Gouda? Gezellig? What is this strange sound that the Dutch use for their letter “g”? I have been intrigued by this for a while now, so I went to talk with Fonetics and Fonology professor Hugo Quéne to figure that out!
“So, first of all, us foneticians, when we talk about sound, we don’t use the alphabet letters, because, as you see, their meanings change across languages and cultures. We use a phonetic alphabet, and you can find the phonetic translation of words in a good dictionary”, explains Hugo. ”This sound also appears in other languages, like the German ‘achtung’, as ‘ch’, or the Hindi ‘khan’, where kh can also be pronounced like that.”
I was interested in learning how to produce the perfect “g” sound to impress all my friends! This is a step-by-step guide:
“So you have to start with the tongue on the top of your mouth, ready to say something that sounds like ‘k’. So for example, let’s start with ‘cow’. You lower the tongue just a little bit but you stay in the same position, and then you go from one sound to the desired ‘g’ sound.” Goed!
The ‘g’ sound in Dutch that we want can have two fonetic translations: /x/, called the voiceless velar fricative, and the /ɣ/, the voiced velar fricative . The what now? “It’s called a velar consonant because it occurs around the velum, towards the back of your mouth. Fricative means that it is created by the friction between the air and your mouth, you need air in turbulence while the sound is produced.” About the voiced and voiceless, the story gets more interesting. The difference between both sounds is that the voiceless is produced a little bit more to the back of the throat compared to the voiced, and the voiceless doesn’t use vocal cord vibration. “Nowadays, almost everyone in the Netherlands is using the voiceless version. For the older generation, there is a clear distinction about words that use the voiced and the voiceless, but it is really hard to say which are which, it is really getting lost. Only if you go the remote areas, like Friesland, you could actually find these differences. And even then, only with the old people.” There is a hint, though. “Long long ago, it used to be that ‘ch’ was the voiceless sound, and the ‘g’ was the voiced, but not anymore”.
Finally, he described a regional variance that is very easy to grasp. “There is an interesting regional variation between the parts that we call ‘north of the rivers’, traditionally protestant regions, and the southerner parts, predominantly roman catholic. The first one uses the ‘g’ that we have described, and that’s why you hear it in Utrecht. The second uses the ‘soft g sound’.” This softer version is called a front velar fricative and it can sometimes sound a little sibilating.
Now you are ready to go out and be a serious speaker Dutch, and also to tell where your friends come from in the Netherlands!