話し方|Talk!

The Necessary Nebulousness of 「ん」(The Mysterious Maverick of Japanese Morae)

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We come across a lone mora, though surrounded by a crowd of couples; obscured by shadows, they’re not like any other characters we’ve seen. Without written record, you may not even believe you’ve heard them in the same place as everywhere you come across them, they never sound the same, blending in with the characters around them. They can’t be contained by the rules. They stand in a category all their own. The mysterious maverick,「」.

This is Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Online, the red circle in the thumbnail, the ‘wow’ after a Sherlockian deduction, the X-files theme played over the hidden triangle; We’re Kiki and Koko, your guides to Japanese language and culture, the glossators and decoders, the two who are going to help you suss out this mysterious character.

Tragic Backstory

Though「ん」wasn’t always a loner in a different sense. Before the reform, 「」and 「」shared the spotlight. Many words that were meant to have a lone 「nn」sound used 「む」and the reader had to suss out whether this 「む」 was a regular 「む」 or pronounced like 「ん」. 「ん」started out as the ‘cursive’ form, or for understanding’s sake, the simplified form, of 「无」, and even then, 「无」was assigned to 「む」. However, this may be the beginning of the ambiguity of 「ん」as before its assignment, 「む」was very vague in whether it was a 「む」 or an 「ん」when read.  So, as we can see, 「ん」started out new, hidden, and misunderstood.

Though this may seem strange in Japanese as despite kanji holding many readings, hiragana is usually a safe haven. But, this was the point of the reforms as it made reading easier, unlike any unification created in English spellings with the creation of dictionaries. It seems much less confusing once you think of words like Wednesday, Worcester, or island.

Patterns in Behaviour

「ん」is a master of disguise, but it’s not as random as one may think. Of course, based on their location in Japan, based on dialect, they may appear slightly different, but they’ve generally formed this pattern of behaviour. But, these are still all case-by-case because as we said…「ん」doesn’t like to play by the rules.

Though many people want to inconsistently romanise 「ん」as an 「 M」, this is a flagrant misconception. There is no lone「 M」in Japanese. They will always be found with a vowel partner. Unless specific to dialects in Japan that are considered languages all their own,「ん」is generally nasalised as 「ŋ」linguistically or 「ng」as many may be more familiar, even in cases where people think it’s 「 M」. This may be controversial, but we’re blowing this case wide open!

In cases where people incorrectly romanise with an 「 M」, what’s actually happening is 「ん」is becoming more of a connector or a slur betwixt the characters. Let’s use this example to compare and contrast:

先輩 【せんぱい】senpai

Okay, so, we’re going to take a look at 「ん」here. Without a whole lot of emphasis on the「ng」, try saying 「sengpai」….You have to say it out loud or it’s difficult to realise: 「sengpai」…. See how when you hear it, it sounds like an 「 M」, BUT you can’t just skip directly to using an 「 M」or it sounds oversimplified and sounds less like native Japanese speech.

Notice when you combine 「ng」and 「pa」your mouth closes to create the 「pa」, giving you an 「 M」… but it’s not quite an 「 M」as it puts a lot of emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble. 「ん」 is a quiet type. They blend in.

This happens when 「ん」is before a character starting with the consonant「m」, 「p」, or 「b」, which are of course, always found with their respective vowel sounds. Buuut! There are many cases where this isn’t the case in words like:【コンピュータ】But, this is to be expected from a renegade like 「ん」.

日本語 【にほんご】nihongo

So, this nasalised 「ŋ」is most consistent before any consonants that start at the back of the throat such as 「k」or「g」paired with their vowels. At the same time, some from the 「g」row can often be nasalised themselves.

電話【でんわ】denwa

But, maybe you’re wondering where the romanisation 「n」even comes from after all of this. Well, in a lot of dialects, you may only hear 「n」when it’s before another 「n」with its vowel partner, or when it’s in a rare instance at the beginning of a loan word. Many times even before 「n」「t」「d」「r」「ts」「dz」「z」「ch」or「j」, you still will most likely hear it nasalised. But, technically, in standard dialect, these would all be closer to an 「n」sound. (Again, they play by their own rules, and this doesn’t always apply.)

But, there are actually a lot of cases where they do truly deserve their romanisation. This is any time that your tongue is travelling to the roof of your mouth when it becomes more of an 「n」sound as well! These are before vowels and consonants paired with vowels like「h」「f」「s」「sh」or「w」BUT it can equally have times where it can become very nasal in these same instances based on dialect or word. So, again… if we didn’t make it clear: Renegade. Maverick. Lone Wolf. Plays-by-their-own-rules.

So words like 電話【でんわ】denwa REALLY throw a spanner into the works as it seems like it would fit all of the criteria for being a regular 「n」sound, but when you hear it spoken… it barely makes even an 「ng」sound!

If you’ve watched the ‘Endless Eight’ episodes from the Suzumiya Haruhi series, you might be familiar with the phrase:

「キョンくん、電話ー!」「きょんくん、でんわー!」「kyon-kun, denwa!」

Translation: ‘Kyon, phone!’

This phrase has three 「ん」s that can all technically be heard as usual 「n」s as according to the rule, and heard spoken, or might all be totally nasalised to the point of having no semblance of  an 「n」~!

Unsolved Mysteries

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So, there are a lot of words that follow the rules, but also somehow sound like 「ng」despite being pronounced with an 「n」sound like 「本当」(hontou), or others that seem like an 「n」sound that sound like an 「ng」like 「日本」(nihon), and at the end of the day, this isn’t quite a case gone cold, but it shows us that 「ん」isn’t so easily sussed out or regulated. 「ん」can differ from word to word and dialect to dialect.

 

Everyone fancies a case that’s open and shut, tied up with a pretty bow and sent off to the history books. But, some cases don’t have the usual suspects or any easy answers. This previously two-faced character can’t be pinned down to just one trait. They’ve committed no crime being slightly confusing, they’re just unique. They blend in. They’re chameleon, comedian, Corinthian, and caricature.

But, if you want to continue to disambiguate more Japanese language, be sure to get the latest from us, stay up to date without even having to look at the calendar by subscribing to the Electronic Mailing List of Tomorrow, today, found usually at the bottom of the site page or the sidebar on desktop. You’ll get the latest tools and resources to solving more Japanese language mysteries sent straight to your inbox. That’s articles, videos, podcasts, and more.

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Categories: 話し方|Talk!, 読み方|Read!, Kiki+KoKo: Let's NihonGO!!, SpeRaToBo, 平仮名 [hiragana], 文化|Culture!

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