14 August 2010


There is a sign at Tasek Lama advising people to be careful in following the Jungle Trail because of landslides. Originally, it was spelt "Junggle Trail" (though this has now been corrected).

What is interesting about this is that the use of 'ngg' would be correct in Malay, as 'ng' is pronounced /ŋ/ while 'ngg' is pronounced /ŋg/ − a very useful distinction. In contrast, English spelling does not show whether a word is pronounced with /ŋ/ or /ŋg/ in the middle. For example singer and banger both have /ŋ/, while finger and anger both have /ŋg/, but there is no help from the spelling to show this.

The reason for the different pronunciations in English is morphological: both singer and banger consist of two morphemes (with a derivational -er suffix on the end to convert the verbs sing and bang into nouns), while finger and anger are single morphemes.

It seems that /ŋ/ occurs with morphologically complex words while /ŋg/ occurs with single morphemes. But even this is not quite right, as longer (which is long+er, i.e. two morphemes) has /ŋg/. The answer here seems to be that the -er suffix in longer is inflectional rather than derivational − long is an adjective and longer is also an adjective, so the -er suffix in this case has not changed the word class. But why the addition of a derivational suffix should leave the end of the word as /ŋ/ while an inflectional suffix should result in an added /g/ is beyond me.

As is so often the case, nothing is simple with English, and we need to get into all kinds of technical details to explain something that seems at first sight to be simple. I rather like the way Malay shows the difference between /ŋ/ and /ŋg/ in the spelling.

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