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The linguistic nature of the class of sounds which are traditionally called "prenasalized consonants" (PNCs) has never been adequately explored. The purpose of this work is to provide a descriptively adequate framework in which to characterize PNCs, and to express their behavior most generally. This is done within the theory of generative phonology (essentially the Standard Theory of Chomsky and Halle 1968), incorporating a theory of markedness and syllabification. It is argued that PNCs cannot be described adequately as monosegmental entities in linguistic theory. Rather, PNCs in all languages are claimed to be sequences of homorganic nasal and oral consonant in underlying phonological representations, which surface in systematic phonetic representation as (tautosyllabic) syllable onsets. For a language to exhibit such onsets, it must contain a costly (language-specific) syllabification rule which converts the unmarked syllabified string XN$CY (whose syllabification is given by universal convention) into the marked structure X$NCY, where $ represents the syllable boundary. There is no linguistic level, nor any stage in phonological derivations, where PNCs must be represented monosegmentally, nor at which the characteristically brief nasal onset period must be referred to as an internal component of an oral consonant. Such properties as are necessary to fully characterize PNCs as physical-phonetic events are assigned to systematic phonetic $NC sequences by mechanisms within a phonetic performance theory.
One of the very few languages where PNCs appear to contrast directly with ordinary heterosyllabic clusters of homorganic nasal and oral consonants is Sinhalese, an Indoeuropean language of Sri Lanka (Ceylon). An analysis of this language, and a similar case in the West African language Fula, are presented, and strong evidence is provided for the adequacy of a sequential analysis of prenasalization, in spite of the apparent contrast. The analysis of Sinhalese also reveals a rich interaction between the behavior of PNCs and the general syllable structure of the language. This relationship can be revealingly expressed only if the notion of the syllable is formally available in phonological theory.
Feinstein, Mark H., "Linguistic Nature of Prenasalization" (1977). CUNY Academic Works.