The double life of the Irish consonant

The consonant sounds of the Irish language may be under threat, and are being documented for posterity

A study is hooking up native Irish speakers with a portable ultrasound device that can capture how their tongue movements correspond with saying consonants in their broad and slender forms

One of the delights of the Irish language is the pronunciation of consonants; they can can be broad (leathan) or slender (caol).Try saying the broad b in “bó” (cow) and the slender b in “beo” (live) and you can hear how the consonant sound differs between the words.

Now researchers in the US and Ireland will use ultrasound to capture how native Irish speakers physically utter those subtle differences.

“In Irish there’s an unusual contrast in what we traditionally refer to as the broad and slender consonants,” says Dr Máire Ní Chiosáin, a linguist and lecturer at University College Dublin. “That opposition between the consonants is a fundamental part of the sound system in Irish.”

She is working with researchers at Yale University and the University of California, Santa Cruz, to hook up native Irish speakers to a portable ultrasound device that can capture how their tongue movements correspond how they say consonants in their broad and slender forms.

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“We have a helmet that keeps an ultrasound stable under the lower jaw, and we will record lip movements with video as the person reads sentences,” explains Ní Chiosáin.

The study, which has received funding of more than $250,000 by the US National Science Foundation, will gather data from native Irish speakers across three major dialects (Munster, Connaught and Ulster) and then process and analyse the captured images and data.

Why? Part of the motivation is to document for posterity the consonant sounds, which Ní Chiosáin says are being weakened with the growing dominance of English.

Further down the line, the findings could also inform feedback systems for people who are learning Irish as a second or subsequent language, she adds.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation