I understand the basics of what a nasal sound is. I understand that /m/ and /n/ are nasal sounds because you are letting air come out of your nose. But I don't quite get a few other things:

  1. What the "nasal sound" sounds like, or if there is such thing as a "nasal sound" (other than the /n/ and /m/ sounds). I'm referring to nasal vowels here for the most part, like the French vowel /ɑ̃/ (I've only read about that sound).
  2. The types of nasal sounds.
  3. If the "nasal-ness" comes before, during, or after (or all three) the "main" sound.

For example, I just saw this:

/ᵐb ⁿd̪ ⁿd̪ʲ ᵑɡ ᵑɡʷ/

And I see things like the nasal vowels, as well as these things:

  • Nasal clicks like in Zulu: /nq, nx, nc/
  • /m n ng/
  • /ṽ ð̃ s̃ z̃ ʃ̃ ʒ̃/ (nasal fricatives)

Wondering if one could either link to a video or audio clip demonstrating what the "nasal sound" is, or sort of roughly explain what it sounds like. Also, in terms of the examples above, I'm wondering about the positioning of the nasal-ness.

This is the way I understand it. A "nasal vowel" is sort of forcing extra air out of your nose when you say the vowel (it feels sort of weird to do, unnatural). So wondering where I'm going wrong there. But this nasal sound happens during the main vowel sound. On the other side, a "nasalized /b/ sound" might be like /mb/. Since a /b/ is instantaneous, you can't do the nasal-ness during the /b/ sound, so it occurs before the /b/, so it's like /mmm-b'/. That's the best example of a nasal sound that I have found. But to me that is really just an /m/ sound followed by a /b/ sound. To call it "a nasal /b/" seems like it's not quite right.

I don't understand how you could do a nasalized click, unless it is also like the nasalized /b/, in that you basically do the /n/ or /m/ sound (or "ng" /ŋ/ sound, those 3 seem like the only possibilities) before the click. This seems to get at what the symbolism behind /ᵑɡ/ means, that nasal sound comes before.

But I have seen examples elsewhere showing stuff like /dⁿ/, instead of /ⁿd/, so the nasal-ness seems like it is coming afterwards (on release perhaps). So it would be like /d'nnn/, but that also feels weird. Wondering how that works.

Finally, the nasalized fricatives like /z̃/ seem like they would work like the vowels, so you would somehow add a nasally sound to the fricative (but I'm not sure how that sounds or how to do it properly).

Hoping to better understand this concept, because it seems important in languages.

1 Answer 1


There is a terminological distinction made between “a nasal” like [m n ŋ], and “a nasalized sound” which has a tilde over it (ã,r̃). Your question seems to be more about nasalized sounds. A nasalized vowel is said to be one with air flowing through the nasal passages during its production. (This is true enough for normal understanding, but not literally true: a nasalized sound is one where the nasal cavities serve as a side resonator). Any sound that has an oral cavity that is only partially constricted can be nasalized, for example, a vowel, a liquid, a glide… fricatives later.

The exact timing of velum-lowering during the production of a nasalized sound is variable, depending on the phonetic rules of the language, but a good enough approximation is that “a nasalized vowel” means that the velum is lowered during the time when the vowel articulation is maintained. Now we can some to cases where the timing is more complex.

One is the notion of a “prenasalized” (or post-nasalized) sound like [ᵐb] or [bᵐ]. First, there may be a phonological claim that such-and-such is “a sound”, and not a sequence of sounds, [mb, bm]. The existence of such pre- and post-nasalized units is controversial, although there are enough languages where /bã/ is pronounced [bᵐã] that we are inclined to at least say that the rules of phonetic implementation can specify that velum-lowing may start within the preceding stop (hence /bã/ → [bᵐã]). Sometimes voiced stops are associated automatically with nasalization, so every /b/ is automatically a bit nasalized. This could be teleologically to make it easier to maintain voicing of a stop, or phylogentically because voiced stops historically come from /nt,mp/ and the language remembers a bit of that history.

The most convincing putative case of a contrast between prenasalized consonant and a sequence is Sinhalese, which however has been argued (shown, IMO) to actually relate to syllable stricture differences and specifically moraicity of consonants (“ᵐb” is [.mb] and “mb” is [m̩.b]). Swahili has this as well, [m̩buni] ‘coffee tree’ versus [mbuni] ‘ostrich’.

There is a problem with “nasal clicks” in the Nguni languages, that they (may, depends on the language) have both “nasalized clicks” and “sequences of nasal plus click”, or, “prenasalized clicks”. A nasalized click is essentially analogous to [n] and a prenasalized click is like [nd] (entirely nasal vs. nasal at the beginning only).

Nasal fricatives are a semi-problem because nasalization works counter to the aerodynamic requirements of fricatives (the nasal escape path means that you can’t have the turbulent air flow required to sustain the fricative). However, you can produce a fricative in the midst of an all-nasal stream, where there will be some nasal airflow during the pronunciation of the fricative. A detailed aerodynamic analysis of such things would be nice to have. You would have to look into the details of a particular language to see why the author says that the fricative is the source of the nasalization, but I think the claim for Kwangali is credible, as long as we don’t think that it means that the velum drops down and tightens up rapidly to be times with the fricative’s articulation.

Turning to nasalized vowels, you should first turn to non-nasalized vowels. A non-nasalized vowel has a characteric resonance pattern which we talk about in terms of formants. This Q&A about plugged noses and nasals sketches the notion of a side cavity and an antiresonance: a nasal vowel has an antiresonance which makes then sound difference from oral vowels. It’s actually somewhat difficult to talk about nasalized forms; the nasal side branch ends up affecting the frequencies of the oral formants, and it also “erases” energy (we call this an antiformant). Here is some acoustic tech on nasals and nasalization. Here are some pronunciations of words in Yoruba with nasalized vowels (written vowel+n): W1, W2, W3, W4, W5, W6, W7, W8, W9, W10

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