Please forgive my frivolous title.
For some time now I have semi-jocularly been saying that the Cyrillic alphabet (particularly its Russian incarnation), what with its innate capability of marking palatalization, would be better suited to write Irish and Scottish Gaelic than the Latin alphabet. I will look at Irish alone, although most of this has equal validity for Scottish Gaelic.
Three major hurdles of Irish orthography—I will not go so far as to call them “problems,” because they are a large part of what gives modern Irish its unique look—are the following:
- marking palatalization (and the absence thereof) with “silent” vowels; a word like múinteoir ‘teacher’ looks as though it could contain as many as five syllables, or at least several diphthongs; in reality, the orthographic vowels i and e serve to inform the pronouncer that the intermittent consonant cluster nt is palatalized; the same goes for the second i, which is a mere marker of palatalization on the following r, to get bisyllabic /ˈmuːnʲtʲoːrʲ/
- retaining the pre-mutation consonant in spelling; when a word like peann /pʲɑːn/ ‘pen’ is preceded by a word like ár ‘our,’ which causes the nasal mutation known as urú, the result in modern Irish is spelled ár bpeann /ə bʲɑːn/ ‘our pen’; the post-mutation sound b is written in addition to the original first consonant p. This has an even more jarring effect with a capitalized noun like Corcaigh ‘(County) Cork,’ which when mutated appears in camel case: i gCorcaigh ‘in Cork’
- miscellaneous archaic spellings; just as in English, the modern Irish lexicon proffers many “silent” letters that were once pronounced but have since been lost due to the all-encompassing entropic force that is sound change; examples from below are gaoth /giː/ ‘wind’ (Old Irish gáith /gai̯θ/) and aghaidh /aː/ ‘face’ (Old Irish agad /ˈaɣəð/)
Really the only one of these that could non-trivially be ameliorated with a different writing system is #1; with an extended set of vowel symbols that indicate whether the preceding consonant is palatalized, the Cyrillic alphabet would provide a more elegant solution to the problem that the Latin alphabet answers with extra vowels. #3 is an issue that crops up in any language in need of an orthographic reboot, and a departure from the Latin script would not be necessary to update historical spellings. (Relative to Scottish Gaelic, Irish has already done a fair amount of this; cf. Irish buí and Scottish Gaelic buidhe, both from Old Irish buide ‘yellow.’) #2, likewise, is entirely the prerogative of the language at hand. Welsh, for example, does not doubly write mutated consonants; despite having initial mutations that behave similarly to those in the Gaelic languages, Welsh writes only the mutated sound so that the spelling is phonologically transparent but etymologically opaque. This choice is available in any phonemic writing system. Below, I opt for the visually simpler alternative.
I am going to take at a swing at writing Irish in the Cyrillic alphabet. My text will be that infamous “Irish Blessing.” For dialect, I use the Irish of Cois Fharraige.
Go n-éirí an bóthar leat
(May you fare well)
/gǝ nʹ-ai̯rʹiː n boːr lʹæːt/
Го н-я́йри́ он бо́р лят
Go raibh an ghaoth go brách ag do chúl
(May the wind forever be at your back)
/gǝ ro n γiː gǝ brɑːx egʹ dǝ xuːl/
Го ро он ғы́ го бра́х эг до ху́л
Go lonraí an ghrian go te ar d’aghaidh
(May the sun shine hot on your face)
/gǝ lundriː n γʹrʹiːǝn gǝ tʹe erʹ daː/
Го лонры́ он ғри́он го те эрь д’а
Go dtite an bháisteach go mín ar do pháirceanna
(May the rain fall softly on your fields)
/gǝ dʹitʹǝ n wɑːsʹtʹǝx gǝ mʹiːn erʹ dǝ fɑːrʹkʹǝniʹ/
Го дите он ва́штех го ми́н эрь до фа́рькены́
Agus go mbuailimid le chéile arís,
(And until we meet again,)
/aːgǝs gǝ muːǝlʹǝmʹǝdʹ lʹe xʹeːlʹ ǝˈrʹiːsʹ/
Агос го му́олемедь ле хе́ле ори́ш,
Go gcoinní Dia i mbos A láimhe thú.
(May God keep you in the palm of his hand.)
/gǝ genʹːiː dʹiːǝ ǝ mos ǝ lɑːwʹǝ huː/
Го гэнни Ди́о и мос О ла́ве hу́.
- For Irish schwa /ǝ/, I have used е when the preceding consonant is palatalized, and о when it is not, much in line with Russian practice.
- When Russian came up short for distinctions that I very much wanted to make, I borrowed ғ /γ/ and h /h/ from the Kazakh variant of Cyrillic. (To use х for /h/ would have introduced ambiguity with /x/, which Irish also has.)
- The Cyrillic accent—as in а́, etc.—in Irish marks vowel quantity (and sometimes also quantity), not word-stress as in Russian.
- Irish /i(ː)/ presents something of a problem when, as in gaoth /giː/, the preceding consonant is not palatalized. For this function I have chosen Cyrillic ы, which in Russian does not palatalize the preceding consonant but also, problematically for my purposes, has a more central place of articulation than и. Despite this incongruity in Russian, I intend for ы to be identical to и in Irish—that is, equal to /i(ː)/—with the only exception that it does not palatalize the preceding consonant.
Го ро ма агы́. Сла́н!