Tuesday, 6 March 2012

uɱ...

If the IPA were to admit a separate phonetic symbol for every subtlest nuance of sound that anyone can detect, chaos would ensue as symbols proliferated uncontrollably. So for at least the last hundred years we’ve followed the rule that we don’t have a special symbol unless there is some language that makes phonemic use of the corresponding sound: for any arbitrary pair of symbols there must be a language in which a phonological contrast between the corresponding sounds is attested. In the words of the 1949 Principles,

The current Handbook (p. 27-30) expresses the same general idea at greater length and with greater sophistication. It makes the point that if we have a phonemic contrast somewhere we generally ought to have a special symbol, though not the converse that if we don’t have a phonemic contrast then we ought not to have a special symbol.

Either way, the symbol for the labiodental nasal, ɱ, seems to be a striking exception to the principle. There is certainly no widely spoken or studied language in which ɱ contrasts with both m and n. If the sound occurs at all, it is virtually always a positional allophone of one or the other or both, found only adjacent to another labiodental (normally f or v).

If you say comfort as ˈkʌɱfə(r)t and emphasis as ˈeɱfəsɪs (as many textbooks assert), then English ɱ can be considered a realization of phonemic m.

There are two reasons why matters are not so simple, however.

• In practice many speakers do not use these pronunciations consistently. Between the nasal and the fricative, epenthesizers — those who make mince and mints homophonous — will have a voiceless plosive of some sort, usually labiodental and/or glottal, thus ˈkʌɱp̪fə(r)t ~ ˈkʌɱʔfə(r)t (where “p̪” in the first version stands for a voiceless labiodental plosive).

• Rather few people have such perfect dentition that they can effortlessly create a true labiodental stop. The smallest gap between any two upper front teeth is sufficient to preclude the complete closure needed for a plosive. Equally, any nasal at the same place will not be a true stop nasal, but will have some oral escape.

In practice what we get as the realization of the phonemic m here may typically range from a bilabial m in careful or overarticulated speech, through ɱ with the reservations just expressed, or perhaps a nasalized labiodental approximant, ʋ̃, down to mere vowel nasalization in rapid speech. I expect the same applies, mutandis mutatis, in other languages.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that as an IPA symbol the letter ɱ appears to be an anomalous exception. Certainly at the time of its adoption its distinctive use in a language had not been attested.

Are things different now, when so many more languages of the world have been phonetically investigated?

The only language that people mention as allegedly having a distinctive labiodental nasal phoneme is a language of the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) known as Kukuya or, more fully, as Teke-Kukuya.

In this language, it is claimed, there are various conclusive minimal pairs.
I have not been able to read the original in which this data was presented. I have, however, read a review of it by the Africanist Michael Mann (BSOAS, 1976, 39:725). He does not even mention Paulian’s striking claim about the labiodental nasal.

I also note that Kukuya is part of a continuum, Teke, containing eleven other languages (or perhaps dialects), for none of which the labiodental nasal phoneme is attested.

I can’t help wondering whether Paulian relied for her data mainly on a single informant who happened to have an unusual dental anatomy and who pronounced these words slightly differently from everyone else. Failing that, I wonder if this ɱ might alternatively be phonemicized as, say, /mv/ (compare the the ‘bv’ above).

11 comments:

  1. There might be not-quite-minimal pairs in languages where a morpheme boundary decides if m is partially assimilated to a following f.

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  2. What a poor language English is that it does not have a word for 'gap between filed incisors'.

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  3. Nor do we have a word, as William Safire memorably pointed out, for 'neighbor whose house is on fire'. (He was caricaturing a reader's request for a word meaning 'ex-spouse with whom one is having an affair'.)

    But seriously, I don't understand the remark "Equally, any nasal at the same place will not be a true stop nasal, but will have some oral escape." I have a substantial gap between my upper incisors, but no matter how vigorously I articulate [ɱ], I can detect (with the usual wet-finger technique) no airflow whatsoever out of it, which means that all the air is flowing out my nose. Quite otherwise with [ʋ̃].

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  4. Still trying to make sense of this sequence of words: '...what we get will typically as the realization of the phonemic m here may range...'.

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    1. Sorry, now repaired. (Masaki, where are you when I need you as a proofreader?)

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  5. In addition to words like "comfort", I tend to produce [ɱ] if I try to pronounce /m/ while smiling broadly or laughing. I likewise tend to produce the labiodentalized versions of /b/ and /p/ in the same circumstances.

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    1. Lately I've been seeing kids on YouTube produce bilabial m's. As mentioned above, the sound can be tricky to pronounce if there are any gaps between the teeth, so I wonder if there's a bit of a status symbol present, because only those who had braces can pull it off without weakening the sound.

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  6. Regarding the general issue of how narrow phonetic characters should be, I would have thought that the allophonic level was a better criterion than the phonemic level. The whole point of doing a narrow transcription is at least to capture allophonic alternations. And a good reason for recording that is to establish whether an alternation is bound or free, and to work out if free variation is absolutely free or tied to individuals, situations or styles etc. Regarding the special case of the bilabiodental nasal, this is regularly brought to the attention of students in Swedish phonetics classes because it is so widespread in Swedish speech. I've just been transcribing some Swedish radio programs and it occurred fairly generally. Now it appears it's only possible to capture Swedish nasal assimilations thanks to just one language having a phonemic contrast. If it turns out that analysis of Kukuya is incorrect, what next? You suggest using diacritics. I'd rather go in the other direction - if you're using a particular diacritic on every line of a lengthy text, it could be time to devise a convenient symbol. Apart from that, do diacritics work in database searches?

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    1. How does "the allophonic level" differ from JW's "every subtlest nuance of sound that anyone can detect"?

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  7. As a language teacher, I used to be a consumer of phonetics — especially of phonetic (usually = phonemic) transcription. We punters want symbols to convey whatever information might be relevant to our students at any one time.

    If we want to record visually that a nasal is labiodental, we're grateful that there's a symbol. If we were offered as a substitute a combination of phonemic symbol b and some diacritic to mark the allophone, we would be far from grateful.

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  8. I think the relevant page from the Kukuya book is here: http://books.google.com/books?id=rf3DcFk4cQcC&pg=PA56

    The author gives the minimal pairs, but notes that /ɱ/ is rare. She notes that it would be possible to interpret it as /mw/, but that this causes problems with the distribution of the succeeding vowels for /ɱ/ and the related phonemes /pf/ and /bv/.

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