Fricative or Affricate?


Jack Windsor Lewis has brought up the subject of the letter ‘j’ and its interpretation by English speakers when it comes in non-English words. It is a problem: in the Germanic languages, plus Polish, Czech and Italian it is regularly pronounced [j] (i.e. like the English consonantal ‘y’), but in Spanish it is a voiceless velar fricative [x], while in French and Portuguese it is a voiced palato-alveolar fricative [ʒ]. Only in English, among the languages best known in English-speaking countries, does ‘j’ (and sometimes ‘g’) represent a palato-alveolar affricate [dʒ]. So, what are English speakers to do when confronted with ‘j’ in a word or name of foreign origin? Jack mentions adagio, Beijing, Gigli, raj, and Taj (Mahal). To these, I can add an even stranger one: Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, in which the letter combination ‘dj’ makes it quite clear that the affricate is intended. Nevertheless, BBC reporters – even those stationed in West Africa – frequently pronounce this with a fricative rather than an affricate.

In one name, where the orthography has initial G, the ‘mistake’ is to use a velar plosive instead of the affricate: Genghis Khan. The -gh- in the middle gives away the fact that we have borrowed this spelling from Italian (perhaps as far back as Marco Polo), and that therefore while the medial consonant is a velar plosive, the initial one is intended to be an affricate. Confirmation of this comes from the German spelling given in the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch: Tschingis, and the names of various present-day Central Asians: Chingiz, although oddly, French seems to have opted for the opposite to the English mistake, and gone for two fricatives: Gengis, pronounced [ʒɛ̃ʒis] – at least according to the Larousse Dictionnaire de la prononciation. We are obviously afraid of the affricate – perhaps we know that it is rare in European languages, and assume that therefore it can’t ever be the right sound in a foreign word. But to my ears the result is not that we replace the affricate with the straight forward palato-alveolar fricative [ʒ] that occurs in pleasure [‘pleʒə], which is usually lip-rounded and laminal, but with a less lip-rounded, and often apical articulation.

Has anyone else noticed this?


  1. I think it is not a ‘mistake’ that the name Genghis Khan is pronounced [ˈɡɛŋɡɪs ˈkɑ:n]. When names (and indeed other lexical items) transfer from one language into another, they witness all kinds of phonological changes in order to accommodate themselves with the recipient languages. The name is pronounced in Arabic as [ˈdʒɪŋki:z ˈχɑ:n]. Other alternative (regional) pronunciations can be with an initial [ɡ], [ɟ] or [ʒ], depending upon which realization of the consonant ‘Jīm’ (ج) is used. When the Arabic word ‘masjid’ ([masdʒɪd / masʒɪd / masɡɪd]) was introduced into European languages, the latter realization possibly underwent phonological change where [ɡ] was devoiced into [k] in English “mosque” [mɒsk]. In German the choice was for [ʒ] to be devoiced into [ʃ] in Moschee.

  2. Note about phonetic symbols in my comment:

    Phonetic symbols read well in Firefox browser. In Internet Explorer many symbols may not appear. Please note also that the voiced velar plosive [g] may appear in some browsers as [Y].

  3. Hola, Graham:

    Mi inglés no me permite entender apenas nada, pero aprovecho para saludarte.

    Hoy, 22/02/2008, aniversario de la muerte de Antonio Machado, te invito a pasarte por mi blog.

    Un abrazo,

  4. Abdul makes the valid point that Genghis Khan may show the same sort of regional variation that the Arabic ‘masjid’ has undergone in European languages. However, the first mention of Genghis in the English Pronouncing Dictionary is not until the 14th edition (Jones and Gimson, 1977), and the only pronunciation given there is the one with an affricate: [ˈdʒeŋɡɪs]. [ˈɡeŋɡɪs] doesn’t appear until the Ramsaran revision of the 14th edition in 1988. My interpretation of this sequence of events is that while [ˈɡeŋɡɪs] may have been quite common before that, [ˈdʒeŋɡɪs] was considered to be the ‘standard’ English pronunciation.

  5. current Italian spelling is Gengis Khan; presumaby it has changed since Marco Polo’s times to match pronunciation [‘jɛnjis]

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