Aspirated Nasal in Gran Torino Eastwood Movie


The recent Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino is a very interesting character study, but is also notable for giving a demonstration of a voiceless or aspirated nasal.

If you don't know the plot, Eastwood plays a retired Detroit auto worker Walt Kowalsky with politically incorrect views on a lot of things, including his Asian neighbors (fortunately, he learns toleration, but in an interestingly unsentimental manner). It turns out that his neighbors are part of the Hmong culture as one of the younger women Sue Lor (played by Ahney Her) explains to Clint.

In fact, she even says the name "Hmong" where "hm" is a voiceless or aspirated /m/ which I will transcribe as /mʰ/ (and "ng" is really the velar nasal /ŋ/). In an aspirated nasal, the vocal cords do not vibrate continuously through the /m/ but pause at some point. From what I could tell, the vocal cords begin as non-vibrating, but then begin during the nasal. It would be consistent from how voiceless nasals are pronounced in other languages of Burma.

So the transcription for "Hmong" is actually or /mʰɔ̃ŋ/ (not sure about the tone), but to my ears it sounded like "Mong" /mɔ̃ŋ/ with a slight pause in the beginning. Very interesting. It's another happy example of how linguistic sensitivity is slowly creeping into Hollywood.

P.S. I also have to respect a movie that shows how effectively a Hmong grandmother can spit a wad of tobacco. Needless to say, Walt was impressed in spite of himself.