How Were Old Norse G and K Pronounced Before Front Vowels and J?

Written by Dyami Millarson

This water plant may seem grass, but it isn’t. This is a metaphor for the sound values of Old Norse g and k before front vowels and j, which might have seemed palatal, but weren’t.

Henry Sweet said in 1886: “k and g had a more front (palatal) sound before the front vowels e, ę, i, ö, ǫ̈, y, and their longs, as also before j, as kęnna (know), keyra (drive), gǫ̈ra (make), liggja (lie).” He also said: “kkj, ggj were probably pronounced simply as double front kk, gg, the j not being pronounced separately.” Implicitly drawing inspiration from Icelandic, Henry Sweet appears to suggest Old Norse g and k before front vowels as well as Old Norse gj and kj were realised as palatal plosives [c] and [ɟ] and kkj and ggj were realised as geminate palatal plosives [cː] and [ɟː]. To learn more about the Old Norse g and k in these specific environments, we have to take a look at the g and k in descendants.

Henry Sweet mentioned gǫ̈ra make, which has phonetically developed into [ˈjœːɾɛ] in Norwegian, [ˈjœːɾa] in Swedish, [ˈdz̺æːrɔ] in Elfdalian, [ˈɡ̊œːɐ] in Danish, [ˈcɛːra] and archaic [ˈcœːra] in Icelandic, and [ˈtʃeːɹa] in Faroese. We can thus see the Old Norse g before front vowels corresponds to Norwegian and Swedish [j], Elfdalian [dz̺], Danish [ɡ̊], Icelandic [c], and Faroese [tʃ].

Henry Sweet also mentioned kęnna know, which has developed into [ˈçɛ̝nːə] in Norwegian, [ˈɕɛnːa] in Swedish, [ˈkenːa] in Elfdalian, [ˈkʰenə] in Danish, [ˈcʰɛnːa] in Icelandic, and [ˈt͡ʃʰɛnːa] in Faroese. We can thus see Old Norse k before front vowels corresponds to Norwegian [ç], Swedish [ɕ], Elfalian [k], Danish [kʰ], Icelandic [cʰ], and Faroese [t͡ʃʰ].

Henry Sweet was on to something. Clearly something happened in Old Norse to produce all these Italian-sounding results, yet that thing which happened should be slight enough that it could easily be wholly reversed in Danish and partially reversed in Elfdalian.

Even gj produces [ɡ̊j] in Danish. For example, Danish [ˈɡ̊joːɐ] means done. This falsifies Henry Sweet’s assertion that the j in ggj and kkj was not pronounced separately. Namely, we cannot suppose [ɡ̊j] came from an original [ɟ] through depalatisation, because if that were so and if we suppose the g was also pronounced [ɟ] before front vowels, [ɡ̊j] should have occurred in places where the Danish [ɡ̊] now occurs, demonstrating that the sound of g before front vowels had not merged with the sound of g before j in Old Norse.

Three conclusions we can be drawn so far: (1) the g was phonetically distinguished from gj in Old Norse and the same must go for k and kj, (2) the g and k before front vowels in Old Norse must have been /g/-like and /k/-like enough in order to produce [ɡ̊] and [kʰ] respectively in Danish, and yet (3) the Old Norse g and k before front vowels must have sounded somewhat palatal, as Henry Sweet suggested, in order to produce all the Italian-sounding results in the descendants.

A clear phonetic paradox emerges: the Old Norse g and k before front vowels and j must not have sounded too palatal as that would mean it had progressed too far in order to produce the Danish sounds, yet the Old Norse g and k before front vowels and j had to be palatal enough to consistently produce palatal and palatal-like sounds in the descendants. This paradox may be rephrased as a question: why does Danish not exhibit signs of historical palatalisation while Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese do?

What if the sound were like [c] and [ɟ] but not exactly [c] and [ɟ]? There is such a sound in English, German, Danish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Belarusian, and Ukranian. The plosive sound that occurs in the aforementioned Germanic, Romance, and Slavic languages is a post-palatal. It particularly occurs in those languages before an i-sound, which corresponds to our thesis of a consonant change before front vowels and j in Old Norse. If we assume that the Old Norse g and k were pronounced post-palatal before front vowels and j, then Henry Sweet was almost right when he proclaimed these sounds exhibited “a more front (palatal) sound.” Henry Sweet might have been closer to the truth had he said something along the lines of: “The Old Norse k before front vowels and j had the more front (post-palatal) sound of k in keep and the Old Norse g before front vowels and j is the voiced counterpart of that sound.”

The post-palatal is represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet by adding a plus sign as a diacritic to the /g/ and /k/ as follows: /ɡ᫈ k̟/. The plus sign as a diacritic signifies that the sound is advanced (fronted). The advanced (fronted) /g/ and /k/ in Old Norse could easily develop into the clearly unpalatalised Danish sound values, but also develop into the palatalised or palatal-like sound values of Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese. Old Norse was clearly at a bifurcated point in the evolution of North Germanic languages, where they could either progressively develop palatalisation or not as in the case of Danish; the evolutionary junction where Old Norse found itself allowed for both the reversal of the post-palatal pronunciation as well as the palatalisation of the post-palatal plosives.

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