Lenition is one of the two mutations that Irish words undergo, and it can be a very tricky topic for many people.
Anciently, lenition marks where a word was preceded by another word that ended in a vowel. Over time, being stuck between two vowels caused a weakening or “lightening” of the sound of the consonant. In linguistic terms, the consonant became a “spirant.” Rather than being a stop, where the teeth, tongue and lips stop air from leaving your mouth as you make the sound, the form of the sound changed to allow air through.
Nowadays, lenition happens in a variety of places where once the word being lenited was (and sometimes still is) preceded by another word that ends in a vowel.
Take the word “grá,” for example. If you want to say “my love,” you have to add the possessive adjective “mo” before “grá.” “Mo,” quite obviously, ends in a vowel, so that lenites the first consonant of “grá” to “mo ghrá.”
Modern Irish marks lenition by putting an “h” after the lenited consonant. Each combination of consonants with “h” represents a new sound–related to the original, but significantly different. Lenited consonants appear in the middle and the end of Irish words, too, and for the same reason: in earlier forms of the language, they all followed vowels.
These are the sound changes that occur with lenition at the beginning of a word:
b -> bh pronounced like W before A, O, or U; like V before E or I
c -> ch prounced like German “ch” (a light, guttural sound) before A, O, U; like German “Ich” (a lighter, breathy, hissy H) before E or I
d -> dh this is a deep, guttural, throat clearing sound that doesn’t exist in English or many other languages. If you can make the “ch” sound, try to vibrate your vocal cords. The result will be how “ch” is pronounced before A, O, U.
Before E or I, it is pronounced like “y”
f -> fh silent
g -> gh exactly like “dh”
m -> mh exactly like “bh”
p -> ph -> just like in English
s -> sh this is prounced just like English “h”
t -> th just like “sh,” this is pronounced like English “h”
Article written by Oisín.
Lenition is a core topic of online grammar lessons at Bitesize Irish Gaelic.