Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Engma Enigma

Posted by Neal on September 2, 2008

You may remember that a few weeks ago, I was sorting through Adam’s spelling worksheets from the past school year, looking at how they handled teaching [ə], and the cot/caught vowel merger. I was also interested to see what they did with another question about vowels:

What vowel is in the word sing, and what vowel in the word sang?

I’d never really given it much thought until I got to college and took my first linguistics class, but up until then if you had asked me, I would have said the vowel in sing was long E, and the vowel in sang was long A. Transcribing them phonetically, I’d have written them as [siŋ] and [seŋ]. (There’s a whole introduction to engma, aka the ng sound, the one written [ŋ] in IPA, in this post from the Linguistic Mystic.) In class, though, I was surprised to learn that the expected transcriptions were [sIŋ] and [sæŋ] — in other words, with short I and short A, respectively.

I refused to believe it at first. Sing definitely sounded more like seen than sin. Sang definitely sounded more like sane than San. Didn’t they? I tried to trick myself by starting to say seen, stretching out the ee and then suddenly finishing off with [ŋ] instead of [n]: seeeng. I had to admit, it didn’t sound like a proper sing, even after I was able to shorten the vowel down to a reasonable duration. It sounded like I had a really strong Mexican accent. But when I started with sin and finished with [ŋ] instead of [n], it sounded much more natural. I tried the same experiment with sang. I started to say sane and then slipped in the [ŋ] instead of the [n] to hear if it sounded like sang. It made for a passable sang, but didn’t really sound like what I was used to. Then I started saying San, and again plugged in the [ŋ] for the [n] at the end. Now that was more like it: sang.

My wife thought I must have been crazy to ever have been confused about these vowels. It was a simple case of sounding out the letters — or digraph in the case of in the ng for the engma ([ŋ]) sound. Furthermore, although none of Adam’s worksheets answered the question, I did find this online phonics resource that explicitly gives the vowel in ing as short I, and the vowel in ang as short A. And looking at it from a phonological point of view, it would be strange to have [i] and [e] before [ŋ], since no other tense vowels can appear before it: There are no English words with long O or long U before [ŋ]. So how on earth did I ever get the idea that these vowels were long E and long A?

First of all, I don’t think my phonics lessons ever talked about it. I think, like the worksheets of Adam’s that I saw, that they just taught the vowel+ng sequences as a chunk. Second, it’s easier to confuse [i] with [I], and [e] with [æ], in an environment where you only get one. With seen and sin, it makes a difference whether you utter [i] or [I]. With sane and San (or bane and ban, if you don’t like the borrowed word San), it makes a difference whether you say [e] or [æ]. But there are no minimal pairs like that that end in [ŋ]. You could say one, the other, or something in between, and still be understood, and in fact, that’s what people do. Third…

…as it turns out, I’m not the only one to have heard ing and ang with long E and long A. Doug identified them as such when I asked him. And in a Phonoloblog post from 2007, Eric Bakovic says:

One thing I’ve always found hard about teaching English phonetics is convincing my students that the high front vowel preceding [ŋ] is (lax) [ɪ], not (tense) [i:]. It’s not hard to convince them that there’s no contrast between the two in this context, but no matter how many spectrograms I show them, they’re convinced that the vowel is more like [i:] than it is like [ɪ] — i.e., that bing sounds more like bean than like been. The biggest problem is that I can’t say that I disagree, no matter how many spectrograms have “convinced” me to the contrary.

During the past month on the American Dialect Society mailing list, they’ve been going around and around on the issue, with one contributor doggedly maintaining that he pronounces the word Chinglish as “Cheenglish”. Other contributors have been sure that he’s wrong, but Herb Stahlke did concede that:

It’s pretty well known in phonetics that a syllable-final [engma] raises a high front vowel a bit, so the lax high front vowel of “sin” and the vowel of “sing” are not phonetically identical. (link)

He still doesn’t agree that it’s a long E, noting as I did above that no other tense vowels can come before [ŋ]. Matthew Gordon, however, raised this point:

Anyway, it seems to me that the real question here isn’t whether the vowel of wing, sing, king, etc. is PHONETICALLY identical to that of win, sin, kin or to that of ween, scene, keen. It obviously isn’t phonetically identical to either. The only interesting question (for me, and even I’m rapidly losing interest) is whether the vowel is PHONEMICALLY part of the /I/ class or the /i/ class. … [I]f we take seriously native-speaker intuitions, doesn’t the fact that many people identify the pre-velar nasal vowel as the same as other clear cases of /i/ argue that the allophone has been reallocated to /i/? (link)

Finally, David Peterson has an interesting paper on this issue, showing that in Southern California (where Bakovic teaches, incidentally), both [æ] and [I] are tensing up before [ŋ] to become [e] and [i]. He notes that:

When classifying the vowels of their own language, … it is unclear how native speakers would classify the vowels before velar nasals. (p. 49)

So what’s your judgment? What vowels do you have in sing and sang? Did you learn them in school, or arrive at your own judgment based on the spelling, or arrive at your own judgment based on the sound?

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16 Responses to “Engma Enigma”

  1. The Ridger said

    If I’d been asked, I think I’d have said [siŋ] and [sæŋ]. The ŋ does seem to force them “higher” (tenser), but the “a” in “sang” sounds radically different to me than the one in “say”. It’s not quite the same one in “sand”, but it’s much closer. I certainly never learned it in school. ŋ was not something my English classes dealt with. Then again, I’m 54.

  2. Thanks Neal,

    I, like you, hear long e and long a for “sing or sink” and “sang or sank” even as spoken on These would be spelled ~seeng ~seenk and ~saeng ~saenk in truespel notation, the world’s first English based phonetic spelling system. That’s just spelling them as I hear them, and it’s everywhere not just California. But I’ve always known this problem even 55 years ago as a kid learing reading

    The “ing” spelling is really corruptive. I know phonetic spellers who spell the word “England” or “English” with an initial “ing” phonetically. Certainly that is wrong, as clearly that E is a long e ~ee, but they associate saying ~eeng with “ing” visually, so it seems right to them to right “inglish”.

    I did a proof of concept on this. If in a sound file you cut out the long e ~ee from scene and the short i ~i from sin as pronounced in the, and substitute each for the vowel in sing, sink, or thing, think, you would say that the ~ee is closer to correct.

  3. Kip said

    I hear seeng and sayng, even when repeating it. But then, since reading your last post on this topic, I’m still trying to figure out what the vowel I use in “one” and “woman” is.

    Could this be related to short i/short e confusion before the other two nasals (m/n)? What I mean is, to many people pin/pen and him/hem are homophones, while pit/pet and wit/wet are not at all. Nasals seem to ambiguate the preceding vowel sound sometimes.

  4. Neal said

    Ridger: So you hear a tense vowel for ing, but a lax one for ang. That’s interesting; I wonder how many other speakers have this split.

    Tom: I don’t hear [i] and [e] before [ŋ] anymore. Once I did the experiment, I was convinced that my own vowels were closer to [I] and [æ], though still raised/tensed a bit. Also, when I do the experiment in the other direction — starting to say sing but then finishing with an [n] instead of [ŋ], the result doesn’t sound like my usual pronunciation of scene. It sounds more like a diphthongized sin, like “seeyin”. How does it sound when you do this with your sound files?

    Also, the tensed vowels that Peterson referred to aren’t everywhere. The whole reason he wrote the paper was that he was interested in this noticeably different Southern California pronunciation that others (including Peter Ladefoged) had written about. That’s not to say that it doesn’t occur in any other dialects of English, but it’s still different, and not universal.

    Kip: Well, I’ve come to realize that my pronunciation of won is the weird one. As for the [I]/[ɛ] merger before [m] and [n], it seems to me to be a different process.

  5. Robin said

    Phonemically I have short vowels in sing and sang. And speaking of engma, at least one introductory linguistics textbook claims that English words can’t begin with it. Upon reading this, several of my students — all of them from the South — protested that they have word-initial engma in words such as ‘engulf’ and ‘ingratiate’. Seems to be true both phonemically and phonetically for them, but I should ask them how many syllables there are in ‘engulf’.

  6. The Ridger said

    I have to say that I pronounce engulf, etc with an [ŋ] – or think I do, at any rate – but not as an initial [ŋ], any more than there is initial [ŋ] in English. For one thing, the vowels are different for me, so I must be pronouncing them… I’m from the Southeast, though (east Tennessee), not the South proper. As best as I can recall, not having one of them around, I think my Alabama cousins do indeed have the same vowel sound (I’d spell in ingulf) and may have an initial [ŋ] …

  7. The Ridger said

    err … (I’d spell IT ingulf)

  8. Ran said

    /i/ and /e/ for me, but I’m not sure if I count; growing up I always mispronounced /n/ as [ŋ]. (In my head I did maintain a difference between /n/ and /ŋ/, and I’d have noticed if anyone else had the same mispronunciation I did, but I didn’t fully know I was mispronouncing it, except insofar as middle-school teasing gave me an idea, and I certainly didn’t know how to fix it until about a year ago, when I saw a Wikipedia article on coronal consonants, learned that [n] was one, had a WTF? moment, and eventually — after consulting with family about how they say the sounds — had a light-bulb moment. Interestingly, the people who’ve known me for years all totally accepted my mispronunciation, to the point that when I announced that I’d been mispronouncing /n/ for more than twenty years, some of them didn’t believe me at first. All of which is to say — my conceptualizing them as /i/ and /e/ may or may not be meaningful.)

    By the way, I have heard some people who pronounce “fang” etc. with a very definite [æ] sound, exactly like they would in “fan”, and I find it quite noticeable. Similarly, who pronounce “length” etc. with a definite [ɛ], like in “lens”, whereas for me this is also /e/. I haven’t noticed such a definite /ɪ/ for “sing”, which could mean either that no one does that, or that it sounds more O.K. to my ear so I don’t notice it. (Opposite interpretations, unfortunately, and I’m not sure how to test reliably.)

  9. Neal said

    Robin and Ridger: I’d imagine what’s happening with students who have initial [ŋ] in engulf but still pronounce it as two syllables is that they are starting it with a syllabic [ŋ], in the same way as they might say embarrass with an initial syllabic [m], or intend with an initial syllabic [n].

    Ran: I’ve heard people pronounce length and strength with [ɛ], but when they do, the [ŋ] is turned into an [n] (or more precisely, a dental [n]).

  10. Ran said

    > Ran: I’ve heard people pronounce length and strength with [ɛ], but when they do, the [ŋ] is turned into an [n] (or more precisely, a dental [n]).

    Ah, that makes sense; I guess the vowel must be more noticeable to me (perhaps because the dental [n] works nicely as anticipatory assimilation, so stands out less?).

  11. The Ridger said

    I hadn’t thought about it, but I do that – what Ran says; my length is really lenth. Huh. The things we say without noticing it.

  12. Viola said

    When we lived in Georgia, we often heard words like fang pronounced like fan and length pronounced like lenth. The pronunciation of engulf would definitely be ingulf down there. The interchanging of en and in always threw me for a loop. Look at the words envelope and envelop. I would pronounce the word envelope with more of an en sound, and the word envelop I’d have a tendency to pronounce with an in sound–simply because, as a verb, it means to surround something and keep it “in”–much like engulf. Hmmm….is this a Southern tendency? Or…is it psychological? I distinctly remember a switch turning on in my head whenever I heard the in exchanged for en, and my thought pattern said, “Okay, something is in something.” So in a roundabout way, what was said made sense. Nothing much was lost in translation, but it took a lot of translating on my part…in my head, of course. 🙂

  13. Rachel Klippenstein said

    I’ve never thought the vowels in “sing” and “sang” were anything but /ɪ/ and /æ/, though the /æ/ is a bit ‘funny’ – it sounds to me something like [æi], though I’m not sure if there’s an actual offglide or if the vowel’s a bit higher or what. (This happens before /ŋ/ and /g/ – so voiced velars.) I noticed some time ago that my younger brother pronounced the vowel in words like “bag” and “bang” so that it sounded to me like /e/. I asked him once if the vowels in these words sounded more like the vowel in “back” or the vowel in “bake” and he thought they sounded more like the vowel in “bake”.

    Incidentally, I would have thought I had [ɛŋ] in “length” and “strength”; I’m sure I have a velar but I haven’t actually inspected the vowel quality.

  14. Ellen K. said

    I like what Matthew Gordon brings up, the issue of phonemes. Because, generally, what we notice, what we consciously hear, is the phoneme. The t in the American pronunciation of Toto and the r in the Spanish Language word toro are the same sound, phonetically. As I say the two words, I can feel that they are the same in my mouth. But I hear one as a T, and one as an R. Different phonemes.

    I’m not convinced about the sang = [sæŋ] thing. I can say [sæŋ] and it sounds quite different than sang. (Although, that’s assuming my vowel in sat, sand, etc, really is [æ], which I do understand to be the case.) And trying the trick with San and Sane and swithing to [ŋ], I’d say I say [seŋ]. (I’m from the not-so-upper midwest, USA.)

    Actually, basically the same for sing, but there the contrast between the two vowels under discussion isn’t as strong. Probably because the two vowels are said at close to the same spot in the mouth, whereas [æ] and [e] are not.

  15. Alacritas said


    I know this post is very old, but in times when you haven’t posted anything in a while I start reading a lot of your backposts.

    At any rate, I coincidentally just read earlier today that Phonoblog post you cited, and while reading it I was shocked that his students heard “sing” with [i:]. For me, it is distinctly [I], and I can’t bring myself to hear it as anything else, no matter how hard I try. Although, when I checked out that movie trailer for “Evening” that he talked about, it certainly did sound like [i:] or even [ei] to me; but the trailer narrator’s pronunciation struck me as distinctly odd.

    The conclusion I came to was that the nasalisation affects the vowel quality in some way, I suppose by raising it or making it more lax or something along those lines.

    But my question is this: would the people who hear “sang” as having [ɛ] and “sing” as having [i:] pronounce it exactly as the made-up words “seng” and “seeng”?

    Also, as for the word-initial syllabic engma, I do that in words like “engulf” and “ingratiate” if I’m speaking quickly, but it seems as if I pronounce it with [I] and then a coronal nasal if I’m saying it in isolation.

  16. Gretchen said

    An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I do believe that you ought to write more on this issue, it may not be a taboo subject but usually people do not talk about
    these topics. To the next! Best wishes!!

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