Cuibhdheas: Gaelic Rhyme

After spending so much time previously carrying on about Gaelic meters, I thought that I should detail the scheme of sounds that the bards used. It is quite different from our English sensibilities, but when implemented by those who are truly inspired it can generate an amazing effect.

The first thing to understand is that Gaelic poets were very much focused on the oral and thus aural (i.e. what you can hear) nature of poetry. They classed sounds according to relative similarity and defined their meters by the effects that similar sounds would generate. This harmony of sounds was called cuibdius. The modern Irish cuibheas now means ‘fitting’ or ‘seemly’ while in Scots Gaelic it now means ‘competency’ or ‘ease of handling.’   The basic idea is that not only do ‘Clyde’ and ‘hide’ rhyme but so do ‘scabbard’ and ‘haggled.’

Think about the actual sounds that you make and not the letters that represent them: two syllables, the first ending with a solid ‘b’ and its partner ending with a solid ‘g,’ while the second syllables are both half-swallowed with a liquid and a dental punctuating. (You certainly don’t say “hag-led!”) These words rhyme!

The full system of consonants is distributed across six classes: weak, strong, rough, soft, and harsh consonants with the sibilant (s) occupying its own category. Strong consonants are the fully sounded versions of ‘m,’ ‘l,’ ‘n,’ r,’ and ‘ng,’ while the harsh consonants are the voiced plosives, ‘b,’ ‘d’ and ‘g’. The small consonants are unvoiced harsh consonants, and rough consonants are when they are unvoiced. Everything else is weak.

In Gaelic parlance and orthography, the system is as follows:

  1. Connsuine éadtrom:  bh, mh, dh, gh, l, n, r
  2. Connsuine teann / trom:  m, ll, nn, rr, ng
  3. Connsuine garbh: f / ph, th, ch
  4. Connsuine bog:  p, t, c
  5. Connsuine cruaidh:  b, d, g

This would seem complicated enough, but the Gaelic bards also differentiated their consonants between broad and slender variations: if a slender vowel (‘i’ or ‘e’) was on either side, the consonant was slender, but if a broad vowel (‘a,’ ‘o,’ or ‘u’) were on either side, then it was a broad consonant. 

Not only did sounds have to be in the same class, they had to match one another in quality, whether broad or slender!

The relationships between the categories were naturally complex, but the sound changes that make Gaelic so difficult for many native English speaker didn’t help. Three of these have been identified by modern scholars. The bards identified five. I tried to cobble together a chart that showed the relationships.

This was the result:

Seimhiugudh and bodadh correlate to lenition, while airdibdudh relates (broadly) to gemination. Cadadh is a very interesting term and generates the ‘chk’ sound in Scottish Gaelic when a ‘d’ follows a ‘ch’ as in ‘piobaireachd.’


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