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I'm a beginner and am learning from CD (Pimsleur). There are two native speakers going through the dialogue. One, the man, pronounces が as I would expect - 'ga'. The other (female) pronounces it as 'nga'.

How common is the latter? Which should I used? Is the usage split along gender, age or geographic lines?

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I think you mean が as 'nga'. –  Lukman Jun 1 '11 at 1:42
Thanks, I thought 'nga' initially, then wondered if that was real romaji. –  Synesso Jun 1 '11 at 1:43
I often hear the "n" variety at the end of a 〜ですが... opener. Not that it has to go there, just a "note from the field". –  makdad Jun 1 '11 at 3:13
Related: For the when to pronounce g as [ŋ] and when as [g], see Wikipedia. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 5 '11 at 19:29
@makdad As I wrote below, I have always thought that the ん in ですんが (and other similar forms) was simply a contraction of の and had nothing to do with the pronunciation of が... Are you certain that's not what you are talking about here? –  Dave Nov 16 '11 at 14:54
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5 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

"Ga" and "Nga" are same in Japanese, just a personal difference. Some used to say that old Japanese people used "Nga" more frequently than "Ga"

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が゜nga is nothing more than が ga in the Edo dialect. It was adopted as the correct pronunciation during the Meiji period and it still is the preferred form if you want to work for the NHK. –  jbcreix Jun 1 '11 at 14:31
That is quite correct, but I should add that the pronunciation nga can be found only when が is between vowels (i.e. in the middle of the word and not after a っ or an ん). –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 1 '11 at 22:17
it is heard in middle/southern Osaka too! –  syockit Jun 2 '11 at 0:04
When I was attending a Japanese elementary school in the 80s, my teacher once singled me out as the one kid pronouncing が "correctly" as "nga", which was funny because I was the only non-purely-Japanese kid. It actually shows that the "ga" pronunciation is definitely common, and few people really care, other than schoolteachers :) –  SuperElectric Jul 13 '11 at 23:08
There are actually specific rules governing when g can be ng. It's true that it can't happen word-initially (which is more specific than "between vowels", especially since [んが] can be ng), but there are also rules governing when ng is allowed or not in compound words for instance. I have no idea whether native speakers would readily identify using g instead of ng or vice-versa as a mistake per se. –  alexandrec Jan 25 '12 at 16:18
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I mostly agree with YOU in that it is personal preference and perhaps more of a broad preference that may be more prevalent in different parts of Japan. I've also noticed that the "nga" pronunciation seems more common when が is spoken in places such as ですが where it often sounds something like desu-nga. In terms of a slightly more formal reference the English Wiktionary describes the Japanese particle が is given the IPA of /ɡa/ which only confirms that although nga may appear in actual usage, "ga" is probably the more proper pronunciation.

As a side note, it's interesting to see that there also seems to be a form of the が particle pronunciation popular in Okinawa that is referred to as ぎゃ at least by Wikictionary which I had never heard of prior to looking it up. The IPA pronunciation is listed as /ɡja/ and since I'm not a linguist I'm not able to confirm what this actually sounds like. Perhaps somebody with IPA background could confirm whether that comes out to be anything close to "nga" and if so maybe it explains a little bit of the variance in pronunciation of this particle.

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No. /gja/ doesn't sound like "nga" at all. –  Mechanical snail Jul 13 '11 at 7:02
@Mechanical snail - Thank you for confirming that. –  jpierson Jul 14 '11 at 13:43
Either I am missing something or ですんが has nothing to do with the pronunciation of が: the ん is very real and a contraction of の... –  Dave Nov 16 '11 at 14:52
To me, the が sounds different regardless if it's preceded by ん but perhaps this is just pronunciation differences with proximity of different sounds. Maybe what I've been hearing is ですんが when I thought people were saying "ですが". I've heard のです and のが but have not yet come across ですのが and perhaps didn't realized that there was also a contracted form ですんが. –  jpierson Nov 16 '11 at 20:17
@Dave, what is ですんが? AFAIK there is no such thing in standard Japanese. –  dainichi May 4 '13 at 2:50
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A late answer, but I thought I'd throw it in anyway. As the others have said, they are allophones and mostly interchangeable. When I moved to Tokyo, I immediately noticed this sound. The strange thing was that getting other Japanese people to hear the difference was very difficult and it took some effort to find out what was going on. Apparently most are oblivious to the difference.

One thing I found very interesting was that the two pronunciations are (very) occasionally distinguished using a handakuten. i.e. nga = か゜. See for example this article.

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Mark I am confused about how the handakuten distinguishes between [nga] and [ga]- aren't they both written the same? Or is it that the handakuten is spaced out more and comes after the final stroke with [nga] か゜ and is within the final stroke with [ga] が ? –  user3436 May 2 '13 at 23:51
@KurtisFoster: **han**dakuten/maru/circle. :) が uses a dakuten (゛). –  Hyperworm May 6 '13 at 13:23
+1 here for the difficulty in showing the difference to native speakers. I picked a few audio clips where the difference was obvious, and very clearly enunciated...to my ears. Almost no one recognized what I was talking about. –  Khakionion Jan 31 at 10:01
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Here's the English equivalents for the IPA:

[ɡ] = the 'g' in 'get'
[ŋ] = the 'ng' in 'sing'

The main difference is that [ŋ] is a nasal consonant, whereas [ɡ] is not. If you try plugging your nose and pronouncing [ŋ], you'll realize that it's not possible. That's because air must flow through the nasal passage, but not the oral passage, for [ŋ]. The simplest answer to your question is that [ŋ] can optionally replace [ɡ] only in the middle of the word or compound (An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics. Tsujimura, 2006), so for example:

  • ごま (sesame seeds) can be only [ɡoma]
  • 下駄 (garden clogs) can be only [ɡɛta]
  • 庭下駄 (garden clogs) can be either /niwaɡɛta/ or /niwaŋɛta/
  • 縞柄 (stripped pattern) can be either /ɕimaɡaɾa/ or /ɕimaŋaɾa/

Words and phrases cannot start with a [ŋ]. Since [ɡ]→[ŋ] is optional, speakers are divided into 3 obvious categories:

  • Speakers who never use [ŋ]
  • Speakers who always use [ŋ] (when it is possible)
  • Speakers who sometimes use [ŋ]

A study in 1941 showed that each category was equally about 30% out of 70 middle-school students (Nihongo no Hensen. Kindaichi, 1967). Generally older speakers use [ŋ] more and younger speakers less. In fact, here is a graph of that relationship:

This graph comes from the paper Variationist Sociolinguistics in The Handbook of Japanese Linguistics (download here). Also, here is a map of the distribution:

It's a high-res map so to actually see it, you can download the original here. But basically the pink is [ɡ] and the green is [ŋ]. This map comes from a survey done by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics and you can find more maps like it here. Generally [ŋ] is more prestigious than [ɡ] and a little bit of history explains why:

- Before World War II, it was an emphasized point of elementary school education that /g/ should be realized as [ŋ] in non-initial position. Today, many trained television and radio broadcasters use non-initial [ŋ].
- In early nineteenth-century literature (Ukiyoburo written by Shikitei Samba), it is specifically mentioned that speakers in Edo had the nasal word-internally [ŋ] while rural speakers had the plosive [g]
- The results of these analyses, along with the earlier findings and observations, show that the change of word-internal [g] to [ŋ] in Tokyo Japanese originated in yamanote in the early twentieth century and has spread to the entire Tokyo speech community.

Also, there is no significant difference in usage by gender. As for the future trend:

An overall increase in the use of word-internal [g] in the vernacular is observed over several decades. The change is near completion, and the word-internal [ŋ] has been replaced by [g] at a very rapid rate within three generations.

So, [ŋ] is moribund (becoming extinct) at least in the areas major of Japan. As a JSL student you'd prolly be better of just forgetting it even exists. Besides all that, there's a bunch of interesting details and exceptions regarding the [ɡ]/[ŋ] alternation, but that's prolly best left to a separate question on it's own.

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Actually, the rules for /g/ occurring as the first consonant of a non-initial constituent of a compound word are very complex, so it would perhaps be better to use examples that are not compound words... also, nasal /g/ can occur at the beginning of a sentence, namely when you start your sentence with the conjunction が. –  Zhen Lin May 6 '13 at 20:57
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Ga and Nga are different, just like pronouncing を as "O" or "Wo". Saying Ga or O in this case is perfectly acceptable. However, the more correct pronunciation is Nga and Wo.

"nga" pronunciation seems more common when が is spoken in places such as ですが where it often sounds something like desu-nga

I have suspicion that Ga and Nga used to be two different characters and have become one written character over the years. But don't quote me on that.

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My guess is that the difference in pronunciation is very similar to how the t's in the word Button are regularly not pronounced in English because the consonant is just to strong for the middle of the word. Since language normally follows the path of least resistance, "nga" like the softened t's in Button is just easier for many native Japanese speakers to pronounce and many may be quite unaware that they are doing so. –  jpierson Jun 1 '11 at 3:44
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