As you can see, doubling the consonant changes the meaning of the word.
Some English people learning Italian will mispronounce the phrase Quanti anni hai? as Quanti ani hai? The former means How old are you? – or literally How many years do you have?
But pronouncing anni with one [n] becomes ani, which unfortunately renders the meaning as How many anuses do you have?
Most languages that contrast geminate and non-geminate consonants do so in the middle of words. There are a few languages that contrast at the beginning of a word, such as Luganda (spoken in Uganda). For example, gwa (=fall) and ggwa (=belonging). [If there are any Luganda speakers reading this, I’d love to get some recordings for this post!]
Geminates in English?
So what happens in English? Well, English doesn’t have geminates in the same way as Italian and Luganda. It can have lengthened consonants, but these are limited to either:
1) Word boundaries:
calm man [kɑːmman] (compare to car man [kɑː man])
pine nut [pʌɪnnʌt]
this site [ðɪssʌɪt]
2) Morpheme boundaries: (morpheme = a meaningful segment of a word)
unnamed [ʌnneɪmd] (compared to unaimed [ʌneɪmd])
Advice for Non-Natives Learning English
Most of the time, a doubled consonant letter means you simply pronounce one short consonant: dinner [dɪnə], happy [hapi], carry [kari].
If your native language uses geminate consonants (e.g. Arabic, Finnish, Hungarian, Italian, Luganda, Polish), then you may instinctively want to lengthen a consonant – so avoid the temptation!
Interesting Observations in English
I have heard interesting examples of geminates in casual, spoken English. Can you guess what the words are from the transcriptions?
Grandma. The [d] is elided as it is between two consonants and the [n] is assimilated to [m].
F*cking. The speaker was emphasising this word for effect in the phrase f*cking hell [ˈfʌkkɪn ɛl]
(As you can see from the transcription, the speaker was not speaking in a Standard Southern British English accent.)
This is a very shortened version of thank you. The lengthened [k] is indicating the loss of [θaŋ].
Further interesting notes:
1. In casual speech, lengthened consonants sometimes do not occur across word boundaries. For example, some more is often [səmɔː] rather than [səmmɔː], Prime Minister is [prʌɪ mɪnɪstə] rather than [prʌɪm mɪnɪstə]. Similarly in common assimilated forms: for example, give me may be written informally as gimme but is pronounced [gɪmi] with one [m]. This process can be termed degemination. More info can be found on John Wells’s blog here.
2. For some Welsh speakers, doubled consonant letters do produce a geminate.
3. There are exceptions to the morpheme boundary pattern: e.g. illogical, immoral, irreversible have just one consonant sound after the <i>.
4. The word cannot usually has [n] rather than [nn].
5. For plosive geminate consonants, the hold phase is longer.
6. In casual speech, anything can happen. Due to emphasis, consonants may be lengthened. Due to quick and relaxed speech, lengthened consonants may be shorted.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on geminates. Comment below!