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In English, coda nasals assimilate to the following consonant, so 'n' in "in mail" and "own goal" is pronounced with [m] and [ŋ] respectively, right? If so, then why do most dictionaries transcribe sounds represented by 'n' in orthography with /ŋ/ before velar consonants (e.g. think, tinker, language, English), yet with /n/ before bilabial consonants (e.g. input, inpatient, inbox, inbred)?

I checked Oxford, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Random House, Collins, Cambridge, Macmillian, and Longman, and this is more or less the case in all these dictionaries.

It seems to be the case that assimilation beyond syllable boundaries (or maybe morphological boundaries) is usually not realized in dictionaries' transcription, hence include /ɪnˈkluːd/ and Vancouver /vænˈkuːvər/. This is evident in the case of increase, where the noun is /ˈɪŋkriːs/ and the verb is /ɪnˈkriːs/. But this still doesn't explain /ˈɪnpeɪʃənt/ or /ˈɪnpʊt/. Increase (n.), inpatient, and input all have the prefix 'in-' and stress on the first syllable.

Or is 'n' in words like input and include actually pronounced with [n]?


EDIT: I found the following summary on this matter in Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (18th ed., 2011; eds. Peter Roach et al.; pp. xvi–xvii), which indeed confirms Sumelic's answer:

The assimilation of /n/ is a rather special case: many English words begin with the prefixes 'in-' and 'un-', and in a number of cases the /n/ of these prefixes is followed by a consonant which is not alveolar. In some cases it seems to be normal that the /n/ is regularly assimilated to the place of articulation of the following consonant (e.g. 'inquest' /ˈɪŋ.kwest/), while in others this assimilation is optional (e.g. 'incapable' may be /ɪnˈkeɪ.pə.bᵊl/ or /ɪŋˈkeɪ.pə.bᵊl/. Where it is clear that the prefix is attached to a word that exists independently, so that prefix and stem are easily separable, the assimilation is normally treated as optional. When it seems more like an integral part of the word, the assimilation is shown as obligatory.

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    Just English spelling traditions. They don't hafta make sense; their traditional. – John Lawler May 28 '17 at 13:51
  • Not all dictionaries agree. Most don't seem to have /ˈɪŋkriːs/ for the noun. – Peter Shor May 28 '17 at 14:25
  • Are you considering different dialects, accents and other ways of speaking? Different places throughout England alone pronounce words differently, for example 'dove', 'like', 'bath' etc. – marcellothearcane May 28 '17 at 16:14
  • I don't think the average dictionary pronunciation represents true conversational pronunciation. The n is Handbag is rendered as an m in ordinary speech, yet Oxford gives it as /ˈhan(d)baɡ/. It may be that the /ŋ/ before a k/g is presented as more of a "given". – AmE speaker May 28 '17 at 16:42
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    This must be one of those things that varies by dialect and/or speaker (and maybe even by utterance of particular speakers). I'm aware that some people say hambag and sammitch, but those just sound wrong to me; in my experience, the people around me are more likely to convert -mp- to -n- than the other way around (e.g. punkin). And listening to examples of input vs impulse and inbred vs imbroglio by English speakers on Forvo, I don't hear the same consonant clusters at all. – 1006a May 29 '17 at 3:30
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The standard basic phonemic analysis that I am most familiar with is that the words "think, tinker, language, English" contain the phoneme /ŋ/. I have see some more theoretically complex analyses that treat /ŋ/ in English as a "non-basic" sound that is always underlyingly derived from something else (depending on the context, either n or ng), but you'd never see that kind of analysis used for dictionary transcriptions.

This phoneme happens to be represented by the letter <n> in these words, as English doesn't have a letter that represents /ŋ/. That's just a fact about the orthography. As Peter Shor points out in a comment, the letter <n> doesn't always represent the phoneme /ŋ/ before a velar consonant – it's also possible for it to be /n/, in which case a dictionary will likely transcribe it as /n/.

There is a phonotactic constraint in English that forbids /np/ or /nk/ as a phoneme sequence within a single syllable. The word think (as I said, I’m assuming a dictionary-level type of phonemic analysis, not a more abstract theoretical one) isn’t pronounced with the phone [ŋ] as a result of phonetic assimilation of /n/; it is pronounced with [ŋ] because it has the phoneme /ŋ/.

(In the more complex theories, it seems what I'm calling "phonetic assimilation" here might instead be called "gestural overlap"; see http://idiom.ucsd.edu/~bakovic/work/bakovic_local-assim.pdf which uses the word "assimilation" to refer to a phonological process and "gestural overlap" (in note 3) to refer to the process that produces phones like [ɱ] before /f/ in "casual speech". This may be a more correct use of the word "assimilation"; I'm not sure. If you use "assimilation" in this way, then "In English, coda nasals assimilate to the following consonant" seems to be false when interpreted as an unbreakable rule).

However, /n.p/ and /n.k/, with a syllable break in between, are generally considered possible in English at the level of phonemic representation. Their phonetic realization is actually variable, because place-assimilation of /n/ doesn't always occur.

It's hard for me to think of a possible minimal pair between /n.k/ and /ŋ.k/ or /ŋk./, but perhaps "kin-killer" vs. "king-killer" would do. (This doesn't work as a minimal pair for everyone, because some North American speakers have apparently phonemicized a difference in vowel tenseness for "i" before /ŋ/, realizing kin as /kɪn/ but king as /kiŋ/).

Nasal place assimilation/“gestural overlap” in English is optional and doesn't always result in complete neutralization of phonemic place contrasts

The nasal assimilation in input and inbox is in principle optional. In practice, I believe it may be phonetically realized in a gradient rather than a categorical fashion, leaving behind phonetic traces of the identity of the original consonant.

Here is a source that mentions and summarizes this:

Articulatory studies have shown crosslinguistic differences in across-word nasal place assimilation. The categorical versus gradient nature of assimilatory patterns is presumably phonologically conditioned: languages with larger nasal coda inventories show gradiency; those with more restricted inventories display categorical patterns. [...] English [has a] 3-way labial-alveolar-velar nasal contrast and a preference for gradient and variable nasal-to-stop assimilation (e.g., Ellis & Hardcastle, 2002)

(L1 influence on L2 assimilation: An EPG study of English /n/+stop sequences, Laura Colantoni, Alexei Kochetov & Jeffrey Steele )

I can't access Ellis & Hardcastle (2002) right now, but here is the abstract:

Place assimilation in English is now widely considered to be a gradual phonetic, not categorical process. This view is partly based on previous EPG evidence of partial alveolar assimilations which lack complete stop closure on the alveolar ridge but show a residual tongue blade/body gesture. This study reports EPG data from 10 speakers producing, at varying rates of speech, two experimental sequences, /n#k/ and /n#k/ (the latter a lexical velar–velar sequence with which apparent cases of complete assimilation can be compared). In fast speech, four distinct assimilatory strategies were identified. Two subjects never assimilated, four always assimilated in what appeared to be a complete fashion and the remaining four were the most interesting, showing considerable intra-speaker variability. Two of these four produced the expected continuum of assimilatory forms including partials. Unexpectedly, the other two produced either full alveolars or complete assimilations in the manner of a binary opposition. Follow-up EMA analysis yielded no evidence of the reduced coronal gestures found to be absent in the EPG-only data for two the speakers who, when they assimilated, did so in a complete fashion. Although no claims are made regarding higher-order representations, we interpret this as evidence of marked individual differences in assimilation strategy.

Categorial and gradient properties of assimilation in alveolar to velar sequences: Evidence from EPG and EMA data. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/223917010_Categorial_and_gradient_properties_of_assimilation_in_alveolar_to_velar_sequences_Evidence_from_EPG_and_EMA_data [accessed May 28, 2017].

So basically, it's variable: the realization could be anything out of [n], [m], [n͡m]. It's also predictable if you know about English phonetics, and something that native speakers will do naturally and so don't need to be told about in a dictionary.

Assimilation in in- prefixes

The situation with the negative prefix in- is complicated; I would think in part because there is no orthographic difference between the representation of the phoneme /ŋ/ and the phoneme /n/, so it's easy for a reader to extract either pronunciation from the spelling. Since in- occurs mostly at the start of Latinate words, words with this prefix will on average belong to a higher register of speech that is more influenced by spelling.

The OED shows variants with /n/ and /ŋ/ for the word income.

"Phonological Features of in-, un- and non-", by Akira Okada (2013), cites Edward Carney's Survey of English Spelling (1994) as saying that “there is free variation between /n/ and /ŋ/ in prefixes ending in ‘n’”.

  • It's actually an /m/ in input and an /n/ in inbox. That's the way I pronounce them, and everybody else should be doing it that way, too. :-) – Peter Shor May 28 '17 at 14:51
  • @PeterShor: lol, it would be interesting to know how consistent individual speakers are in realizing this kind of assimilation. Probably this has been studied also. – sumelic May 28 '17 at 14:54
  • Yes, except I don't understand why the coarticulated n+m version shows "gradient" behavior. – Greg Lee May 28 '17 at 15:18
  • @GregLee: I'm not sure if it makes sense to refer to any one specific articulation as "gradient". My interpretation of the use of that term in Kochetov & Steele is that it indicates that we see more than two realizations, not just two realizations [m] and [n] but also sounds that are intermediate in some ways between [m] and [n]. Collectively, these possible realizations would constitute a gradient. Does that make sense? – sumelic May 28 '17 at 15:29
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    On the terminology, gestural overlap is the physiological process that makes place assimilation rules so widespread in languages, whereas phonetic assimilation is a description of the type of rule it is. both terms could be used in different parts of the answer, depending on what you wanted to stress. – jlovegren May 29 '17 at 4:02

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