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Old Irish is the name given to the oldest form of the Goidelic languages for which extensive written texts are possessed. It was used from the 6th to the 10th centuries, when it gave way to Middle Irish.

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 first appears in the margins of Latin religious manuscripts as early as the 6th century. A large number of early Irish literary texts, though recorded in manuscripts of the Middle Irish period (such as Lebor na hUidre and the Book of Leinster), are essentially Old Irish in character.

Old Irish is the ancestor of Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx (spoken on the Isle of Manmarker). However, it is quite distinct from these. Broadly speaking, the grammar and sound systems of the modern languages are simpler than those of Old 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.



The consonant inventory of Old Irish is shown in the chart below. represent fortis sonorants whose precise articulation is unknown, but which were probably longer, tenser, and generally more strongly articulated than their lenis counterparts . Like Modern Irish, Old Irish exhibits contrasts between "broad" (velarized) and "slender" (palatalized) consonants.

  Labial Dental Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal broad  
Plosive broad  
Fricative broad
Approximant broad      
Lateral broad      

Some details of Old Irish phonetics are not known. may have been pronounced or , as in Modern Irish. may have been the same sound as and/or . and may have been pronounced and respectively. The difference between and may have been that the former were trills while the latter were flaps.


The inventory of Old Irish monophthongs is:

  Short Long

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 and are often spelled ae and ai after broad consonants, which might indicate a retracted pronunciation here, perhaps something like and . All ten possibilities are shown in the following examples:

Old Irish Pronunciation English Annotations
kill 1sg.subj.
leave 1sg.subj.
or kill 2sg.subj.
leave 2sg.subj.
or kill 2sg.indic.
leave 2sg.indic.
eye gen.
door gen.
kill 1sg.indic.
leave 1sg.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 , as in "vengeance" (nom.). Between a slender and a broad consonant the vowel is , as in "law" (nom./acc.). Before a slender consonant the vowel is , as in "vengeance" (acc./dat.), and "law" (gen.). The chief exceptions to this pattern are that frequently appears when the following syllable contained an *ū in Proto-Celtic (for example, "law" (dat.) PC *dligedū), and that or frequently appears after a broad labial (for example, "book"; domun "world").

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

Long (bimoraic) Short (monomoraic)


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
  • 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 digraph 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
h See discussion below

Although Old Irish has both a sound 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 "in" was sometimes written ) or if they need to be emphasized (the name of Irelandmarker, , was sometimes written ). On the other hand, words that begin with the sound are usually written without it, for example "her gold". If the sound and the spelling cooccur, it is by coincidence, as "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
or son
or small
or refuse
or mantle
or goad
who hide
of remaining
who remain

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

Old Irish Pronunciation English

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

Old Irish Pronunciation English
knot (in a tree)

After n and r, d is a stop

Old Irish Pronunciation English
"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
or thorn
or silver
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
or bare

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

Old Irish Pronunciation English

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


Old Irish follows the typical VSO (verb-subject-object) structure shared by most 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 (present to a limited degree in Modern Irish), the meaning of which Old Irish conveyed with verbal noun constructions. Personal pronouns, when used as direct objects, are infixed into the verb with which they are associated. What equate to prepositions in English are generally in the same placement as Old Irish, though a good many with verbal overtones are actually infixed into the verbs themselves.



Old Irish maintained three genders, namely, masculine, feminine and neuter; three numbers, namely, singular, plural and dual, with the third number, dual, being attested only to a limited degree with somewhat distinct forms, though it is almost always preceded by the cardinal , meaning "two"; 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).

Feminine ā-stems Singular Dual Plural
Vocative -


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 historically of prepositional origin, compare , , , etc. in Latin verbs, though not directly related, and verbal prefixes in Germanic languages), followed by a verb stem which bears the bulk of the conjugation. Personal pronouns as direct objects are infixed between the preverb and the verbal stem, along with 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. A single verb can stand as an entire sentence in Old Irish, in which case emphatic particles such as and are affixed to the end of the verb.

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