Unvoiced nasals in Mandarin


New Member
Italiano, 温州话
Do Chinese people sometimes pronounce words such as 妈妈 or 那个 with un unvoiced m or n? It often seems to me that they do. The only time I have noticed someone saying 妈妈 with a voiced m, it was to imitate a foreign accent.
Or may it be a regional feature? Here in Italy most Chinese people we hear are 江南人.
  • SuperXW

    Senior Member
    I've zero knowledge of Italian, but I guess we have different concepts about "m" and "n".
    They are called "bilabial nasal" and "alveolar nasal". I think to Chinese, the "bilabial" and "alveolar" part is phenominal, but the "nasal" part is not phenominal.
    We treat the two sounds as "consonants" which don't produce any sound, not even a "nasal sound". For "m", we just close our lips, and for "n", touch the alveolar ridge with our tongues.
    In Chinese, The vowels after "m/n" are the sounding part.
    Maybe in your language, "m" and "n" should produce clear sounds themselves?

    One more thing, in Chinese, there's no "m" after a vowel, and the "n" after vowels are usually not very complete.


    Senior Member
    Hi Senza! Yes, I've heard that in some Wu dialects there are voiceless nasals (see, for example, this chart), and perhaps the speakers you interact with are speakers of these dialects?


    New Member
    Italiano, 温州话
    SuperXW, as well In Italian /n/ and /m/ need a vowel to form a syllable. They can not "stand alone". However Italian nasal consonants are always voiced, an average Italian person has probably never pronounced in his life an unvoiced nasal consonant.

    Ghabi, yes, most of the speakers I interact with are native Wu speakers, but I am not sure if they are the only ones.
    If standard Mandarin did not have /ʔn/ and /ʔm/ (unvoiced nasal consonants), but only /n/ and /m/ (voiced nasal consonant), a speaker of a dialect such as Wenzhounese, would normally prononce /n/ and /m/, since his native dialect has these sounds.

    I have found an example on a Youtube video, but I do not have the approval to link it it is the old 妈麻马骂 comparison, we are all familiar with. There are to speakers, and both pronounce 妈 voiceless, while 麻, 马 and 骂 are voiced.


    Senior Member
    Wu Chinese & Italian
    Hi SenzaNome,
    I'm a Chinese raised in Italy, a native Wenzhou hua/Qingtian hua speaker, one of those you were talking about. :)
    This is quite a complicated issue, but I understand it like this:

    1) Mandarin Chinese, Italian and most languages do not distinguish between voiceles and voiced nasals, but Wu dialects do.

    2) For the voiced nasals /n/ and /m/ are phonemic transcriptions, a more accurate phonetic would be [] and [].
    Compare this table about the phonemes of Quzhou dialect (Wu) with phonetic transcriptions: http://wu-chinese.com/bbs/forum.php?mod=viewthread&tid=6610&extra=page=2
    So in (most) Wu dialects the distintion is [ʔn] vs [] and [ʔm] vs [].
    /n/ and /m/ are themselves voiced consonants, but in Wu they can be "more voiced again" thus becoming [nʱ] and [mʱ]. But hereafter I will call the less voiced ones "voiceless", and the more voiced ones "voiced".

    3) Wu is probably the most complicated Chinese language (or dialect group), with not only much more tone sandhi then Mandarin, but has also voicing sandhi.
    A lot of consonants are distinguished for a voiced and a voiceless version: even consonants like /n, m, l, ŋ/ can be either voiced or voiceless!
    Single characters have a fixed pronunciation: either voiced or voiceless, but when together with other character they could change both the voicing and the tone. Some tones only allow voiced consonants, some other tones only allow voiceless ones.
    E.g. in Qingtian hua 田 is pronounced /dja/, our city 青田 is pronounced /tɕʰiŋ dja/, but the people from our city are called 青田人 /tɕʰiŋ tja nəŋ/.

    4) In Mandarin, although voicing of /m/ and /n/ is not distintive, as you noted, there is also a tendency to voice or de-voice according to the tone.
    But my opinion differs form you, I think I pronounce 妈 and 骂 voiceless, while 麻 and 马 voiced.
    In Mandarin, especially when spoken by Wu speakers, consonants with the first tone and fourth tone are slightly more voiceless, while consonants with second and thirs tone are slightly more voiced.
    In my pronunciation, while I respect this "rule" for "ma", when pronouncing "mai" I also pronounced 埋 and 买 voiceless.

    5) For my ears, Italian and Mandarin m's and n's are more similar to the voiceless /ʔm/ and /ʔn/. Although Italian doesn't have glottal stop before, I think the sounds are more similar than the voiced ones.
    If I would give a phonemic transcription, I would transcribe the voiceless ones as /m/ and /n/ and the voiced ones as /mʱ/ and /nʱ/. I think the voicing /ʱ/ is a more evident particularity of the sound than an unperceivible glottal stop before the consonant.

    6) I think nobody from Wenzhou or Qingtian would pronounce 妈妈 as [mʱa mʱa], as in our dialects it's voiceless. But some Northern dialects (maybe 东北话) could pronounce it with second tone, and so with the second tone the consonants become voiced. Jokingly, on the internet it's often written 麻麻 to reflect this dialectal pronunciation.


    Senior Member
    Wu Chinese & Italian
    As I said in point 2:
    /n/ and /m/ are themselves voiced consonants, but in Wu they can be "more voiced again" thus becoming [nʱ] and [mʱ]. But hereafter I will call the less voiced ones "voiceless", and the more voiced ones "voiced".