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, nʲ (older IPA, ᶇ) : 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) nʲ 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