Monday, 26 September 2011

an unexpected assimilation

I spent last week in Poznań, Poland, where I ɡave some Esperanto-medium lessons on general articulatory phonetics at Adam Mickiewicz University as part of their Interlinguistic Studies programme. The students were enthusiastic, mostly young, and from a variety of different language backgrounds, which makes for lively sessions.

These students had never previously experienced the dictation of nonsense words, so we had good fun working on them as a relief from the hard-core stuff. I find nonsense words a great way to revive the attention of those who are beginning to flag a little in class.

One topic that came up was assimilation in the place of articulation of nasals before various obstruents. We discussed whether the sound corresponding to the first n in dankon ‘thank you’ is, or ought to be, a dental/alveolar n, or whether it can, or should, get allophonically assimilated to the homorɡanic velar ŋ. (As you may know, this type of assimilation happens in many languages, but not — strangely — in Russian.)

When we turned to nasals before various other obstruents, an Italian participant remarked that in his own speech (in Esperanto as in Italian) he pronounces n before s as palatalized, (older IPA, ) : so for penso ‘thought’ he says penʲso. This is unexpected, because the following consonant, for him as for everyone else, is a plain common-or-garden s. Is this some kind of assimilation to the preceding vowel rather than to the following consonant? Or some kind of consonantal dissimilation?

We didn’t have time to pursue the matter then in class, but what I ought to have done — I realize now — is to investigate whether he does the same thing when the preceding vowel is back (e.g. monstro ‘monster’).

I have never seen any such phenomenon mentioned in phonetic descriptions of Italian. I wonder how widespread it is. Here is what Mioni says on the subject in the Italian section of Fonematica contrastiva (Bologna, 1973). Before s he reports a straightforward apico-dental n. The “lievemente palatalizzato” (lightly palatalized) he mentions as found only in the position before tʃ, dʒ, ʃ.
The English Wikipedia article on Italian phonology says baldly
Nasals assimilate to the point of articulation of whatever consonant they precede. For example, /nɡ/ is realized as [ŋɡ].
The Italian Wikipedia mentions a ‘mediopalatale’ variant of /n/, but does not elaborate.
esistono altri allofoni di /n/ come la dentale e la mediopalatale, di solito non riportati nella trascrizione larga. (Other allophones of /n/ are found, for example dental and mediopalatal, usually not reflected in broad transcription.)

Perhaps we’ve discovered something new.
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I notice that above I used the expression ‘common or garden’. I’m aware that this is a British expression for which the AmE equivalent is ‘garden-variety’. And that gives me an opportunity to pass on Karen Chung’s recent discovery of an interesting article about Briticisms creeping into American English. Go here to read about run-up, go missing, snog, sort out, laddish etc.
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European Day of Languages


  1. (Funny how we got to meet in the far-away lands but not here!)

    Did the student give any other examples? Maybe the "assimilation" comes from the vowel rather than being dependent on the following consonant. It made me think of Portuguese nasal diphthongs that have (to my ear) a definite palatal component that seems to be integral to the vowel, especially in words such as bem... Not that I know much about Portuguese or Italian...

  2. (wjarek - I did call at Katarzyna's office to say hello, but she was away. I wasn't cutting you, honest.)

  3. And why is this assimilation noteworthy? Surely the vowel is a rational source of the palatalization, but if so, why dwell on something so small?

  4. I wish my Italian were better, but Canepari seems to describe a dentalization of /n/ before /s/ in section 1.3 of his Dizionario de Pronuncia Italiana. Not sure this is compatible with the idea of palatalization.

  5. Once you get past the terminological differences, Canepari's descriptions for Standard Italian pronunciation are in full agreement with Mioni's quoted above. The Italian /n/ is normally alveolar, but becomes denti-alveolar (Mioni's 'apico-dental' or Canepari's 'dental') just like Italian /t/, /d/, and /s/ when preceding those consonants.

    It is not clear from the selection above whether Mioni makes the distinction between the place of articulation for normal /n/ and the denti-alveolars, though. The distinction is tiny enough to be safely ignored in most general treatments.

    I took a quick look through Canepari's extensive discussion of the dialects and languages of Italy in his Natural Phonetics and Tonetics, but there is no description anywhere of /n/ becoming palatalized before /s/. In dialects where the standard treatment of /n/ doesn't hold, by far the most common variant is where /n/ is a velar nasal [ŋ] or a similar semi-nasal (with less than full contact) before any consonant.

  6. (@JW - Of course I know you weren't cutting me or anyone else! I was just expressing my mild amazement and amusement in both the funny-bizarre and funny-ha-ha sense ;)

  7. I'm Italian and have a good knowledge of Italian accents. I have been fond of phonetics since my teens. I'm now 43 and so far I have never heard anybody palatalise their n's before /s/. I subscribe to what Canepari and Mioni say on the topic, i.e. that palatalised n's only occur before /tʃ, dʒ, ʃ/.
    To an Italian ear a nʲ before /s/ would sound idiosyncratic/defective speech.
    /e, ɛ/ are unlikely to have any perceptible influence on the articulation of the following /n/, at least as far as Italian accents are concerned, but if you think the idea of vowel quality affecting the following nasal is worth pursuing, have your informant produce "munsi" (I milked), "monsoni" (monsoons) or "responso" (verdict). In Italian "monster" has no n: it's "mostro".

  8. No, no, no. He's talking about Esperanto 'monstro'. I think I've heard this nʲ all my life from various nationals, and it has not struck me as typical of Italians. I predict that the Italian in question might well use it in 'monstro', with the less reserve for its being a cluster that should not have recommended itself to the reportedly Italian-literate internationalist Zamenhof, like an awful lot of other clusters in Esperanto.

    So wjarek,
    «Portuguese nasal diphthongs that have (to my ear) a definite palatal component that seems to be integral to the vowel, especially in words such as bem... »

    You're dead right it's integral, and not only to your ear. But integral to what? Why the vowel? Why not the diphthong, which is a sequence of vowels, is it not? Or better, the sequence of whatever, since the nasal can pop up again, at any rate for people into panchronics as per the ‘The Duke of York gambit’ (see today's blog), as in 'bendizer/bem-dizer' as opposed to 'bem-disposto' or 'bem-vindo/benvindo'.

    But try another Portuguese nasal diphthong, as in 'tão'. A definite integral 'velar' component, actually adumbrated for our convenience by the orthography! Put 'tão' together with 'bem' and what do you get? 'Também'. Or how do you spell 'tão' without stress? Well '-tam' as in 'cantam'. Stress 'bem' and you get 'bém', 'tam' and you get 'tão', Orthography pure and simple.