary – How the words were pronounced over two thousand years ago will not impact the story. No one will ever know. You can pronounce them however you like.
Consonants – The pronunciation of consonants depends on their position in a word. For example, m at the beginning of a word is as in English. However, in other positions, it can take a v or w sound, such as Temuir (Tara) is pronounced Tay-vir.
Vowels – The pronunciation of vowels and their position are changed when they are accented. For example, a as the first syllable in a word is long (farther), and as the second syllable is short (pass). When the á is accented, it is long (ah as in car) but does change when positioned with another vowel: áe – gives an eye sound, as in bye; ái – gives an a sound as in hand; aí – gives an e sound as in seed.
This is also true of other accented vowels: ó – gives an oh sound as in show; óe gives an a sound as in hay; ú – gives an oo sound, as in brood; é – gives an a sound as in hay; í – gives an ee sound, as in seed.
There are many more rules, and I won’t list them all here.
With those in mind, here are some of the names from After Gáirech, with their phonetic spelling:
Bóand – The River Boyne. Pronounced bow an.
Cailleach – Ancient crone (witch). Pronounced Kay lee ack.
Clochbeag – A village in the west. Pronounced Clochbeug (clearing the throat as for ch)
Crúachain – The royal seat of Connacht. Pronounced cruck an.
Draíocht – Magic. Pronounced dree-ocht.
Dún – a fortress. Pronounced doon.
Emain Macha – The royal seat of Ulster. Pronounced eh-vin macca.
Gáirech – The battle that happened at the end of the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Pronounced gareck.
Léine – A soft linen shirt. Pronounced lay na.
Medb – The warrior queen of Connacht. Medb is pronounced as it would be for the Anglicised spelling Maeve, may ve.
Morrigan – The Goddess of war and fate. Pronounced mor ee gan.
Ráth – A circular earthen fort, as in a ramparted fort. Pronounced raar.
Scéalaí – A storyteller. Pronounced shkaylee.
Scáthach – The warrior witch from the Isle of Skye. Pronounced Scar thack.
Uisneach – A town in the Midlands. Pronounced ush-neeock.