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We all know the nasal ɲ, found in a variety of languages including the Spanish ñ. However, instead of n, why not m or more specifically [mj]? Why are these 2 consonants not considered one, unlike [nj] being ɲ? It maybe be not be easy to pronounce [mj] fluidly, but with a tiny bit of practice it can be mastered.

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  • /mj/ can be said with ease by any competent speakers of English. "I'm young" is [aɪ̯mjʌŋ] which includes the cluster albeit across a syllable boundary, and in rapid speech will often lose the first syllable entirely, reducing to [mjʌŋ] with the cluster even in one syllable (although this tautosyllabic [mj] may indeed be absent in some people's English)
    – Tristan
    Nov 30, 2021 at 15:14
  • It is a mistake to think that [nj] is the same as [ɲ]. Consider the most obvious fact: [nj] represents two sounds, and [ɲ] is one sound. 2≠1
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 7, 2021 at 22:47

1 Answer 1

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You may be misunderstanding what the IPA symbols describe. Nasals are by definition pulmonal sounds where the air is released through the nose, while being stopped by an occlusion in the mouth.

[m, n, ɲ] are a series of these with varying position: for [m], the closure is created at the front, by closing both lips. For [n], it's a behind that, between the tip of the tongue and the place behind the teeth. [ɲ] is further back, between the middle of the tongue and the palate. This continues with a couple of other sounds.

The fact that [ɲ] is written as <ñ> is merely a historical accident. Latin and Greek had letters for [m] and [n], but not [ɲ]; so languages where [ɲ] has a separate meaning have to come up with another symbol. Similarly, on the invention of IPA, people created new symbols like <ɲ> to cover the space of possible combinations systematically.

Now, what exactly do you mean by [mj]/[m̃]? The superscript tilde in IPA is used for nasalization -- but nasals are already, by definition, nasal, so this is superfluous.

Maybe you're thinking of palatalization, [mʲ], where in addition to the other positions of a consonant, the tongue is moved closer to the palate. This is possible, but probably rare as phoneme. ([nʲ] and [ɲ] are pretty close and often historically related, but not equal.)

Finally, you might be thinking of something like a double articulation between [m] and [ɲ], which is achieved by simultaneously closing at both places. Possible, but even rarer.

Anyway, the idea of why there isn't a separate letter for whatever you mean is: because it is not a primary articulation, but a "derivation" from the "primitive" [m], and [ɲ] is another "primitive", not derived from [m] or [n].

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  • That was a mistake, I have meant to include <m̃> instead of the IPA [] as the romanization of [mj] in order to represent it, as some languages (rarely) use the tilde to represent a consonant palatalization. Nov 30, 2021 at 16:07
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    so @Jasperrolla is your question meant to ask why no language seems to use <m̃> to represent [mʲ]? I'll note that English has phonetic [mʲ] (eg in 'mutate'), and Irish has phonemic /mʲ/, which contrasts with /mˠ/ but the contrast is indicated by adjacent vowel symbols rather than a different glyph. Nov 30, 2021 at 23:38
  • "[nʲ] and [ɲ] are pretty close and often historically related, but not equal." ← since you state these in square bracket notation, could you briefly describe the physical difference for me or point to somewhere that does? Superscripts in IPA often get me confused with their similiarity-but-difference to other things.
    – LjL
    Dec 1, 2021 at 2:01
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    @LjL That is answered here: linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/20198/27292. Dec 1, 2021 at 7:26
  • @GastonÜmlaut No, I was looking for a letter to represent [mj], and since there is no tailed m like ɲ I decided to represent it as m̃. Dec 1, 2021 at 19:20

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