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Lenition is an initial consonant mutation which "weakens" (cf. Latin lenis 'weak') the sound of the consonant at the beginning of a word. It is used to mark certain morphological contrasts and to mark inflection. It is also inaccurately known as aspiration (which is the term used for a phonological phenomenon involving a burst of air). We will use the more accurate term lenition here.


Orthographic changes

For most letters, lenition is indicated by putting an <h> after the first consonant in the word. For example, when the word caora 'sheep' follows the feminine article a' , it is lenited and is written a' chaora.

The consonants written <l, n, r>, when subject to lenition (see below), show no orthographic change.

Phonological changes


Radical Lenited Example (radical) Example (lenited)
[pʰ] [f] paileat
'a pilot'
aig a' phaileat
[ɛg̊ʲ ə faiʎəʰt̪]
'at the pilot'
[b̊] [v] bodach
'an old man'
a bhodaich
'old man (voc.)'
[t̪ʰ] [h] tuathanach
'a farmer'
a thuathanaich
'farmer (voc.)'
[tʲʰ] [h] teachdaire
'a messenger'
a theachdaire
'messenger (voc.)'
[d̪̊] [ɣ] duine
'a man'
a dhuine
'man (voc.)'
[d̊ʲ] [ʝ] Diùrach
'a Jura-man'
a Dhiùraich
'Jura-man (voc.)'
[kʰ] [x] cailleach
'an old woman'
aig a' chailleach
[ɛg̊ʲ ə xaʎax]
'at the old woman'
[kʲʰ] [ç] ceannaiche
'a salesman'
a cheannaiche
'salesman (voc.)'
[g̊] [ɣ] gobha
'a smith'
a ghobha
'smith (voc.)'
[g̊ʲ] [ʝ] gille
a ghille
'boy (voc.)'


Radical Lenited Example (radical) Example (lenited)
[f] null Frangach
'a Frenchman'
a Fhrangaich
[ə ɾaŋgɪç]
'Frenchman (voc.)'
[s̪] [h] suipear
do shuipear
[d̪̊ə huʰpəɾ]
'your (sg.) supper'
[ʃ] [h] seòladair
'a sailor'
a sheòladair
'sailor (voc.)'


Radical Lenited Example (radical) Example (lenited)
[m] [ṽ] math
'good (masc.)'
'good (fem.)'
[n̪ˠ] [n] nasg
'a link'
a nasg
'his link'
[ɲ] [n] nighean
'a daughter'
a nighean
'his daughter'
[ɫ̪] [l] latha
'a day'
a latha
'day (voc.)'
[ʎ] [l] leabhar
'a book'
a leabhair
'book (voc.)'
[rˠ] [r] ruith
'run (imperative)'


Initial <sp>, <st>, <sg>, and sometimes <sn> (depending upon the dialect) do not undergo lenition.

Lenition triggers

Lenition is a pervasive feature of Gaelic morphology, and there is no simple way to characterise the environments in which lenition appears. Nevertheless, it is possible to list the diverse environments that trigger lenition. In the following list, the environments are sorted by the part of speech of the lenited word.

Lenition on verbs

  • triggered by the negative particle cha(n)
  • triggered by the negative interrogative/subordinating particle nach
  • triggered by past tense particles (do/null)/(do) dh’
  • triggered by the relative particle a

Lenition on nouns

  • triggered by some forms of the definite article an/a’
  • triggered by some possessive agreement markers
  • triggered by some prepositions
    • bho
    • gu
    • do
    • anns a'
    • air
    • aig
  • triggered by the numerals aon ‘one’ and dhà ‘two’
  • realises some number/case inflection on nouns
    • words beginning with labials and velars in the masculine genitive after the article (after a' -- and an if before f) (also s --> t-s)
    • words beginning with labials and velars in the masculine dative after the article (after a' -- and an if before f) (also s--> t-s)
    • words beginning with labials and velars in the feminine common case after the article (after a' and an/__f) (also s --> t-s)
  • obligatory on right-hand member of some compounds
  • triggered by some derivational prefixes

Lenition on adjectives

    • triggered by intensifiers glè ‘very’, ro ‘too’, and fior ‘truly’
  • realizes gender/number/case inflection on adjectives.
    • after feminine nouns
    • after dative masculine nouns

See also

External links


  • Cram, David (1975). Grammatical and phonological conditioning of initial mutations in Scottish Gaelic. Leuvense Bijdragen 64: 363-375.
  • Gillies, William (1993). Scottish Gaelic. In The Celtic Languages (Martin J. Ball and James Fife, eds.): 145-227.
  • Hamp, Eric P. (1951). Morphophonemes of the Keltic mutations. Language 27: 230-247.
  • Lieber, Rochelle (1983). New developments in autosegmental morphology: consonant mutation. Proceedings of WCCFL 2: 165-175.
  • Oftedal, Magne (1962). A morphemic evaluation of the Celtic initial mutations. Lochlann 2: 93-102.
  • Pyatt, Elizabeth (1997). An Integrated Model of the Phonology and Syntax of Celtic Mutations. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
  • Rogers, Henry (1972). The initial mutations in modern Scots Gaelic. Studia Celtica 7: 63-65.
  • Stewart, Thomas W. (2004). Mutation as Morphology: Bases, Stems, and Shapes in Scottish Gaelic. Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University.
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