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I've always been taught that "g" in ga, go, gu (or "gu" in gue and gui) sounds the same, like English "g".

But most online tutorials don't make the "g" quite audible, like this one (9th voice). It sounds like "ahua" or even "ajua". Also the 4th voice "guapo" sounds like "huapo".

It's not exclusive to the link above, but I've always heard "gua" spoken like "hua", everywhere, so I believe it's a special or de facto rule. Anyway, it conflicts with what I've been taught.

Where am I wrong?

Please treat the Hs and Js in this post as Spanish H and J, i.e., H is silent and J sounds like /x/.

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You are not hearing wrong. Spanish /g/ sounds different according to its position in the word; in technical terms, it has several phonetical realizations or allophones. The basic sound is what in English is called a "hard G", that it, the voiced velar stop [g]. This is the usual pronunciation of /g/ at the beginning of words and after most consonants.

However, Spanish /g/ between vowels is pronounced [ɣ], a voiced velar fricative. This is what you hear as close to [h] or [x] in the example with the word agua (and others). Some people and/or dialects further weaken this fricative to an approximant, especially in fast, careless speech, and some may even elide it altogether. This weakening is always clear between vowels, but sometimes takes place also after liquids (/l/, /r/).

You will be understood if you pronounce a hard G between vowels, but to native ears it will sound a bit too strong, almost like /k/.

The same thing that happens to /g/ happens also to /b/ and /d/ between vowels (see the relevant section on Spanish phonology in Wikipedia).

The other thing you noticed is that /g/ before a dipthong that begins with /u/ (phonetically [gw]) tends to get reduced as well. This is not universal. As Paco says in another answer, the two velar sounds seem to be interacting and the /g/ is dropped while the [w] is strengthened a bit. It is also common to find the opposite phenomenon: [w] by itself turning into [gw] at the beginning of words (prothesis): people will say [gweβo] for huevo, for example, and even write güebeo for hueveo.

This back-and-forth between [g] and [w] is how the Quechua word wanaku got borrowed into Spanish as guanaco. It is also (going farther back) how the modern Spanish word guerra "war" was derived from Proto-Germanic *werra: first a prothetic [g] was added, and then [gw] was simplified to [g] in some Romance languages (like Spanish) but not in others (like Italian).

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  • 1
    Interesting that you mention that plosive [g] might sound like /k/... coincidentally, just earlier today, I read an article that said in some present-day accents of Spanish, intervocalic /p t k/ are voiced or partially voiced, but contrast with /b d g/ because the latter are realized as approximants/fricatives. "Consonant lenition and phonological recategorization", José Ignacio Hualde, Miquel Simonet & Marianna Nadeu: "voicing [...] appears to be particularly frequent in Cuban and Canary Island Spanish"
    – sumelic
    Oct 20 '17 at 0:27
  • @sumelic Yep. What happens is that, if two distinctive features go together, one tends to become the main one and the other is neglected. In Spanish, if a phonetic stop is found between vowels, then it must be one of /p t k/; if it were one of /b d g/ it would be a fricative. So the mode of articulation is enough to distinguish it, and the voicing becomes secondary.
    – pablodf76
    Oct 20 '17 at 1:37
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You're right. It seems to be a dialectal pronunciation of the group /gu̯a/. There's some kind of elision/dissimilation of the two velar sounds /gu̯/ so only the vowel remains. To be honest, I as a native wouldn't have noticed if I wasn't paying close attention.

In any case, the normal pronunciation should include the /g/ sound.

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  • You're right but, the voices are recorded obviously for teaching purposes, so shouldn't they follow the canonical rules and stay away from possible dialectal pronunciations?
    – iBug
    Oct 19 '17 at 8:34
  • 1
    Yes, but just the same way I wouldn't have noticed, those speakers seem not to be aware. It's not an obvious variation like /x/ vs. /h/, /θ/ vs. /s/, etc. I guess that's the explanation...
    – Paco
    Oct 19 '17 at 11:27
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The answer is very simple. For some people G and H sounds almost the same in the cases you are mentioning. I know it is perplexing ("They don't sound the same!" -you could say) but that is how it is.

One other example I can say is that for some people "ll" and "y" sounds the same. It is called "yeismo" I think

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  • "ll" and "y" sounding the same is a dialect, mostly in Latin America. I heard that they shouldn't be the same as they actually are in España.
    – iBug
    Oct 20 '17 at 6:10
  • It is a little more complicated than dialects. Take notice of how "c" or "z" sounds in Latin America as opposed to Spain. They both are pronounced "s" but latinamericans know they sound different. They can hear it. They just choose not to differentiate it. yeismo instead is the actual physical impossibility of differentiating sounds. As I said they sound the same. so it is more than just dialect use Oct 20 '17 at 7:43
  • I believe "s/c" and "z" are different. One is /s/ while the other is /θ/. The same as English "s" and "th", though I can't tell 'em apart.
    – iBug
    Oct 20 '17 at 8:40
  • "ll" and "y" sounding the same are not a dialect!, is just pronunciation. This is only in Argentina and Uruguay. Oct 22 '17 at 1:04
  • @iBug Yes, they are different, but latin americans pronounce them all as /s/. Oct 23 '17 at 0:16

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