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Devoicing Of Vowels

xminus1

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Hello, friends:

This post is less of a question and more of an observation. As in my other recent thread, the subject is pronunciation, but this time my interest is the devoicing of vowels, rather than 鼻濁音.

My Minna textbook discusses the devoicing of vowels thus: "the vowels /i/ and /u/ tend to be devoiced and become silent when they fall between voiceless consonants".

A good example of such devoicing is, (I think), contained in the brief audio excerpt I've uploaded here. It's from my Minna listening comprehension exercises.

I spent a long time trying to make sense of a certain word in the attached audio, which I learned later contains a devoiced /i/. I thought the word sounded like "sumo", but since this didn't make a lot of sense in the sentence, I finally resorted to looking at the script. The word was 質問.

I think if the speaker had given a hint of 撥音 at the end of the word, I might have been able to recognize 質問.

Devoicing is tough! The audio add-in feature of my Anki vocab card "speaks" 質問 like「しつもん」 so I'm not automatically thinking 「すも」....
 

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Toritoribe

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Our veteran member nice gaijin-san is an expert of phonetics (he leaned it in Waseda University, if my memory is correct), and explained about 撥音 in Japanese.


As he wrote there, 撥音 is pronounced differently depending on the situation where ん is put. You also might need to get familiar with ん at the end of words. I believe you'll become to get words correctly soon, though. It's just the problem of experience, I think.:)
 

xminus1

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Toritoribe-sama, thanks for your helpful response and reference to nice gaijin-san's post. That was very illuminating, and as always you are a wealth of knowledge.

The Minna textbook also discusses the pronunciation of ん, but it has three simple rules only:
1) ん followed by た だ な ら rows: ん is /n/
2) ん followed by ば ぱ ま rows: ん is /m/
3) ん followed by か が rows: ん is /ng/

Notice Minna included no rules for ん preceding a sound from the さ row!

I noticed that, however, in addition to the above rules, nice gaijin-san did include rules for:
んさ
  [sansatsɯ]
  s is also alveolar
んぜんまんえん
  [sanzemmaẽeɰ̃]

In the Minna audio example, the sentence in question is 「。。。質問ました。」According to nice gaijin-san, the ん before し should be /n/. Judging from the speaker's pronunciation, however, I am going to assume the speaker's articulation was too subtle for me to detect.
 

nice gaijin

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Haha I wouldn't consider myself an expert, but I did study a little and get excited when I see pronunciation questions on the forum :) Good memory, @Toritoribe!

@xminus1, without rehashing the old post too much, try to think of less as a rule and more as a natural development in the language. The reason that ん changes is because it more easily and naturally leads into the sound that comes next. It will always be a nasal sound, so if you are not sure, look at the kana that follows it and pay attention to what your mouth is doing (particularly, where your tongue is making the constriction), then try to make a nasal sound there.

If we're talking about a "rule," we might say that し belongs in the /s/ group, so any ん that follows it is expressed as an [n]. It may be a little too nuanced to notice, or lead to confusion if it's broken down this far, but since the /sh/ is articulated slightly further back in the mouth than /s/, it's possible that there's an imperceptible difference in the expression of ん. That difference is so subtle that it's simply easier to teach it as [n], cause splitting hairs at that level is probably only fun for phonologists.
 

xminus1

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Hi, Nice-gaijin-san:

Thank you very much for informative and interesting reply; much appreciated!

I didn't mention it in my original post, but another word that is a favourite of the Minna people is 会議室. I really had a hard time recognizing this word when I was first listening to it in a Minna dialogue. There was some 鼻濁音 and devoicing going on here: /kai/ /ng/ /tsu/. With some Minna dialogue speakers they give just a whisper to the /ng/ and make it sound like a two mora word.

But I've noticed other Minna dialogue speakers don't devoice so much and pronounce it more like: /kai/ /ngi/ /tsu/....but representing the /ngi/ sound like this doesn't do the speaker justice -- they sound like they've got some serious uvular action going on! It's difficult to describe but I"m sure you must know what I mean. It sounded fun, so I've been practicing it just for the heck of it. It's not a sound native to modern English for sure.

I'm far from a phonologist, but I am fascinated by language sounds. So far in my elementary Japanese studies, Japanese seems like it has many very subtle articulations, not always observed regularly by all speakers, the reason for which I"m assuming has to do with regional differences, gender, age, social changes, etc.
 
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