Palatalization and velarization in Malayalam nasals

A preliminary acoustic study of the dental-alveolar contrast

  • Sameer ud Dowla Khan Reed College


The current study builds upon the literature on secondary articulations in Malayalam liquids to investigate whether another set of sonorants, i.e. the nasals, also involve palatalization, velarization, or varying configurations of the tongue root. Specifically, the current study focuses on the anterior nasals, i.e. dental n vs. alveolar ṉ a marginal contrast which has not been examined phonetically for secondary articulations. What is known about these two nasals is that they stem from different historical sources, they contrast in precise place of articulation, and they have been described impressionistically as distinguishable by velarization on the dental n and palatalization on the alveolar ṉ, although no phonetic evidence has ever been provided to support either claim. Preliminary acoustic results from a single speaker in the current study suggest that these claims are in fact borne out: back vowels are generally fronted when adjacent to geminate alveolar ṉṉ, compared to those adjacent to geminate dental nn. This suggests palatalization on the former and/or velarization on the latter, in line with the acoustic results for liquids in previous studies. These acoustic results thus suggest that Malayalam speakers can use secondary articulations to exaggerate the differences between otherwise very similar nasals, in the same ways that they use those articulations to distinguish the “clear” and “dark” classes of liquids.