Monday, 1 June 2009

More about nasals, palatal and velar

As we saw yesterday, the palatal nasal ɲ is spelt as gn in French and Italian, as ñ in Spanish, and as nh in Portuguese. In Catalan and various African languages it is spelt ny. You might think that this would be straightforward for English speakers to process, but experience shows this isn’t necessarily the case.
Malawi (or Malaŵi, to be pedantic) used to be called Nyasaland, where Nyasa ɲasa, also spelt Nyassa or Niassa, means ‘lake’ in various Bantu languages in that part of Africa. What is now known as Lake Malawi was then called Lake Nyasa. But would the British say ˈnjæsə(lænd), as intended? No, they tended to go for naɪˈæsə. That is, they misinterpreted the letter y as standing for a vowel rather than a consonant. They did the same with the Tanzanian political leader Julius Nyerere. Compare today the name Myanmar (blog, 11 Oct 2007).
Quite apart from its use to spell a palatal nasal, the digraph gn is well known to be ambiguous in English. The g is silent (or ‘zeroed’, as Carney has it) in sign, reign, impugn, but not in signal, pregnant, pugnacious.
Most English-speaking classicists, I think, say ɡn in Latin words such as agnus, dignus, regnum. But choral singers and Catholics tend to be influenced by Italian and say nj. In classical Latin gn appears to have stood for neither ɡn nor ɲ, but rather for ŋn, thus aŋnus, diŋnus, reŋnũ (Allen, Vox Latina, CUP 1965). Allen says (p. 24) that according to C.D.Buck ŋn was changed in late classical times to ɡn as a spelling pronunciation. Subsequently the Romance languages changed ɡn to ɲ (etc).
A discussion of gn would not be complete without mention of the gnu, immortalized by Flanders and Swann with the jocular pronunciation ɡəˈnuː. (Watch and listen here.)

We don’t use the word gnu in ordinary conversation, since we call the animal in question a wildebeeste. According to the COD, gnu originated as a Bushman word nqu. As far as I know, modern Khoisan orthographies do not use the letter q; but if we interpret it following the spelling conventions of Zulu and Xhosa, that would mean a retroflex nasal click ŋ͡ǃ at the beginning.


  1. I think that your YouTube link to should, in fact, have been to

    I don't understand how the final letter could have disappeared, but the latter appears to work whilst the former does not.

  2. Programmers do use the word GNU in ordinary conversation, at least many of them do, and [ˈɡnuː] is standard -- well, with an ultrashort epenthetic if you absolutely have to. Though nobody would object to [ŋ͡ǃu], I'm sure.

  3. It took me forever to learn that the g is silent in "gnome" - only afterwards did I realise it must be voiced counterpart to k in "knight" and the like (didn't help that it is very much *not* silent in Danish "gnom").

    Of course, recently I learnt of bdelloid rotifers, and while I can see the relation to pterodactyls, I don't know the Greek origin for those consonantclusters.

  4. According to the wonderfully out-of-date (in many ways) "Grammar and vocabulary of the Namaqua-Hottentot language" by Henry Tindall of 1858, the letter q does indeed represent a "cerebral click". Tindall gives "qnu" as an example of a click followed by a consonant and a vowel. Google Books link here (the information is on pages 12-14):

  5. Hmmm, maybe I'm the only (retired) programmer to read this forum, but in 35 years of programming experience I do not believe I have heard "Gnu" (as in "Gnu is not Unix") pronounced [ˈɡnuː] as stated by John Cowan (above). To my untrained ear, what I believe I have heard is [ˈgɲuː] (i.e., "g" + "new", thus mimicking in part the opening sound of "Unix"), and I wonder where John C has heard his version. John ?

  6. "But choral singers and Catholics tend to be influenced by Italian and say nj" (in "agnus," "dignum," etc.). --This may be true where the spoken pronunciation of choral singers is concerned, but that is not how they pronounce those words in singing, if they know their business. Classical settings of Latin texts are, as a rule, sung according to Roman ecclesiastical Latin, in which "gn" is pronounced as in Italian, i.e., as [ɲ]. I say "as a rule" because settings of Latin texts by French and German composers are sometimes (though rarely in English-speaking countries) performed according to the ecclesiastical tradition of their respective countries. (I believe that French Latin has [ɲ] while German has [gn].) The main point is that the pronunciation of Latin "gn" as in Italian by classical singers is not a matter of the individual being influenced by Italian but of his or her following a well-established practice which historically is influenced by Italian.

  7. Chaa06: Hmm. I'd guess that you don't live in North America, where new is [ˈnuː] rather than [ˈɲuː ~ ˈnjuː]. I do, so I say [gnuː]. This tracks the fact that American English has lost jod where historic /iu/ is preceded by a dental, making toon (short for cartoon) and tune, do and dew, gnu and new, and loot and lute homonyms.

  8. Mahmoud Kefaya Punk9 November 2010 16:13

    Awesome and a g-nice song :D