Are there any languages in which alternation between corresponding nasal and non-nasal vowels is used solely for grammatical purposes?

When I speak of two vowels that "correspond" in this context, I mean two vowels that differ only by the feature plus or minus nasal.

Also, the alternation I am referring to would obtain across most or all the vowels in the language, such that, to use a nonce example...

a) /mezi, dize, noza, tezo, domu/ would all be in one tense, number, etc., and

b) /mezĩ, dizẽ, nozã, tezõ, domũ/ would all be in another tense, number, etc.

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    I'm not sure I understand your question. Do you mean a language where nasal phonemes only appear in affixes and never in stems? Or a language with nasal phonemes which may also appear in affixes and form minimal pairs there? If it's the latter, one example is Polish fem. declension, e.g. kobieta 'woman' → kobieto voc. 'oh woman!', kobietą [-õ] instr. 'with a woman'.
    – kamil-s
    Commented Apr 3, 2012 at 7:40
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    Hi, Kamil S. No, I'm referring to the contrast between nasal and non-nasal vowels being used to mark grammatical distinctions such as past/present, singular/plural, etc. Commented Apr 3, 2012 at 18:30
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    James, you say "solely" for grammatical purposes. Does this mean that nasality could not be used to make lexical distinctions, but only grammatical ones? Is the word "solely" critical to your question? Commented Apr 3, 2012 at 20:24
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    @JamesGrossman Doesn't vocative/instrumental fit that categorisation?
    – user780
    Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 8:25
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    @Mark. Yes, it means that nasality could not be used to make lexical distinctions. However, perhaps I should have omitted the word "solely" from my question. It's not as critical to the question as I thought it was. Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 18:25

1 Answer 1


If we overlook the word "solely" in your question for now, then yes this does occur. Kamil's example from Polish is on point:

kobieta [-a] 'woman' nom. sg.
kobieto [-o] 'oh woman!' voc. sg.
kobietą [-õ] 'with a woman' instr. sg.
kobietom [-om] 'to the women' dative pl.

Where between the vocative and instrumental the only difference is the nasality of the final vowel. This is a regular alternation in Polish.

Of course, Polish also uses non-nasal distinctions for inflections (e.g. kobieta vs. kobieto); and nasality is used for lexical distinctions as well (e.g. to vs. ).

  • Does this happen only with verbs ending in "-o" [-o] -> "-ą" [-õ] or with all nouns, or with nouns ending in other vowels too? Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 22:04
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    @hippietrail What is described above happens with feminine nouns ending in -a. Nasal suffixes are formally found with feminine nouns in the accusative and instrumental cases; and with verbs in 1st person singular and 3rd person plural. In ordinary speech, though, final -ę denasalizes to -e, leaving the instrumental of feminine nouns and the 3rd person plural of verbs as the only truly nasal suffixes in -ą. Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 23:36

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