Friday, 28 September 2012


Morten Berg writes
In my little newsletter for Danish customers of my language service, I wanted to write about the pronunciation of the letter g.
I have drawn on your introduction in LPD, and the matter seems pretty straightforward until the Greek/French gynecology, etc., come up, with their /g/.
First I thought that it could be that y is pronounced -aɪ-, but then what about gyrate, etc.?
I’d be grateful if you could help me out.

I suspect there is no easy way to help. There is no good spelling-to-sound rule for g before the ‘softening’ vowels i, e, y. Sometimes we have g, as in give and get; but in most cases (including in particular with words of Greek, Latin, or other non-Germanic origin), we have , as in general and ginger.

The problem arises because of the so-called “velar softening” that affects/affected Latinate words in English. The historical velars k and g, spelt in Latin and then French as c and g respectively, have, when they occur before a vowel spelt with one of i, y, e, developed into modern English s and respectively, while retaining the same spelling. This leads to spelling-to-sound uncertainty in some words of other origins, and in particular in the case of words from Ancient Greek. So some people say encephalitis with s, with velar softening, but others with k, without it; and some say pedagogy with -gi, but others with -dʒi. The first part of the first word is derived from Greek ἐγκέφαλος ‘brain’, the second part of the second from ἀγωγη ‘leading’.

Final -gy pretty reliably has no matter what the origin of a word is, as in strategy, analogy, clergy, mangy. Even here, though, as just mentioned, there is some fluctuation in pedagogy and demagogy, presumably because of the contaminating influence of pedagog(ue), demagog(ue), which of course have g.

The entry for gynaecology in the on-line OED has not been updated from the 1900 edition. Interestingly, it reveals that at that time the pronunciation of this word had not yet settled down: there was evidently uncertainty about both the initial consonant and the first vowel. I think it is clear that a century later we have settled for ˌɡaɪn-. But who knows why?

I cannot tell you why gyn(a)ecology and other words from the Greek gyn(a)ec- γυναικ- have g for most of us nowadays, while gyrate and other words with gyr-, Greek γυρ-, have .

Nor can I tell you why most Americans pronounce Elgin with , though in Britain we say it with g. And my illustrious predecessor A.C. Gimson was ˈɡɪmsən, although there are other bearers of this surname who call themselves ˈdʒɪmsən.

Even Latin-derived words are not always clear-cut. Probably none of us are entirely certain about loci, algae and fungi. not to mention the plurals of diplodocus and sarcophagus.

Sorry, Morten.


  1. Years ago I was talking to someone with the surname Ghero. His family had come over from Hungary and their surname was originally spelt Gero. But they had added the h purely because they were fed up with people pronouncing it as /'ʤɛrəʊ/.

    1. Great if you're living among Italians. But to Esperantists that would have the opposite effect.

      piː mæk ənɛnə

    2. It's a reasonable choice in English though (c.f. gherkin, dinghy). Guero ought in principle to work too, when considering that English generally follows French (and Spanish) in not pronouncing the u in gue or gui except so in far as it prevents softening (the only exceptions I could quickly find were some words with -ngui- or -guity), but I've heard Miguel mispronounced enough to suspect that overall gh is the more reliable choice.

  2. There is a road in the centre of York named Gillygate. When I was studying there, we students were never sure whether to pronounce it with /ʤ/ or /g/.

    York is not the sort of city where it's easy to determine the local pronunciation. This website suggests that this name is /g/ in York and /ʤ/ in Durham, but this site states that it is /ʤ/ in York because it's named after St. Giles.

    Ed Aveyard

  3. 'The entry for gynaecology in the on-line OED has not been updated from the 1900 edition.'
    Actually, it must have been (in one of the supplements perhaps), since the original entry reads
    Gynæcology (dʒəi-, dʒinĭkǫ·lŏdʒi).

    1. No. The on-line entry bears an explicit notice to the effect that it has not been updated since 1900. Obviously, the phonetic symbols have undergone global-search-and-replace to yield the current IPA symbols as shown in my screenshot.

    2. Yes, but the variant with g- is not present at all in the original. This would not be the first inaccuracy I've found in their article histories.

    3. Actually the online OED states

      This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1900).

      I think the operative word is fully. Such an obvious addition to the paper text would not call for extensive research by the updaters.

    4. Not in 1933 supplement, nor in 1944 SOED 3rd edition.

    5. The policy is explicitly stated:

      Revision of the OED is a long-term project. Unrevised entries may not have been substantially updated since first publication. However, they may incorporate minor corrections and revisions to pronunciation, etymology, forms, date or style of citation, or quotation text.

  4. gyn(a)ecology and other words from the Greek gyn(a)ec- γυναικ- have g for most of us nowadays

    Except for misogyny, polygyny, androgynous and no doubt other words with unstressed -gyn-.

    1. Good point. It gets more and more mysterious.

    2. The way I see things, it gets a lot simpler.

      Morten Berg should stick with the explanation that yields in gyrate. The only anomaly is gyna(e)cology and words derived from it.

      It's a bit odd for a word to have its own pronunciation history in isolation, but then the word is unusual in that it was for some time confined to the speech of the medical profession.

      For the purpose of explanation to foreigners the 'regular' pronunciation dʒaɪnəkɒlədʒi is important — even though it's now obsolete.

      There's probably a story to be discovered as to how and why the pronunciation changed. And perhaps a story as to why the OED chose to acknowledge the change without documenting when it took place.

      The other problem — get, give etc — should not be too difficult to explain to speakers of another Germanic language.

    3. Another unusual property of gynaecology is that it's an international word. In the German form Gynäkologie (not the only translation) it has a 'hard G'.

      Could this be the explanation? That gynaecology is not a mainstream English word subject to English spelling-sound conventions but a word that is specialist and international?

      Even if it's uncertain, it could be offered as a possibility. I see that Danish gynækologi is transcribed as [ɡ̊ynɛkoloˈɡ̊iːˀ] /ɡynɛkoloɡiː/ so it would make sense to Morten Berg's readers.

    4. This is reminiscent of schizophrenia, which changed from -z- to -ts- under the influence of German, or of people who thought the word was German.

    5. Is an earlier pronunciation with z documented?

      Phillip Minden

    6. A pronunciation with dz is recorded — a compromise perhaps? In my 1990 edition of the LPD John gives this as a possibility for some schizo-words, though not (if I read him aright) for schizophrenia.

      For schizo- word which are biological rather than medical — e.g. schizont, schizostylis — dictionaries give the z pronunciation as standard.

    7. @Lipman:

      Is an earlier pronunciation [of "schizophrenia"] with z documented?

      Yes: in "Webster 2 (1934)" and "American College (1952)" according to this link.

    8. My 1978 SOED (3rd edition 1944 with various subsequent revisions and corrections) has

      (skəizofrī·niă, skidzo-, -ts-)

    9. vp, thanks!

      (Doesn't necessarily show this was the original pronunciation, though.)

      Phillip Minden

  5. As regards double letters before softening vowels, I thought at first it could safely be assumed that -cc- was ks and -gg- was g, but then it seems there's soccer, suggest and exaggerate to mess this up, as well as some obvious borrowings from Italian such as cappuccino and arpeggio. (Also recce, piccy, and I think k is at least an alternative for -cocci words describing various bacteria.)

    1. (Just seen that the OED gives /kapputˈtʃino/ for cappuccino. Oh come on, nobody says this in English, get real...)

    2. I think you could stick with the assumption that -cc- was k provided that the word isn't an abbreviation like soccer, recce, piccy or a recent borrowing like cappuccino. For Italian borrowings — as with Latin derivations — the 'hard/soft C' principle takes over. But cappuccino is too recent and too oral a borrowing to admit English s as the soft sound. With piccolo and Spanish tobacco our hard C is the same k as theirs.

      Similarly, the -gg- assumption doesn't work with words derived from Latin. Here the 'hard/soft G' principle takes over.

    3. Davie Crosbie, why soccer as an example? It IS pronounced with a K sound. Despite origination as a abbreviation of a word with no k sound. And, according to dictionaries, so are recce and piccy.

      Or did you mean ks as Alan wrote?

  6. Nor can I tell you why most Americans pronounce Elgin with dʒ, though in Britain we say it with g.

    Could it be that we Brits take the pronunciation from Lord Elgin of marble fame while Americans take it from the once popular Elgin watches?

    1. Alas, we call them the /ɛldʒɪn/ marbles unless and until otherwise instructed (in my case, today). Not even all of us still say gerrymander 'adjust electoral district boundaries with political intent, producing districts that look like dumbbells, Rorschach blots, or salamanders' with /g/, though the Gerry family to which this term refers has always had /g/ in its name.

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