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When my 6-year old daughter spells words phonetically, she regularly drops final 'n' at ends of syllables, after vowels, like "rabo" for "rainbow", "lach" for "lunch".

This made me wonder, are we all dropping the distinct /n/ sound in these words?

Is this a regular phenomena in American English, and what's the name for it?

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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

We don't "drop" the /n/, but it does undergo a change - English nasal consonants assimilate to the place of articulation of the following consonant. Thus rainbow is pretty much always pronounced rai[mb]ow, raincoat is rai[ŋk]oat, etc.

As for how this explains your daughter's spelling, consonant clusters are "difficult" in language acquisition, and young children very commonly simplify them. In addition, syllable codas are less psychologically prominent than syllable onsets (and some very young children just delete them across the board). Here, my guess is that the nasal assimilation process makes it particularly hard to perceive the nasal as a distinct phoneme from the subsequent consonant, so your daughter leaves it out from the spelling.

By the way, there's another major allophonic change with nasals in English that is worth mentioning: they nasalize the preceding vowel. So we pronounce lunch as [lʌ̃ntʃ]. This is hard to perceive, but if you record yourself saying (for example) met [mɛt] and men [mɛ̃n], then clip off the final consonants from the recordings, you'll hear a distinct difference in what is left.

Though I've never read anything about this, I'd speculate that in fast speech - because the vowel is so much longer and more salient than the nasal consonant - most of what alerts us to the presence of the /n/ (perceptually speaking) in a word like lunch is the nasalization of the vowel.

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Everything in this post is true (except perhaps the last paragraph—the vowel nasalisation varies a lot even within American English, and some dialects and speakers only nasalise their vowels very slightly; the nasal itself is more likely to be the main indicator still, I would think) … but to me, a child should most likely have mastered non-complex (coda) clusters like [mb] and [ntʃ] by the age of six. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 22 '13 at 22:04
    
I'm sure she has mastered them in spoken production/perception, but the fact that the nasal in the cluster isn't psychologically prominent might still be making her leave it out in spelling, no? –  alcas Oct 23 '13 at 1:45
    
Sorry, I completely missed the word ‘spells’ in the question—I read it as if the girl was pronouncing the words without the nasals! –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 23 '13 at 8:46
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I did a search on this, and the closest I could dig up is Money-Smoothing.

Money-smoothing is a process occurring for some Wisconsinites where intervocalic /n/ is deleted when it comes before an unstressed /i/ producing a nasalized diphthong...

From the comments, I'm getting that her dialect influence would be upstate New York? According to the article, that isn't in the area for Money-Smoothing. However, it is a linguistically-related area. Both upstate New York and Wisconsin are in the dialect area of Inland North American English. So it seems to me quite possible that Money-Smoothing has started to spread throught the INAE dialect region (without performing the courtesy of informing Wikipedia).

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Regardless of location, Money-Smoothing does appear to be the name for that particular change in phonology.

Then again, it could just be a childhood lisp. My youngest daughter spoke with a slight lisp until about 4th grade or so. It happens.

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I noticed that. DC though is a bit of a transient place. People there tend to be from all over, and often go back where they came from. So I'd still like an answer on a possible connection with Wisconsinites. The "native" accent there is AAVE, I believe, but most folks who put down DC on the internet are actually living in the Virginia suburbs. –  T.E.D. Oct 22 '13 at 15:10
    
both from upstate NY, sorry. –  wrschneider99 Oct 22 '13 at 15:32
    
@wrschneider99 Aha! This actually makes sense now (see edit). My suspicon of the location turned out to be well-founded. –  T.E.D. Oct 22 '13 at 15:48
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Does she leave out <n> when spelling words like "money", though? My impression was that she leaves it out when it's adjacent to another consonant, which is not the environment for Money-smoothing. –  alcas Oct 22 '13 at 16:14
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