Galician phonology

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This article is about the phonology and phonetics of the Galician language.


The vowel phonemes of Galician, from Regueira (1996:120)

Galician has seven vowel phonemes. These same ones are found under stress in standard Italian, standard Catalan, and Brazilian Portuguese (when counting its "nasal vowels" as diphthongs). It is likely that this 7-vowel system was even more widespread in the early stages of Romance languages.

Phoneme (IPA) Grapheme Examples
/a/ a nada
/e/ e tres
/ɛ/ ferro
/i/ i min
/o/ o bonito
/ɔ/ home
/u/ u rúa

Some characteristics of the vocalic system:

  • In Galician the vocalic system is reduced to five vowels in post-tonic syllables, and to just three in final unstressed position: [ɪ, ʊ, ɐ] (which can instead be transcribed as [e̝, o̝, a̝]).[1] In some cases, vowels from the final unstressed set appear in other positions, as e.g. in the word termonuclear [ˌtɛɾmʊnukleˈaɾ], because the prefix termo- is pronounced [ˈtɛɾmʊ].[2][3]
  • Unstressed close-mid vowels and open-mid vowels (/e ~ ɛ/ and /o ~ ɔ/) can occur in complementary distribution (e.g. ovella [oˈβeʎɐ] 'sheep' / omitir [ɔmiˈtiɾ] 'to omit' and pequeno [peˈkenʊ] 'little, small' / emitir [ɛmiˈtiɾ] 'to emit'), with few minimal pairs like botar [boˈtaɾ] 'to throw' vs. botar [bɔˈtaɾ] 'to jump'.[4] In pretonic syllables, close-/open-mid vowels are kept in derived words and compounds (e.g. c[ɔ]rd- > corda [ˈkɔɾðɐ] 'string' → cordeiro [kɔɾˈðejɾʊ] 'string-maker'—which contrasts with cordeiro [koɾˈðejɾʊ] 'lamb').[4]
  • Of the seven vocalic phonemes of the tonic and pretonic syllables, only /a/ has a set of different renderings (allophones), forced by its context:[5]
    • [ä] (short central): normal realization of the phoneme.
    • [äː] (long central): due to contraction, as in ra [ˈraː] 'frog' < rãa < Latin rāna.[6]
    • [ɑ̟] (short advanced back): when next to /ŋ, k, ɡ, l, w/.
    • [] (short retracted front): before a palatal consonant.
  • All dialectal forms of Galician but Ancarese, spoken in the Ancares valley in León, have lost the phonemic quality of mediaeval nasal vowels. Nevertheless, any vowel is nasalized in contact with a nasal consonant.[7]
  • The vocalic system of Galician language is heavily influenced by metaphony. Regressive metaphony is produced either by a final /a/, which tend to open medium vowels, or by a final /o/, which can have the reverse effect. As a result, metaphony affects most notably words with gender opposition: sogro [ˈsoɣɾʊ] ('father-in-law') vs. sogra [ˈsɔɣɾɐ] ('mother-in-law').[8] On the other hand, vowel harmony, triggered by /i/ or /u/, has had a large part in the evolution and dialectal diversification of the language.

Galician language possesses a large set of falling diphthongs:

Galician diphthongs
[aj] caixa 'box' [aw] autor 'author'
[ɛj] papeis 'papers' [ɛw] deu 'he/she gave'
[ej] queixo 'cheese' [ew] bateu 'he/she hit'
[ɔj] bocoi 'barrel'
[oj] loita 'fight' [ow] pouco 'little'

There are also a certain number of rising diphthongs, but they are not characteristic of the language and tend to be pronounced as hiatus.[9]


Phoneme (IPA) Main allophones[10] Graphemes Example
/b/ [b], [β̞] b, v bebo [ˈbeβ̞ʊ] '(I) drink', alba [ˈalβ̞ɐ] 'sunrise', vaca [ˈbakɐ] 'cow', cova [ˈkɔβ̞ɐ] 'cave'
/θ/ [θ] (dialectal [s]) z, c macio [ˈmaθjʊ] 'soft', cruz [ˈkɾuθ] 'cross'
/tʃ/ [tʃ] ch chamar [tʃaˈmaɾ] 'to call', achar [aˈtʃaɾ] 'to find'
/d/ [d], [ð̞] d vida [ˈbið̞ɐ] 'life', cadro [ˈkað̞ɾʊ] 'frame'
/f/ [f] f feltro [ˈfɛltɾʊ] 'filter', freixo [ˈfɾejʃʊ] 'ash-tree'
/ɡ/ [ɡ], [ɣ] (dialectal [ħ]) g, gu fungo [ˈfuŋɡʊ] 'fungus', guerra [ˈɡɛrɐ] 'war', o gato [ʊ ˈɣatʊ] 'the cat'
/k/ [k] c, qu casa [ˈkasɐ] 'house', querer [keˈɾeɾ] 'to want'
/l/ [l] l lua [ˈluɐ] 'moon', algo [ˈalɣʊ] 'something', mel [ˈmɛl] 'honey'
/ʎ/ [ʎ] (or [ʝ]) ll mollado [moˈʎað̞ʊ] 'wet'
/m/ [m], [ŋ][11] m memoria [meˈmɔɾjɐ] 'memory', campo [ˈkampʊ] 'field', álbum [ˈalβuŋ]
/n/ [n], [m], [ŋ][11] n niño [ˈniɲʊ] 'nest', onte [ˈɔntɪ] 'yesterday', conversar [kombeɾˈsaɾ] 'to talk', irmán [iɾˈmaŋ] 'brother'
/ɲ/ [ɲ][11] ñ mañá [maˈɲa] 'morning'
/ŋ/ [ŋ][11] nh algunha [alˈɣuŋɐ] 'some'
/p/ [p] p carpa [ˈkaɾpɐ] 'carp'
/ɾ/ [ɾ] r hora [ˈɔɾɐ] 'hour', coller [koˈʎeɾ] 'to grab'
/r/ [r] r, rr rato [ˈratʊ] 'mouse', carro [ˈkarʊ] 'cart'
/s/ [s̺] (dialectal [s̻]),[12] [z̺] s selo [ˈs̺elʊ] 'seal, stamp', cousa [ˈkows̺ɐ] 'thing', mesmo [ˈmɛz̺mʊ] 'same'
/t/ [t] t trato [ˈtɾatʊ] 'deal'
/ʃ/ [ʃ] x[13] xente [ˈʃentɪ] 'people', muxica [muˈʃikɐ] 'ash-fly'

Voiced plosives (/ɡ/, /d/ and /b/) are lenited (weakened) to approximants or fricatives in all instances, except after a pause or a nasal consonant; e.g. un gato 'a cat' is pronounced [uŋ ˈɡatʊ], whilst o gato 'the cat' is pronounced [ʊ ˈɣatʊ].

During the modern period, Galician consonants have undergone significant sound changes that closely parallel the evolution of Spanish consonants, including the following changes that neutralized the opposition of voiced fricatives / voiceless fricatives:

  • /z/ > /s/;
  • /dz/ > /ts/ > [s] in western dialects, or [θ] in eastern and central dialects;
  • /ʒ/ > /ʃ/;

For a comparison, see Differences between Spanish and Portuguese: Sibilants. Additionally, during the 17th and 18th centuries the western and central dialects of Galician developed a voiceless fricative pronunciation of /ɡ/ (a phenomenon called gheada). This may be glottal [h], pharyngeal [ħ], uvular [χ], or velar [x].[14]

The distribution of the two rhotics /r/ and /ɾ/ closely parallels that of Spanish. Between vowels, the two contrast (e.g. mirra [ˈmirɐ] 'myrrh' vs. mira [ˈmiɾɐ] 'look'), but they are otherwise in complementary distribution. [ɾ] appears in the onset, except in word-initial position (rato), after /l/, /n/, and /s/ (honra, Israel), where [r] is used. There is a free variation in "r" word-initially, after /l/, /n/, and /s/: [r ~ ɾ]ato, hon[r ~ ɾ]a, Is[r ~ ɾ]ael.

Spanish has been experiencing a centuries-long consonant shift in which the lateral consonant /ʎ/ comes to be pronounced as a fricative /ʝ/ (see yeísmo). This merger, which is almost complete for Spanish in Spain, has somewhat influenced other varieties spoken in Spain, including some Galician ones, but it is rejected by Galician language institutions. In this respect, it can be said that Portuguese is phonologically more conservative than Galician.


  1. ^ E.g. by Regueira (2010)
  2. ^ Regueira (2010:13–14, 21)
  3. ^ Freixeiro Mato (2006:112)
  4. ^ a b Freixeiro Mato (2006:94–98)
  5. ^ Freixeiro Mato (2006:72–73)
  6. ^ "Dicionario de pronuncia da lingua galega: á". Retrieved 2012-06-30. 
  7. ^ Sampson (1999:207–214)
  8. ^ Freixeiro Mato (2006:87)
  9. ^ Freixeiro Mato (2006:123)
  10. ^ Freixeiro Mato (2006:136–188)
  11. ^ a b c d The phonemes /m/, /n/, /ɲ/ and /ŋ/ coalesce in implosive position as the archiphoneme /N/, which, phonetically, is usually [ŋ]. Cf. Freixeiro Mato (2006:175–176)
  12. ^ Regueira (1996:82)
  13. ^ x can stand also for [ks]
  14. ^ Regueira (1996:120)