Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Some Phonetic N-L-ysis (Or, You’ll Want to Hold Your Nose for This One)

Posted by Neal on October 27, 2018

In doing pronunciation tutoring for international students, I’ve found one pronunciation error to be particularly difficult for students to overcome. The specific problem, which I’ve noticed most often in students from Hubei, China, is in making a distinction between /n/ and /l/. Sometimes, /l/ is the troublesome member of the pair. When they pronounce it, it sounds like an /n/, so when they deliver a mock lecture for a teaching assessment, they might pronounce analysis as ananasis. Other times, /n/ is the source of the trouble, when not comes out as lot, or no as low, or my knife as my life.

This phonemic merger has happened despite the existence of common Chinese names such as Liu. One student admitted that it can sometimes be a problem to say words like these, and sometimes people from his home region will be teased for it when they travel to other areas of China. Apparently this local dialect, even though it’s a variety of Mandarin, is known to be difficult for other Mandarin speakers to understand. I imagine American English speakers with the cot/caught merger have a similar experience when traveling to a region where the speakers still make a distinction between these two vowels.

Working with speakers who are struggling to distinguish between /n/ and /l/ highlights how phonetically similar they are. First of all, they’re both made by putting the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth, on that bony bump behind them (the alveolar ridge). Furthermore, they’re both voiced sounds. Make an extended /n/ sound or an extended /l/ sound and put a finger on your Adam’s apple. For both sounds, you’ll feel the vibrations of the air being pushed through your vocal folds.

So exactly what is the difference between /n/ and /l/, anyway? It comes down to two things:

  1. Does the air pass through the nose? That is, are you making a nasal sound?
  2. Does the air pass over the sides of the tongue? That is, are you making a lateral sound?

So how do you know if air is coming through your nose or past the sides of your tongue? Take a deep breath, put your tongue into position for your /n/ or /l/, whichever one you’re trying to make, and say that sound for a good, long time: [nnnnnn….], or [lllll…]. I’m assuming that you’re able to do this, since you’re probably an English speaker if you’re reading this blog. However, in the unlikely event that you were not able to make that extended [n] or [l], then that means the answer to both of these questions is NO, which means you’re not making an [n] or an [l] at all; you’re making a different alveolar sound: [d]!

But supposing you were able to make that extended [n] or [l], here’s the next part of the test. Do it again, and this time do it while pinching your nose. Were you still able to do it? If pinching your nose totally disrupted things, then air must have been coming through there before, so the answer to the “nasal” question is YES.

On the other hand, if pinching your nose didn’t stop you at all, then air must have been escaping your head some other way, and it probably wasn’t coming out your ears. I mean, I guess it could have, if you get lots of ear infections like I did when I was a kid, and you’ve had tubes inserted into your eardrums. But still, it’s a bit of work to force air to go through there. The more likely escape path is past the sides of your tongue. To find out for sure, put your tongue into the position again, and then just breathe through your mouth for a little bit. You should feel the sides of your tongue is getting cold. So the answer to the “lateral” question is YES.

This means, looking back, that if air was passing through your nose a minute or two ago, and pinching your nose gave it no other way to get out, then it wasn’t just the tip of your tongue making contact with the alveolar ridge. It was actually the entire outer edge of your tongue, from the right all the way to the left, spreading out to seal the passage from your molars on one side, to just behind your incisors, to your molars on the other side. On the other hand, if air was passing over the sides of your tongue, then your tongue was squeezed into a narrow shape, so that only the tip was touching the alveolar ridge.

If the answer to the nasal question is YES and the answer to the lateral question is NO, then you’ve got yourself an [n]. If the answer to the nasal question is NO and the answer to the lateral question is YES, then you’re making an [l]. But what if the answer to both of these questions is YES? In that case, you’re making a sound that isn’t even in English’s phonetic inventory. In fact, there isn’t even an International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for it; the best we can do is to use the [l] symbol and use the tilde (~) to indicate that this is a nasalized consonant: [ l̃ ].

This halfway consonant is usually what the students in question have been making for both /n/ and /l/, leading to the confusion between not and lot; no and low; knife and life.

Here are the differences summed up.

air does not   pass through nose        air passes         through nose
air does not pass  sides of tongue [ d ] [ n ]
air passes sides of tongue [ l ] [ l̃ ]

Once the students are more aware of what’s going on with their speech articulators, it’s a matter of practicing the two sounds, sometimes while pinching their nose to make sure air can’t pass through it unnoticed. When they get good enough at producing the two sounds during our session, they can take on the homework challenge of singing the hook from Roy Orbison’s classic doo-wop tune!

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6 Responses to “Some Phonetic N-L-ysis (Or, You’ll Want to Hold Your Nose for This One)”

  1. Ran said

    This:

    > Usually, /l/ is the troublesome member of the pair. When they pronounce it, it sounds like an /n/.

    and this:

    > This halfway consonant is usually what the students in question have been making for both /n/ and /l/. When they make a nasalized [ l̃ ] instead of a true [ l ], it’s not a big deal. It still tends to come across as an /l/, though the accent might be perceived as slightly nasal. The confusion comes when they make a nasalized [ l̃ ] instead of a true [ n ], because it still tends to come across as an /l/.

    seem to be saying opposite things: the one says that /l/ usually sounds like /n/, the other seems to say that both /l/ and /n/ usually sound like /l/. Are these two different groups of students?

    • Neal said

      Oops. You’re right. The confusion does go both ways, but usually the same way within a given student. I’ve made the relevant corrections in the post.

  2. chut7 said

    Distantly related : in Cantonese (which is quite different from Mandarin) , many words officially pronounced with an “n” sound often spoken with an “l” sound. The word for “you”, 你, is pronounced “nei” in dictionaries, but spoken colloquially as “lei”. It’s not because of confusion over the sound, as everybody I know who speaks it hears the difference… It’s more that “lei” rolls of the tongue a little more smoothly than the nasal varient.

  3. dainichi said

    > (About [l̃]) you’re making a sound that isn’t even in English’s phonetic inventory.

    I’m not convinced that there aren’t speakers who would nasalize their /l/ in, say, “land”. Especially AmE speakers tend to nasalize their vowels before nasal consonants, so “land” would become something like [lẽɘ̃nd] or [lẽɘ̃d], details depending on the level of a-tensing. AFAIK, so far this is non-controversial, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if people commonly also assimilate the nasality to the l, giving [l̃ẽɘ̃nd] or [l̃ẽɘ̃d].

    • Neal said

      Good point. It would be more accurate to say that [l̃] isn’t in English’s *phonemic* inventory. The same would go for the nasalized tap [ɾ̃], as in some people’s pronunciation of the /t/ in “united”.

      As for nasalizing vowels before nasal consonants, I thought that was a general phonological rule of English (and of other languages too), not specific to AmE. (I’d also transcribe “land” as [læ̃nd]; your transcription seems to be a “Northern Cities Shift” version, but that’s another matter.) I would indeed be surprised to find that speakers were taking their regressive nasal assimilation all the way back to the /l/. However, I just now tried saying “land” with my nasal passage open, and it felt pretty natural, so you could be right.

      • dainichi said

        > “Northern Cities Shift” version

        I would say that [ẽɘ̃] is probably the most common allophone of /æ/ before /m/ and /n/ in AmE. It’s part of the NCS, but it’s definitely much more widespread than that, although maybe not with that exact realization:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki//%C3%A6/_raising

        > As for nasalizing vowels before nasal consonants, I thought that was a general phonological rule of English (and of other languages too), not specific to AmE.

        You might be right, I had a feeling it’s slightly more common/mandatory in AmE than other varieties, but that’s really just a hunch.

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