4

In latin words such as digitus, I found it hard to pronounce correctly the consonants /k/ or /g/ followed by /i/. I think that this happens especially if these sounds are in the same syllabe.

Is it hard because I am not used to it, as a Romance language speaker, who has ever pronounced these "sounds" followed by that vowel, as either palatal plosives, either postalveolar affricates, or do people find it generally not that easy to do it?

I think I have an idea why this happens though. Its because the /i/ is a front vowel while a velar consonant is articulated in the back.

8
  • 3
    Out of curiosity, which Romance language in particular?
    – Draconis
    Oct 21 at 0:12
  • 1
    My native language is Rumanian.
    – SarruKen
    Oct 21 at 0:18
  • 3
    /ki/ and /g/ followed by /i/ are palatalised in many languages, and in many languages they are not palatalised. What shall I say? Languages are different.
    – fdb
    Oct 23 at 11:08
  • 4
    It's just a question of what you're used to. If (like me) you natively spoke a language which doesn't palatalize velars before front vowels, you'd never think to palatalize these Latin sounds.
    – TKR
    Oct 23 at 19:11
  • 3
    I'd like to understand what exact pronunciation you're aiming at and what comes out - could you give examples from your native Rumanian, if not directly link to recordings at www.forvo.com? In particular, do you pronounce digitus with the Rumanian gi or ghi? Direct links would be especially useful if either your target or your result don't actually exist in Rumanian. Oct 25 at 5:20
2

Your intution is correct and insightful, OP, despite what you say about your limited knowledge of phonetics. Assimilation within /ki/ and /gi/ is physiologically unavoidable because the vowels are front/palatal, while the consonants are back/velar, and both these regions need to be touched by the same part of the tongue (the back or dorsum). Thus if the consonant is to remain strictly velar, the vowel must retreat to the velar region, and if the vowel is to remain front, the consonant must advance towards the palate. One can split hairs about degrees of palatalisation or substitute palatalisation (kʲ) with fronting (k̟) on phonological grounds, but the two terms are equivalent in this context because only one point of contact is involved. Examples below disregard differences in voicing, with k representing any velar stop:

[i] [ɨ~ɯ]2 [ä~a]
[k̟~kʲ]1 Rum, Ru, It, En Conflict Rum, Fr, Sv, Gk
[k] Conflict Rum, Ru, Udm, Tur Rum, Ru, It, En (Australian)

1. Some transcriptions use [c] (palatal stop) to transcribe these e.g. in Greek and Turkish, arguably incorrectly - a true palatal stop (as in Czech and Hungarian) involves tongue-blade (coronal) as well as tongue-back (dorsal) contact and a Russian speaker will hear it as a realisation of their own palatalised coronal stop /tʲ/.
2. The prevalent opinion holds that the Russian [kɨ – kʲi] contrast is a feature of the consonant (velarisation) and not the vowel, but all Russians can and regularly do produce [ɨ] not preceeded by a consonant. The Turkish vowel is variously described.

To test the reader's perception, in this Turkish example the two true velars are followed by two strongly palatalised velars. In this Russian example both are true velars; here a palatalised followed by a true one, same as here in Icelandic and the reverse of this German one.

If your language doesn't have contrastive palatalisation, you might not hear this automatic (allophonic) assimilation and so won't notice anything wrong with the usual description "the Latin C in CI is pronounced the same as in CA". But having the right combination of native phonology, knowledge of phonetics and plain old insighfulness leads one to realise that if taken at face value, either the Latin CA sounded like this and this, or the Latin CI like this, which is of course incorrect. It seems that some people who didn't satisfy the above criteria were taken by surprise by this revelation, and instead of adjusting their worldview to the new information decided to kill the messanger by downvoting this reply. This is a shame, since humans don't have absolute hearing, and anyone interested in phonetics should expect to be constantly surprised.

Apart from considerations of physiological necessity, another piece of evidence in favour of velars being palatalised in Latin before all front vowels is the fact that /el/ passed into /ol/ if the /l/ was velarised ('dark'), including after /kʷ/ - but this didn't happen after /k, g/: *elōr > olor, *kʷelō > colō but gelū̆, celsus. The palatalisation/frontness of the consonant prevented the vowel from becoming back. And of course the palatalised velars can be detected since they became Romance affricates everywhere but Sardinian (in the extinct Dalmatian only before /i/).

Latin did in fact have a velar stop followed by a front vowel: the good old QVI /kʷi/ (and NGVI /ngʷi/) where the stop is not simply velar, but labiovelar, which acts exactly like plain velarisation of the vowel but seems to be more of a consonantal feature. When the palatalisation of /ki/ progressed into affrication, these stops first lost their labialisation (hence It. che, Sp. que [k̟e] ) and in some areas further merged into the affricate, for example in your own native Rumanian as well as in southern Italy: ce [t͡ʃe].

In the comments you say that you're actively attempting not to palatalise the velars before front vowels, to make them intermediate, e.g. as in English with its strong resistance to co-articulation. In my opinion the degree of palatalisation before /i/ can only be decreased by making the vowel less palatal. This can be heard in many English accents where the bee vowel is actually a diphthong /ɪj/, the first element being lowered and centralised like the vowel of big - elsewhere neutralised to [ə] or even raised again to [ɨ]. Something similar might or might not have been true of Latin, which merged /ī/ with /ei/ around 150 BC, and started merging /e/ and /i/ before a vowel a couple of centuries later, so conceivably /ī/ was /ii/ was [ɪi̯]; but ultimately the difference clearly was allophonic, and this is one case where dismissing the whole issue because "we don't have actual recordings" is justified.

Together with the evidence in favour of Latin velars being palatalised before all front vowels, I don't think you should worry about this at all - the Rumanian chi (as well as che) would have sounded perfect to a Roman.

15
  • 3
    Lots of languages don't palatalize velars before front vowels to any significant degree. Sure, some degree of coarticulation may be inevitable, but that's a far cry from pronouncing palatal plosives or affricates as the question describes, which is clearly an L1 interference phenomenon.
    – TKR
    Oct 24 at 21:55
  • 2
    If I understand correctly OP is saying that they find it hard to pronounce Latin ci gi as [ki gi], but rather pronounce them "as either palatal plosives [or] postalveolar affricates". Since [ki gi] are easily pronounceable sequences that are common in many languages, the obvious explanation would be L1 interference. But it might help to have more phonetic details.
    – TKR
    Oct 24 at 23:55
  • 3
    This discussion, and in fact this question, really belong on Linguistics SE, but: a slightly fronted velar is still a velar. There are languages that contrast [ki] and [ci], not to mention plenty of languages that have [qi] (which should be even more impossible by the theory you're describing).
    – TKR
    Oct 25 at 17:35
  • 3
    I'm actually not sure how far recordings can take us here: if we're being technical, the difference between a velar and a palatal is whether the closure occurs on the soft or hard palate, and that's hard to tell from a recording. FWIW of your three recordings, the second (ghiveci) sounds least fronted to me, and I could probably find recordings with less fronting, but I couldn't tell you where the closure is happening without looking at a palatogram or the like. If you're saying that in every language in the world a sequence of velar plus front vowel is always fronted as far as the hard palate
    – TKR
    Oct 26 at 0:26
  • 3
    ...then that's a strong claim which needs some evidence (and raises more questions -- how front does the vowel have to be?). But again, it seems unlikely to me that the question is about these very fine phonetic contrasts.
    – TKR
    Oct 26 at 0:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.