How to Pronounce the Japanese Nasal, ん

In phonology, we refer to ん as a phoneme. A phoneme is a mental representation of a sound, which native speakers will usually receive as the same sound, and we usually represent that with slashes, like this: /ɴ/. That’s the most common representation for the ん sound in phonology, but I’m going to continue to write it as ん for the purposes of this little tutorial. ん has a few different pronunciations based on the sound that follows it. We represent these more concrete sounds with square brackets: [n], ][ɴ], [ŋ], [m], etc. These different pronunciations are called allophones. ん is one sound as far as the Japanese language is concerned, but five sounds physically.

If this sounds bizarre and foreign, consider the /t/ sound in English. Think about the /t/ sound in the following words:

  • toy
  • steam
  • truck
  • water
  • robot

If you speak the same dialect of English as I do, those will all have different pronunciations. The /t/ in “toy” has a little puff of air after it, while the /t/ in “steam” has none. /tr/ blends into a “chr” sound for me, and I imagine for most English speakers. The /t/ in “water” is a quick flap of the tongue behind the teeth, and the /t/ in “robot” is actually made by cutting off the air supply at the vocal folds. There are many similar processes in English, and probably in every language.

Back to Japanese. When Japanese people use an ん sound, they actually produce it in a few different ways. Phonetically, we’d say that the ん sound agrees in place of articulation with the sound that follows it. That means that you make the ん sound in the same parts of your mouth (lips, tongue, teeth) as the sound that comes after it.

Let’s start at the lips and work our way back. Before a bilabial stop, like [p, b, m], the ん sound is made with your lips. That means that you get an [m] sound, which is the same as the first consonant in the English words “make mine Marvel”.

  • 散歩(さんぽ)[sampo]
  • 貧乏(びんぼう)[bimbo:]
  • 三枚(さんまい)[sam:ai]

Next up is the alveolar ridge, which is the area right behind your teeth. We make the sounds [t, d, s, z] there. That means that ん becomes a [n] sound, the same as the one that begins words like “Narnia” and “navel-gazing”.

  • 天才(てんさい)[tensai]
  • 関東(かんとう)[kanto:]
  • ポンド [pondo]

Further back in the mouth, we have the velars, like [k, g], which are made on your soft palate, or velum. That’s the squishy bit on the top of your mouth, near the back. ん before these sounds becomes a [ŋ] sound, like in the English words “English”, “crank”, and “bowling”.

  • 元気(げんき)[geŋki]
  • レンガ [reŋga]

Next, let’s look at vowels, which are made without touching the tongue or lips. To make ん before a vowel, nasalize the preceding vowel. This one was the trickiest sound for me to acquire for sure, because we don’t differentiate nasal vowels in English. Try saying the words “win” and “wit”, and notice how the /ɪ/ sound changes. Now try “boon” and “boot”. English speakers naturally nasalize vowels before a nasal consonant, so you need to be able to do that at will in Japanese (French as well, for that matter). Japanese speakers also seem to use this before the [ɸu] sound, ふ.

  • 千円(せんえん)[sẽẽɴ]
  • 三位(さんい)[sãi]
  • 原因(げんいん)[gẽĩɴ]
  • インフルエンザ [ĩɸu̥ɾuenza]

Finally, there’s the ん sound at the end of a sentence. With nothing coming after it, how do you know which one to use? Phonological literature usually suggests the [ɴ] sound, which is made by touching the back of the tongue to the uvula. In practice, however, Japanese people will use [ŋ, n, ɴ] or [m] for the final ん sound. I’d say, default to [ɴ], but keep your ears open and use whichever is most comfortable.

  • 一番(いちばん)[itɕibaɴ]/ [itɕibam]/ [itɕibaŋ]/[itɕiban]

TL;DR: ん generally agrees in place of articulation with the sound that comes after it. By “place of articulation”, I mean the location of your tongue and/or lips when you make the sound.

Good luck, have fun!

About

English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Learn Japanese, Phonetics and Phonology
11 comments on “How to Pronounce the Japanese Nasal, ん
  1. Wataru says:

    Jeff, I’ve been wishing for someone to write a guide to ん forever. Thank you so much! I unfortunately still don’t understand how to consciously nasalize a vowel. I’ll just have to Google it. To Google!

  2. Mike says:

    I am learning Japanese using Pimsler and notice that men and women speakers use M and N differently. Using google I found another gentleman who also noticed the same thing. Is there a difference?

    • gengojeff says:

      I’m under the impression that female voice actors are explicitly taught to pronounce ん as [m] at the end of a phrase. Certainly you hear it a lot in broadcast TV and the like. However, I don’t notice a different distribution between men and women in normal, everyday speech.

      I used Pimsleur myself, and I’m using it for Mandarin now, so I’m happy to sing it’s praises as a learning tool. It does have its limitations, though. You’re getting all of your listening from two speakers, both of whom are trained voice actors, so you get a speech sample that is very clear and hyper-articulated, but not very representative of the wide variety of speaking styles you’d encounter in the wild. The woman on the Pimsleur recordings is speaking in a very ‘broadcast’ style, very much unlike what I hear in daily life. Don’t read too much into it.

      Also, don’t worry so much about male and female differences in Japanese speaking style. The guys who tell you you need to stop speaking so girly or give you advice about ‘masculine’ speech mostly suck at Japanese and have no idea how rude an childish they sound by throwing out くれ、すまん、おっす and so on in inappropriate contexts. Keep your ears open and use your own judgment, and ignore all this advice running around about male and female speech. Sure, there are differences, but you most likely won’t accidentally sound feminine.

      • iansryan says:

        Using くれ is pretty extreme. There are plenty of ways to accidentally sound like a girl in casual speech, where sounding like a guy wouldn’t mean doing anything that would sound crass or rude even in the slightest.

        I gained my conversational fluency mostly from talking to girls, so it was easy for me to accidentally take on their intonations and phrasing. And then the next girl wouldn’t exactly find it attractive that I’m talking like a girl. Just depends on your life. Maybe “don’t worry about sounding like a girl” worked for you, but for my self of 5 years ago that would have been silly advice.

  3. OneRatNoWalls says:

    Much thanks for this. It’s the first piece I’ve found that actually explains the reasons and logic behind the pronounciation rules. Knowing this makes them much easier to remember.

  4. yuuna says:

    I’m a bit new to IPA notation, so forgive my ignorance, but why did you use a colon in your phonetic transcriptions instead of the triangular colon (: vs. ː)?

    For example, here:
    三枚(さんまい)[sam:ai]

    • gengojeff says:

      Because I’m lazy, and the normal colon is right there on my keyboard. I think the triangular colon is dumb and only makes IPA more difficult to use.

  5. Xiuhnan says:

    With the last way to pronounce ん.
    It’s basically the sound you hear in yeah (/yɛə/) the /y/ sound, so you say: sa/y/i for さんい

    • gengojeff says:

      I don’t really see evidence of that. Most sources I’ve checked, as well as acoustic samples I’ve analyzed, show a nasalized vowel. Check Tim Vance’s “The Sounds of Japanese” for more detailed information.

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