What's up with the letter G?

By Leo

22 April, 2021 @ 05:58

The pronunciation of the letter “g” is tricky because it varies so much. It’s probably a good idea to pay close attention to it from the start.

I am having trouble with the letter g. That’s not surprising considering there are 6 pronunciation variations for it (plus one notable exception), and it doesn’t help that two of those pronunciations have no English equivalent—though, you are in luck if you are Scottish or speak Spanish.

In this post I want to go over all the pronunciations of the letter g and how I’ve set up my Anki cards to study them.

# The many pronunciations of “g”

I am breaking these down below by International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) character, that’s what the characters in square brackets ([]) below are. Don’t worry what the words mean, that’s not important right now. Our only concern is understanding and remembering the pronunciations.

# [k]

This is the pronunciation for a word initial g as in “glápa” or g between vowels and -l or -n as in “logn”.

This is pronounced like wick or sky.

There is one important exception to the word initial g rule: A v is inserted after g in “Guð” (God). If you want to hear what that sounds like you can google the Icelandic national anthem and listen to it, it starts out: Ó, guð vors lands! Ó, lands vors guð!.

# [c]

This is also the pronunciation for word initial g but only before e, i, í, y, ý, æ, ei/ey as in “geta” .

This is pronounced like skew.

[c] is similar to [cʰ] but without aspiration. If you’d like a quick lesson on aspiration this video is pretty good for that. The TL;DR is: hold a piece of paper in front of you and if it moves when you pronounce the letter g you did it wrong.

# [ɣ]

This is the pronunciation for g after vowels and before a, u, ð, and r as in “fluga”, “vegur”, or “dagur”. It is also the pronunciation for word final g as in “lag”.

There is no English equivalent for this sound but if you speak Spanish you can think of the g in trigo. The best I can do to describe it is that it’s a very soft g that almost disappears.

# [x]

This is the pronunciation for g before -t or -s as in “dragt”.

Again, there’s no English equivalent and the closest equivalent would be the Scottish loch.

# [j]

This is the pronunciation for g between vowels and -i or -j as in “lygi” or “segja”.

This is pronounced like young

#

Finally the g is completely dropped between ó, á, ú and a, u as in “fljúga”.

# Remembering all of this

The best way I’ve found to remember things is Anki so I am going to describe the 3 types of cards I made to try to remember all of the above. There are a few things I recommend you think about regardless of how you choose to study.

# General Suggestions

  1. Don’t sleep on the IPA characters See the Wikipedia entry for all Icelandic IPA characters. These become shorthand for the “what does this sound like?” question and will ultimately help you remember how things are pronounced.
  2. Find some sounds files. The book I use (Colloquial Icelandic) provides sound files for all the word examples I mentioned above. I use Audacity to cut the sound files and then include them in my Anki cards.
  3. Find examples. As your vocabulary grows you’ll have more and more examples. Collect them, and periodically go back and associate them with the rule they follow. The more examples you have the more embedded in your memory the rules will become.

# My Anki Cards

I have 3 card variations. These aren’t all strictly for the letter g and the same patterns can be used for many other sounds in Icelandic.

# The Everything Card

A card that asks you to list out all the sounds, IPA characters, and rules. Make the examples optional to get the card “right”, as your vocabulary grow the number of examples would be so vast it wouldn’t make sense to remember these specific ones.

Front

What are the 6 sound variations of the letter "g"

Back

  1. [k] word initial (glápa) or between vowels and -l, -n (logn)
  2. [c] word initial before e, i, í, y, ý, æ, ei/ey (geta)
  3. [ɣ] after vowels and before a, u, ð, r (fluga, vegur, dagur) or word final (lag)
  4. [x] after vowels and before t, s (dragt)
  5. [j] between vowels and -i, -j (lygi, segja)
  6. [ ] dropped between ó, á, ú and a, u (fljúga)

# Pronunciation Card

Just focus on pronunciation. On the back side I have a sound file. Make sure to add additional information on the back so you are reminded what the rule and IPA symbols are. When practicing, I think of the additional info as extra credit.

Front

Pronounce the "g" in fluga, vegur, dagur

Back

[sound:consonant-g-after-vowels-before-a-u-ð-r.mp4] [ɣ] like the Spanish "trigo" After vowels and before a, u, ð, r

# Cloze Card

Like the “everything card” but for each individual rule. I also include a sound file on the back to reinforce pronunciation.

Front

is the IPA symbol for

Back

[sound:consonan-g-after-vowels-before-t-s.m4a] dragt pronounced like Scottish "loch"

# Wrapping Up

Hopefully this deep dive into the letter g is helpful. I hope to one day listen to a Lexicon Valley episode about why some letters have so many different pronunciations, until then it’s a bit of a mystery that I don’t have the time to dig into.