Friday, February 24, 2012

Meanwhile g becomes engma

First a bit of rant. Then some fun.

Ok, I get that this happes in Latin:
/n/ -> [ŋ] / _C(+velar)
For those who don't read linguistic algebra, I mean something pretty tame. Oh, and if you're studying Italian the same thing is true. The phoneme /n/ becomes the phone [ŋ] in front of velar phonemes like /k/ and /g/. And it makes sense: if you want to say incus (anvil), you don't want your tongue on your alveolar ridge [n] just before the velar consonant [k]. Adjust to [ŋ] and it's easier to say. ['ɪŋkus] is right. ['ɪnkus] is weird.

And I also get geminated consonants. You pronounce both p's in oppidum, so that ['oppɪdũ] is what you say. Likewise innocens is ['ɪnnoke:ns]. At least it is if you geminate consonants they way they do in Italian—a matter that I gather is open to question for Latin.

But magnus is [mɑŋnus]? I can reliably make that sound, but it isn't very easy or flowing. Some Latinists, my teachers among them, said [mɑgnus]. The [gn] pronunciation completely skips this problem, but I've not read anyone saying that this is how gn was actually pronounced. I want to get to the bottom of this, since Allen's argument in Vox Latina didn't seem all that good in light of two things.

First, [ŋn] isn't easy to say in running speech. Maybe it's just a practice thing as I can readily say agmen, which goes from velar to labial.

Nor, as Allen points out, does [ŋn] help explain developments in the Romance languages. This to me is the big consideration for any restoration of pronunciation. It must help explain later stages of the language, since those developments did occur.

One thing is certain: the gn in Latin isn't like the γγ in Greek. For whatever reason, the Romans thought gn was a separate sound from both nn and gg. After all, we've got agger and innocens. Both have geminated n's and g's. Greek allows for geminated [n]: ἐννέα. But anywhere you see γγ, be sure that you'll say [ŋg]—ἄγγελος. So there's some other thing that gn does in Latin. (And maybe when the kids are old enough to not bang on the piano while I work, I'll make a serious look-see into the matter.)

Now for the fun. No engma in your California case? Need one anyway? Just turn a capital G 180º. Presto! (Image lifted from wikipedia.)