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Recently I heard native speakers pronouncing 'gender' with a soft 'g', almost sounding like 'jan' from 'January'. I've instantly looked it up at dict.cc and YouTube: seems like this is the correct pronunciation.

However, I'm wondering why the 'g' isn't a hard 'g'. I mean 'get' or 'git' (the software), 'goal' and many more have a hard 'g', thus not sounding like a 'j' at all.

Is there any rule of thumb for the pronunciation of a 'g'? How can I ascertain whether a word should be pronounced with a soft or hard 'g'?

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    @P.E.Dant: It's on topic here too, in that any rules of thumb that exist would be quite handy for learners. (Assuming there are any: I am dubious.) – Nathan Tuggy Aug 15 '16 at 5:50
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    Of course it's not random, in English or any language. No language has genuine rules. If they did, it would be very easy to learn them. Read the link at ELU and search there for more posts on the subject. – P. E. Dant Aug 15 '16 at 6:23
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    @P.E.Dant: If learners need to know about roots to understand a helpful rule for them, I don't see why we can't give them something of that, although it's likely to be a different treatment than ELU would give. – Nathan Tuggy Aug 15 '16 at 6:29
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    Being a non-native speaker, I have to resort to dictionaries a lot of times. (How am I supposed to know the pronunciations of words like gigabyte, gargantuan, gigantic, gaol, or phlegm the first time I run into them?! It's not only g. It's everywhere. Even simple words like awry, niche, or colonel are not quite intuitive. Not to mention fancier words and names like brougham, or Aslackby and Laughton!) If someone asked me if there's any rule of thumb for the pronunciation of 'g', I might tell them, "Dictionaries"! :-) – Damkerng T. Aug 15 '16 at 12:12
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    @DamkerngT Also: gnat, gnu, gymnasium, gynecology, Geoff, give, gibe, etc (perhaps my all time favorite: victuals) – Alan Carmack Aug 15 '16 at 13:13
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English has words derived from many languages, some with different orthographies.

gender

derives from Latin and Old French, and words from that lineage use the soft g before e

get

derives from Norse, which uses the hard g before "e"

So as a rule of thumb, if the vowel following the g is a non-front vowel (a, o u) then the g is hard. Otherwise (e, i, y) you need to know whether the word is Latinate (soft g) or Germanic(hard g).

No doubt there will be many exceptions to this rule, not least of which is Margarine, which is pronounced with a soft g, unlike Margaret with a hard g.

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