Pronounce the Velar Nasal in British English (RP)

image of the cross-section of the mouth showing the articulation of the velar nasal phoneme

Pronounce the Velar Nasal in British English (RP)

How to pronounce NG in English

How are nasal consonants pronounced in English?

English has three nasal phonemes, /n/, /m/, /ŋ/ and a nasal allophone [ɱ]. All of these speech sounds are pronounced by pushing the airflow through the nasal passage. Most other speech sounds in British English are produced with oral airflow – the air passes out through the mouth. However, in the case of the nasal phonemes of English, the soft palate allows the air to flow through the nose.

NG is usually pronounced /ŋ/ in British English. Learn the velar nasal in modern RP

In this article, we’re going to explore the phoneme /ŋ/, known as the velar nasal phoneme.

Visualise the pronunciation of NG in English

/ŋ/ assimilation before /k/ and /g/

 As with the other nasal phonemes, the airflow passes through the nose for the /ŋ/ phoneme, the velar nasal phoneme. The velar nasal phoneme appears in many languages. However, it is normally realised instead of [n] when “n” comes before a [k] or a [g] phoneme (often written in the Latin alphabet as “c” or “g”).

In many languages and dialects, [ŋ]  is found exclusively before [k] or [g] and never on its own e.g. in “incredible” [ɪŋˈkrɛdəbəɫ]. Contemporary Received Pronunciation (RP), a British accent among many, isn’t one of those! In Contemporary RP, /ŋ/ can occur all by itself when you see the letters NG together.

How to articulate NG in English

The velar nasal is pronounced with the tongue in the same position as for /k/ and /g/. The back of the tongue raises up to touch the soft palate. The voice turns on and we get a nasal sound with the air flowing through the nose and the back of the tongue simultaneously pressing onto the soft palate (the velum). We can hold this speech sound for as long as we have breath.

Common mistakes when pronouncing the velar nasal in British English

/ŋ/ is often lumped together with /g/ – both by native speakers of British English and by those learning this variety of English. Probably the most common misconception is that /ŋ/ and /g/ need always go together in British English. In fact, /ŋ/ has been appearing without /g/ for quite some time in Received Pronunciation and in many other British English accents.

We hear /ŋ/ appear by itself at the ends of words e.g. words ending with ING. We also hear it appear by itself in the middles of words where an English grammatical ending has been added e.g. swimmingly, kingdom.

Not all British English speakers pronounce NG in the same way

There’s a lot of variability when it comes to pronouncing NG in the UK. Some speakers (e.g. in Manchester) will pronounce it /ŋg/ with a /g/ in all positions where NG is seen. Others will pronounce NG as the alveolar nasal /n/ (without touching the back of the tongue on the soft palate, touching the tongue on the bump just behind the teeth instead).

Speakers of RP (received pronunciation) typically follow the rule that if NG appears at the end of a word or before an English grammatical ending, /ŋ/ is pronounced without /g/ (as shown in the animation above). However, RP isn’t the only accent in Britain. British Accent Academy always recommends choosing an accent model that fits your identity. If you feel good about pronouncing NG as /ŋ/ at the ends of words and before grammatical endings, it will be fun for you to play with pronouncing this speech sound. 

Perfect your pronunciation of NG

Learn more about /ŋ/ in the Complete English Pronunciation Course. Happy practising!