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Denasality Explained

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany people mistakenly refer to a denasal voice as nasal (to learn more about nasality, see the post below this one).  Actually, denasality is the reverse of nasality.

A denasal voice sounds less nasal than a normal voice and is often associated with a head cold.  A person who is denasal might say, “I have a cold id by dose,” when they are speaking instead of “in my nose.”

American English has three sounds that are supposed to have a nasal production.  These are the nasal consonants “m,” “n,” and “ing.”  (If you’d like to see these in action, click here and select “Nasal,” then a letter on the left, and “Play.”)

With denasality these nasal sounds are prevented from entering the nasal cavity.  Try this:  hold your nose closed and try saying an “m” sound.  Doesn’t work, does it.  That’s because that sound and the other two are supposed to come out the nose.

Constant denasality is usually a structural problem that requires medical attention.  It results from nasopharyngeal blockage that prevents sound from entering the nose.  This might be a deviated septum or a growth in the nasal cavity.  An ear, nose, and throat specialist can usually remove a blockage and follow-up speech therapy will generally eliminate the denasality.

Allergies can also cause blockage in the nose due to swelling and secretions.  And, of course, all of us occasionally suffer from head colds that change our voices (see my post on dealing with a cold for help with that).

If denasality is not caused from blockage or a cold, it may be a learned behavior.  Exercises to feel the soft palate movement will aid in correcting the problem.

For a simple exercise to feel the soft palate opening and closing the nasal passage, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.  In the back of your mouth, you’ll feel the little trap door that is the soft palate opening or dropping down to touch the back of your tongue when you inhale and rising up as you exhale.  This is the movement that creates a denasal voice when the soft palate doesn’t move downward when it should to allow for the nasal sounds in our language.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • CanonAmiss February 10, 2015, 10:36 pm

    Thank you for writing this article! I finally know why I always sound stuffy! Would you have any ideas for different therapy exercises I could use? Thanks again!

  • Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. February 11, 2015, 4:04 pm

    I would suggest starting with a visit to a good ear, nose and throat doctor. Often this is caused by some blockage. Find that out first and see what the doc suggests. Good luck! Ann

  • Matt March 28, 2017, 1:22 pm

    It’s great to see a voice coach talk more about this topic. I tried looking into this years ago & was first sent to a highly recommended local ear, nose & throat doctor. She did a surgery but unfortunately it had no effect on my voice. It’s up for debate as to whether it improved my nose breathing. Her suggestions afterwards were nasal sprays & looking into a plastic surgeon to use my skin & pull it sideways around my nose, similar to what those nose strips people wear at night do. I decided those were two unacceptable routes.

    With that said, I would love to hear if you do have any suggestions for exercises. I feel that as I aged my voice has cleared up a little bit but it’s still very congested, especially if I’m not purposely trying to speak well.

  • Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. March 31, 2017, 2:29 pm

    Matt–I think the exercises you’re doing must be working if your voice is better when you’re “purposely trying to speak well.”
    You might look at my post on the aging voice. You’ll find that under the Breathing link in the sidebar on the right. There’s one called, “The Aging Voice” and one called, “Midlife Crisis.” Both of those will be helpful.
    Thanks for your comment! Ann

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