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There are several words that have a common etymological origin but are sometimes pronounced with a 'b' and sometimes with an 'm'. Here are some examples:

おもえる、おぼえる (思える、覚える)

さむらい、さぶらい (侍)

ぶ、む (無)

ばく、まく (幕)

ば (馬)

There are many more examples. For 馬, I'm almost certain it is pronounced with an 'm' initial in every dialect of Chinese but its onyomi has a 'b'.

Is there a reason why these two similar, yet definitely distinct, consonants are related in this way?

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can be pronounced with an 'm'. One of my Japanese teacher's name is 門馬【もん・ま】(もん・ま). –  istrasci Sep 27 '13 at 17:44

1 Answer 1

There are two different reasons.

For native words - the historical pronunciation of Japanese voiced consonants involved prenasalisation (so /d/ was more like [ⁿd]). While in most cases the prenasalisation has been lost, in a few instances the voiced stop was the part that was dropped.

This is also the reason for the modern language's [ɡ]~[ŋ] variation.

For Sino-Japanese words - Japanese has multiple sets of on'yomi that were borrowed from Chinese at different times. The variety they were borrowed from underwent an initial denasalisation ([n]>[d]) between times when Japanese borrowed, so for example, one word which was borrowed as まく before the change was later reborrowed as ばく after the change.

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It's worth pointing out that denasalisation also happens in some varieties of Min Chinese. –  Zhen Lin Sep 27 '13 at 20:19

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