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I've been initially told that ん is always pronounced like the n in pink. But I've been looking at this wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA_for_Japanese#cite_note-stop-2

And it is saying that the ん in words like せぱい is pronounced as m as in much.

So is there any way to know if I should pronounce ん as n or m in a word?

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ん assimilates to the consonantal sounds that follow. If it is followed by 't' or 'd', then it is pronounced like an 'n'. If it is followed by 'p' or 'b', it is pronounced like 'm'. If followed by 'k' or 'g', then like 'ng' from 'sing'.

If ん is not followed by a consonant, then there isn't really a true English equivalent; it's more or less its own syllabic 'n'.

But technically, ん is never quite pronounced as in English since it always constitutes a mora. So, in the example you gave せんぱい consists of four beats, and is pronounced more like 'se.mm.pa.i' (4 moras) than 'sem.pai' (2 syllables).

  • The case when its not followed by a consonant, as in すみません or わかりません? My hearing might be inaccurate, but I tend to hear these words being pronounced with an 'm' sound. – Felipe Müller Jan 18 '16 at 0:52
  • @FelipeMüller To pronounce 'm' in English, we press our lips together. At the end of a word, like the two you provided, the lips do not need to come together. – A.Ellett Jan 18 '16 at 0:54
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    @FelipeMüller That sound is actually made with your uvula; if you have difficulty doing so, using the velum should be an approximate substitute. – Aeon Akechi Jan 18 '16 at 1:11
  • Is there an IPA character for that? When I try to pronounce 'm' without pressing the lips I end up pronouncing the 'n' in pink. – Felipe Müller Jan 18 '16 at 1:13
  • @FelipeMüller However you try to pronounce it, the lips do not come together and the tongue never makes contact with the top of your mouth whether behind the teeth or the roof of the mouth or the back of the mouth. – A.Ellett Jan 18 '16 at 1:15

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