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Anger management

Q: During a recent bout of insomnia, I got to thinking of “anger,” not its irateness sense but its sound. We pronounce “anger,” “banger,” and other similar words with a hard “g.” But “danger,” “stranger,” and others have a soft “g.” I don’t know how “onager” sounds. Should this be keeping me awake? Or should I take a sleeping pill?

A: We’ll try to answer your questions (and perhaps help you with your insomnia) without putting the other readers of the blog to sleep.

The letter “g” has several distinct sounds in English. And so do the letter combinations “ng” and “ger,” which are found in many words with different pronunciations.

Contrary to what you suggest, “anger” and “banger” don’t have identical final syllables.

The “ger” in “anger” is like that in “longer” and “finger.” The “g” is plainly a hard consonant, and sounds as it does at the beginning of words like “go” and “girl.”

But the “ger” in “banger” is silent, like that in “hanger” and “singer” and “ringer.” In these words, the “ang” and “ing” combinations sound like the first two letters in “ankle” and “ink.”

Finally, the “ger” in “stranger” and similar words (including “onager,” the wild donkey of central Asia) sounds like a “j.”

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that in modern English the letter “g” has a “hard” sound in these cases (I’ll add examples):

(1) at the end of a word (“log,” “rag”);

(2) before a consonant (“grin,” “gleam”); 

(3) before the letters “a,” “o,” and “u” (“gather,” “go,” “gut”); exceptions are the British “gaol” and “gaoler,” which in American English are spelled “jail” and “jailer”;

(4) before the letters “e” and “i” in words that have Germanic origins (“girl,” “get”);

(5) in Hebrew proper names (“Gideon”).

But “g” has a “soft” or “j”-like sound  sound before the letters “e,” “i,” and “y” in words that come from Latin (“gender,” “giant,” “gym”).

In an interesting note about the “ng” combination, the OED says modern pronunciation is “somewhat inconsistent” when the pair occurs in the middle of a two-syllable word.

In words that are inflections or derivatives of verbs, the dictionary says, generally “the g is silent, as in singer, singeth, singing.”

But the letter “is sounded in the comparatives and superlatives of adjs., as in younger, longer,” and in “other words generally, as finger.”

We hope this helps you sleep – without a trip to your medicine cabinet!

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