What's wrong with "imitated pronunciation" and how to read the IPA

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
Am mùthadh mar a bha e 23:07, 19 dhen Dùbhlachd 2011 le Akerbeltz (Deasbaireachd | mùthaidhean)
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I'm sure you've heard the saying "one picture is worth a thousand words" ...

fuaimreagangaidhlig.jpg fuaimreaganbeurla.jpg
The Gaelic Vowel Space The English vowel space

Never mind what all the symbols mean right now, just play "spot the difference" and bear in mind we're ignoring something called diphthongs for now.

Now, you might think, ok, but surely the consonants will be much more similar. In the words of Dirty Harry, are you feeling lucky?

Faidhle:consainghaidhlig.jpg Faidhle:consainbheurla.jpg
Gaelic consonants English consonants

See what I'm driving at? Even without (at this stage) understanding what all the symbols mean, it is obvious that Gaelic and English have vastly different sound inventories. In actual fact, you have chosen to learn a language with one of the most complex system of sonorants (L N and R) anywhere in the world. Daunting? Perhaps, but be proud of it. And it IS learnable, trust me.

But back to Imitated Pronunciation. Sometimes it works, say if you wanted to represent the sounds of Basque with Spanish syllables/letters. That is possible because there is a large number of sounds common to both languages. But you simply can't do that with English and Gaelic, the two are just too different. English doesn't have clear vowels, Gaelic does. English doesn't have a long/short vowel distinction, Gaelic does. English has one L, N and R, Gaelic has three each. English has two dental fricatives, neither of which is much help in Gaelic. English has a [w] which isn't any help because Gaelic doesn't ... it's a loooong list.

So using English sounds/syllables to create a system of Imitated Pronunciation is not going to work - <lap-ee> and <cheen> are as far removed from the Gaelic words leabaidh and tighinn as <sing> and <oftalmolodschist> are from <thing> and <opthalmologist>.

So why the IPA? Haven't I enough to worry about?

Well, actually the IPA is there to help you make your life easier. And you don't have to learn all of it anyway, just the bits you need for Gaelic. It's as reliable tool as you will find in writing down the sounds of any language because it was developed by linguists to do just that. True, it's not 100% perfect, but what is?

So what do you need to know?

Well, as a general principle in the IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) the key principle is that one symbol stands for one sound. This sound can then be described in more detail by using a set of squiggles (or diacritics rather) which can sit over, under or behind a symbol. These are always smaller than a full symbol. That's it really for the general principle, let's look at the symbols and squiggles you will need for Gaelic (by the way, you don't have to learn the names of the symbols, the IPA is just a tool, not a purpose in itself):

Beagan gràmair
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