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Often, I can't hear ん in words. Most recently I've seen this in 攻殻機動隊.

Examples:

  • もう少し詳しい検査をしてみないと何とも言えませんが、おそらく外的な要因は見つかりそうもありません... 要因 sounds like ようい

  • しくじれば、Spring-8の4倍の税金をかけた橋を… Sounds like ぜいき

  • 何か途中から犯人のメッセージが一人称から三人称にすり替わってしまったような感じで I hear はんにん just fine, but then I hear いちにいしょう and さんにいしょう

  • 総監暗殺予告の件で任意同行してもらうぜ! 任意 sounds like にいい to me

The latter example I also heard in the drama お天気お姉さん(in episode 9).

  • ①任意です。②任意というには無理がありすぎる! This is probably the single best example of it. I don't hear anything like someone intentionally trying to produce a sound(edit:That is, a sound between に and い in にんい).

So is this a silent letter? Is it a quirk that Japanese people are conscious of? Is it an accent? What allophone is this? Anything else I should know about it?

Thanks for the help!

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5  
I think this might be more to do with your perception of nasals than with an actual "silent ん" - vowels in Japanese that are followed by ん do undergo significant nasalization, so I think you might be interpreting the sequence "nasal vowel + ん" as just "nasal vowel". It might help to know what your native language(s) is/are, as this is likely to affect the way you perceive these sounds. –  senshin Apr 25 at 18:14
    
I think silent or voiceless んs only exist in interjections like “hum/ふん”. But pronouncing んs as nasal vowels is common. –  Yang Muye Apr 25 at 18:16
    
My native language is GA English. I guess the only way I can get close to this concept in English is if I try to pronounce "singing" as one syllable, and in proper context I guess another native speaker would still be able to understand it. Actually, it wouldn't surprise me if people often pronounce "singing" as one syllable without realizing it. But still, while the person would be subconsciously thinking about all the sounds in the word, I'm not so sure they're actually pronouncing the full sɪŋɪŋ. That's what I'm wondering about にんい. –  Val Apr 25 at 22:41

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

ん has different pronunciations(allophones) depending on surrounding context.

  • [m] before /p/, /b/ and /m/
  • [n] before /d/, /t/, and /n/
  • [ŋ] (What some might know as "ng") before [k] and [ɡ].
  • [ɴ] at the end of prosodic units. This is close to [ŋ] but pronounced further down in the throat.
  • Before vowels, /j/,/w/,/r/,/s/,/z/ and /h/, it is pronounced as a nasalized version of the preceding vowel.

This varies slightly based on speaker and register, but works as a general guideline. According to this, your example 税金を /ze:kiɴo/ would be pronounced

[~iĩo]

However, the nasality of the nasal vowels often tends to spread to the surrounding vowels by a phenomenon called "nasal assimilation". This causes the pronunciation to become

[~ĩ:õ]

Likewise, はんい would become

[hã:ĩ]

You mention in a comment that you don't hear anything nasal in it, but that might be because you're not used to listening for nasal vowels.

Finally, just to illustrate that nasal assimilation isn't a concept as alien as you might expect, it's quite common in English too. For example, the word "can't" is commonly pronounced [kã:t].

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3  
Just to add a reference: the relevant section of Labrune 2012 (p.133-135) is online at Google Books. It has some more discussion and examples. –  snailboat Apr 28 at 1:18
    
Wow, that's perfect, just what I was looking for! Thank you! –  Val Apr 28 at 17:37
    
Just a note: at the end of prosodic units, it's not uncommon for N to be pronounced as [m]. In fact, it's difficult for most Japanese speakers to control the place of articulation of word-final nasal consonants in English (ie. I'm done vs I'm dumb) –  alexandrec Jul 10 at 14:29

No, there is no silent ん. But the "length" of ん can be very short, because ん sounds a lot like single consonant 'N' (or 'M') without a vowel. Other Japanese letters have a vowel, like 'かKA', 'しSI', 'ずZU', 'のNO'.

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+1, simply answers the question (Does Japanese have a silent ん?) –  Aki Apr 29 at 16:04

There is no silent ん. As senshin noted, ん + vowel might not sound like the ん is there, but it really is. Another good example is 範囲 han'i. It's a softer sound than the /ng/ in the middle of singing, but don't let that fool you.

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Hey, yeah! There was another line using 範囲 from 攻殻機動隊 episode 4. ...(20:22)導入に関しては法の範囲内であると認識しており... I can't hear anything nasal at all in はんい...I hear the moraic space though, so it sounds like はあい to me. –  Val Apr 26 at 1:07
1  
If it doesn't sound like it's there, but it really is there, where is it? –  dainichi Apr 28 at 0:10
2  
Perhaps that phrase means "you might not have trained your ears to recognize it consistently yet, but it's there". –  snailboat Apr 28 at 2:56
    
More explanation. ん in between vowels doesn't map very well to any sound in English. It's vaguely like the 'ng' in the middle of "singing", but while the flow of air through the mouth is fully shut off by the back of the tongue in the English, it is often only kinda half-blocked in the Japanese. Val, if you can find any native JA speakers, ask them to slowly and clearly say はあい and then はんい. There is a clear difference in the pronunciation. It can be hard to recognize for native English speakers, but the difference is there, and it is contrastive (i.e. it changes the meaning). –  Eiríkr Útlendi May 12 at 17:53

General comment

If you are a learner then you are still training your ears to pick up sounds not in your own language. I was told one of the sounds most commonly misheard by foreign ears is the "t" in 自転車 which most of us hear as "d". (According to a comment & link below, many people do say "d" but either way, even as I type 自転車 now I subconsciously type a "d" and only realise when the wrong kanji come up.)

Given that none of the other posts agree with you, it sounds like these people, like me, can hear the ん but that is not to say your ears are playing tricks on you:

ん followed by "vowels" and "near-vowels"

When ん is followed by a vowel or near-vowel type of sound, which I think applies in all your examples, it is also one the more difficult sounds to say as well as hear, and the two activities are very closely related. I still struggle to pronounce 任意 passably. Another difficult word is 禁煙. After a while I worked out that there was "y"-type of sound in many of these words and by inserting a small "y", I found Japanese were more likely to recognise them in my speech.

Likewise, in the case of 税金を the を is generally accepted as "wo" in roman letters and the combination of the "n" and the "w" is giving rise to a different sound from what you expect to hear.

The linguists and native speakers on this site may have a different view about this "y" and can explain the origins better than me. I think its roots go back to the "yi" and "ye" sounds no longer recognised in standard 平仮名. But, given that the English speaking world calls the currency "Yen", and than is pretty close to what I hear when people say 3千円 or一万円, I thinks its a good "working rule".

Other nuances

There maybe other differences or subtle nuances as to how ん is pronounced for different words not captured by 平仮名. The "m" sound in 日本橋 comes to mind although that is not so subtle. It also worth mentioning that some say the ん sound can be closer to the "n" in "stung" rather than in "stun".

Pitch is another very obvious example of something not captured in the writing but if the language came before the writing system then it must be inevitable that that system has pragmatic approximations.

I suppose these approximations could also have a strong influence on how the language is spoken but that is outside scope of your question and the real linguists could tell us more.

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Could you explain the reason behind "the sound most commonly misheard by foreign ears is the "t" in 自転車 which most of us hear as "d"? I haven't had this problem so I am curious. –  無色受想行識 Apr 26 at 1:24
    
I am not an academic, my evidence is anecdotal but several years ago I was in a strong class of some 30-40 students for JLPT N1, mostly Asian but from all continents. Contrary to the teacher's assetion, the overwhelming majority strongly denied hearing a sound that was "t" not "d". I modified my wording above. –  Tim Apr 26 at 2:37
1  
The reason you hear a d in 自転車 is that that is how many people pronounce it. detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp/qa/question_detail/q12578822 –  dainichi Apr 28 at 8:04
1  
More detail. The "t" sounds in Japanese た・て・と (ta te to) are subtly different from the "t" sounds in English 'ta' 'teh' 'toe'. English "t" is more fully aspirated, with a greater expulsion of breath between the tongue releasing from the top of the mouth behind the teeth, and the start of the vowel sound. Japanese has less aspiration, with a more immediate onset of the vowel sound, leading native EN speakers to sometimes hear more of a 'd' sound. More at technical details at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_phonology#Consonants. –  Eiríkr Útlendi May 12 at 17:59

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