Will Styler's Homepage

Will Styler

Post-Doctoral Research Fellow - University of Michigan Linguistics

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2007. See all posts

Your New Phonetic Phriend: The Velar Nasal' (2007)

I recently mentioned a particular sound, called the Velar Nasal (ŋ). Well, I think the Velar Nasal is really cool, and I also want to show how much detail can go into the study of something as seemingly simple as a single sound. It's fascinating to see how complicated something we take for granted can be. As such, I'm going to designate it as this post's Phonetic Phriend.

A Phoundation in Phonetics

Every consonant sound we make can be described by describing the positions of the various parts of the mouth involved in speech production ("articulators"). There are five main articulatory parts that must be described for every sound:

  1. The front of the tongue – Where is it? Is it pressed against the upper part of the mouth? Where's the closure? Is it completely closed?

  2. The back of the tongue – Just like the front, Is it pressed against the upper part of the mouth? Against the back of the throat? Where's the closure? Is it completely closed?

  3. The lips – Are they open? Closed? Round?

  4. The velum – This is the movable bit that closes off your nose from your throat. If you look in a mirror and say "Aaaaa", you'll see a little dangling bit (your uvula) hanging from the roof of your mouth. The uvula is attached to the velum. When raised, the velum stops air from escaping out your nose, and when lowered, air can flow freely out your nose.

  5. The vocal folds (also known as the vocal cords) – In English, they're either vibrating or not. In other languages, there are different ways of using them

If you know these five things about a sound, you can identify it, reproduce it (given practice), and determine the proper IPA symbol for it.

A Nasal by any other name

Let's try making it for a second. Say "Ring", and hold the final sound. Note that we don't say rin-g, it's just "ring". There's no real "g" to it. When you hold that sound, you'll feel air going out your nose, just like when you hold an "N", and you'll feel your tongue pressed against the back of the roof of your mouth.

The name itself is descriptive: It's called a "velar nasal", which lets you know that the tongue is pressed against the velum, and that air is escaping out your nose, instead of through your mouth. Also called "Angma" or "Eng", the Velar Nasal is fairly common in languages of the world. It's the sound found in the English words "ring", "sang", "ankle" and "think". The IPA symbol for the Velar Nasal is ŋ, or, in a more conventional IPA font:

angma

angma

Here's a cross-section of the head ("sagittal section") of somebody making a velar nasal (created with this very cool sagittal section maker):

Sagittal section of a Velar Nasal

Using the 5-place method of describing sounds, we could describe the velar nasal as follows:

  1. The front of the tongue – Lowered, and not involved.

  2. The back of the tongue – Pressed up against the velum, forming a complete seal

  3. The lips – Not involved in the articulation, but likely open to begin the next sound.

  4. The velum – Lowered so that air can pass out from your nose

  5. The vocal folds – Vibrating

What's so cool about the Velar Nasal?

You now know, in excruciating detail, how one goes about making one, but you might still be asking what makes them so cool?

First, many English speakers don't even know that the sound is its own sound. Sure, they can tell the difference between "win" and "wing", and they know it's not quite right to pronounce the G and say "win-guh", but for most English speakers, it never crosses our minds to think about it as its own sound, just as unique as a "K" or an "M".

Second, in English, it's a wonderful example of what Linguists call "Assimilation". First, say "thin". Stop at the "N" and pay attention to your tongue. It's further forward in your mouth, almost behind your teeth. Now, say the phrase "I saw the thin kids" quickly. Now, do it again and stop right at the "n". Notice that this time, your tongue is back in the mouth, and you're making a velar nasal. Now, the N in thin is clearly a normal ("alveolar") nasal when alone, but when it's before a velar consonant, "K", it becomes a velar nasal. This is because we're generally quite lazy, and would rather make two sounds in the same part of the mouth than make two in two different places. This happens in lots of languages in lots of places, and especially with nasal sounds.

Finally, it's interesting because of its distribution in English. We can make a "T" sound anywhere in a word. We can say "Tab", "bat", and "baton". That's not that case with the Velar Nasal. We can put it at the end of a word or phrase ("king"), or in the middle ("singing"), but try and say "ngo". As a native English speaker, it's easy to say "en-go", but not "ŋo". I've had to train myself to be able to make these at the start of words, because English never taught me how and they're used at the start of words in lots of languages around the world. So, just because we can say something at the end of a word doesn't mean we're able to start a word with it.

So, reader, meet Velar Nasal. Velar Nasal, meet reader. Hopefully you're now phast phonetic phriends, and will be on the lookout for them wherever they may lie. You might not thiŋk so, but they're always haŋiŋ around, waitiŋ for a liŋɡuist to pick up on them. Fascinatiŋ, ŋo?