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Nasal Sound

Nasal Sound

You may be surprised to learn that your nose plays a vital role in speech. After all, air comes out of your mouth when you speak, right? Try this, though: hum a [m] sound to yourself, and then hold your nose closed. The sound stops! The sound [m] is an example of a nasal consonant. Nasal consonants and other nasal sounds are present in English and most other languages worldwide.

What is the Meaning of a Nasal Sound?

The sounds that involve airflow through the nose are categorized as nasal sounds.

A nasal sound is produced with a lowered velum, allowing air to flow through the nose.

The velum, also known as the soft palate, is part of the roof of the mouth located behind the hard palate.

If you make a [k] or [g] sound, you can feel the body of your tongue come in contact with your velum. This structure is raised during non-nasal (oral) sounds to block air from coming out of the nose. During nasal sounds, it's lowered to let air flow freely through the nose. If you pay special attention to what's happening in the back of your mouth when you produce a [b] versus a [m] sound, you can feel your velum moving to control airflow through the nasal cavity.

Nasal Cavity, Vocal Tract Diagram Indicating the Velum, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The velum raises and lowers itself to control airflow through the nasal cavity.

Examples of Nasal Sounds in Speech

Nasal sounds are present in most of the world's languages. They primarily take the form of nasal consonants; some languages also utilize nasalized vowels.

Nasal Consonants

The term nasal consonant generally refers to nasal stops. These are the nasal stops in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

IPA SymbolPlace of Articulation
mbilabial
ɱlabiodental
nalveolar
ɳretroflex
ɲpalatal
ŋvelar
ɴuvular

Like oral stops, nasal stops involve a constriction in the vocal tract that completely cuts off airflow through the mouth. The only difference is that nasal stops allow air to flow through the nose. If you try to produce a nasal stop and airflow to the nose is blocked for any reason, it will come out as an oral stop. That's why, when you have a stuffy nose, "Mom, I'm not feeling good" turns into "Bob, I'b dot feelig good."

Nasal Cavity, Woman Sneezing, StudySmarterFig. 2 - When you're congested, air can't flow through your nose, forcing nasal stops to come out as oral stops.

Nasal stops are almost always voiced, meaning they involve vocal fold vibration. Some languages incorporate voiceless nasals; these are marked with the voiceless diacritic: [m̥, ɱ̥, n̥, ɳ̥, ɲ̥, ŋ̥, ɴ̥].

Nasalized Vowels

Nasalized vowels are produced with a lowered velum, allowing air to flow from the nose and mouth. Some languages, like French, utilize nasal vowels phonemically. For example, the vowel in the French word centre [sãtʁ] is the nasalized vowel [ã].

It's also possible to nasalize oral consonants. The International Phonetic Alphabet marks nasalized sounds with the nasal diacritic [˜]. The vowel [a], when nasalized, is written as [ã].

The Nasal Sounds in English

There are three nasal stops in English: the bilabial [m], produced with a constriction at the lips; alveolar [n], produced with a constriction at the alveolar ridge; and velar [ŋ], produced with a constriction at the velum.

IPA TranscriptionArticulatory DescriptionExamples in English
mbilabial nasalmom [mɑm], drum [dɹʌm]
nalveolar nasalnun [nʌn], nine [naɪn]
ŋvelar nasalsong [sɔŋ], ring [ɹɪŋ]

The [m] and [n] sounds are written in English exactly like their IPA transcriptions. The velar [ŋ] represents the ng sound at the end of words like sing and bring. The symbol itself looks like an n and g combined.

Phonetically speaking, there is no n in the word monkey! If you pay attention to your articulators when you say it, you'll probably notice that you produce the velar [ŋ] instead of the alveolar [n]. This is because the nasal consonant is immediately followed by the velar plosive [k]. The alveolar nasal [n] assimilates to the [k], resulting in a velar nasal [ŋ]. The IPA transcription of the word monkey in a General American accent is [ˈmʌŋkiː].

Examples of Words With Nasal Sounds

The other nasal sounds on the IPA chart are more difficult for English speakers to identify because they are not phonemically present in English. They are observable, though, as phonemes in other languages or as allophones.

Allophones are different forms of the same phoneme that appear in different phonological environments.

For example, the general American phoneme /p/ has three allophones based on their surroundings: the aspirated [ph], as in pattern; the unaspirated [p], as in apple, and the not-audibly-released [p̚], as in tap.

Here is a summary of the nasal stops that don't appear as phonemes in English. Some are allophones in English or phonemes in other languages.

  • The labiodental nasal [ɱ] is produced with the lower lip touching the upper teeth, similar to the labiodental fricative [f]. This sound rarely appears as a phoneme but is present in many languages as an allophone. In English, the [m] in symphony often assimilates to the following [f], resulting in [ˈsɪɱfəni].
  • The palatal nasal [ɲ] is produced with the blade and body of the tongue touching the hard palate at the roof of the mouth. The placement is similar to the palatal approximate [j], as in yard and yam. This sound is a phoneme in several languages, including Spanish. The ñ in words like Español [e̞späˈɲol] is a palatal nasal.
  • The uvular nasal [ɴ] is pronounced with the back of the tongue touching the uvula at the back of the mouth. This sound is also rare as a phoneme but appears in many languages as an allophone. For example, the phoneme /n/ in the Dutch word aangenaam (pleasant) is pronounced as a uvular nasal: [ˈaːɴχəˌnaːm].

Retroflex Nasal

The last nasal consonant to discuss is the retroflex nasal. Retroflex sounds are produced by bending or curling the tongue back so that the tip of the tongue touches the alveolar ridge and hard palate.

Nasal Cavity, Retroflex Nasal Vocal Tract Diagram, StudySmarterFig. 3 - A retroflex nasal is produced by curling the tongue back to the alveolar ridge.

Although they don't appear in English, retroflex sounds occur in many languages, including Malayalam, Punjabi, Hindi, Tamil, Norwegian, and Vietnamese. The Malayalam word കന്നി [kʌɳɳi], meaning "link in a chain," includes the retroflex nasal sound.1

Nasal Cavity - Key takeaways

  • A nasal sound is produced with a lowered velum, allowing air to flow through the nose.
  • Nasal sounds are present in most of the world's languages. They primarily use nasal consonants (nasal stops); some languages also utilize nasalized vowels.
  • The seven nasal stops on the IPA chart are: bilabial [m], labiodental [ɱ], alveolar [n], retroflex [ɳ], palatal [ɲ], velar [ŋ], and uvular [ɴ].
  • There are three nasal sounds in English: the bilabial [m], alveolar [n], and velar [ŋ] nasal stops.
  • Other nasal sounds appear as phonemes in other languages or as allophones of different phonemes.

References

  1. Peter Ladefoged, Vowels and Consonants (2005).

Frequently Asked Questions about Nasal Sound

A nasal sound is a sound produced with a lowered velum, allowing air to flow through the nose.

During non-nasal (oral) sounds, the velum is raised to block air from coming out of the nose. During nasal sounds, it's lowered to let air flow freely through the nose.

Nasal sounds are produced by lowering the velum (also known as the soft palate) to allow air to flow through the nose.

The International Phonetic Alphabet lists seven nasal stops: bilabial [m], labiodental [ɱ], alveolar [n], retroflex [ɳ], palatal [ɲ], velar [ŋ], and uvular [ɴ].

Nasal sounds in English include the bilabial [m], as in mom; the alveolar [n], as in nine; and the velar [ŋ], as in ring.

Final Nasal Sound Quiz

Question

What is the definition of a nasal sound?

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Answer

A nasal sound is a sound produced with a lowered velum, allowing air to flow through the nose.

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Question

What is the definition of the velum?

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Answer

The velum, also known as the soft palate, is part of the roof of the mouth located behind the hard palate.

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Question

The symbol [m] represents a(n) _____ nasal stop.

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Answer

bilabial

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The symbol [ŋ] represents a(n) _____ nasal stop.

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velar

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Like oral stops, nasal stops involve a constriction in the vocal tract that _____.

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completely cuts off airflow through the mouth

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The symbol [ɳ] represents a(n) _____ nasal stop.

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Answer

retroflex

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The symbol [ɴ] represents a(n) _____ nasal stop.

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uvular

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Question

True or false: if you try to produce a nasal stop with a stuffy nose, it will come out as an oral stop.

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True! A nasal stop is only different from an oral stop because it allows air to flow through the nose. If air can't flow through the nose for any reason, the stop is pronounced as an oral stop.

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Question

The symbol [ɲ] represents a _____ nasal stop.

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palatal

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The symbol [n] represents a(n) _____ nasal stop.

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alveolar

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True or false: nasal stops are almost always voiceless.

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Answer

False. Nasal stops are almost always voiced, meaning that they involve vocal fold vibration.

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The three nasal stops in English are:

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m

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True or false: there is no [n] in the word singing.

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True! The two nasal stops in the word singing are velar nasals [ŋ].

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What are allophones?

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Answer

Allophones are different forms of the same phoneme that appear in different phonological environments.

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The aspirated [ph] in pattern and the unaspirated [p] in apple are:

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allophones

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The alveolar [n] in ran and the velar [ŋ] in rang are:

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phonemes

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_____ are produced by bending or curling the tongue back so that the tip of the tongue touches the alveolar ridge and hard palate.

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Answer

Retroflex sounds

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The bilabial [m] in symphony often assimilates to the following [f], becoming:

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Answer

labiodental [ɱ]

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Question

The _____ is produced with the blade and body of the tongue touching the hard palate at the roof of the mouth.

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Answer

palatal nasal [ɲ]

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Question

Which of the following is a nasalized vowel?

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Answer

[ã]

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