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In English, words with a 'g' followed by a front vowel (e, i, y) can be pronounced with a soft g or a hard g:

  • Words with Germanic roots are usually pronounced with a hard g: gear, get, gift, give
  • Words with Latin and Greek roots are usually pronounced with a soft g: gem, general, giraffe, giant

But how should a purely English word (if such thing even exists) with a 'g' followed by a front vowel be pronounced? In other words, if an English speaker saw a new word of unknown origin (eg: a neologism) that starts with gi- or ge-, how would they pronounce it?

closed as unclear what you're asking by tchrist, Drew, Ellie Kesselman, user66974, Chenmunka Oct 24 '14 at 8:27

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  • An authoritative source to support your answer would be nice. – Orion Oct 23 '14 at 22:01
  • it is probably easier just to learn how the word is pronounced on a case by case basis than to have to find its etymological origin first and then applying a general rule...even if one exists. – Oldcat Oct 23 '14 at 22:16
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    Words that are borrowed from other languages vary depending on when they were borrowed, and which language they come from: and people's understsanding of the letters changes with time. "Ginseng" almost certainly had a 'j' sound in whatever version of Chinese it was borrowed from, and so would probably be written "jinseng" if it were to be borrowed into English now; and Genghis Khan's name in Mongolian would today be transliterated as "Chingiz". But I've heard many people pronounce both of these in English with a /g/. – Colin Fine Oct 23 '14 at 22:46
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    The OED has 687 words that begin with ge-, gi-, gy- and which have a /dʒ/ or /ʒ/ phoneme there. You must not have looked very hard. It also has 155 that go the other way. By this you can rightly infer that the guaranteed rule for pronouncing words that begin that way is here as always to look them up in an accredited dictionary. Period. – tchrist Oct 23 '14 at 23:59
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    "If an English speaker saw a new word of unknown origin (eg: a neologism) that starts with gi- or ge-, how would they pronounce it?" They'd take a guess - probably based on its similarity to words they know - and then either be corrected by somebody who believes they know how to pronounce it (disagreement would usually be followed by a visit to a dictionary), or accepted by somebody who made the same guess (right or wrong). – Jason C Oct 24 '14 at 3:33
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I would suggest not to follow pronunciation rules as far as English is concerned. You will eventually discover there are a lot of exceptions. Anyone remembers that old maxim from first-grade phonics: “When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking.”

To answer your question

"Should "g" followed by "e" and "i" be pronounced with a hard or soft "g"?

  • Usually, in words of Germanic origin, "g" followed by "e" or "i" will be pronounced with a hard "g". e.g. - get, gig, begin.

  • In words derived from the Romance languages, however, the soft-voiced "g" will usually be pronounced. e.g. gem, gymnastics.

Exceptions exist, and I've found "renege" (re·nege verb \ri-ˈneg - to refuse to do something that you promised or agreed to do) See etymology at http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/renege

In "gynecology", on the other hand, first we have a hard "g" followed by "y" and then, in the last syllable, a soft "g" followed by "y" too. That comes from Greek, though.

EDIT - You have edited your question after I had answered it and so I have to add this:

My guess is that the person would try whatever he thought sounded like the right pronunciation for that word. If one never heard the word before, chances are he doesn't know its exact meaning either. So the best thing to do is to look up the word in the dictionary, especially if it is to be used in a speech or lecture.

  • Interesting. It seems like most exceptions are pronounced with a hard g. The second 'g' in "gynecology" is part of the suffix -logy, which comes from the Latin suffix -logia (which comes from the Greek -λογία). – Orion Oct 23 '14 at 23:58
  • That's an excellent advice, but offers no "answer." – Kris Oct 24 '14 at 5:27
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    @Kris It does offer an answer. The question is: "if an English speaker saw a new word of unknown origin (eg: a neologism) that starts with gi- or ge-, how would they pronounce it?" and my answer "...the person would try whatever he thought sounded like the right pronunciation for that word." Would you act in a different way if it happened to you? I mean, being asked to read a passage aloud and then you come acorss a word you never heard before. At a moment like that anyone uses instinct and evokes past experiences with similar morphemes. That's what I think and what I answered anyway. – Centaurus Oct 24 '14 at 23:23
  • We shall apply that when we next come across a neolodjism for a quick resolution :) – Kris Oct 25 '14 at 10:58
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Seeing as English belongs to the Germanic language family, it would be a hard g according to your source. All words that have their roots in Old English (in the early Middle Ages) are Germanic.

Don't be fooled by the name Germanic, it does not just refer to German but to a much larger area. Here is a map of the Germanic language groups around 1 AD. The middle part of the red area is where the peoples known collectively as the Anglo-Saxons originated. They were the ones that brought their language to modern day England in the 5th century, which is what would eventually evolve into the modern English language.

In case you wonder, the orange area is where the Dutch language originates from, the German language comes from the yellow, the blue is where Scandinavian languages evolved from (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic), and the languages from the green area are now extinct. All these languages (and more) are Germanic, and descendants of the same ancient language, now known as Proto-Germanic.

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A "purely native" word in a (any) language would have at least two factors to its spelling ("spelling" here may make relevent sense more in those based on an "alphabet"):

  • etymology, incl., lexical analysis
  • pronunciation morphology.

(meta: This rightly belongs on linguistics not ELU)

Components retain their pronunciation: hang + -er

Consonants undergo pronunciation change for other (or no apparent) reason(s): misogyn vs. gynaec

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