A Word Taster’s Companion: The nose knows

Today: the ninth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

The nose knows

Nasal. In phonetics, nasal is also a manner, not a place. Yes, your nose is a place, but you don’t put your tongue in your nose to say nasal consonants. Nasal consonants are made in the same set of places as stops. The difference is that when you say a nasal, your nose is open – more exactly, the velum is lowered, allowing air to pass through the nose.

Try this: say “nnnnnn.” Now say “nnnnnnd.” What happened at the end there? Your velum raised. All of a sudden air couldn’t get out because the passage through your nose was blocked off. That’s the difference between a nasal consonant, which allows air to bypass the mouth through the nose, and an oral consonant – all consonants involve the mouth, of course, but in phonetics oral means not nasal.

And this is why nasals tend to become voiced stops when you have a congested nose. Say mind your manners with your nose pinched shut and you will sound like bide your badders. And pinching your nose shut produces the same effect as raising your velum. You could do that instead to say stops: say “ann” and pinch your nose at the end and you have “and.” But if you had to pinch your nose every time you said /b/, /d/, or /g/ – or /p/, /t/, or /k/ – it would be a problem.

So say pat, bad, man. Voiceless, voiced, nasal: /p/, /b/, /m/. One place, three manners.

Same with the tongue tip: tat, dad, nan.

Now say cat, gad, ngan.

What was that last one? Well, if you can say the voiceless and voiced stop at the back of the mouth, you can certainly say the nasal there. So /k/, /g/, /ŋ/. (I love that symbol, ŋ – it looks like an elephant, doesn’t it?) And no, there’s no [g] in it. We just write it ng because centuries ago we didn’t have a separate phoneme for that sound, [ŋ]; it was just what we did with [n] before [k] or [g] (it still is that too). And then we dropped the [g] in many places so that ng changed from [ŋg] to just [ŋ]. Yes, that’s right, when you say doing you have already dropped the [g], even if you say it “properly.” If you say it like doin’, you haven’t dropped the [g]; there is no [g] to drop any more. You’ve just moved the velar nasal forward to be an alveolar nasal. (And, by the way, doin’ was considered the correct way to say it for a long time, but it was changed back to “the way it’s spelled” in the 18th and 19th centuries.)

The reason we don’t start words with [ŋ] is that it was originally always before a [g] or [k], and it only came to be independent where we dropped the [g]. Some other languages allow it, but many Anglophones believe they can’t say it at the start of a word, so names like Ngaio (a Maori female name, best known from Ngaio Marsh, an author of detective fiction) and Nguyen (a very common Vietnamese family name) tend to be modified in English pronunciation.

Pity. Get a good handle on this sound. If you want to be a really good word taster, and taste the really good words, you have to be willing to make all the sounds your mouth is capable of making, in all the places your mouth is capable of making them, even in locations in words that you wouldn’t normally have them.

What do nasals feel like to say? Well, they’re singable, and they can have a warm and comforting nature. What do you say when you think of good food, for instance? Mmmmm. But they can also be used for hesitation, because they’re consonants you can hold on for a long time without getting to the point. It’s luck – or is it? – that no starts with a nasal, so we can say nnnnnnnnooo as we cagily consider a questionable option. And the velar [ŋ], held by itself, is as likely to express frustration or resistance, perhaps because it’s well suited to saying with teeth clenched. Say it expressively and observe the wide-mouth grimace you probably make… and you hands clenching into fists.

But hold [ŋ] at the end of a word and it has some of that [g] or [k] grip, but much softer. As with the stops, you’ll typically find [n] to feel the lightest, and [m] to feel the warmest. But as always… it varies.

Next: Sushi thief!

One response to “A Word Taster’s Companion: The nose knows

  1. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: Stop! What are you doing? | Sesquiotica

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