Old Irish

Old Irish
Old Irish
Pronunciation [ˈɡoiðʲelɡ]
Spoken in Ireland, Isle of Man, western coast of Great Britain
Extinct Evolved into Middle Irish about the 10th century
Language family
Writing system Latin
Language codes
ISO 639-2 sga
ISO 639-3 sga
Linguasphere 50-AAD-ad

Old Irish is the name given to the oldest form of the Goidelic languages for which extensive written texts are extant. It was used from the 6th to the 10th centuries, by which time it had developed into Middle Irish.

Contemporary Old Irish scholarship is still greatly influenced by the works of a small number of scholars active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, among them Rudolf Thurneysen (1857–1940) and Osborn Bergin (1873–1950). Their books are viewed as required material for any enthusiast of Old Irish even today.



A still older form of Irish is known as Primitive Irish. Fragments of Primitive Irish, mainly personal names, are known from inscriptions on stone written in the Ogham alphabet. These inscriptions date from about the 4th to the 6th centuries. Primitive Irish is still very close to Common Celtic, the ancestor of all Celtic languages.

Old Irish is the ancestor of Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx (spoken on the Isle of Man). Broadly speaking, the grammar and sound systems of the modern languages are simpler than those of Old Irish.


Relatively little survives in the way of strictly contemporary sources. These are mainly represented by shorter or longer glosses on the margins or between the lines of religious Latin manuscripts, most of them preserved in monasteries in Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy, having been taken there by early Irish missionaries. Whereas in Ireland, many of the older manuscripts appear to have been worn out through extended and heavy use, their counterparts on the Continent were much less prone to the same risk, because once they ceased to be understood, they were rarely consulted.[1]

The earliest Old Irish passages may be the transcripts found in the Book of Armagh and the Cambrai Homily, both of which are thought to belong to the early 8th century. Important Continental collections of glosses from the 8th and 9th century include the Würzburg Glosses (mainly) on the Pauline Epistles, the Milan Glosses on a commentary to the Psalms and the St Gall Glosses on Priscian's Grammar. Further examples are found at Karlsruhe (Germany), Paris (France), Milan, Florence and Turin (Italy). A late 9th-century manuscript from the abbey at Reichenau, now in St. Paul in Carinthia (Austria), contains a spell and four Old Irish poems. The Liber Hymnorum and the Stowe Missal date from about 900 to 1050.

In addition to contemporary witnesses, the vast majority of Old Irish texts are attested in manuscripts of a variety of later dates. Manuscripts of the later Middle Irish period, for instance, such as the Lebor na hUidre and the Book of Leinster, contain texts which are thought to derive from written exemplars in Old Irish now lost and retain enough of their original form to merit classification as Old Irish. The preservation of certain linguistic forms which were current in the Old Irish period may provide reason to assume that an Old Irish original directly or indirectly underlies the transmitted text or texts.



The consonant inventory of Old Irish is shown in the chart below. /N/, /Nʲ/, /L/, /Lʲ/, /R/, /Rʲ/ represent fortis sonorants whose precise articulation is unknown, but which were probably longer, tenser, and generally more strongly articulated than their lenis counterparts /n/, /nʲ/, /l/, /lʲ/, /r/, /rʲ/. Like Modern Irish, Old Irish exhibits contrasts between "broad" (velarized) and "slender" (palatalized) consonants.

  Labial Dental Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal broad m N  n ŋ  
slender Nʲ  nʲ ŋʲ  
Plosive broad p  b t  d k  ɡ  
slender pʲ  bʲ tʲ  dʲ kʲ  ɡʲ  
Fricative broad f  v θ  ð s x  ɣ h
slender fʲ  vʲ θʲ  ðʲ xʲ  ɣʲ
slender ṽʲ        
Approximant broad   R  r    
slender   Rʲ  rʲ    
Lateral broad   L  l    
slender   Lʲ  lʲ    

Some details of Old Irish phonetics are not known. /sʲ/ may have been pronounced [ɕ] or [ʃ], as in Modern Irish. /hʲ/ may have been the same sound as /h/ and/or /xʲ/. /Nʲ/ and /Lʲ/ may have been pronounced [ɲ] and [ʎ] respectively. The difference between /R(ʲ)/ and /r(ʲ)/ may have been that the former were trills while the latter were flaps.


The inventory of Old Irish monophthongs is:

  Short Long
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a

The distribution of short vowels in unstressed syllables is a little complicated. All short vowels may appear in unstressed final open syllables (an open syllable is one with no coda consonant), after both broad and slender consonants. The front vowels /e/ and /i/ are often spelled ae and ai after broad consonants, which might indicate a retracted pronunciation here, perhaps something like [ɘ] and [ɨ]. All ten possibilities are shown in the following examples:

Old Irish Pronunciation English Annotations
marba /ˈmarva/ kill 1

sg. subj.

léicea /ˈLʲeːɡʲa/ leave 1

sg. subj.

marbae /ˈmarve/ or /ˈmarvɘ/ kill 2

sg. subj.

léice /ˈLʲeːɡʲe/ leave 2

sg. subj.

marbai /ˈmarvi/ or /ˈmarvɨ/ kill 2

sg. indic.

léici /ˈlʲeːɡʲi/ leave 2

sg. indic.

súlo /ˈsuːlo/ eye gen.
doirseo /ˈdoRʲsʲo/ door gen.
marbu /ˈmarvu/ kill 1

sg. indic.

léiciu /ˈLʲeːɡʲu/ leave 1

sg. indic.

In unstressed closed syllables (that is, those with a syllable coda), the quality of a short vowel is almost entirely predictable by whether the surrounding consonants are broad or slender. Between two broad consonants, the vowel is /a/, as in dígal /ˈdʲiːɣal/ "vengeance" (nom.). Between a slender and a broad consonant the vowel is /e/, as in dliged /ˈdʲlʲiɣʲeð/ "law" (nom./acc.). Before a slender consonant the vowel is /i/, as in dígail /ˈdʲiːɣilʲ/ "vengeance" (acc./dat.), and dligid /ˈdʲlʲiɣʲiðʲ/ "law" (gen.). The chief exceptions to this pattern are that /u/ frequently appears when the following syllable contained an *ū in Proto-Celtic (for example, dligud /ˈdʲlʲiɣuð/ "law" (dat.) < PC *dligedū), and that /o/ or /u/ frequently appears after a broad labial (for example, lebor /ˈLʲevor/ "book"; domun /ˈdoṽun/ "world").

The inventory of Old Irish diphthongs is shown in this chart:

Long (bimoraic) Short (monomoraic)
ai ia ui   au ĭu ău
oi ua iu eu ou ĕu  

Phonological history

The following is a summary of the phonological changes yielding (written) Old Irish forms from Proto-Celtic stated by Alexander Macbain.[2] (The order is not chronological.)

  • Intervocalic consonants are lenited: *s is lost, stops become fricatives (only written for ph th ch), *l *n *r become lax (unwritten).
  • Geminate consonants resist lenition and become single.
  • *φ is lost with compensatory lengthening of a preceding vowel.
  • *j is lost in all positions, with slenderisation of a preceding consonant, except that before a dropped final vowel it survives as e.
  • *kʷ *gʷ lose their labialisation (yielding c g).
  • Initial *w becomes f. Intervocalic *w is lost with vowel colouring. *w is lost after *t *s and sometimes *d (always when initial), and becomes b after a voiced coronal.
  • *t *d drop out before *b *s which are retained as p s. *d is lost in *ndw > nb.
  • *ld and *ll can both be reflected as either ld or ll, and similarly for *nd and *nn. *ln yields ll.
  • Medial *s assimilates to a following sonorant.
  • Medial *st yields s.
  • *zg yields dg.
  • *rs yields rr.
  • *x is lost before *s (and survives before *t, written ch).
  • Medial *tr *br *dr yield tha(i)r ba(i)r da(i)r respectively.
  • The first element of medial clusters *nt *nk *φm, or any medial cluster formed of *φ *t *k *b *d *g plus *l *n *r excepting *tr *br *dr, is lost with compensatory lengthening of any preceding vowel. Compensatorily lengthened vowels develop as original long vowels (below). Such clusters after *s still lose their first member but cause no lengthening.
  • Consonants before *e *i *j, excepting the *k in *nk, become slender. If the consonant is not initial this is indicated by a preceding i in spelling (unless the preceding vowel is already i or í).
  • ī, and *ē from compensatory lengthening, both yield either é or í, and similarly for *ū and *ō. The corresponding short vowels also can exchange before a consonant plus optional *j and a back vowel.
  • *e *i before a consonant plus *(j)u can additionally yield iu. *ō *ū before a velar plus *(j)u can additionally yield úa.
  • Nonfinally, the outcomes of *ei are é ía; of *ai and *oi are áe ái óe ói; of *eu and *ou is úa; of *au are áu ó.
  • *iwo gives or ía; *ewo gives ; *eiwi gives é; *eiwo gives ía; *awi gives á or ó; *awo gives ó; *owi gives úa.
  • *e *i can yield respectively eu iu after *wl.


As with most medieval languages, the orthography of Old Irish is not fixed, so the following statements are to be taken as generalizations only. Individual manuscripts may vary greatly from these guidelines.

The Old Irish alphabet consists of the following eighteen letters of the Latin alphabet:

a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u

In addition, the acute accent and the superdot are used as diacritics with certain letters:

  • The acute accent indicates a long vowel. The following are long vowels: á, é, í, ó, ú.
  • The superdot indicates the lenition of f and s: is silent, is pronounced /h/
  • The superdot is also sometimes used on m and n with no change in pronunciation, when these letters are used to mark the nasalization mutation: , .

A number of digraphs are also used:

The letter i is placed after a vowel letter to indicate that the following consonant was slender: ai, ei, oi, ui; ái, éi, ói, úi
The letter h is placed after c, t, p to indicate a fricative: ch, th, ph
The diphthongs are also indicated by digraphs: áe/, ía, , áu, óe/, úa, éu, óu, iu, au, eu

In word-initial position, when no initial consonant mutation has applied, the consonant letters have the following values; they are broad before back vowels (a, o, u) and slender before front vowels (e, i):

Consonant When no initial consonant mutation has applied in word-initial position before a, o, u When no initial consonant mutation has applied in word-initial position before e, i
b /b/ /bʲ/
c /k/ /kʲ/
d /d/ /dʲ/
f /f/ /fʲ/
g /ɡ/ /ɡʲ/
h See discussion below
l /L/ /Lʲ/
m /m/ /mʲ/
n /N/ /Nʲ/
p /p/ /pʲ/
r /R/ /Rʲ/
s /s/ /ʃ/
t /t/ /tʲ/

Although Old Irish has both a sound /h/ and a letter h, there is no consistent relationship between the two. Vowel-initial words are sometimes written with an unpronounced h, especially if they are very short (the preposition i "in" was sometimes written hi) or if they need to be emphasized (the name of Ireland, Ériu, was sometimes written Hériu). On the other hand, words that begin with the sound /h/ are usually written without it, for example a ór /a hoːr/ "her gold". If the sound and the spelling cooccur, it is by coincidence, as ní hed /Nʲiː heð/ "it is not".

After a vowel or l, n, or r the letters c, p, t can stand for either voiced or voiceless stops; they can also be written double with either value:

Old Irish Pronunciation English
mac or macc /mak/ son
bec or becc /bʲeɡ/ small
op or opp /ob/ refuse
brat or bratt /brat/ mantle
brot or brott /brod/ goad
derc /dʲerk/ hole
derc /dʲerɡ/ red
daltae /daLte/ fosterling
celtae /kʲeLde/ who hide
anta /aNta/ of remaining
antae /aNde/ who remain

After a vowel the letters b, d, g stand for the fricatives /v, ð, ɣ/ or their slender equivalents:

Old Irish Pronunciation English
dub /duv/ black
mod /moð/ work
mug /muɣ/ slave
claideb /klaðʲev/ sword
claidib /klaðʲivʲ/ swords

After m, b is a stop, but after d, l and r it is a fricative:

Old Irish Pronunciation English
imb /imʲbʲ/ butter
odb /oðv/ knot (in a tree)
delb /dʲelv/ image
marb /marv/ dead

After n and r, d is a stop

Old Irish Pronunciation English
bind /bʲiNʲdʲ/ melodious
cerd /kʲeRd/ "art, skill"

After n, l, and r, g is usually a stop, but it is a fricative in a few words:

Old Irish Pronunciation English
long /Loŋɡ/ ship
delg or delc /dʲelɡ/ thorn
argat or arggat /arɡad/ silver
ingen /inʲɣʲen/ daughter
bairgen /barʲɣʲen/ loaf of bread

After vowels m is usually a fricative, but sometimes a (nasal) stop, in which case it is also often written double:

Old Irish Pronunciation English
dám /daːṽ/ company
lom or lomm /Lom/ bare

The digraphs ch, ph, th do not occur in word-initial position except under lenition, but wherever they occur they are pronounced /x/, /f/, /θ/.

Old Irish Pronunciation English
ech /ex/ horse
oíph /oif/ beauty
áth /aːθ/ ford

The letters l, n, and r are written double when they indicate the tense sonorants, single when they indicate the lax sonorants. (But the tense sonorants are usually written single in word-initial position.)

Old Irish Pronunciation English
corr /koR/ crane
cor /kor/ putting
coll /koL/ hazel
col /kol/ sin
sonn /soN/ stake
son /son/ sound


Old Irish follows the typical VSO (verb-subject-object) structure shared by most Insular Celtic languages (even though other orders are possible, especially under Bergin's Law). Verbs are all fully conjugated, and have most of the forms typical of Indo-European languages, i.e. present, imperfect, past, future and preterite tenses, indicative, subjunctive, conditional and imperative moods, and active and passive voices. The only verbal form lacking in Old Irish is the infinitive, this covered, as in the modern Gaelic languages, by the verbal noun. Personal pronouns, when used as direct objects, are prefixed to the verb with which they are associated (after other prefixes, and therefore are often referred to as infixes). Prepositions have the same status as the Latin prepositions, including the property of being verb prefixes.



Old Irish had three genders, namely, masculine, feminine and neuter; three numbers, namely, singular, dual and plural, with the dual being attested only to a limited degree with somewhat distinct forms, though it is almost always preceded by the cardinal , meaning "two" (and as such has been retained in the modern Gaelic languages); and five cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive and dative). Thurneysen had fourteen classes of noun, defined by the morphological marking on the stem, with seven vocalic stems and seven consonantal stems (including one class of irregular and indeclinable nouns). The full range of case is only evident in the noun phrase, where the artical causes noun initial mutation, and where the initials of following adjectives are mutated according to the underlying case ending, thus in fer bec "the small man", nominative, differs from the accusative in bfer mbec, though at times such mutations were not written. In the following H shows lenition, N shows ellipsis of the following adjective, and h shows prefixing of h to following vowel inital adjectives.

Feminine ā-stems Singular Dual Plural
Nominative/Vocative túath H túaith H túatha
Accusative túaith N
Genitive túaithe (h) túath N
Dative túaith H túathaib
Masculine o-stems Singular Dual Plural
Nominative fer fir H
Vocative fir H fer firu h
Accusative fer N firu h
Genitive fir H fer N
Dative fiur H feraib


Verbs stand initially in the sentence (preceded only by some particles, forming a "verbal complex", and very few adverbs). Most verbs have, in addition to the tenses, voices, and moods named above, two sets of forms: a conjunct form, and an absolute form. The conjunct form typically consists of one or more preverbs (particles, some of which are prepositions in origin; compare a-, e-, in-, etc. in Latin verbs), followed by a verb stem, which can be either suffixed for tense, person, mood and aspect (often portmanteau suffixes), or where these can be shown by vowel changes in the stem (e.g. as·beir present "says", as·rubart past "said", as·béra future "will say"). Personal pronouns as direct objects are infixed between the preverb and the verbal stem. Before this core "verb phrase" are placed various other particles that modify the verb's meaning (including the negative) or indicate certain special sentence structures. The absolute form is used when no infixes are necessary, and any other necessary elements are given in another part of the sentence. In an overall sense, the verb structure is agglutinative. A single verb can stand as an entire sentence in Old Irish, in which case emphatic particles such as -sa and -se are affixed to the end of the verb.

See also


  1. ^ Thurneysen, A Grammar of Old Irish, p. 4.
  2. ^ Pages x-xxxi of An etymological dictionary of the Gaelic language by Alexander Macbain, first published 1896.


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