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Europe is divided in many ways, but one thing that most countries share is the Latin alphabet.  Dozens of languages across the continent all use the same script, and even languages that don’t, such as Greek and Russian, share many of the same characters. The common script, however, diverges wildly from place to place when spoken aloud.   Each European language has undergone its own unique evolution which affects how its letters are spoken, and it is fascinating to see how and why they diverge.

This post from Dina Rickman on i100.co.uk has 9 maps which show how selected consonants vary in sound across Europe, based on the research of post-doctoral researcher Alexander Young at the University of Washington.  Today I want to look at a few of the most interesting ones.


Map of the Letter “J” across Europe (via http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/how-selected-consonants-sound-around-europe-in-9-maps–xJRqqkw2JZ)

Anyone who has studied another European language has seen how odd the letter “j” is.  It did not even exist in Latin, and only became a letter later on, initially taking on the sound of “y” as a consonant.  In German, it still has this sound (think “ja”).  In French, “j” sounds like the “s” in “vision”, or in the French word “je”, for “I”.  Spanish treats “j” just like an English “h”.  It is odd to think that if you ask an Englishman, Spaniard, Frenchman, and German to read the letter “j”, you will hear four different sounds.  Each one sounds right to speaker but wrong to the other listeners.


The Letter “R” (via http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/how-selected-consonants-sound-around-europe-in-9-maps–xJRqqkw2JZ)

Who knew there was this much variation in how people say “r”?  There are three different “r”s, and the most popular, by far, is the rolled “r”, which is often a struggle for first-time Spanish students.  This is the first time that I’m learning about the “rough r” spoken in some areas of France and Germany, and I am curious to hear how it sounds.  Finally, there is the “r” that the English and Irish (but not the Welsh or Scottish) are most familiar with.


The Letter “G” (via http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/how-selected-consonants-sound-around-europe-in-9-maps–xJRqqkw2JZ)

G is a really odd letter, because even within one language, it can be pronounced multiple ways.  In English, we have a hard “h” and a soft “g”, depending (usually) on which vowel follows the “g”.  As the map above explains, the type of “g” used also depends on where the word came from.  French loan words have a softer “g” (like “gem”), whereas German loan words have the harder “g” (think “gift”).  Meanwhile, the French do not pronounce “g” the way the English pronounce “g” words that come from French, instead using the same sound they use for the French “j”.  Go to Spain, and they say a soft “g” like an “h”, in Swedish they say it like a “y”, and in Finnish, they don’t say it at all (“g” only appears as part of “ng”).  This map does not include Greek, but I can attest that the Greek version of “g”, gamma, is famously hard to pronounce for non-Speakers, being a guttural combination of a hard “g” and an English “y”.  This is why the “gyro”, the Greek pita bread wrap, is chronically mispronounced.

For even more maps of consonant sounds across Europe, check out this link: http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/how-selected-consonants-sound-around-europe-in-9-maps–xJRqqkw2JZ