Most syllables in English are comprised of either a consonant sound plus a vowel sound, a consonant sound plus a vowel sound plus a final consonant sound, or a vowel sound alone. We don’t typically think of syllables as having a consonant alone, but there are a few instances in which this can happen with different sounds. The /n/ sound is one of those instances.
When /n/ is its own syllable, it can be denoted using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) using the symbol n̩. Notice how it looks almost identical to the letter n, the only difference being a small vertical line below it. Because syllabic n (/n̩/) is an aspect of spoken language, we don’t use n̩ in the written language. Syllabic n is a sound of speech, not part of the written language.
The syllable /n̩/ is found in certain contexts in Standard American English. The main determining factor, as in much of the sounds of the language, or phonology, is the sound that comes before it. The standard /n/ sound is produced by raising the surface of the tip of the tongue to the bony shelf behind the top front teeth. There is a complete blockage of air with the tongue against the palate of the mouth. Then, the speaker produces voice. The air and sound comes out the nose. Try to prolong an /n/ sound while plugging your nose. You can’t! The air builds up until you can no longer hold it in.
The syllabic /n̩/ is produced when the sound immediately before an /n/ is produced in the same part of the mouth, that bony shelf behind the top front teeth, as /n/. Other sounds produced in this part of the mouth are /t/ and /d/, /s/ and /z/.
Words with n in its own syllable
In typical conversational speech, syllabic n appears much more frequently than when words are produced alone, with emphasis or stress. In most cases, when a word with a syllabic n is produced with emphasis, a vowel is produced before the /n/. That vowel is usually /ɪ/ or /ǝ/. Here are some words which, when produced in typical conversational speech, contain /n̩/:
When and becomes syllabic n.
One of the most common words in the English language is and. As tends to happen with extremely common words, and undergoes a process called reduction in speech, which alters it from a weak, unstressed /ænd/ to /n̩/. Sometimes this is written simply as n’. This reduction of and occurs after sounds produced with the tongue touching the palate just behind the front teeth (/d/, /t/, /z/, and /s/). Here are some instances where and is reduced to syllabic n:
This n’ that
His n’ hers
Boys n’ girls
Then n’ there
Cats n’ dogs
Add syllabic n to your speech to sound more natural.
After a bit of practice of the words and phrases containing syllabic n in this post, try including this sound in your spoken English for more natural-sounding speech. If you have any questions, we encourage you to contact us for more information about incorporating the /n̩/ sound into your speaking habits.
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 The related word sweetener is not produced with /n̩/. In the spoken version of this word, the middle e disappears and the second syllable begins with n: ner.
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