Monday 4 July 2011

denasalized nasals

Congratulations to Young Shin Kim, who has just successfully defended her doctoral thesis (dissertation) at UCL. It is entitled “An acoustic, aerodynamic and perceptual investigation of word-initial denasalization in Korean”. Here she is with her supervisor, Michael Ashby.
Young Shin had noticed that when she played a recording of a Korean word beginning with m, English listeners often perceived it as beginning with b. She has gone on to demonstrate, in great detail, that in many cases Korean initial “nasals” are indeed pronounced as plosives.

Here’s an example. Listen to the sound clip of 그런데메밀, which “ought” to be kɯɾʌnde memil, taken from the phrase 그런데메밀꽃 kɯɾʌnde memilkkot meaning ‘then buckwheat flowers’. In the second word, compare the two consonants written m. The first, in me-, is, as you can hear, denasalized. It is a fully voiced b. The second, word-medial, in -mil-, is an ordinary nasal. Compare the two consonants on this spectrogram: nasal formant bars for the second, but not for the first.
For her dissertation, Young Shin recorded word-initial nasals from a relatively large number of Korean informants, and carried out listening tests with English and Korean listeners. She also ran auditory and spectrographic tests demonstrating that they are indeed denasalized, often even having plosive-like release bursts. Nevertheless, they “remain somewhat different from [Korean] voiced plosives in the low and high frequency regions”.

On the face of it, this is an improbable phonetic development in Korean, given that the language already has three sets of contrastive plosives. At the bilabial place, for example, there are an aspirated fortis , an unaspirated fortis p=, and a (relatively) unaspirated lenis p, the latter having a voiced allophone in intervocalic position. Not many languages have three contrasting sets of plosives, fewer still four or five.

Young Shin deserves particular praise for having noticed this development when generations of phoneticians working on Korean had failed to do so. An exception, intriguingly enough, was Daniel Jones, who as long ago as 1924 noticed that there was something funny about Korean initial nasals. In the ‘spesimɛn’ of ‘korɪən’ he published in the m.f. that year (p. 14), jointly written with K. Minn, he analysed the initial nasals as mb, nd, commenting as follows. (The restriction to pre-u position, noted by Jones, has not been maintained.) But in the specimen of Korean he published in the Principles of the IPA there is no mention of this, and no one seems to have followed it up — until now.


  1. Very interesting. I've looked at Korean phonology a little bit and this is the first time I've heard about this. I don't know how Koreans distinguish so many plosives. That would be next to impossible for me.

  2. Prof. Wells would tell you, yurrive, don't fall for the ‘exotic sound syndrome’! If they can pronounce it, you can do it too. It is easier for them because they are taught to speak from a very early age.

    I have a question: in this blog post, /ʌ/ is [ʌ] or [ɐ] (I haven't yet listened to the sound file)?

  3. You didn't understand what I wrote (last paragraph):


    Thank you for the clarification on /ʌ/.

  4. I wonder if this is the same sort of sound change we see if Salishan languages. A number of Salishan languages do or have in the past shown /mb/ (prenasalized stop) for /m/, and likewise for the alveolar nasal. In some languages this change progressed to total loss of nasals (Twana and Lushootseed have no nasals except in a few quasi-paralinguistic words and foreign loans), in other languages the alternate pronunciation settled back on a semi-pure nasal, and in still others nasals are still stopped. I seem to recall this same sound change (in mostly undocumented form) in another language family, but I can't remember which. This might account for the lack of notice: perhaps the change was still nascent or even non-existent a hundred years ago.

  5. So it wasn't just me! I took intensive beginning Korean last summer and slowly realized that my teacher often pronounced /nugu/ ('who?') as [dugu], for example - which caused me great confusion at first, but she didn't even seem to notice she was doing it.

  6. History repeats itself (and prehistory too). This has happened before in Pre-Proto-Altaic, hence the Altaic 1ps pronoun in *b- rather than *m-. Illich-Svitych assumed it was tied to monosyllabic forms but this evidently can't be the reason when compared to Korean data.

    To me, when I looked at that proto-language, it struck me that it had something to do with word-initial nasals before vowels with certain features. I had left it off with the notion that it was fortition triggered by palatalization.

  7. So, finally the proper answer. I got tons of same questions from foreign Korean learners, and its good to have a solid confirmation.

    Well, though improbable, these things happen when you have only four voiced phonemic consonants in a language and your ancestors somehow managed to keep two of them from showing up word initially. In other words, there is absolutely no other voiced consonants except /m/ and /n/ word initially, so why bother carefully enunciate nasality?


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