Why Irish Spelling Looks Familiar Yet Strange


March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, or Lá Fhéile Pádraig (Irish), named for one of the most recognized of the patron saints of Ireland, Saint Patrick, who died on this date around 493 A.D. While St. Patrick is famous for allegedly driving snakes out of Ireland, he is also responsible for the oldest known Gaelic composition in existence. This fact provides to explore the question of why Gaelic uses familiar letters in such unfamiliar ways. Gaelic, pronounced: /ˈɡeɪlɪk/, is an adjective that means “pertaining to the Gaels” – the speakers of the Celtic language originating in Ireland around the fourth century.

Written Irish, or An Caighdeán Oifigiúil, from this period is known as Primitive Irish. The fifth century saw the language transition into Old Irish – which, with the placement of marginalia (marginal notes) from manuscripts, is known to have utilized the Latin alphabet.  A hymn entitled “The Cry of the Deer” written by Saint Patrick may be the only written proof of Gaelic from this time. By the 12th century, Middle Irish evolved into the Early Modern Irish  which was used through the 18th century. There is no standard pronunciation of the Irish language, and the phonology varies amongst the Irish Gaelic and its sister languages the Scottish and Manx Gaelic dialects. Even within the language there are three main dialects – Munster (the south of Ireland), Connacht (Connemara and Aran Island in the west of Ireland) and Ulster (the north of Ireland). Each dialect may vary in their word and phrase selection, pronunciation and even grammar. There is, however, a mutual intelligibility amongst speakers of different Gaelic dialects.

In the case of Irish Gaelic, familiar consonants come in pairs, except for /h/: One is’ broad’ – pronounced with the tongue placed on the back of the soft palate; the other is ‘slender’ – pronounced with the middle of the tongue pushed up towards the hard palate.The use of consonant mutations changes a word according to its morphological and syntactic environment. It helps to identify the relationship between two similar words and their various meanings, but also results in written combinations that can be unusual to the non-Gaelic speaker. As a result of the Great Famine (known outside of Ireland as the Irish Potato Famine) in the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish Gaelic language lost a great number of its speakers  to death and emigration due to poverty. The Gaelic Revival movement, which began at the end of the nineteenth century, encouraged the learning and use of the Irish language throughout Ireland. Today there are just over 72,000 people who use Irish Gaelic as a first language throughout different parts of the country.


  1. elli -  July 13, 2012 - 3:05 am

    haha just went on your blog and you already use those lessons, erin, oops ;D

  2. elli -  July 13, 2012 - 3:03 am

    Erin-I found this website recently and started to learn irish…Im nowhere near knowing much, but it might be a good place for you to start! http://www.irishpage.com/irishpeople/
    I don’t know if all the links work, but I think this is great!!! :)
    hope this helps

    Morvil73- you are too cool! when I was really small I read this series called ‘seahorses’ and there was a section of cornish which i learned off by heart ;) wish I could speak cornish—we need to give it a revival! otherwise it will die!!! NOOO

    Margh Glas-Margh a Hav, My a wra delwel- dhiworth mor, tewes, ha men..
    no idea what it is, i think it’s a spell or something XD

  3. Mag -  March 16, 2012 - 6:11 am

    Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton are all CELTIC languages – The Gaelic branch belong to the CELTIC Q branch and Welsh, Cornish and Breton to CELTIC P. Welsh, Cornish and Breton are sister languages but only cousins to the Gaelic languages – if that helps. Some of the explanations were really long winded and foggy.

  4. Seosamh Mac Phadraic -  January 19, 2012 - 8:10 am

    Dia dhaoibh ‘a chuile dhuine !

    Tá daoine annseo go bhfuil a fhios acu céard atá siad a caint faoi, ach tá go leor eile nach bhfuil a fhios acu aon rud faoi’n Ghaedhilge, nó aon rud eile ach an oiread, tá mé a’ ceapadh !

    Slán tamaill.


  5. Spailpín -  June 21, 2011 - 2:25 pm

    Gaeilge has become known as Irish here in Ireland for the same reason that French is called French or German is called German; it’s simply the language’s country of origin. In Scotland, on the other hand, there was already a “language” called Scotts – not Celtic in origin – so Gaidhlig remained as Scotts Gaelic, or simply Gaelic. It does annoy me a bit when people refer to Gaelic solely as the Scottish variety, it is just as correct to call Irish Gaelic, it is simply not done as much. Go n-éirí libh.

  6. Royal -  May 9, 2011 - 12:29 pm

    I believe George Bernard Shaw advocated the reform of English orthography, but met all kinds of criticism and sarcastic commentaries. In this ‘word processor’ age, I challenge some young bright linguist to ‘give it another go’ and post a better version where we all can see it–and possibly write articles in it. Esperanto has a very logical orthography: example using c and k differently.

  7. Daffyd -  April 7, 2011 - 8:37 pm

    St Patrick was a Welsh, and his first language was Welss/Cymru

  8. Morvil73 -  March 18, 2011 - 5:39 pm

    Irish and Scottish Gaelic spelling actually works quite well for the phonology of these languages. Yet, especially Irish has a lot of “silent” letter combinations which were pronounced at an earlier point in its history, some of these features may be alive in one dialect, but not in another.

  9. Morvil73 -  March 18, 2011 - 5:36 pm

    Prag yth erow’whei ow leverel dr’ew marow an Kernowek? Nag ew hedna gwir! Mirewgh orthi’vy! Th ero’vy orth y usya!
    “Why are you saying that Cornish is dead? That’s not true! Look at me! I’m using it!”

    The three Gaelic language communities maintained a long cultural and linguistic connection until the early modern age. That’s why they are referred to as Gaelic. Later specifications were made to distinguish Scottish Gaelic from Irish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic. It was only the establishment of the Irish nationalist movement in the later 19th and early 20th century that insisted on calling Irish Gaelic “Irish”. This is why “Irish” is used in Ireland whereas the rest of the English speaking world says Gaelic.
    I would say that the three Gaelic languages are as close to each other as the three continental Scandinavian languages. They are even mutually intelligible to some degree. Especially the (now largely extinct) dialects of north eastern Ireland and the western Scottish Highlands. But Manx is also intellgible to speakers of south western Scottish Gaelic. An Irish native speaker once told me she couldn’t make heads or tails (or in this case ‘tales’) of a passage of written Manx, but once it was read out aloud to her by a Manx speaker she claimed to understand every word.
    Welsh, Breton and Cornish are also similar to each other, but not as close as the three Gaelic languages.

    What’s this about the claim that specific languages are “old”? What a weird statement to make. A language is as old as the generations alive that speak it. Languages ‘reinvent’ themselves all the time – and every language is ancient, or derived from another equally ancient language, but living languages change all the time and become something slightly different generation by generation. Some cease to be spoken, other languages are consciously resurrected.

  10. Ruiseart -  March 18, 2011 - 1:50 pm

    Slànte! I’m Scottish myself, but I just thought I’d drop by to leave a couple of notes.

    It’s pronounced “gah-lik” not “gay-lick”. Well, at least that’s the way we pronounce it around here.

    Neither Manx nor Scots Gaelic are dialects of Irish. They are different languages that share the same root as Gaelige (the Irish language), in the same way that Dutch and German are considered distinct languages.

    As already pointed out, there’s no such thing as Welsh Gaelic as Welsh is not a Goidelic language. It is a Brythonic language, much closer to Cornish and Breton (spoken in Brittany, France).

    @Liz Nicholson, Welsh is Old English??

    “HereIAm on March 17, 2011 at 6:49 am
    Both are Germanic languages, and English is relatively newer than most. So what’s the point of reforming it”
    I just hope that, by “both”, you are not referring to Irish/Gaelige and English. Irish is a Celtic language. Nothing to do with the Germanic branch.

    And concerning the answer, I believe it has been answered only partially. The reason as to why the words are spelt in such unique ways has to do with the fact that Old Irish employed the Ogham system as its sole writing system. When Christianity was introduced in Ireland, priests had a difficult time attempting to transcribe Irish phonemes into the limited Latin alphabet, especially due to the fact Irish consonants undergo slenderisation. As a result, ‘extra’ letters had to be added to reproduce variations in sound that could be reproduced by slenderisation and lenition. The spelling was indeed complicated, but it served its purpose well – the pronunciation of Old Irish is much more loyal to its spelling. With time, however, the phonology of Irish changed greatly, yet the spelling did not fully reflect the changes that occurred over time. Scots Gaelic is even more conservative. Whereas Irish is referred to as “Gaelige”, we call Scots Gaelic “Gàidhlig”. The Irish-speaking areas are collectively called Gaeltacht. Scots Gaelic-speaking areas are called, erm.. the Gàidhealtachd.

  11. Peter O'Connor -  March 18, 2011 - 10:37 am

    I agree with Andi above that the article fails (singularly) to answer the question itself posed. Can we now move on??

  12. Andi -  March 18, 2011 - 9:29 am

    This article fails to answer the question it seeks to answer. It leaves out the part about how monks were responsible for writing down the language. Monks transcribed Gaelic with Latin phonology although their understanding of Latin itself was limited.

1 2 3 4

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required):

Related articles

Back to Top