The Two Sounds of G

By Maeve Maddox

In Old English, the letter g represented four sounds. (Check out the etymological note in the OED for details.) I shall limit my remarks to the two sounds of g in modern English.

Unlike the letter c, which is an alternate spelling for the sounds of k and s and has no sound of its own, the letter g does have one sound of its own: the “hard” sound heard in glove.

The second sound of g, the “soft” sound heard in giant, represents the sound that belongs to the letter j [j].

ESL learners often ask if there’s a rule for knowing when the g represents the “hard” sound and when the “soft” sound. There are guidelines that help, but not all words conform to the guidelines.

NOTE: In mastering English spelling, the sensible approach is to learn the general rules and then, using them as a point of reference, learn the exceptions.

General Rules
If the g is followed by e, i, or y, the pronunciation is “soft g”:
g+i: magic, margin, origin, engine
g+e: page, generation, detergent, vengeance
g+y: astrology Egyptian gym

If the g is followed by any other letter (than e, i, y), the pronunciation is “hard g”:
gazebo
glove
gaze
go
grab
gum

If the g comes at the end of a word, the pronunciation is “hard g”:
pig
mug
wig
zigzag
jug

Sometimes a u follows a g in order to keep it from bumping up against an i or an e:
guess
guest
guild
guile
guilt

Exceptions to the e, i, y Rule
Hebrew names: Gideon, Gilead
Words of Germanic origin: give, gift, get, gild, Gilbert, Gilda
Scottish names: Gilchrist, Gillespie, Gilroy

Gynecology
Most English words that derive from the Greek word for woman [gyne] follow the rule for g followed by y and are pronounced with a “soft g,” for example,

misogynist: one who hates or is ill-disposed to women
polygyny: a form of polygamy, marriage of a man to more than one woman at a time
androgynous – having both male and female characteristics

When the word gynaecology to describe the department of medical science that treats of the functions and diseases of women was coined in the19th century, it was pronounced with a “soft g.” Some speakers still pronounce it that way, although the hard g has become the most common pronunciation in both British and American English. (The American spelling is gynecology)

Related post: Womanly Words–Gyn

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15 Responses to “The Two Sounds of G”

  • Francesco

    The letter c is a voiceless palatal stop. It’s not produced by the cords but it has indeed a sound of its own, at least in many languages that are not English.

  • Nancy

    There is also the “zh” letter G makes in words that come to English from French: mirage, entourage.
    It’s understandable that ESL students would be confused. In other languages, letter G makes sounds that wouldn’t even occur to English speakers. In Spanish, a G makes the “h” sound, as in “gila monster.” In scandinavian languages, a G makes the “y” sound before a vowel (the Norwegian word for a knit sweater is “genser” which is pronounced “YEN-sair”).

  • Dale A. Wood

    The most important word that starts with “gy” and has the “soft g” sound is “gyroscope”. If you ever fly in an airliner, gyroscopes are essential parts of its flight control and navigation systems. Gyroscopes are also essential in the control systems of spacecraft and the navigation systems of submarines. A gyroscope is not just a toy.

    It is interesting that in German, the noun “General” means the same as it does in English, but in German, the word “General” is always pronounced with a “hard g”, but in English it is pronounced with a soft g. If you watch a movie in which authentic German is spoken in parts (such as PATTON), listen for phrases like “Herr General” with the hard g. D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The Spanish “G”. I don’t know too much about Spanish, but I do know about G as in “Geraldo”, with the “H” sound.

    However, what about “Guillermo”? There was a famous Argentinean tennis player named Guillermo Vilas, and he won the U.S. Open tournament one year. I heard this name said with the hard g.
    I have read that Guillermo is the Spanish equivalent of “William”, just like Pedro = Peter, Jose = Joseph, Carlos = Charles or Carl, Ferdinand = Frederick, and Isabella = Elizabeth.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In the words “zigzag” and “wigwag”, the hard g occurs at the end of each syllable. Is this a general rule for “g” at the end of a syllable?

    “Wigwag” is a system of communication on open fields or from hilltop to hilltop. A light-colored flag on a hand-held pole is used by the signaler. He or she has two choices: to wave the flag to the left or to wave it to the right. These can be used to send messages by a code similar to Morse Code. By giving the receiver a pair or binoculars or a telescope, the communication can be made by line-of-sight over a distance of several miles.
    Hostile people cannot intercept this kind of communication unless they find out which direction to look, and they know the code. Amother advantage of wigwagging is that it does not need any electricity. On the other hand, it does not work at night or in the rain or fog.
    D.A.W.

  • Rick

    Another “g” sound eff as in cough, then a silent “g” in a word spelled in a similar fashion dough

  • Nancy Romness

    Dale, “Guillermo” has a hard G sound because there is that U between it and the vowel I. In this regard, Spanish and English are alike. Maeve listed examples of English words that have a hard G when a U is there:
    guess
    guest
    guild
    guile
    guilt

  • venqax

    In the words “zigzag” and “wigwag”, the hard g occurs at the end of each syllable. Is this a general rule for “g” at the end of a syllable?

    Good question. It still depends on what follows the G. If it’s a consonant, as in “zigZag” then it’s hard, as at the end of a word, and as with Gs followed by L, R, or W (the consonants free of suffixes that typically follow a G). Otherwise it obeys the same following-vowel rules as usual. So, legible, engine, changeable —soft; began, begun, engorge—hard.

    An exception to the rule is when a word ending with G (so, hard) is doubled to add a suffix starting with an E or I. So *bigger* and *begging* retain the hard G of the root word.

    There are some other ad hoc exceptions too, as always, but for the most part when you separate very old ASax words, like gift or girl; and proper nouns (especially those that are not English, so English rules don’t apply) like Gilbert, Gerber, Gibson, and Geffin, the rule hold pretty well. The example given of gynecology would be such an excepted case, attributable to its mispronunciation long established to the extent that authorities on both sides of the Atlantic gave up; and the word margarine for which I know of no explanation.

  • venqax

    @Rick:
    Another “g” sound eff as in cough, then a silent “g” in a word spelled in a similar fashion dough

    Those sounds are attributed to the GH digraph, not to the G alone. So that’s a different issue. GH is one of the most difficult things to assign pronunciations for and are poxes for ESL folks. GHs after Is are silent, but lengthen the sound of the I: fight, night, sight. And following an EI are silent but often render the vowels a long-A sound: weight, freight, sleigh (the one-horse-open variety).

    In the cases like you mention– the OUGH and AUGH– combinations, there are really no IDable rules at all. Laugh, taught, bough, tough, dough, ought.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @ Venqax: in the words legible and engine, the “g” is NOT at the end of a syllable, but rather they are at the beginning of one. I wonder why nobody else has commented on this fact. I will divide the words into syllables for you: le-gi-ble and en-gine.

    In pronunciation, “legible” does not begin with “leg”, and the word is not divided into syllables like this: leg-ib-le. Also, the words “bigger” and “begging” are divided into syllables like this: big-ger and beg-ging.

    This is the general reason for doubling the consonant at the end of a word (in most cases) when adding a suffix. Hence, hit becomes hit-ter, bid becomes bidding (“What is thy bidding, my Master?”, said Darth Vader.), rig becomes rigging, wigwag becomes wigwagging. However, a “w” at the end of a word does not get doubled.
    Hence, “glow” becomes “glowing”, and “allow” becomes “allowed”.

    A very mild exception: panic becomes panicking and traffic becomes trafficking: pan-ic-king and traf-fic-king. However, panicked and trafficked do not gain additional syllables. The “c” is not doubled, but rather the “c” gains a “k”.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To be clear: My question about “g” was about “g” at the end of a syllable, as in “wigwag”, and then you went off on a tangent about “g” that is not at the end of a syllable, such as in “legible” and “engine”.
    It seems that the question was not understood.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    DAW: Engine was a bad example. Otherwise, most of what you’re saying is irrelevant to the idea of being at the end of a syllable. If you always choose (and it often is a choice) to divide a relevant word between the G and its following letter, then it is no different from the rule for Gs at the end of a word (unless it’s part of the DGE trigrah in some cases, where the G is always soft, e.g., judgment). OTOH, if you divide legible, e.g., as leg-i-b’l—which you can— then the same rule about the following letter applies. If you divide as big-ger and beg-ger as examples of Gs at the beginning of syllable/word being pronounced hard when they should be soft, then you have a different rule violation. Better to say doubling Gs for a suffix is a general rule of its own.

    BTW, the doubling of the consonants in those cases is usually to preserve the short vowel sound in the root word. If the root word has a long vowel, typically there is no doubling. Hence, bidding/biding, hated/hated. And final single Ls have still their own doubling rules in American, that involve syllabic emphasis rather than spelling.

    Your reasoning for Ws is off. If there is a W at the end of a word it is acting as a vowel in a digraph like AW, EW, or OW (including glow and allow), not as a consonant, so final consonant rules don’t apply. Words don’t end in consonantal Ws. Likewise something like a word-final H. It is acting as part of digraph like TH, SH, GH, CH, PH; or is silently modifying a vowel that’s already long, or “flattened” (oh, duh).

    What word-final Cs have to do with syllable-final Gs is a slight reach. But the K has to be added, similarly, to preserve the root word’s pronunciation. Cs at the end of words are always hard: picnic and traffic. Cs before Is and Es are soft. So if you want to preserve the hard sound of the root word, you must add a K before the I or E. Otherwise you have “picnissing” like missing or “traffissed” like kissed. It’s not an exception, but rather it’s own rule. Vowels before CK combos are already short so you don’t need to double the C to preserve that. I think that does it.

  • Siddique

    So what about the word ” get ” its followed by ” e ” and the G is soft here ..?

  • Maeve

    Siddique,
    “Get” is an exception to the e, i, y Rule:
    Words of Germanic origin: give, gift, get, gild, Gilbert, Gilda

  • Nik

    This may for the most part hold true for g used within a word, but for an initial g there are more exceptions than there are words that follow the rule by a ratio of about 2:1 – yes, many of those words may not be “English” in origin, but the vast bulk of our language is not “English” in origin.

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