I noticed that the word 単位 is written as たんい in hiragana, not た. Is there a difference in the way んい and に are pronounced? If so, does the same principle go for んあ and な, んえ and ね, etc.?

  • 1
    Yes, there is a difference. One way about thinking about it is syllabification: たんい is /tan.i/, たに is /ta.ni/. Try listening to some sound clips.
    – Zhen Lin
    Mar 24 '15 at 20:49
  • 2
    More minimal pairs for each vowel: 単位【たんい】 vs. 谷【たに】/​/ 品位【ひんい】 vs. 日【ひ】に /​/ 噴煙【ふんえん】 vs. 不燃【ふねん】 /​/ 犬【いぬ】 vs. 陰雨【いんう】 /​/ 指南【しなん】 vs. 新案【しんあん】 /​/ 無難【ぶなん】 vs. 文案【ぶんあん】 /​/ カノン【canon】 vs. 漢音【かんおん】
    – blutorange
    Mar 24 '15 at 21:58
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    @blutorange and one of them can be extended to a minimal triple: カノン vs. 漢音 vs. 観音
    – Earthliŋ
    Mar 24 '15 at 22:12

There are three differences

  • rhythm
    たんい has three morae ("syllables"), where as たに has only two.

  • sound
    たんい has a uvular ("nasal") /ɴ/, i.e. [ta.ɴ.i], whereas たに has a "normal" /n/, i.e. [ta.ni].

  • pitch
    たんい【HLL】 drops in pitch after the first mora, [たに​]【LHL】 drops in pitch after the second mora.

Try to listen for all three differences, they're all important.

The sound and rhythm of んあ んう んえ んお are analogous. (Pitch, of course, depends on the word.)

However, in some cases (e.g. 反応 はんのう from はんおう or 天皇 or 銀杏), the "nasalization" has been lost "officially", so to speak. But /i/ following /ɴ/ it is usually preserved, 雰囲気 ふんいき, 原因 げんいん, 単位 たんい etc. That said, no one likes the combination /ɴ.i/, so these words are often subject to metathesis, see for example this answer.

  • 1
    I have occasionally heard 雰囲気【ふんいき】 pronounced as ふいんき, exhibiting a kind of metathesis. (And then I clicked your "this answer" link and saw that very example. :) ) Aug 16 '18 at 22:05

単{たん} is pronounced たん and 位{い} is pronounced い.

Together, they are pronounced たんい or tan'i. This is distinctly different from に or ni.

For example, 谷{たに} is pronounced たに or tani. I don't know phonetic symbols so I apologize but you can sound these two out to hear how they are different.

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