Romance languages: pronouncing C and G

Here is a tip to help you learn to pronounce the main national Romance languages more correctly. These Romance languages all pronounce the letters <c> and <g> in two different ways, depending on the vowel that follows them. In these languages, these letters are pronounced as [c] and [g] if they are followed by a back vowel, such as [a], [o] or [u]. But they are pronounced differently if a front vowel, such as [i] or [e] follows. What that different pronunciation is depends on the language.

Some history

In Latin, these two letters always stood for the sounds [c] and [g]. But in later popular Latin, these two sounds became palatalised if they preceded a front vowel ([i] or [e]). Palatalisation is a common form of sound change in which the tongue moves closer to the palate (the roof of the mouth).

That late Latin palatalisation had different outcomes in different languages descending from Latin, as the following table shows.


How palatalisation changed Latin [k] and [g]

Language
Latin
Italian
Romanian
French
Portuguese
Spanish

Outcome: C
[k]
[tʃ]
[tʃ]
[s]
[s]
[s] / [θ]

Outcome: G
[g]
[dʒ]
[dʒ]
[ʒ]
[ʒ]
[χ]

Notes:

  1. [tʃ] is approximately the sound that begins English <cheese>, spelled <ch> in English
  2. [dʒ] is approximately the sound that begins English <German>, spelled in this English word as <g>.
  3. [ʒ] is approximately the sound spelled as <s> in the middle of the English word <measure>
  4. In Spanish, palatalised [c] became [θ] in standard (Castilian) Spanish but it became [s] in Southern Spain and Latin America. [θ] is roughly the sound spelled <th> that begins English <thank>.
  5. [χ] is approximately the sound at the end of the English word <loch>, when pronounced the Scottish way.

As a result of these changes, when the letter spelled as <c> precedes [i] or [e], it is pronounced as:

  • [tʃ] in Italian and Romanian
  • [s] in French, Portuguese and the Spanish of Latin America and Southern Spain
  • [θ] in standard (Castilian) Spanish

Similarly, when the letter spelled as <g> precedes [i] or [e], it is pronounced as:

  • [dʒ] in Italian and Romanian
  • [ʒ] in French and Portuguese
  • [χ] in Spanish

Spelling conventions

For conciseness, in the rest of this article, the term hard refers to the original Latin sounds [c] and [g] soft to refer to sounds resulting from the late Latin palatalisation.

Some words came into these languages too late for the late Latin palatalisation to affect them. Thus, in all of these languages, a hard [c] or [g] sometimes precede the sounds [i] or [e]. To show that the [c] or [g] must be pronounced hard in those cases, each of these languages has a spelling convention, shown in the following table:


Italian
Romanian
French
Portuguese
Spanish

Spelling
ch, gh
ch, ghe
que, gue
que, gu
que, gu

Examples
che, Ghinea,
chiar, ghid
que, guerre
que, guerra
que, guerra

Hard [c] followed by [u]

The Italian word bruschetta contains the letter sequence <ch> to show that it is pronounced [bruskɛtə], not [brusʃɛtə] which is how many people in the UK now seem to pronounce it.

Some French or Spanish words contain a hard g or c preceding a vowel sequence of [u] + [i] / [e]. In those words, two dots (a diaeresis) above the <u> indicate that the [u] has a double function: they show that the <g> is pronounced hard and also that the [u] is pronounced. Examples:

  • aigüe (French). Spelled aiguë until a spelling reform in 1990. (Because of further sound changes in French, this word is pronounced [e.gy], not [e.guə])
  • vergüenza (Spanish).

Portuguese used to employ the diaeresis in a way similar to its use in Spanish, but no longer uses it.

Spanish uses the letter sequence <cue> to show a hard <c> followed by a sequence of [ue]. Example: secuencia

Soft [c] or [g] before back vowel

French and Portuguese place a cedilla under the c <ç> when this letter is pronounced [s] before the front vowels [i] or [e]. Examples: français (French), começar (Portuguese).

Italian places <i> after <c> or <g> when they are pronounced soft (as [tʃ] or [dʒ]) before a back vowel. Examples: ciabatta, giacca.

Exporting spellings

As I have written before, confusion can arise if spelling conventions in one language (in that case, the French letter sequence <gue>) are carried over unthinkingly into another language (in that case, English). Silly transliteration – Language Miscellany

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