1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Irish
  4. >
  5. Eclipsis and Lenition


Eclipsis and Lenition

Okay I am mostly lost on this. Can someone explain, in a way that makes sense, what eclipsis and lenition are? I've tried looking up information on them, initial mutations, etc. but I still don't understand why different letters are being added in to words or how to know when to use those alternate spellings. From what I read it seems to just indicate a different pronunciation (correct me if I'm wrong) but why are they changing pronunciation? Is it caused by position in the sentence or what?

Also what is "ag" in the eclipsis section? It seems to just be an added in word with no meaning.

I know a lot of people are just accepting it and moving on but I'm one of those who need to understand the rules and completely grasp a concept. I'd appreciate any help!

January 5, 2015



Eclipsis (fearbhfear) and lenition (beanbhean) are ways in which Irish can express grammatical information, much as ablaut (“sing” → “sang” → “sung”) and umlaut (“tooth” → “teeth”) are ways in which English can express grammatical information. There are many circumstances in which eclipsis and lenition can be applied; in some cases, which of them is applied depends upon the particular Irish dialect. The pronunciation changes of eclipsis and lenition help to distinguish between what would otherwise be ambiguous meanings; for example, a bia (“her food”) vs. a bhia (“his food”, lenited) vs. a mbia (“their food”, eclipsed) are all pronounced differently, which allows distinguishing whether a in that phrase means “her”, “his”, or “their”. Ag is a preposition that generally means “at”, but which is also used in the Irish idiom for “to have”, since Irish doesn’t have a verb that means “to have”.


The best new insight I've gotten into this subject is that it's about the sound, not the spelling. As non-fluent learners we're often caught up in understanding the spelling rules and why Irish words go through so many visual mutations, but I think the secret is learning the sound variations in context. I'm starting to understand that it makes a lot more sense to the tongue than it does to the brain. (Or makes sense in a very different way.) Languages often evolve in the direction of reducing the effort required to express something. Try listening to the mutations in sentences, then say the same sentences without the mutations (or by flip-flopping them) and see if your tongue and your ears can help make sense of what's happening.


Have you seen the "Tips and notes" on the web version of the Eclipsis/Lenition skills? We've tried to list as many instances as possible where these initial mutations are needed, with worked examples.

For eclipsis, think of it like this: the new letter in front of the word overrides the old initial letter. If cailín undergoes eclipsis, it becomes gcailín and it is now pronounced as if the c wasn't there at all, like "gailín".

Learn Irish in just 5 minutes a day. For free.