Friday, August 5, 2011

Secret Origins: G

G, like C, is one of those funny consonants that has two different pronunciations. It can be soft, sounding similar to J, as it is in gem or gym, or hard, like it is in gam or gum. Also, it’s sometimes part of words that don’t end in m.

We’re going back to the .gif again, aren’t we?

Darn right. It’s probably not surprising that G comes from gamma (Γ or γ) and because of that, its history is the same as the letter C. Gamma comes from the Hebrew letter gimel, ג, which as you can see, looks a lot upside down lowercase gamma. Hebrew is an old language, originating more than a thousand years before the Common Era, and it stems from the language of the Phoenicians. Now if you look back at the .gif, you can see the Phoenicians’ gimel was a lot more similar to the upper case gamma, except reversed and leaning backwards. This symbol is in fact sort of a pun: gimel means camel in Phoenician, but the symbol is of a throwing stick, or giml. Like the rest of the Phoenician alphabet, it was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Okay, so that gives us the origin of gamma, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, gamma encompassed the letter C and all the soft c sounds with it. Where, and how, did it become its own letter?

After the Greeks made their alphabet (around the eighth century Before Common Era), they spread it to the Etruscans of Italy. The Etruscans were the ones who changed the “guh” sound to “kuh”, and when the Roman Empire rose, they absorbed that alphabet, creating Latin. But this left them without a sound for “guh”, so they decided to add a stroke to the letter C and make a new symbol, giving us G. So there is a reason they look similar!

So that’s how G was born, but what about the “juh” sound of it? Is it only there to mess with people trying to learn English? Originally, g was always hard. But then, an accidental overdose of gamma radiation altered its body chemistry and a startling metamorphosis occurred. Similar to C, G has been palatized, except it isn't constant based on the following letter. Look at gentle. And gird. No one who grew up speaking English says gen-tell or jird.

The different pronunciations are on a word-by-word basis because English is a Germanic language with many other influences. Words of Germanic origin (like Germanic itself!) usually have the hard G. Words of Romance (i.e. French) origin usually follow the soft-hard rules of the Irish Gaelic: hard before or after a, o and soft before e and i. Note that I said usually. Look at margarine. It precedes an a, but you say it soft.

If you ever hear anyone from another country pronounce a g wrong, correct them, but be gentle. It really is freaking confusing. It's like we're looking into a world of madness. There are no rules. Cats chase dogs up trees. Hamburgers eat people. The sky reflects the orange color of the ocean. Pandemonium!

Thanks to these sources:, for info on all things Phoenician.
Omniglot, an excellent source on alphabets.
The Alphabet Gif, as always.
Ancient Scripts, an excellent authority on…ancient scripts.
Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short’s A Latin Dictionary from Tufts University's Digital Library., for their information on hard and soft G. 
The Online Etymology Dictionary, for showing us that words can and do break the rules.
And Because palatize is a weird word.


  1. Your blog post are always so informative. Nice to see you at my blog.
    Have a good weekend.

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  3. I had a feeling English might be a Germanic language!! Interesting and informative as ever... :-)

  4. Teaching 'g' and 'c' to non-English speaking kids was always tricky. Now I know why.

  5. I love that you include the linguistic stuff. It makes me feel smarter when I go to class. :)

    This may be why I have so much trouble pronouncing new words... I find one set of rules I like (in this case, the French rules) and apply them to everything.


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