Velarization of /n/ in Spanish: Lenition or Fortition?


Presenter:  Kenneth J. Wireback


Several studies have claimed that the velarization of final /n/ in Spanish, most commonly in word-final position before a vowel or pause, represents an intermediate stage in the lenition of implosive nasals, that is, more lenited than [n] but stronger than weaker variants like [ɰ̃], e.g., [Vn] > [Ṽn] > [Ṽŋ] > [Ṽɰ̃] > [Ṽɴ] > [ṼØ], where ‘ɴ’ represents a placeless nasal rather than an uvular POA (Piñeiros 2006; Penny 1983: 334; Penny 2000: 151).

In this paper I argue against viewing [ŋ] as solely product of lenition, and claim that velar [ŋ] may also be:  (1) a fortis variant of [Ṽ], whereby listeners have misperceived [Ṽ] to be phonemic /Ṽŋ/, or (2) following Widdison 1997, that velarization of /Ṽn/ to phonemic /Ṽŋ/ is the result of the incorrect perception of [Ṽn] as /Ṽŋ/, which would constitute neither articulatory strengthening nor weakening, but simply a change in point of articulation from alveolar to velar (cf. Uber 1984; Sampson 1999: 171).   The first claim is supported by Galician data (Sampson 1999: 207), as well as by other Romance language data (Hajek 1991, 1997), where the emergence of the velar nasal was an acoustically motivated strengthening or “hardening” process, subsequent to an intermediate nasalized vowel stage.  Support for this interpretation derives from the fact that, from a cross-dialectal perspective, velarization of /n/ in Spanish occurs most frequently in prepausal and word-final prevocalic contexts, which are environments that may favor a certain degree of fortition rather than lenition (Widdison 1997: 140).  The second claim stems from certain acoustic phonetics data, according to which both utterance-final and pre-vocalic word-final alveolar nasals present transitional vowel-to-nasal acoustic cues that closely approximate [Vŋ], and which therefore lead listeners to misperceive [Vn] as /Vŋ/ in these contexts (Widdison 1997: 142).  Taken together, these data suggest that the [ŋ] variant of /n/ should not only be considered a weaker or more lenited variant of Spanish /n/, but that [ŋ] in certain instances may also be viewed as the product of a strengthening process, or as neither strengthening nor weakening, but simply an acoustically-motivated shift in place of articulation.


Hajek, John. 1991. The hardening of nasalized glides in Bolognese. In P. M. Bertinetto, M. Kenstowicz & M. Loporcaro (eds). Certamen phonologicum II: Papers from the 1990 Cortona Phonology Meeting, 259–278. Torino: Rosenberg and Sellier.

Hajek, John 1997. Universals of Sound Change in Nasalization. Oxford: The Philological Society.

Penny, Ralph. 1983.  ‘The peninsular expansion of Castilian’.  Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 60:  333-338.

Penny, Ralph.  2000. Variation and Change in Spanish.  Cambridge:  Cambridge U.P.

Piñeros, Carlos-Eduardo. 2006. The phonology of nasal consonants in five Spanish dialects. In Fernando Martínez-Gil & Sonia Colina (eds.) Optimality-Theoretic studies in Spanish phonology, 146–171.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.  

Sampson, Rodney. 1999.  Nasal Vowel Evolution in Romance.  Oxford:  Oxford U.P.

Uber, Diane R. 1984. Phonological implications of the perception of –S and –N in Puerto Rican Spanish.  In P. Baldi (ed.), Papers from the XIIth Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages, 287–299.  Amsterdam:  John Benjamins.

Widdison, Kirk. A. 1997. On nasal variation in dialectal Spanish. In C. Hallen (ed.), Proceedings of the 1997 Desert Language and Linguistics Symposium, 139–145  Provo, UT:  BYU Linguistics Department.



  • Hispanic Linguistics