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In words like think and lank, we actually seem to be saying "thing-k" and "lang-k." Can anyone thing-k of any words or rules for sound use where this doesn't happen?

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I've answered the question but I figure I've misunderstood the title "Are there any words in English where there isn't a “ng” before a “k” sound?" as there are just so many (book, took, look, hook, kick, quick, etc. ad nauseum). Is there a way you could clarify the question so that it's clear you're not after words like 'kick'? Or are you after words like these? –  boehj Jun 6 '11 at 2:25
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There are words that contain "nk" that are not pronounced with a "ng" - for example "unknown". But that should probably be considered cheating (since the "k" is silent), hence this is a comment not an answer :) –  psmears Jun 6 '11 at 8:11
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@psmears "unknown" does not have a “ ‘k’ sound”, as the question specified. –  nohat Jun 6 '11 at 16:16
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@nohat: That would be why I said "the k is silent" and that this is "cheating" and thus not worthy of an answer :-) –  psmears Jun 6 '11 at 16:24
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I suppose it could just be me, but there's no "ng" sound when I say "incorporated." I'll point out that I don't pronounce the first syllable like "ink." Not sure if that makes any difference... –  kitukwfyer Jun 6 '11 at 22:45
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5 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

There aren’t really any words with this property. It is a rule of English phonology that nasals assimilate in place before stops, so all nasals before /k/ and /g/ are velar nasals—that is, it is always the case that words which are written “-nc-” or “-nk-” will be pronounced with the “ng” sound, the velar nasal.

It is possible, in careful speech, to produce an alveolar nasal (the “n” sound) before /k/ or /g/, but in normal speech all nasals are assimilated. Because /k/ and /g/ are velar stops, any nasal sounds that precede it will always be produced as a velar nasal, regardless of underlying form (or spelling). Dictionaries vary in whether or not they mark the pronunciation with the symbol for the velar nasal (ŋ) or not because the assimilation is predictable. Merriam-Webster, for example, seems to mark nasal place assimilation when the following consonant is not the onset of a stressed syllable or across a morpheme boundary.

Regardless of the symbols used in dictionaries, everyone pronounces these nasals assimilated, as velars. You may not think you’re pronouncing a velar nasal in those words, but in almost all cases you actually are. Even if you are speaking really carefully and attempting an [n] it is almost certainly an [ŋ]. This has been established by studies with acoustic analysis and is an uncontroversial feature of English phonology. Some languages have a much higher load on this distinction so they have much more precise timing in articulation, but English doesn’t have the kind of precision in timing synchronization for nasalization/place articulation for the nasal sound NOT to be a /ŋ/. In order to make a true [nk] or [ng] you would have to have completely raised the velum and halted voicing to stop producing a nasal before even beginning to move the tongue tip away from the alveolar ridge to articulate the velar stop following. In normal speech the tongue tip leaving the alveolar ridge is much faster than the velum raising and voicing is continuous until just before the onset of the stop, so you’re going to end up with a velar nasal.

This assimilation happens even across morpheme and word boundaries. When there is an underlying /ŋ/ (as in thing) this often affects preceding vowel quality, so when there is an underlying /n/ (as in thin) you may think you’re producing an [n] because you are using a different vowel than if there were an underlying /ŋ/ but you are actually producing an [ŋ] if the following sound is a velar stop like /k/ or /g/. For example, in thin king vs. thinking, what you hear as the distinction is not actually the position of the tongue during production of the nasal, but other acoustic cues. The main distinctions are actually in vowel quality, stress, and timing, not in tongue placement. Unless there is a very unnatural complete pause in production, the ‘n’ in thin king is produced as [ŋ].

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Surely the real picture is more complex than "assimilation always happens"? I find in my own speech there are words where the assimilation must happen (or the pronunciation is "wrong") - e.g. thinking, banking; words where it would not be wrong not to assimilate, but I always do (even when speaking carefully) - e.g. income; and words that only assimilate if I'm speaking really fast (e.g. pin-cushion, non-canonical, ungrateful). It would be interesting to know (though probably hard to find out) which words in the language are least often assimilated... –  psmears Jun 6 '11 at 8:57
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Pin-cushion seems to be a really nice counterexample. The way I speak English, it seems quite a chore to put an 'ng' sound in that word. I can hear it in my version of a Southern Drawl, but in Australian English it certainly doesn't come naturally. –  boehj Jun 6 '11 at 11:19
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@Colin: Yes - my point is that (a) the answer as it stands seems to deny the existence of that cline, and (b) it would be interesting to know what lies at the cline's extremes (the morpheme-boundary thing is at best a partial explanation :) –  psmears Jun 6 '11 at 11:59
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@psmears, @Colin with regard to the cline of (perceived) pronunciation differences, I think this is more a case of whether and how much the onset of the nasal is alveolar. In pretty much all cases, the offglide of the nasal will be velar, and this is what I mean by there is always assimilation. Yes, it is true that careful pronunciation will result of alveolar onset in the nasal, which "feels like" pronunciation of [n]. –  nohat Jun 7 '11 at 1:53
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@Mechanicalsnail Besides others that work like yours, like sinking, planking, other possible minimal pairs include funky & fun key; linkage & Lynn Cage; twinkie & twin key; incarnations & in carnations; incoming & in coming, pancake & pan cake; syncope & sin copy. What’s happening with all these is the same as with cancan, mankind, non-conforming: when you split into two words on morphemic boundaries, the stop at the start of the second “word” becomes aspirated (and usually stressed), which interferes with the assimilation or perception thereof. –  tchrist Sep 21 '12 at 11:29
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Sure, there are plenty of words like that:

  • income
  • inculcate
  • encode
  • encomium

And so on.

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When I say these words loud and fast (which I think elicits a more natural pronunciation), I'm still hearing a velarization before that nasal consonant. What do you think? –  Elizabite Jun 6 '11 at 0:38
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Well, it's not impossible to nasalize them, and dictionaries do give the ng sounds as alternate pronunciations for some of them. It's just that, based on usage, the dominant pronunciation given for such words involves a non-nasalized n. –  Robusto Jun 6 '11 at 0:40
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All these words are pronounced with a velar nasal. –  nohat Jun 6 '11 at 4:38
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@Nohat: Certainly not around here (England). –  Marcin Jun 6 '11 at 6:55
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I don't have a 'ng' sound for any of these words either. –  Darwy Jun 6 '11 at 8:34
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I deleted another answer I put here as it seems to me I misunderstood the question.

Viewing the question a different way (the correct way?) there are the non- type words:

  • nonconformist;
  • non-canonical;
  • noncompliance;
  • noncototient.

Then there are:

  • concatenate (a.k.a. cat for the *nix geeks around these parts);
  • concurrent;
  • concordent;
  • Concorde;
  • concrete.

Also: Doncaster, ironclad, oncology, uncanny.


The question asks "What about in other languages?" as well. I wonder if these fail the test put forward by @nohat.

Thai and Lao make extensive use of the 'ng', 'n' and 'k' sounds. They're more or less the same but I'll deal with Thai here.

  • ง makes an 'ng' sound when used at the start or middle/end of a word;
  • ณ, น make an 'n' sound when used at the start or middle/end of a word;
  • ญ, ร, ล, ฬ make an 'n' sound when used at the middle/end of a word.
  • ก, ข, ฃ, ค, ฅ, ฆ all make a 'k' sound when used at the start or middle/end of a word.

Therefore there are words such as:

  • คนขับรถ which means driver. It sounds like kon-kap-rot.
  • คนไข้ which means an ill person. It sounds like kon-kai.
  • คนขาย which means a shopkeeper. It sounds like kon-kaai.
  • คนเขียน which means a writer. It sounds like kon-kian.
  • คนคิด which means a thinker. It sounds like kon-kit.
  • คนเข้าเมือง which means immigrant. It sounds like kon-kao-mueng.

Obviously, what I'm doing here is building up words the way the Thai language does, on a base of คน, i.e. 'person'.

There are many other examples where a 'k' sound doesn't follow a 'ng' sound including: ขอนแก่น which is the name of a city. It sounds like kon-kaen... or [kʰɔ̌ːn kɛ̀n] or [kʰɔ̌n kɛ̀n] (whatever that means).


And now from Thai to a world language: The language of chemistry.

What about N-substituted molecules? I'll only give one example but there are an indefinite number of them.

N-chlorosuccinimide

Fig. 1 - N-chlorosuccinimide.

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All these words are pronounced with a velar nasal. –  nohat Jun 6 '11 at 4:42
    
How about the Thai and chemistry examples? –  boehj Jun 6 '11 at 10:47
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I pronounce N-chlorosuccinimide with a definite EN and not ing –  Darwy Jun 6 '11 at 13:36
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Examples with g and k (not mentioned in other answers): ungrateful, ingratitude, ongoing, ... ; non-kosher, unkind, ... .

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Whether these remain distinct varies by speaker. For example:

  1. Some speakers assimilate everywhere, even across word boundaries. Quite noticeably, they pronounce in case as "ing case" [ɪŋˈkejs], and similarly in fact as "im fact" [ɪɱˈfækt].
  2. For others, only homorganic nasals assimilate (e.g. /n/ to interdental in in that [ɪn̪ˈd̪æt], and sometimes /m/ to labiodental in emphasis [ˈɛɱ.fə.sɪs]), and other cases retain a clear alveolar articulation. Some may even keep it alveolar before interdentals.

For the second group, there is a clear distinction between /nk/ and /ŋk/ (resp. -/ɡ/) in some positions, both within and across words: inculcate, increase /ɪn/- vs. inkling /ɪŋ/; thin king /ˈθɪnˈkɪŋ/ vs. thinking /ˈθɪŋˌkɪŋ/; raisin clumps /n.k/ vs. raising clumps /ŋ.k/.

/nɡ/ /nk/ within a morpheme

However, almost all the examples of such words occur across morpheme boundaries, where the first morpheme ends in /n/ (e.g. income). So then a possible refinement of the question would be, does /nɡ/ or /nk/ ever occur within a morpheme?

Well, some speakers in the American Midwest (and perhaps elsewhere), however, pronounce penguin as /pɛn.ɡwɪn/ [n.ɡ]. Wiktionary lists this as a second pronunciation. This sounds jarring and seems like an affectation to me, but it exists, and it's distinct from the same speakers' pronunciation of e.g. Engels.

Another possible example: Wikipedia says of "Vancouver":

Vancouver, British Columbia: Residents of British Columbia, or often other parts of Canada, will generally pronounce the first syllable as /væŋ-/ or vang-, displaying the consonant assimilation typical in English when /k/ follows /n/ (such as in "ankle" or "ranking"). English-speaking Americans and some Canadians from other regions tend to pronounce it /væn-/ (van-), resisting assimilation to the following /k/ sound.

/nɡ/ or /nk/ within a syllable coda

Another refinement: do they ever occur within a syllable coda? I think not; it's phonotactically forbidden. (For that matter, -/ŋɡ/ is also phonotactically forbidden, so we only need look at *-/nk/.)

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