k / g

Phonemes /k/ and /g/ share manner and place of articulation and differ in voicing (/k/ is voiceless and /g/ is voiced). So, in theory they are exactly the same sound except for the fact that when we produce a /g/ our vocal folds vibrate and when it is a /k/ they don’t. Unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated than that. In order to pronounce /k/ and /g/ well, we have to take into account more elements, and this is even more important when we compare them to Spanish /k/ and /g/.

One very important thing is that almost everything said here about /k/ and /g/ can be applied to  the pairs /p/-/b/ and /t/-/d/ because the three plosive pairs behave in the same way.

Let’s start by listening to these minimal pairs:

sound_loud_speaker cold – gold

sound_loud_speaker came – game

sound_loud_speaker class – glass

sound_loud_speaker curd – gird

sound_loud_speaker crew – grew

You will probably have noticed that, even though /k/ and /g/ are different, they are produced in a very similar way.


k (velar, plosive, voiceless)

Spelling: k (key), ke (make), c (come), ch (character), che (ache),  cc (occur), ck (pack), qu (quarter), cq (acquire)

 

Let’s now compare the following words:

sound_loud_speaker cost – coste      sound_loud_speaker calm – calma     sound_loud_speaker kilo – kilo      sound_loud_speaker culture – cultura

Listen to them in context:

sound_loud_speaker The cost is the problem.        sound_loud_speaker El problema es el coste

sound_loud_speaker It weighs three kilos.              sound_loud_speaker Pesa tres kilos.

Where does this big difference between English and Spanish /k/ lie? I’m sure you’ve heard the puff of air -like a small explosion- which is expelled when an English /k/ is produced. This is called aspiration and it is an essential characteristic of English voiceless plosives (/p/, /t/ and /k/) when they appear at the beginning of a stressed syllable. It is a feature that doesn’t exist in Spanish, so we have to get used to doing it in the English way. As we’ll see in a moment, learning how to pronounce /p/, /t/ and /k/ correctly -that is, accompanied by that puff of air- is crucial to avoiding misunderstandings.

 

Here are some examples of /k/ produced by native speakers:

sound_loud_speaker Confident that her relationship was ticking over beautifully, of course it wasn’t (Ben Kingsley, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker They had all sorts of secret code words (Judith Hawley, BBC4)

sound_loud_speaker Those things do provide a kind of philosophical programme (Jonathan Bate, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker George came to the Grand Hotel, anticipating a concentrated examination of the evidence in his case (Julian Barnes, KUSP).

sound_loud_speaker But how much was the movement characterized by those two poets? (Melvyn Bragg, BBC4)


 

 (velar, plosive, voiced)

Spelling: g (again), gg (egg), gh (ghost), gu (guardian), gue (rogue)

 

And now let’s compare the English and Spanish /g/ sounds.

sound_loud_speaker guide – guía      sound_loud_speaker government – gobierno       sound_loud_speaker Gas – gas     sound_loud_speaker guitar – guitarra

Listen to them in context:

sound_loud_speaker It’s a new wine guide.                                       sound_loud_speaker Es una nueva guía de vinos.

sound_loud_speaker It smells of gas in here.                                    sound_loud_speaker Aquí huele a gas.

You’ve probably noticed that the English and Spanish /g/ are not the same. As we said with the /b/, the English /g/ sounds dry and flat while the Spanish /g/ sounds somewhat richer. This is because the three voiced plosives (/b/, /d/, /g/) are devoiced when they come at the beginning of a word, that is, they are produced with no vocal fold vibration.

 

Let’s listen to some clips where the /g/ is pronounced by native speakers.

 

sound_loud_speaker I think Romanticism begins with strong feeling rather than rational thought (Jonathan Bate, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker Because I had at least ten years, thank goodness, with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Ben Kingsley, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker But somewhere on that journey, under the guidance of the ferryman, you have absorbed something life-changing and extraordinary (Ben Kingsley, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker Guilt is common to both those situations (Derek Jacobi, BBC4).

 

The devoicing of voiced plosives has a very important consequence. When /k/ and /g/ are at the beginning of words, English speakers don’t distinguish them by their voicing, since /k/ is voiceless and /g/ is devoiced (so, there is no vocal fold activity in either of them, they’re both voiceless de facto). They distinguish them because of the presence or absence of aspiration -the puff of air mentioned before-, because /k/ is aspirated and /g/ isn’t (remember the minimal pair cold-gold sound_loud_speaker). So if you pronounce the sound /k/ in the Spanish way -that is, without aspiration-, an English speaker is most likely to understand a /g/ (as I said, this happens with the pairs /p/-/b/ and /t/-/d/ too). So, maybe you are trying to say cane, but your interlocutor might understand gain.

 

g between sounds. Finally we’ll address an issue which is responsible for the strong foreign accent of many Spanish speakers of English: the pronunciation of voiced plosives (/b/, /d/ and /g/) within words. Let’s listen to the following examples:

sound_loud_speaker agosto – August                                         sound_loud_speaker Uganda – Uganda       sound_loud_speaker ignorant – ignorante  

sound_loud_speaker agglomeration – aglomeración       sound_loud_speaker agony – agonía                sound_loud_speaker demagog – demagogo

It is clear that the English /g/ is very different form the Spanish /g/ when it is found inside a word. Here the problem is that, in medial position, the Spanish /g/ is no longer a plosive but a fricative. This means that we don’t stop the flow of air before producing the sound. Instead, we go smoothly from one sound to the other. Remember that in a velar  plosive the obstacle to the airstream is performed and felt at the back of the mouth: the back of the tongue rises and produces the closure. You can feel this very clearly by saying these two Spanish words.

sound_loud_speaker gata. Notice how the back of your tongue rises and there is a momentary closure before you say the /g/. This is because at the beginning of a word the /g/ is a plosive.

sound_loud_speaker ágata. Notice how you don’t rise the back of your tongue in the same way and the /g/ is produced without any blockage to the flow or air. This is because, in Spanish, in medial position the /g/ is a fricative.

Now, the problem is that in English the /g/ is always a plosive, so you have to be careful to do the closure. Like this:

sound_loud_speaker agate (not sound_loud_speaker*)     sound_loud_speaker again (never sound_loud_speaker*)

Here’s an example of the /g/ within a word:

sound_loud_speaker In many ways, it’s a reaction against the rationalism in philosophy which dominated the eighteenth century (Jonathan Bate, BBC4).

Do it in this way and you’ll get rid of the problem once and for all.

But, unfortunately, the trouble doesn’t stop here. There is another little detail to mention. We don’t normally speak in isolated words, but in chunks of speech where words are linked to one another. We produce an uninterrupted stretch of sound. For this reason, we are likely to pronounce the /g/ badly even when it comes at the beginning of a word. Have look at this example:

sound_loud_speaker He relaxed by going for a walk.

This is the correct pronunciation of by going sound_loud_speaker But many Spanish speakers are likely to say it like this sound_loud_speaker*

Keep this point also in mind and you’ll improve your pronunciation immensely.

It is also very interesting to compare this section with those devoted to the other two voiced plosives, so you can check between sounds and d between sounds.

 

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