The story of /n/ /z/ and /s/

These three sounds have an interesting relationship. As you read this please come with me, say the sound /n/, and see if you can notice these features:

1.. It is voiced. Now whisper it and see there is nearly nothing left, only a slight and indistinct aspiration.

2.. You can say it in a way that you can continue as long as you have breath.

3.. And if you do that the air continues to pass out through your nose. You can check that by pinching your nose … ! And the sound should stop, proving it is a nasal sound.

4.. You can also release your tongue from behind your top front teeth and immediately the air passes out through your mouth instead of your nose. What happens to /n/? it is gone. And now what are you saying? A vowel of some kind.

These are all indications of the character of this sound /n/, the position of your tongue, the channelling of the air, the vibrancy of the surfaces the air hits, the suddenness of movements etc. And it makes up the quality of the sound /n/ that you and others hear coming from your mouth. But let’s get better acquainted:

5.. You have already noticed that when you make the continuous /n/ sound the whole of the outflow of air is through your nose…. And yet your mouth is open….. How can your mouth be open yet no air passes out of it?

6.. Well, you can now observe that when you say a prolonged /n/ your tongue presses so fully and completely against the ridge behind your upper front (the tooth ridge, or alveolar ridge) and side teeth or gums that no air can pass over your tongue and so no air can escape through your mouth. The only way the air, under pressure from your lungs, can escape is through your nose.

There are several ways to stop the air coming out of your mouth. One is to shut your mouth! Try it….  but continue making a voiced sound…. and what happens? The air will flow out through your nose  ….  (pinch your nose to make sure). Now you have the sound /m/ whose story we will tell on another occasion. You could also stop the air flow through your mouth by blocking the back of your tongue against the soft back of your mouth and continuing to make a voiced sound. This time you get the third nasal / ŋ/

By the way this soft back of the mouth is your soft palate. With your tongue tip or your finger check out where your hard palate becomes soft… it’s very obvious. The soft bit is also called the velum, Latin for ‘soft covering’!

That’s it for now. I hope you have enjoyed the story.  Be sure to visit your own internal territory of /n/ frequently on your own (or with friends) and to get familiar with the physical sensations and the marvellous mouthscape!

Look out for Episode 2 in which we meet /z/ and /s/….

What will be the relationship between them?

Are they two moves apart or only one?

Can you teach 3 for the price of 1?

How many other sounds are members of this little fraternity?

All this and more in Episode 2!