An anonymous commentator on yesterday’s blog (meant to be for the previous day) expressed not only disbelief at the suggestion that native speakers of English make a distinction between an aim ən eɪm and a name ə neɪm but also dismay when native speakers (including me) insisted that we do.
The picture above is taken from John Trim’s EFL practice book English Pronunciation Illustrated (CUP, 2nd edition 1975).
Another commentator, going by the name of army1987, supplied a link to a Language Log posting (actually a follow-up to this one). Here you can find sound clips taken from a large spoken (telephone) corpus and test yourself on your ability to hear the contrast.
Measurements of segment duration show that final n, as in an ice (cream) is typically shorter in duration than initial n, as in a nice (day).
Impressionistically, I find the distinction to be relatively robust. OK, like many contrasts it may be obscured in rapid speech, particularly under less than ideal noise conditions; but, as I mentioned in a comment yesterday, I do remember being struck (and irritated) by a French colleague’s repeated mispronunciation of an L as ə ˈnel, which sounds like a knell rather than like what was intended. He was carrying over into English the French habit whereby final liaison consonants are regularly resyllabified with a following initial vowel: my standard example is les États-Unis le.ze.ta.zy.ni.
Historically, the distinction may presumably once have been less robust, judging by the etymology of adder and, in the other direction, of newt. (In the case of orange, from Sanskrit nāraṅga via Arabic nāranj, the reanalysis seems to have taken place in Italian, and the word then came to us via French already lacking the initial nasal.)
The existence of the distinction in contemporary English doesn’t stop us punning over the similarity.