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I felt a little bit strange when I heard poignant pronounced as /ˈpɔɪɲənt/.

It is also pronounced as /ˈpɔɪgnənt/, but the former seems to be more popular.

A word stagnant has similar spelling, but it is pronounced as /ˈstægnənt/.

Why is poignant pronounced like that?

I guess that the /ɲə/ sound is not so popular in English pronunciation.

Are there any other words which are pronounced like /ɲə/?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Just as 〈ng〉 makes /ŋ/, so too 〈gn〉 can make /ɲ/

As you’ve discovered, poignant and its derived forms poignance and poignancy are pronounced with a different sound than occurs in words with similar endings like benignant, indignant, malignant, oppugnant, pregnant, regnant, repugnant, resignant, and stagnant. Those others all have /gn/, but poignant alone does not: it has /ɲ/for same spelling.

For the word poignant, the OED2 gives two phonemic forms: /ˈpɔɪnənt/ and /ˈpɔɪɲənt/ It is the second of those that has drawn your attention. I have not heard the first of those myself. Note that Oxford Dictionaries Online now gives /ˈpɔɪnjənt/ instead, swapping ɲ for nj. Those are really just different ways of writing the same thing, at least at the phonemic level in English (and finding minimal pairs in other languages is far from easy).

English usually spells the /ɲ/ sound with orthographic 〈ni〉 or somtimes 〈ny〉, but unassimilated loan-words often retain alternate orthographic representations for that sound, and poignant is one such case.

What you are hearing there is the palatal nasal sound, which is represented in IPA as ɲ. It is made by pushing the flat, front part of the tongue up against the front of the hard palate.

This sound occurs in many languages besides English, but its orthographic representation varies widely. A few of the more familiar might include:

  • In French and Italian words, it is represented by the spelling 〈gn〉.
  • In Spanish, Galician, and Basque words, it is represented by the spelling 〈ñ〉.
  • In Portuguese and Occitan words, it is represented by the spelling 〈nh〉.
  • In Catalan and Hungarian words, it is represented by the spelling 〈ny〉.

So what’s happening with poignant /ˈpɔɪɲənt/ in English is that it still (usually) follows the French rule for the 〈gn〉 spelling — although not for the rest of the word: in actual French, it would be pronounced /pwaɲɑ̃/ instead.


Details

If you look at common English words like onion and canyon, you will find the sound there, too, although many dictionaries represent that as phonemic /nj/. When phonemically spelled that way, this sound is quite common in English, as those words show. I’ll let someone else comment on the differences between [nj], [ɲ], and [nʲ] if they care to; I’m not convinced those represent distinct phonemes in English, and rather suspect all occur allophonically.

You will notice that both onion and canyon were originally loan-words themselves, respectively French oignon /ɔɲɔ̃/ and Spanish cañón /kaˈɲon/. The English spellings have discarded or adapted the original orthographies in favor of things English-speakers are more likely to recognize and reproduce.

But note the American city of Cañon City, Colorado, which has retained the original spelling. That’s because proper names like cities tend to be conservative in their retention of older spellings, rather like how Pittsburgh still has a trailing h where most other towns founded since then no longer do.

Other /ɲ/ words

Nonetheless, the OED attests many words with the /ɲ/ phoneme occurring in them, virtually all of which are themselves loan-words of one or another sort. The orthography generally remains as it was in the source language, or a Romanized version thereof. Here are just a sampling of a few of them:

araignée, assignat, bagne, beignet, Bolognese, box-cañon, cache-peigne, cagnotte, campagna, campagnol, caña, cañada, cañon, caraña, carmagnole, chignon, chuño, cognoscente, compagnon de voyage, consigne, coynye, dal segno, dame de compagnie, Dom Perignon, Doña, El Niño, encoignure, espagnole, español, española, farinha, garconniere, gnocchi, Guignol, ispravnik, jalapeño, La Niña, lasagne, limeña, Limenian, limeño, lorgnette, lorgnon, Luiseño, macigno, Madrileño, madroño, magnanerie, Malagueña, mañana, mignon, Mimbreño, Montagnais, montagnard, montagne russe, música norteña, Musigny, Narodnik, norteña, norteño, Orcagnesque, ordoñezite, pagne, Peau d’Espagne, peignoir, pignon, piña, piña-cloth, piña colada, piñata, piñon, piñon jay, piranha, poignance, poignancy, poignant, Porteño, pregnada, provodnik, quinceañera, recitativo, renierite, renseignement, rognon, rondeña, Sauvignon, Seignette, seigneur, seigneury, senhor, senhora, senhorita, señor, señora, señoría, señorita, sevigne, signifiant, signifié, signora, signore, signoria, signorina, soigne, tagnicati, tortilla española, Valdepeñas, vargueño, vicuña, vicuña-cloth, vicuña-wool, vigneron, vigogne, vinho, zampogna, Zuñi, Zuñian.

Most of those are from Romance, and are spelled per the rules given above. A few are from Russian, though, like ispravnik /isˈpravɲik/, and Russian follows very different rules regarding palatalization of consonants in certain positions.

So what you are hearing is simply someone using the pronunciation rules that correspond to that of the source language. Surely lasagne is not a rare word in English — and note that the Spanish spell that same word lasaña to match their own orthographic conventions. That’s like how for the word that the French spell champignon (meaning mushroom), the Spanish spell champiñón: different spelling rules for different languages but the same underlying sound, and indeed the same word entirely.


The /ŋ/ sound

A closely related sound is the velar nasal sound, ŋ. This sound differs from the previous sound ɲ in that now the back of the tongue pushes up against the soft palate instead of the front of the tongue against the hard palate. It regularly occurs in English words like singer, finger — as well as banker, ankle, anchor, function, uncle, encourage, conquer, and inquisitor, and in such loan-words as cinco and bronco.

Note however that it is not guaranteed whenever /n/ and /k/ collie; for example, it does not occur in concur, concave, cancan, mankind, downcast, bean-cake, moonquake. The conquer–concur pair is especially interesting; the rest are at morphemic boundaries.

Sometimes this effect is phonemic and sometimes it is not: most anglophones don’t even notice they are doing it whenever phonemic /n/ precedes phonemic /k/, because this sort of regressive assimilation is extremely common, and not just in English alone.

A related example of this is how the English word emphasis while phonemically /ˈɛmfəsɪs/ normally becomes [ˈɛ̃ɱfəsɨs] phonetically.

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Like ‘onion’, ‘poignant’ and it's derivations retain not only the /nj/ of the French source, but also the /ɔɪ/ quality of the vowel, which French itself has lost at some point after the word was borrowed into English. The only thing English has really innovated in the word is retracting the stress and reducing the final vowel to /ə/. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 22 at 3:42
    
@JanusBahsJacquet Retracting the stress might not be quite right. I’m not sure when French lost phonemic lexical stress in favor of its current phrasal stress. It only appears to be stressed on the last syllable when the word is spoken in isolation in French because everything ends with a lift at the end of the phrase, even if it is just one single word. The French are all uptalkers. :) –  tchrist Apr 22 at 13:31

As the other answers point out, the French pronunciation of the letters gn is ny (/nj/ in IPA).

The pronunciation pȯignənt, /ˈpɔɪgnənt/, is a fairly unnatural one for English, because there aren't any words that end with -ȯig, /-ɔɪg/, and there aren't any ones that begin with /gn-/. So no matter whether you divide the word pȯi-gnənt or pȯig-nənt, one of the syllables doesn't respect the rules of English phonology. In the 19th century, it was pronounced pȯinənt, /ˈpɔɪnənt/, (source: the 1892 Webster's International and John Walker's 1823 Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, both available on Google books).

However, poignant is a relatively uncommon word, and as often happens with uncommon words, people started using the spelling pronunciation instead of the established one. In this case, it seems many people started using the slightly-French spelling pronunciation, pȯin-yənt /ˈpɔɪnjənt/, the pronunciation of which is more natural for English speakers than the English spelling pronunciation, pȯig-nənt /ˈpɔɪgnənt/.

The OED says:

N.E.D. (1907) gives the pronunciation (poi·nănt) /ˈpɔɪnənt/ . Pronunciation with /-nə-/ in the second syllable in this and the related nouns and adverb is usual in dictionaries until the early 20th cent., after which U.S. dictionaries additionally give the pronunciation with /-njə-/ ; this seems to be first noted by British dictionaries in the mid-20th cent., though Walker in his introductory discussion mentions a pronunciation poiniant. All editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. up to 1988 record also forms with /-ɡnə-/ .

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It’s actually /ˈpɔɪɲənt/ in English, or less commonly /ˈpɔɪgnənt/. –  tchrist Apr 20 at 18:38
    
See also, gnu. –  SrJoven 10 hours ago

Poignant comes straight from the French poignante.

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Also, poignant has a different vowel sound from poignante. –  TimLymington Apr 20 at 12:48

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