Sounds of Scottish Gaelic

From Scottish Gaelic Grammar Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

The sound system of Scottish Gaelic is remarkable for its large number of vowels and dipthongs with contrasts in both length and nasalization, as well as for its 'dual sequence' of stops and sonorants.

One caveat which must precede the following material as well as any study of the sound system of Scottish Gaelic is that there is a range of dialectal variation in the language which can significantly affect the sounds of the words and even the phonemic inventory. The material presented here is drawn from various references as well as our own work with the language.



Front Central Back
Unrounded Rounded
High i, i:, ĩ, ĩ: ɯ, ɯ:, ɯ̃, ɯ̃: u, u:, ũ, ũ:
Mid High e, e: ɤ, ɤ: o, o:
Mid Low ɛ, ɛ:, ɛ̃, ɛ̃: ɔ, ɔ:, ɔ̃, ɔ̃:
High a, a:, ã, ã:

The nine-way distinction demonstrated above is generally accepted. However, some scholars (Ladefoged et al. 1998, Gillies 1993) note that the high back unrounded vowel may be merging with [u] and/or [ɤ] in some dialects.


There are two main types of diphthongs. The first set, [iə], [ia], and /uə/, are a result of the breaking of Archaic Irish long vowels (Gillies 1993). The other set of diphthongs close with /i/ or /u/ ([ai], [au], [ei], [ɛu], [əi], [ɔu], and [ɯi]). These have arisen from a sequence of vowel+long consonant or VCC. Diphthongs vary significantly by dialect.


The oral/nasal distinction appears only in stressed vowels. The nasal vowels are historically a result of assimilation. However, the distinction is now based on different synchronic rules, often a result of analogy (Gillies 1993).


Long vowels are about twice as long as short vowels in the same environment (Ò Murchù 1988). The length distinction is usually neutralized in unstressed syllables.

Unstressed Vowels

The phonemic inventory above represents the options for vowels in a stressed position. Unstressed vowels neutralize the oral/nasal distinction and the length distinction (Ò Murchù 1988). The options for vowel quality are also limited in unstressed vowels. Underlying short vowels appear as [ə], while underlying long vowels and diphthongs appear as [a]. In open syllables, [i] and [u] can also occur in unstressed position (Gillies 1993). Ladefoged et al. 1998 propose that a larger set of vowels [u, ɔ, ə, a, i, ɛ] can occur in unstressed position.



Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velarized Velar Glottal
Coronal Dorsal
Stop pʰ, p t̪ʰ, t̪ tʲʰ, tʲ kʲʰ, kʲ kʰ, k
Nasal m n ɲ
Fricative f, v s ʃ ç, ʝ x, ɣ h
Lateral l l̪ˠ
Rhotic ɾ ɾʲ
Approximant j


The velar nasal [ŋ] occurs as an allophone due to assimilation of a nasal vowel with a following velar segment. Aspirated stops are realized as preaspirated (with a small amount of post-aspiration as well) word-medially (Ladefoged et al. 1998).


Broad and Slender consonants

Scottish Gaelic has two 'series' of stops, traditionally called 'broad' (leathan) and 'slender' (caol) and recognized as separate classes by native speakers. The two series behave differently in different morphological environments (see Initial Consonant Mutations, Lenition, and thus this classification describes a morphological, rather than a phonetic distinction. The two series are often characterized by linguists as 'plain' or 'velarized' (broad) and 'palatalized' (slender). However, the actual realizations of the broad and slender consonants do not always fit into this phonetic pattern.

Voicing and Aspiration

The contrast between stops with the same place of articulation is usually a difference in aspiration as opposed to voicing. However, some scholars claim that there is a voicing distinction as well. Ternes (1973) proposes a four-way distinction ([p-pʰ-b-bʰ]) in his study of the Applecross dialect. MacAulay (1992) mentions that some dialects have a three-way distinction ([p-pʰ-b]), but notes that it is less common than a binary distinction in aspiration.

Ladefoged et al. (1998) examined the contrasts in the stop sequence by measuring the onset of voicing for word-initial stops and the offset and onset of voicing, as well as closure duration, for intervocalic stops. They found conclusive evidence that the distinction in that dialect (Bernara) is in aspiration, not voicing. They also note that preaspiration is considerably longer in duration than regular ('post-') aspiration.

Nasalized Fricatives

Nasalized fricatives are sometimes included in the phonemic inventory (Ternes 1973, Gillies 1993, among others). As nasalized fricatives are sometimes thought to be physiologically impossible (see Shosted 2006 for discussion). The status of these segments in Scottish Gaelic is therefore an empirical question currently being examined by the Arizona Scottish Gaelic Phonology and Phonetics Group.


Old Irish, the ancestor of Scottish Gaelic, had a four-way distinction for the sonorants 'n,' 'l,' and 'r.' This distinction resulted from a 'fortis' and 'lenis' version of each consonant (now called 'tense' and 'lax'), as well as a broad/slender distinction for each of these. Most dialects of Scottish Gaelic now only have a three-way distinction [1].

Traditional Celtic literature has a standard notation for this distinction: 'Tense' consonants are indicated by capital letters, and 'slender' consonants are indicated by a following apostrophe:

Tense Lax
Broad L l
Slender L' l'

Consonant Length

There is a phonemic contrast in length for sonorants in some dialects. In those dialects that do not have the length distinction, the syllable nucleus is often lengthened instead (MacAulay 2002):

- "gal" 'weeping' [kaL]

- "gall" 'foreigner' [kaL:] or [kauL] in dialects that don't have consonant length.

See Also

External Links


- Gillies, W. 1993. Scottish Gaelic. in M. Ball and J. Fife (eds.), The Celtic Languages. London: Routledge.

- Ladefoged, P., J. Ladefoged, A. Turk, K. Hind, and S. Skilton. 1998. Phonetic structures of Scottish Gaelic. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 28: 1-41.

- MacAulay, D. 1992. The Celtic Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

- Ó Murchú, M. 1988. The phonology of a Perthsire idiolect. Scottish Gaelic Studies 15: 20-73.

- Ternes, E. 1973. The phonemic analysis of Scottish Gaelic. Hamburg: Helmut Buske.