<gn>

Erik Satie

I have recently been listening to music by Erik Satie, the guy in the picture to the left. Satie was a notorious prankster and leg-puller. He scattered his music manuscripts with strange directions to the performer and gave his pieces very odd titles like Préludes flasques (pour un chien) = “Flabby Preludes (for a dog)” and Trois morceaux en forme de poire = “Three bits in the form of a pear” — there are actually seven movements to this piece.

One of his better known works is a set of what he called Gnossiennes. There are six of them in all. The first three are written in so-called absolute time, meaning no time signature or bar lines are indicated. The word gnossienne appears to have been a Satie invention and no-one is quite sure what he meant. Some have speculated that it is connected to Gnosticism and indeed Satie in his younger days was involved with some strange Christian sects and even invented his own church, of which he was the head and sole member. Others reckon that there may be a connection with Knossos, the great Minoan palace on the island of Crete.

I can’t make up my mind how to pronounce gnossienne. [nɒsiˈen] is the obvious way to treat it in English. But what about French? The letter sequence <gn> in French usually represents [ɲ] – a voiced palatal nasal, as in ligne and agneau. My rather old French dictionary does not, as I expected, list the word, but of the handful of words beginning <gn> which it does list about half are shown with [ɲ] and the other half with [ɡn]. The former group seems to consist exclusively of slang words like gnangnan (term of abuse – “a drip”) and gnon (“a blow, a bash”) or borrowings from Italian like gnocchi. The latter group consists of learned words like gneiss, gnomique and gnosticisme. So my guess is that in French gnossienne should be [ɡnɔsjɛn]. Any native French speakers there?

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