Friday, December 29, 2006


When I started this little blog, I didn't anticipate many readers and certainly didn't expect comments. Now, comments are trickling in pretty steadily and it occurred to me to look back through old posts for comments. Struck gold here, with Anonymous bemoaning the status of the palatal nasal in English. For non-linguists, that's the sound at the beginning of both syllables of nyah-nyah, at least for many speakers of English. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, it's [ɲ] and it's found in tons of languages, for example Romance ones like French (agneau 'lamb') or Spanish words with ñ, and Slavic ones like Czech (něco 'something'). In English, as the commenter notes, it's found in words like onion, and a common way to explain how to produce it is trying to combine an n sound and a y sound. (The commenter clearly pronounces it with tongue firmly in cheek.)

Its occurrence in
nyah-nyah prompts this question:
how many g-hits one needs for nyah-nyah to be listed in the IPA as a legitimate phoneme of American English
Well, first off, I see ca. 224,000 g-hits for that one. That's a ton. And let's leave aside the fact that lots of people don't buy that even the hallowed velar nasal – [ŋ], as in sing and about a million other English words and forms – is a distinctive sound. (We get obvious contrasts in dam, dan, dang, but folks inclined toward abstract understandings of sounds argue that the last one is really a combination of [ng] where most of us delete the g after assimilating the n to its place of articulation.)

But here's the kicker: Some speakers – me among them – don't actually have the word
nyah-nyah in speech. Just had to ask Mrs. Verb (not her real name) how to pronounce it, in fact, even though I quoted Safire using it without giving a thought to the question.

More generally, I'm always surprised at how little attention goes to the range of sounds we regularly produce in 'affective' vocabulary, discourse markers and other 'marginal' areas of the lexicon. Lots of people prenasalize bye [mbai] or produce OK [
ŋkei]. (I'd superscript those nasals, but don't have time right now.) Cool has a pretty much back unrounded vowel in a certain use for a lot of people, dude a clearly front-rounded vowel in similar circumstances. We could vastly expand the phonemic inventory of English!

And I'll keep track of comments from now on ... may have to quit my job to get this thing rolling.


Rosina Lippi said...

don't forget the glottal stop, which might even be phonemic by now in some east coast varieties.

When I was teaching Intro to Linguistics, the biggest challenge was getting kids to stop assuming grapheme=phoneme, and to start actually listening to the sounds they made.

Durn the written language anyway.

Mr. Verb said...

Ah, you raise another excellent point: regional differences in phonemic inventory. A topic for another day ...