Sounds of g and c in Romance languages (and some of English)

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In summary, the letter g in English is pronounced in a variety of ways depending on the language it came from. The rules vary from language to language, but all follow some sort of pattern.f
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Recently there was a discussion about the oddness in English with how the letter g is pronounced. I don't think the root of this has been discussed before now, and I've been thinking about passing on some things I've noticed over the years.

Most Romance languages, or at least the ones I am acquainted with, have two sounds for both g and c, depending on whether a certain vowel follows each one. The g might sound like the hard g sound in girl, or like j in corsage (soft). The c might sound like k in coat (hard) or like s in cite (soft).

The words in English that come from French, via the Normans, follow certain rules about both c and g. If c or g is followed by a, o, or u, the pronunciation generally uses the "hard" form. On the other hand, if c or g is followed by e or i, the pronunciation generally takes the "soft" form. Of course, many words in English came from the Angles and Saxons, tribes from what is now Germany; e.g., "gild." A few words seem to violate the rules here, such as "tiger," which comes from Old French, but then the original spelling was "tigre," so originally the g was not followed by e.

The Romance languages I'm somewhat familiar with -- Spanish, Italian, French, a smattering of Portuguese -- all follow the rules I've laid out for the pronunciation of c and g, but in their own ways.

In Spanish and French, the combinations "ci" or "ce" have an s sound(e.g., ciel - heaven (Sp), cité (Fr. - town), cesped, (Sp. lawn), centre (Fr.). Words in these languages with combinations of ca, co, or cu all use a hard or k sound. Spanish words with combinations of "gi" or "ge" have an h sound (Gila, gente). French words with combinations of "gi" or "ge" use a "zh" sound; e.g. Girard and Geneve. Words in both Spanish and French with combinations of "ga" or "go" use the same hard g sound, as do words with "gu" combinations, unless they are followed by another vowel.
In Italian, a "ce" or "ci" combination sounds like "ch"; e.g., cello, but "ch" followed by i has a k sound; e.g. chianti. Italian words with "ca", "co", "cu" all use the hard c sound. Incidentally, the word "bruschetta" is mispronounced as "brooshetta" by many if not most Americans, but the Italian pronunciation sounds more like "broosketta." The rules in Italian for "ge" or "gi" use the soft g sound; e.g., gelati, Gino, while words with "ga", "go" or "gu" use the hard g sound.

Some words in these languages appear to violate these rules, but if you take a closer look, they do not -- aperçu, curação, or començar

The French word aperçu, pronounced apər' soo, a comment or brief reference -- appears to violate the rule about c being hard when it's followed by u. That's not the case as the word is spelled with a cédille, (or cedilla in Spanish) not a c.
Similarly, the Portuguese word curação, pronounced 'kyoorə - sou, heart, has what appears to be c followed by a. Again, this is a cedilha, the Portuguese equivalent for this letter.
Modern Spanish doesn't use any cedillas, but some Spanish dialects do; e.g., the Catalan word començar (to begin).

It appears to me that because these Romance languages all have certain rules about how 'c' and 'g' are pronounced, depending on what letter follows them, they must have been adopted similar rules from their parent language, Latin. I have never taken a class in Latin, so perhaps some other interested persons can enlighten me on this matter.
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The cedilla is the pronunciation-modifying diacritical mark attached to the letter 'c'; not the assemblage of the letter with the diacritical mark. The name in English of the letter with the mark is 'c cedilla'. The word 'cedilla' derives from a Romance diminutive form of Greek 'zeta'.

The cedilla can be thought of as an override telling the reader that although the c is positioned to be a hard c, in this instanced it is to be pronounced as a soft c.

Regarding the pronunciation of the c as hard or soft in Latin, we are strongly influenced by 'Church Latin', which is divergent in this matter from Classical Latin. For 'excelsis', Classical Latin would have us say 'exkelsis', where the Latin of the Roman Church would have us say 'exchelsis'. This follows your observation regarding the hard or soft being dependent on which vowel the c precedes. It's an 's' sound in 'viceroy', and a 'k' sound in 'vicar'.

Similary with the letter 'g' ##-## the g in the Greek word 'angelos' has a hard g, as 'angelorum' has in Classical Latin, but in the Roman Church, 'angelorum' would be pronounced 'anjelorum'. Again which vowel the letter precedes cues whether it is hard or soft ##-## soft in 'digit'; hard in 'trigonometry' ##-## and again, there are exceptions: two letters g in row is usually strictly hard, as in 'bigger' but sometmes soft or hard-soft as in 'suggest', which is never strictly hard, but is most commonly a 'j' sound, and for some speakers a hard 'g' sound immediately followed by a 'j' sound.

I think that going back to Virgil, and listening for alliterations and assonances that make the words 'sound right' is among the best ways to determine what the 'rules' are or 'should' be.
  • #3
How does "Lasagna" fit into all this?
  • #4
Jogging - the pause in between the /g/ /g/ sound is called a glottal stop. Scotland has the same between /t/ and /l/ It is a phoneme.


To expand on @Vanadium 50 's point:

From word salad 101:
"Lasagna is not a glottal stop. It is a dietary stop on the way to caridovascular disease and almost maybe assuredly is why American English speakers lost the glottal stop while on their way to their first heart attack."
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"Garage" is one word with two separate phonemes for the same letter /g/. Not sure what this adds to @Mark44 original point. Does "Cache" (pronounced like "cash") qualify for the two phonemes award for the one letter, /c/?
  • #6
"Garage" is one word with two separate phonemes for the same letter /g/. Not sure what this adds to @Mark44 original point.
Already covered: 'g' followed by 'a' -- hard 'g'; 'g' followed by 'e' -- soft 'g'.
Does "Cache" (pronounced like "cash") qualify for the two phonemes award for the one letter, /c/?
That's a whole different thing, unrelated to what I was talking about. As far as I know, the "ch" pair in French is pronounced as if spelled "sh"; e.g., Charlemagne, chat (cat), cherchez (search for), chocolat, etc.
  • #8
The g might sound like the hard g sound in girl, or like j in corsage (soft).
I think there are two soft g sounds, one like j (dʒ) and one like zh (ʒ).

garbage gɑːbɪʤ
corsage kɔːrˈsɑːʒ, probably because it's origin is French.
genius ˈdʒiniəs
  • #9
How does "Lasagna" fit into all this?
Doesn't tie into what I was talking about, but that "gn" dipthong seems to be common to Italian, French, Spanish, and possibly others. Although French and Italian write this as "gn" (e.g. lasagna - It., lagniappe - Fr.), Spanish uses the letter 'ñ' to represent this sound (e.g. mañana). As far as I can tell, Portuguese doesn't have this letter.
I think there are two soft g sounds, one like j (dʒ) and one like zh (ʒ).
Right, and as you said, the zh sound, as in measure, is due to the French influence from the Normans (North men, originally Vikings, but assimilated into the French culture and language).
  • #10
There are many lines of evidence by which we have a good idea of how classical Latin was pronounced. For example, the Greeks referred to Cicero as Kικερων, which shows that the C's were pronounced hard. And classical Latin poetry wouldn't scan if it was pronounced like Church Latin.
When we did some poetry reading (back in high school), we were told that we are not sure about the real pronunciation used by Romans, so the way we read Latin now is super-influenced by vulgar Latin used by the church. (Influenced, not the same)

Btw, when you read a Latin poem it sounds weird because you read the line as a whole with accents on fixed places and not words by words (but the pronunciation of each sound is not changed). For example:
Titire, tu patulea recubans sub tagmine fagi
is read

(Virgilio, incipit of "Eclogues")

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