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In Italian, the group gn is pronounced differently from English. (See for example magnolia, which is pronounced /ma'ɲoːlja/ in Italian.)

What is the correct pronunciation of gn, in English, for example in the following words?

  • Campaign
  • Foreign
  • Sign
  • Signed

Is there any word containing gn that is pronounced differently from the usual because of its origin, or because it is a loanword?

  • 2
    Are requests for lists valid on ELL? All the words provided have gn sounded just like a single n. However in the word signature the gn is split across two syllables and is pronounced as a hard g followed by an n And then there is the word gnu. Which I've heard pronounced both ways. – Jim Jan 28 '13 at 1:46
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    I am not requesting a list. I simply asked if there is any word for which gn is pronounced differently because of the word origin, for which the answer is simply yes, or not. Also, that is not the main question; users are free not to answer that part. – kiamlaluno Jan 28 '13 at 1:52
  • I thought of lasagne and signor, which get a y sound after the n. Of course, these are derived from words of Italian origin. – J.R. Jan 28 '13 at 2:31
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In all of these ‘gn’ words the ‘g’ is silent—not pronounced. They all came into English from French fairly early and have been thoroughly ‘naturalized’.

Words with ‘gn’ which came into English directly from Latin, such pugnacious, preserve the /g/ sound. But some of these have French-mediated cognates without the /g/—impugn is one such. Signature, although it came into English from French in the 14th century, was at some point reinterpreted as if it came directly from Latin signatus, and is pronounced with the /g/. Your magnolia is even more curious—it derives from the name of the French botanist Magnol, but by way of the Latinized botanical name of the plant (which was conferred upon it by an English admirer), so it pronounces the /g/.

There are some ‘gn’ words from Greek; these preserve the /g/ when it follows a vowel (agnostic, anagnorosis), but not at the beginning of a word (gnostic, gnome).

There are many more recent words from both French and Italian which are so to speak ‘permanently resident aliens’; these retain their native pronunciations (more or less—you might not be very happy with our pronunciation of terms from your own language) with /nj/: cognac, lasagne, carmagnole, bagnio and gnocchi.

Finally there are the words starting with ‘gn’ which descended from Old English. These all retained the /g/ into Middle English down to the period when spelling began to be regularized, but subsequently lost it. ‘gn’ inside OE words lost the /g/ sound much earlier, which is why the letter ‘g’ no longer appears in (for example) rain < OE regn.

ADDED:
And Jim reminds us of gnu. Dictionaries license both /nu:/ and /nju:/; the word is variously said to derive via Dutch gnoe from Khoikoi gnou or Khoikhoi i-ngu repesenting Southern Bushman !nu:.

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    One might add that the language learner may benefit as much by paying attention to the effect of surrounding sounds as by paying attention to the word's origin -- as you imply, /g//n/ at the front of words is disallowed in English. There are other useful patterns: the /g/ is pronounced in signature, signet, significance, resignation--i.e., when the 'i' is short. But /g/ is not pronounced when the 'i' is long, as in sign, co-sign, resigning, etc. (Interestingly, signet and sign appear to have been borrowed around the same time, but that doesn't help in distinguishing them.) – Merk Sep 30 '13 at 7:36
  • The "g" in "gnome" is silent? Huh, TIL – htmlcoderexe Mar 24 '17 at 19:29
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I beg to differ with the previous answers.

It has nothing to do with the etymology/origin of these words. It's a phonological phenomenon.

Words that end with 'gn' have the 'g' elided from them because English phonotactics does not allow 'gn' in the coda or onset of a syllable.

Short answer:

When the 'gn' is followed by a vowel, pronounce the /g/ and /n/ but in separate syllables.

In 'magnolia', the gn is followed by a vowel sound which splits up the gn into two separate syllables; the /g/ moves to the preceding syllable while the /n/ moves to the next syllable, therefore the g in this case is not elided (silent) while in 'compaign', 'foreign', 'sign', there's no vowel sound after the gn so the g is elided because /gn/ is not an allowed consonant cluster in English.

It's the same in 'signature' and other words having 'gn'.

Examples:

  • Sign → signature
  • Resign → resignation
  • Design → designation
  • Impugn → pugnacious
  • Sign → signal
  • Assign → assignation
  • Malign → malignant

In all these words, the 'gn' is followed by a vowel sound so the 'gn' is pronounced (not /gn/ but /g/ and /n/ in separate syllables).

Detailed answer: Head over to ELU for more details. I've explained this phenomenon twice in detail (ELU): Explanation 1, explanation 2

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i can think of only one other gn pronunciation in the English language and that rare occurence is the result of slang. In the instance of the Parker Brothers game gnip gnop in which the g is pronounced with a hard g followed by an n. this game title resulted by spelling ping pong backwards! ha! hilarious!

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  • Welcome to ELL. This is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum, and your response does not answer the original question. I encourage you to visit the help center for guidance. – choster Mar 7 '14 at 15:16

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