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Lenition (softening) is a process whereby certain consonants which appear at the beginning of words are made 'softer'. This is indicated in writing by adding a h after the consonant. For example, lenition changes [p] to an [f] sound which is spelled ph. Lenition changes an initial b to bh, g to gh, c to ch, d to dh, t to th, m to mh, s to sh, f to fh as we have seen already. See below for the pronounciation of ph, bh, gh, ch, dh, th, mh, sh, fh.

The -h form of a consonant, when it appears at the beginning of words, is referred to as the lenited form of the consonant. Those consonants which can 'add' h are called lenitable consonants and there are only nine of them. There are three more consonants which can take on audible lenition but the lenition does not show in the spelling: l, n and r. No we're not mental. See the special pages on l n r on this topic.

Lenition is usually, but not always, caused by a preceding word. Consider the following example:

a cat her cat
a chat his cat

You'll see that the word for both her and his is a. The only difference between them is that the word for his lenites a following lenitable consonant but the word for her does not. We say that a, his, is a leniting word because it lenites a following word. We will distinguish between leniting and non-leniting words by placing the symbol * after those words which cause lenition. In Scottish Gaelic, lenition is extremely common and you'll will meet many more leniting words and particles as you progress. Here are some more examples of the words for his and her:


[baːhdə] bàta boat [ə baːhdə] a bàta her boat [ə vaːhdə] a bhàta his boat
[pju.ər] piuthar sister [ə pju.ər] a piuthar her sister [ə fju.ər] a phiuthar his sister
[gʲɛnsɪ] geansaidh jumper [ə gʲɛnsɪ] a geansaidh her jumper [ə ʝɛnsɪ] a gheansaidh his jumper
[kuː] dog [ə kuː] a cù her dog [ə xuː] a chù his dog
[dʲɛLɛv] dealbh picture [ə dʲɛLɛv] a dealbh her picture [ə ʝɛLɛv] a dhealbh his picture
[tɤj] taigh house [ə tɤj] a taigh her house [ə hɤj] a thaigh his house
[maxg] mac son [ə maxg] a mac her son [ə vaxg] a mhac his son
[suːl] sùil eye [ə suːl] a sùil her eye [ə huːl] a shùil his eye
[faLd] falt hair [ə faLd] a falt her hair [aLd] fhalt his hair

Lenition and Slenderisation

Lenition and slenderisation can operate simultaneously on a word. In Gaelic, when we address a person, the name is preceded by a which lenites the initial consonant:


Basic form Address form
[moːrag] Mórag Morag [ə voːrag] a Mhórag! Morag!
[maːrʲɪ] Màiri Mary [ə vaːrʲɪ] a Mhàiri! Mary!
[ka'triənə] Catrìona Katherine [ə xa'triənə] a Chatrìona! Katherine!

However, when we address a male, the name is lenited and also slenderised:

Basic form Address form
[ʃeːməs] Seumas James/Hamish [ə heːmɪʃ] a Sheumais! James/Hamish!
[dõː.əL] Dòmhnall Donald [ə ɣõː.ɪLʲ] a Dhòmhnaill! Donald!
[tɔrɔməd] Tormod Norman [ə hɔrɔmɪdʲ] a Thormoid! Norman!

Fuaimean na Gàidhlig
Vowels - Consonants - Fricatives - Slenderisation - Pre-aspiration - Lenition - Helping vowel - Diphthongs
Hiatus - l n r - rt & rd - Vowels before rr ll nn - Unstressed vowels