Icelandic: kj/gj pronunciation

Gavril

Senior Member
English, USA
Hello,

I once saw a description of how Icelandic pronounces the letters kj (as in skjal, etc.), which stated that kj can be pronounced [ch]/[c] (aspirated/unaspirated palatal stop) or [kj] (palatalized velar stop).

Does the difference between the [c] and [kj] pronunciations depend on where kj appears in a word, or is this a regional/dialectal difference?

Also, I saw it stated that gj (as in gjöf, etc.) is always pronounced [c] in Icelandic, never [kj] -- is this accurate?

Many thanks
 
  • Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Now, it's been about a year since I last took any sort of phonetic/phonological course relating to Icelandic and I am a bit rusty, but speaking from general principles I think I'm pretty confident that I have an answer to the question. I am not sure where you saw it stated that Icelandic had [kj] as a sound, but that instantly seems dubious to me. The same principle that's at work in English is also at work in Icelandic, i.e. front vowels after canonically-velar plosives are palatalised, hence the 'k' in cow is different from the 'k' in key. Then you'd have complementary distribution of [ch]/[c] based on where they are in a word, i.e. word-initial aspiration unless neutralised by a preceding /s/.
    Also, I saw it stated that gj (as in gjöf, etc.) is always pronounced [c] in Icelandic, never [kj] -- is this accurate?
    That's much more in line with what I would have expected. As I said, I would be surprised if [kj] actually exists. Any word that starts with a possible candidate (k/g) that has a following frontal vowel drags the articulation of the once-velar sound forward in comparison to cases where it wouldn't otherwise. I'm comparing kjör and kór now under my breath and the initial k is pronounced clearly in two different places. I'd struggle to understand how someone could find it easy to use the k of kór [k] with a [j] approximant following it and still sound normal. It'd just have to be [c] in my opinion.
     

    Gavril

    Senior Member
    English, USA
    Thanks. Even if the consonant in kj- is not velar (i.e., not [k]), is the glide [j] normally retained, or does it tend to "disappear" into the preceding consonant?

    The transcription [c], as opposed to e.g. [cj], suggests that the glide does disappear into the consonant, but when I listened to some examples on Forvo.com, e.g. this one for kjálka, the glide definitely seemed to be there. However, this could partly be due to the pronunciations being elicited in isolation.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    This is the difficulty when it comes to representation of these approximants in a language's spelling system. There's an argument to be made in both cases whether or not it is the 'j' from the spelling. I think in faster speech it's much less likely to be as well perceived as it is in the recording, as you suggested. But it's also important to take a step back from the actual spelling because it can prove to be deceptive. There are a lot of English words that have this sound in them that's not represented in the spelling and it makes it unusual to talk about the [j] in funeral or puma (maybe not for an American speaker). The point being that if we temporarily create another word according to the sound system, that has a vowel in the high-frontal area of the mouth, quickly followed by another vowel in the opposite extreme of the mouth, then you can still see how the articulation pressures bring about this [j].

    Let's say the word was gríál (totally made-up word), then you can see the path going from í to á gives rise to what can be described as the same [j] from before. People who heard the word would probably be tempted to write grjál. A good example here in English is 'as free-j-as a bird' where the [j] comes in between 'free' and 'as' because of the high front vowel followed by a low-back one. The point being, whether 'kj'->[c] results in [c] + 'álka' or [cj] + álka, this intrusive-j still pops up in the first case because this is the exact situation where it often arises, connecting two vowels that span opposite extremes of the oral cavity. So, it's difficult to definitively say in a pronunciation whether it's retained or because of an articulation process that's extremely similar to how many other such words first got their 'j' in the spelling. Maybe there isn't a way to definitively answer that question. I don't know which explanation feels more natural to me.
     

    Silver_Biscuit

    Senior Member
    English - UK
    This might all be a bit over my head, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone skip the j in words containing kj or gj, if that's what you're talking about. There's a clear difference between l and kjálki, a and gjóa as far as I can tell. Although I've heard it inserted in words where it is not represented in the spelling (e.g. kerti, kærasti).
     
    This might all be a bit over my head, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone skip the j in words containing kj or gj, if that's what you're talking about. There's a clear difference between l and kjálki, a and gjóa as far as I can tell. Although I've heard it inserted in words where it is not represented in the spelling (e.g. kerti, kærasti).
    Super-old, sorry, but because nobody replied to you I feel like I have to:

    What they are talking about is the fact that kj and gj aren't actually pronounced that way in Icelandic, but rather as a more front-like stop than k/g, reprenanted as [c].
    This means that góa and gjóa ARE pronounced differently, but that difference is the difference between [kou:.a] and [cou:.a], not [kou:.a] and [kjou:.a].

    Note that this difference is so natural to a typical Icelander's ears that for us this all sounds just like gj and kj.

    This all comes back to you feeling like it's inserted in words like kert and kærasti, as this fronting of [k] into [c] doesn't just happen in front of j but also in front of i, í, y, ý, e, ei, ey and æ.
    This means that kerti is always pronounced like [cherti], but because there is no Icelandic word pronounced with [ke]/[khe] there is no need to write gj/kj.

    Fun fact: this is the reason why there is no correctly spelled Icelandic word that has gé or ké in it, as that sounds just like ge/ke when we pronounce it normally. The only common case of a word being spelled gé is the letter ge, which is often spelled gé because other letters such as bé and dé use é.

    So yeah, you were correct in that gj/kj sounds different from g/k, and that g/k in front of certain letters sounds like gj/kj, but you did miss the reason for this is not necessarily because the j is actually pronounced but rather because the g/k sound there is fundamentally different from the normal g/k sound.


    Sorry again for clearing this up for you almost three years late rather than to just let this old thread lie.
    Wish you a nice day =D
     
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