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There are lots of words ending in -nk in Modern English. In (almost) all those words, the -nk is pronounced [-ŋk]. My understanding is that the "n" in spelling represented [n] originally but it assimilated to [ŋ] over time. For example, see the word sink, it was sincan in Old English and its phonemic transcription was /ˈsin.kɑn/ with /n/ and Wikitionary gives its phonetic transcription [ˈsiŋ.kɑn] with [ŋ]. It suggests that the "n" was originally [n] and assimilation started in Old English.

See also think: Middle English thinken and /ˈθinkən/, again with /n/.

Almost all the dictionaries for Modern English words ending in -nk give their phonemic transcription with /-ŋk/.
My question is: has the phonemic /n/ changed to /ŋ/ or is it still /n/ but dictionaries write it /ŋ/?

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  • Minimal Pair final /ŋk/ and /ŋ/ - as in think and thing. Jul 1, 2021 at 14:34
  • According to A Historical Phonology of English by Donka Minkova: Before /k/, as in plank, sink, hunk, [- ŋ] remains a positional allophone followed by the voiceless stop. Thus, we get a three- way opposition in pin [pin]- ping, [piŋ]- pink -[piŋk], sin, sing, sink, and so on. Jul 1, 2021 at 15:40
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    The question is a bit confusing. I cannot think of an English word ending in -nk where it not pronounced /-ŋk/. I also have a hard time conjuring up an intervocalic -nk that isn't pronounced /-ŋk/. It is quite possible that this differs from Middle or Old English. Jul 1, 2021 at 16:24
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    Before velar consonants (including /h/, in languages that have it), nasals always assimilate. That's been the case in written representation since Greek used ΓΓ, ΓΚ, ΓΞ, and ΓΧ -- Gamma representing the nasal, not Nu -- to represent velar nasal clusters. Whether there was a separate velar nasal phoneme in the language like Modern English or not, nasal + velar clusters had an [ŋ] sound. At no time were they [nk]. As to the underlying forms, consult your phonological confessor. Jul 1, 2021 at 23:27
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    @DecapitatedSoul You mean lax/open [pʰɪn] with the coronal nasal versus tense/close [pʰiŋ] and [pʰiŋk] with the velar nasal. It’s also difficult to explain /ŋ/ as a phoneme not a conditioned allophone because of how it cannot occur at the beginning of a syllable, only in the coda, nor can it occur by itself intervocalically: there cannot be a word pronounced [ˈŋɑ] or [ˈɑŋɑ] in English. We can have mock and knock but that’s it. That’s why monoglot Anglophones can never manage to pronounce gnocchi “correctly” in the Italian way, meaning as [ˈɲɔk.ki] with its initial palatal nasal.
    – tchrist
    Jul 2, 2021 at 3:58

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There can be different vowel allophones before /n/ and /ŋ/

As long as we assume that /n/ and /ŋ/ are both phonemes of Modern English, there doesn't seem to be any good reason to suppose that word-final [ŋk] is underlyingly /nk/ instead of /ŋk/.

One argument for analyzing words ending in -nk as containing /ŋ/ is that the quality of vowels before -nk and -nt can differ in a similar way as how the quality of vowels before -ng and -n can differ.

For example, some speakers either hear, pronounce, or both hear and pronounce the vowel in words like sing as something like [i], in contrast to the [ɪ] found in sin. For these speakers, my understanding is the quality of the vowels in pink and pin generally differs in the same way: pink sounds like it has [i] versus the [ɪ] in pin.

A related form of allophony that some speakers have is a palatalized offglide in words like bank and hang compared to ban and hand or ham: this may occur to the extent that the vowel in bank and hang is identified with the "face" vowel (the vowel in bane and paint).

A simple way to explain these facts is to say these vowel quality changes are conditioned by following /ŋ/.

If we explain the vowel differences with this rule, it gives us a criterion for distinguishing underlying /ŋk/ from underlying /nk/. The latter only occurs word-medially, and only across separate syllables, as /n.k/.

For speakers with [iŋ], the contrast between /n/ and /ŋ/ is apparent in the use of a vowel with a quality more like [ɪ] in at least some in- prefixed words like income and ingrate (I'm not sure which specific examples of words like this have [ɪ]); this shows that these words underlyingly have /n/ and not /ŋ/, even if the nasal consonant could potentially sound a lot like [ŋ] on the surface due to gestural overlap (see my answer at Why do dictionaries transcribe the nasal in 'think' and 'language' with /ŋ/, yet 'input' and 'inbox' with /n/, not /m/? for further elaboration). Compound words like pancake are another context where you might find underlying /nk/ in contrast to /ŋk/.

There is an analysis where [ŋk] is /Nk/ (not /nk/)

Nasals are a common example for illustrating the theory of "archiphonemes".

Since there is no possible contrast between word-final /nk/ and /ŋk/, rather than saying the cluster is the latter, we could say that the nasal doesn't have an underlying place specification that is separable from the place specification of the following plosive /k/. The transcription "/N/" (capital n) represents a nasal with an unspecified place of articulation.

I don't know whether the concept of "archiphonemes" is currently popular.

There is an argument that underlying /ŋ/ doesn't exist

It's possible to say that even in modern English, /ŋ/ is not an underlying phoneme. Some sources argue that words like sing, singer still have underlying /ng/ that is realized in this context as [ŋ]. In this kind of analysis, think would in fact end in /nk/ (realized as [ŋk]).

Accents of English: Volume 1, by John C. Wells, discusses the generativist analysis of [ŋ] as /n/ or /ng/ in section 1.2.11 (starting on page 60).

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  • That's right: in speakers who neutralize the tense–lax opposition before [ŋ] (and [ɹ]), ran has the lax vowel [æ] but rang the tense vowel [e] just as occurs from sin to sing. No native English word is today spelled ‑eng although it is not difficult to say or perceive with [ɛ] in that position; native words always get spelled ‑ang there despite being pronounced [e] or [eɪ̯] or [ɛɪ̯] today. We also see this in ‑enk so venk>fang, renk>rink, penk>pink, clenk>clink, steng>stang, streng>string. But not wrong which stays [ɔŋ] not [oŋ] or [oŋk], which are also “missing” patterns.
    – tchrist
    Jul 2, 2021 at 3:37
  • @tchrist: couldn't you analyze the phoneme /ɑ/ as changing to [ɔ] before /ŋ/? Wrong, long, strong, and so forth are pronounced /ɒ/ in British English, which usually turns into /ɑ/ in American English? Jul 2, 2021 at 12:06
  • @PeterShor Not sure. It’s the missing tense /o/ before [ŋ] that puzzles me: own, boned, gnome, won’t all have [o],[oʊ̯] before a nasal, but nothing ever has [oŋ],[oŋk],[omp]. You do have [ɑ] in conger, Congo, conquer, dongle, monger, mongrel, Algonquin, Walter Cronkite but perhaps(?) not in monosyllables. While you have [ʌ] in among, monk, monkey, sponge, tongue, uncle, young, most do have [ɔ] before [ŋ] like bonk, conk, dong, donkey, gong, honk, honky-tonk, long, ping-pong, plonk, prong, strong, thong, throng, tong, wrong, zonk, although neologisms like wonk and dongle vary.
    – tchrist
    Jul 2, 2021 at 15:20

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