Why does “signature” have a “g” sound but “sign” doesn’t?

The following words don’t have /g/ sound: sign, resign, design.

But why is there a “g” sound in the following derived words? Signature, resignation, designate.

I searched their etymologies because I thought they would have different etymologies but they share the same etymologies.


Short answer:

When the <gn> comes word-initially or word-finally, the /g/ often gets removed.

However, in word-medial position, the /g/ is sometimes pronounced when it’s followed by a vowel (because it’s allowed across the syllables adn the vowel splits it up into two syllables) and is not removed.

When the <gn> is followed by a vowel, the /g/ is usually pronounced except when some suffixes like -ing, -er and -able are appended. There may be lots of exceptions, however.

When the <gn> is not followed by a vowel, the /g/ is usually silent as in the following words:

  • Sign → /saɪn/
  • Resign → /rɪˈzaɪn/
  • Impugn → /ɪmˈpjuːn/
  • Malign → /məˈlaɪn/

These words do not have a vowel after the <gn>, so the /g/ is not pronounced.


  • Signature → /ˈsɪɡ.nə.tʃə/
  • Resignation → /ˌrez.ɪɡˈneɪ.ʃ(ə)n/
  • Pugnacious → /pʌɡˈneɪ.ʃəs/
  • Malignant → /məˈlɪɡ.nənt/

These words have the /g/ because the following vowel splits up the /gn/ and makes it two syllables; /g/ moves to the preceding syllable while the /n/ moves to the next syllable.

However, some suffixes do not let the /g/ to be pronounced (I don’t know the reason).

  • Signable → /saɪnəb(ə)l/
  • Signing → /saɪnɪŋ/
  • Aligning → /əlaɪnɪŋ/ etc don’t have the /g/.


The reason boils down to English Phonotactics (that deals with restrictions in a language on the permissible combinations of phonemes).

English Phonotactics does not permit a plosive followed by a nasal. So we cannot have an onset (beginning of a syllable) or a coda (ending of a syllable) consisting of PLOSIVE + NASAL.

Therefore, we don’t have clusters like /pn/, /tn/, /kn/, /bn/, /dn/ and /gn/ etc in English because they violate the Phonotactics constraints of English.

So when the <gn> is followed by a vowel, the vowel splits up the /gn/; the /g/ moves to the preceding syllable and the /n/ moves to the next syllable.

  • Signature → /ˈsɪɡ•nə•tʃə/

I don’t know the reason as to why the /gn/ doesn’t split up when it’s followed by certain suffixes (like -ing and -able)

Greg Brooks in his Dictionary of the British English Spelling system writes:

  • In a few words with final /n/ spelt <gn> /g/ surfaces in derived
    or related forms: compare impugn, malign, sign with pugnacious,
    repugnant, malignant, assignation, designation, resignation, signal,
    signature (all with change of vowel phoneme) – but /g/ does not surface
    before inflectional suffixes, as in impugns, impugning, impugned,
    maligns, maligning, maligned, signs, signing, signed.
  • In three words with final /m/ spelt /g/ surfaces in derived or
    related forms: compare paradigm, phlegm, syntagm with paradigmatic
    (with change of vowel phoneme), phlegmatic, syntagma(tic) – but /g/
    does not surface in paradigms, phlegmy.

But it doesn’t explain why the /g/ is not surfaced in those inflectional words.

Another relevant quote from An Introduction To Language by Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, Nina Hyams:

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Another relevant quote from Nathan (2008:82):

Nathan (2008:82) asserts that not only can segments be deleted, sometimes they can be inserted instead. There seem to be two basic reasons for insertion: preventing clusters of consonants that violate syllable structure constraints in the language, and easing transitions between segments that have multiple incompatibilitiesResearch Gate

Why is ‘signature’ not pronounced [saɪgnat͡ʃə]:

Why is ‘signature’ not pronounced with a long vowel in the first syllable?

It’s because of a fairly common phenomenon called Trisyllabic Laxing, it is a process whereby a tense vowel in a stressed syllable is shortened if two (or more) syllables follow.


  • Sign, signature — /sn/ -> /ˈsɪɡ.nə.tʃə/
  • Malign, malignant — /məˈln/ -> /məˈlɪɡ.nənt/
  • Profane, profanity — /prəˈfn/ -> /prəˈfæn.ə.ti/
  • Sincere, sincerity — /sɪnˈsɪə/ -> /sɪnˈser.ə.ti/
  • Impede, impediment — /ɪmˈpd/ -> /ɪmˈped.ɪ.mənt/
  • Divine, divinity — /dɪˈvn/ -> /dɪˈvɪn.ə.ti/

Another thing I’ve noticed about these words is that the words in which the /g/ is pronounced in <gn> combination have a short vowel before the <gn> and the words in which the /g/ gets removed have a long vowel/diphthong before the <gn>


Long vowel before the <gn>:

  • Sign → /sʌɪn/
  • Signage → /ˈsʌɪnɪdʒ/
  • Signable → /ˈsʌɪnəb(ə)l/
  • Assignable → /əˈsʌɪnəb(ə)l/
  • Resign → /rɪˈzʌɪn/
  • Design → /dɪˈzʌɪn/

Short vowel before the <gn>:

  • Signet → /ˈsɪɡnɪt/
  • Signature → /ˈsɪɡnətʃə/
  • Signal → /ˈsɪɡn(ə)l/
  • Malignant → /məˈlɪɡnənt/

Source : Link , Question Author : mohsin raza , Answer Author : Decapitated Soul

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