Nasal consonant

Nasal consonant
Manners of articulation
Plosive (occlusive)
See also: Place of articulation
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A nasal consonant is a type of consonant produced with a lowered velum in the mouth, allowing air to escape freely through the nose. Examples of nasal consonants in English are [n] and [m], in words such as nose and mouth.



Nearly all nasal consonants are nasal stops (or nasal continuants), where air escapes through the nose but not through the mouth, as it is blocked by the lips or tongue. The oral cavity still acts as a resonance chamber for the sound. Rarely, consonants other than stop consonants may be nasalized.

Most nasals are voiced, and in fact the nasal sounds [n] and [m] are among the most common sounds cross-linguistically. Voiceless nasals do occur in a few languages, such as Burmese and Welsh. (Compare oral plosives, which block off the air completely, and fricatives, which obstruct the air with a narrow channel. Both stops and fricatives are more commonly voiceless than voiced, and are known as obstruents.)

In terms of acoustics, nasal stops are sonorants, meaning that they do not significantly restrict the escape of air (as it can freely escape out the nose). However, nasals are also stops in their articulation because the flow of air through the mouth is blocked completely. This duality, a sonorant airflow through the nose along with an obstruction in the mouth, means that nasal stops behave both like sonorants and like obstruents. For example, nasal stops tend to pattern with other sonorants such as [r] and [l], but in many languages they may develop from or into plosives.

Acoustically, nasal stops have bands of energy at around 200 and 2,000 Hz.

Voiced Voiceless
Description IPA SAMPA Description IPA SAMPA
voiced bilabial nasal [m] [m] voiceless bilabial nasal [m̥] or [m̊] [m_0]
voiced labiodental nasal [ɱ] [F] voiceless labiodental nasal [ɱ̥] or [ɱ̊] [F_0]
voiced dental nasal [n̪] [n_d] voiceless dental nasal [n̪̥] or [n̪̊] [n_d_0]
voiced alveolar nasal 1 [n] [n] voiceless alveolar nasal 1 [n̥] or [n̊] [n_0]
voiced retroflex nasal [ɳ] [n`] voiceless retroflex nasal [ɳ̥] or [ɳ̊] [n`_0]
voiced palatal nasal [ɲ] [J] voiceless palatal nasal [ɲ̥] or [ɲ̊] [J_0]
voiced velar nasal, commonly written ng. [ŋ] [N] voiceless velar nasal [ŋ̥] or [ŋ̊] [N_0]
voiced uvular nasal [ɴ] [N\] voiceless uvular nasal [ɴ̥] or [ɴ̊] [N\_0]

1. ^ The symbol [n] is commonly used to represent the dental nasal as well, rather than n̪, as it is rarely distinguished from the alveolar nasal.

Examples of languages containing nasal consonants:

The voiced retroflex nasal is [ɳ] is a common sound in Indic languages.

The voiced palatal nasal [ɲ] is a common sound in European languages, such as: Spanish ñ; or French and Italian gn; or Catalan, Hungarian and Ganda ny; or Czech and Slovak ň; or Polish ń; or Occitan and Portuguese nh; or Serbo-Croatian nj.

English, German and Cantonese have [m], [n] and [ŋ]. Tamil possesses distinct letters to represent [m], [n̪], [n], [ɳ], [ɲ] and [ŋ] (ம,ந,ன,ண,ஞ,ங).

Catalan, Occitan, Spanish, and Italian have [m], [n], [ɲ] as phonemes, and [ɱ] and [ŋ] as allophones. (In several American dialects of Spanish, there is no palatal nasal but only a palatalized nasal, [nʲ], as in English canyon. In Brazilian Portuguese nh is frequently pronounced as a nasalized [ j ], that is, as a nasal glide. This vowel also exists in Guaraní.)

The term 'nasal stop' will often be abbreviated to just "nasal". However, there are also nasal fricatives, nasal flaps, nasal glides, and nasal vowels, as in French, Portuguese, Catalan (dialectal feature), Yoruba, Gbe, Polish, and Ljubljana Slovene. In the IPA, nasal vowels are indicated by placing a tilde (~) over the vowel in question: French sang [sɑ̃].

A select few languages use voiceless nasal consonants. Among them are Icelandic, Burmese, Jalapa Mazatec, Kildin Sami, Welsh, and Central Alaskan Yup'ik.

Languages without nasals

Few languages, perhaps 2.3%,[1] contain no phonemically distinctive nasal consonants. This led Ferguson (1963) to assume that all languages have at least one primary nasal consonant. When a language is claimed to lack nasal consonants altogether, as with several Niger–Congo languages, or the Pirahã language of the Amazon, nasal and non-nasal or prenasalized consonants usually alternate allophonically, and it is a theoretical claim on the part of the individual linguist that the nasal version is not the basic form of the consonant. In the case of some Niger–Congo languages, for example, nasal consonants occur before only nasal vowels. Since nasal vowels are phonemic, it simplifies the picture somewhat to assume that nasalization in stops is allophonic. There is then a second step in claiming that nasal vowels nasalize oral stops, rather than oral vowels denasalizing nasal stops, that is, whether [mã, mba] are phonemically /mbã, mba/ without full nasal stops, or /mã, ma/ without prenasalized stops. Postulating underlying oral or prenasalized rather than nasal consonants helps to explain the apparent instability of nasal correspondences throughout Niger–Congo compared with, for example, Indo-European.[2] In older speakers of the Tlingit language, [l] and [n] are allophones. Tlingit is usually described as having an unusual, perhaps unique lack of /l/ despite having six lateral obstruents; the older generation could be argued to have /l/ but at the expense of having no nasals.

However, several of the Chimakuan, Salish, and Wakashan languages surrounding Puget Sound, such as Quileute, Lushootseed, and Makah, are truly without any nasalization at all, in consonants or vowels, except in special speech registers such as baby-talk or the archaic speech of mythological figures (and perhaps not even that in the case of Quileute). This is an areal feature, only a few hundred years old, where nasal stops became voiced plosives ([m] became [b], etc). The only other places in the world where this occurs is in the central dialect of the Rotokas language of Papua New Guinea, where nasal stops are used only when imitating foreign accents (a second dialect does have nasal stops).

See also

Notes and references


  1. ^ Maddieson, Ian. 2008. Absence of Common Consonants. In: Haspelmath, Martin & Dryer, Matthew S. & Gil, David & Comrie, Bernard (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 18. Available online at Accessed on 2008-09-15.
  2. ^ As noted by Williamson (1989:24).


  • Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19814-8. 
  • Ferguson (1963) 'Assumptions about nasals', in Greenberg (ed.) Universals of Language, pp 50–60.
  • Saout, J. le (1973) 'Languages sans consonnes nasales', Annales de l Université d'Abidjan, H, 6, 1, 179–205.
  • Williamson, Kay (1989) 'Niger–Congo overview', in Bendor-Samuel & Hartell (eds.) The Niger–Congo Languages, 3–45.

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