"neirt" versus "nert"

Jim Rader jrader at Merriam-Webster.com
Mon Mar 26 17:59:10 UTC 2001

[ moderator edited ]

>> Wouldn't <nert> and <neirt> both be palatalized?

>         No.  /e/ is traditionally held to have palatalized preceding
> consonants, leaving following consonanats as they were.  Confusion of
> spelling between the two types ("nert" for "neirt"), which occasionally
> occurs (if I am remembering correctly), probably indicates the difficulty of
> pronouncing palatalized /r/, which is mostly (or entirely?) gone from modern
> Irish.

> Dr. David L. White


All dialects of Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic preserve a
distinction between palatalized and unpalatalized <r>
(conventionally /r/ and /r'/) in all but initial position.  The modern
genitive of <neart>, "strength," is <neairt>, with both [r] and [t]
palatalized.  Certainly in Connemara Irish, with which I am most
familiar aurally, the difference between <pa/ipe/ar>, "(news)paper"
(nom. sg.), and <pa/ipe/ir>, "paper" (gen. sg. and nom. pl.) ["/"
represents the acute accent marking vowel length] is quite clearly
audible.  The /r/ is a flap with some retroflexion, while /r'/ is a
strongly palatalized fricative made by brief contact between the
tongue tip and the alveolar ridge, which tends to devoice finally and
before voiceless consonants (as is <neairt>).  For detailed phonetic
observations see the various volumes on Irish dialects, all bound in
blue, published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies since
the `40's and many times reprinted.  As mentioned, initial [r']
unprotected by a consonant was lost in all dialects (I believe),
though the spelling does not usually indicate this, and very
sporadically with a consonant, i.e., Old Irish <cride>, "heart,"
Modern Irish <croidhe> [traditional spelling], a change old enough
to show up in the very conservative Irish orthographical system.

What has been lost on a more widespread basis was the contrast
between unlenited /R/ and /R'/ vs. lenited /r/ and /r'/.  All
descendants of Old Irish have to some degree collapsed and/or lost
the four historical distinctions among the resonants <r>, <l>, and
<n>, with Munster dialects having the most loss and Scottish
Gaelic dialects the most preservation.  In Scottish Gaelic /R/ and
/R'/ have fallen together as /R/, typically, I believe, an alveolar trill
with the vocal tract configured to give it a peculiar dark sound
(how's that for precise description?), while /r/ is an alveolar flap.
That leaves /r'/, which has very diverse outcomes in Scottish
Gaelic dialects.  In the Hebridean Scottish Gaelic that I've heard, it
actually sounds like an interdental fricative.

"Difficult to pronounce" for non-native speakers, maybe....

Jim Rader

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