Almost every language has at least two nasal stops (usually /n/ and /m/), and a language that lacks any nasal stops is extremely rare. And yet, also very rare is any kind of nasal that isn't a stop, so much so that nasal stops are often simply referred to as nasals, as if "nasal" is a manner of articulation on the same level as "stop", "approximant", "fricative", and "affricate". What's with the abundance of nasal stops and extreme rarity of any other nasal?

EDIT: I'm asking specifically about nasal consonants, not vowels.

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    Nasal vowels are not so unusual. – neubau Jan 23 '15 at 4:09

Nasal fricatives are seriously rare or nonexistent; this dissertation looks at the essentially aerodynamic problem of producing fricative noise and nasalization simultaneously (fricatives require high airflow with major impedance; nasalization provides a no-resistance escape route for air, so thwarts pressure buildup). Nasal vowels on the other hand are not extremely rare though they are "marked", i.e. less common than oral vowels. Nasalization makes it harder to distinguish vowels, so there is a functional-perceptual reason for the disadvantage that nasalization has in vowels.

  • I should have clarified in my question that I was talking specifically about nasal consonants and not vowels. That clears up why nasal fricatives are so rare, but what about nasal approximants? I suppose it would be because approximants usually arise from vowels, and nasal vowels are already a bit uncommon? – Zgialor Jan 25 '15 at 0:44
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    I think they are acoustically so similar to other things that it is a perceptually "disadvantaged" feature on approximants. [l] is already similar-enough to [n] so it would be even harder to distinguish [l] and [l̃] or [n]. Likewise [w̃ ~ ŋ], [r̃ ~ n], [j̃ ~ ɲ]. The edges of nasal stops are nice and crisp, so it would be "better" to parse potential [r̃] (which is a bit sloppier in int edges) as [n]. Nasal approximants also tend to be rampant triggers of nasalization on vowels. If you must maintain [r̃] as an approximant, then nasalization will tend to spread to adjacent vowels. – user6726 Jan 25 '15 at 1:22

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