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什么 (shénme) sounds to my ears more like (shéme).

Assuming I'm hearing correctly, is this just a common contraction of this word, or is the sequence "-n" + "m-" generally contracted to "-m-"?

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  1. Zhang and Yang (2007:157–165) classifies consonantal assimilation (輔音同化) in Mandarin into three types:

    • Progressive assimilation (前化後, lit. prior converts latter)
    • Regressive assimilation (後化前, lit. latter converts prior)
    • Bidirectional assimilation (前後互化, lit. prior and latter convert each other)

Examples of regressive assimilation

  1. /n/ → [m] / _ [p pʰ m] (= all /n/ before [p], [pʰ], or [m] become [m]). All bilabial consonants in Mandarin exert an effect on an immediately preceding /n/. 什麼 naturally follows this rule.

    Before After Pinyin
    麵包 /mjɛn˥˩ paʊ˥˥/ [mjɛm˥˩ paʊ˥˥] miàn bāo
    亂跑 /lwan˥˩ pʰaʊ˨˩˦/ [lwam˥˩ pʰaʊ˨˩˦] luàn pǎo
    難免 /nan˧˥ mjɛn˨˩˦/ [nam˧˥ mjɛn˨˩˦] nán miǎn
  2. /n/ → [ŋ̟] / _ [k kʰ x]. I added the advanced diacritic for [ŋ] because Zhang and Yang claims the inherent nature of /n/ is still stronger than assimilation, so the result is not exactly velar. Also, notice in the first and third examples how the final has not changed from [aŋ] to [ɑŋ], so the result of assimilation is also not exactly ang in pinyin, either.

    Before After Pinyin
    戰國 /ʈ͡ʂan˥˩ kuɔ˧˥/ [ʈ͡ʂaŋ̟˥˩ kuɔ˧˥] Zhàn'guó
    辛苦 /ɕɪn˥˥ kʰu˨˩˦/ [ɕɪŋ̟˥˥ kʰu˨˩˦] xīn kǔ
    山花 /ʂan˥˥ xwa˥˥/ [ʂaŋ̟˥˥ xwa˥˥] shān huā
  3. /n/ → [ɲ] / _ [t͡ɕ t͡ɕʰ ɕ] (palatalisation before pinyin j q x), but /n/ → [ɳ] / _ [ʈ͡ʂ ʈ͡ʂʰ ʂ] (retroflexisation before pinyin zh ch sh). Personally I think these are less conspicuous.

    Before After Pinyin
    班級 /pan˥˥ t͡ɕi˧˥/ [paɲ˥˥ t͡ɕi˧˥] bān jí
    感情 /kan˨˩ t͡ɕʰɪŋ˧˥/ [kaɲ˨˩ t͡ɕʰɪŋ˧˥] gǎn qíng
    看戲 /kʰan˥˩ ɕi˥˩/ [kʰaɲ˥˩ ɕi˥˩] kàn xì
    班長 /pan˥˥ ʈ͡ʂɑŋ˨˩˦/ [paɳ˥˥ ʈ͡ʂɑŋ˨˩˦] bān zhǎng
    難吃 /nan˧˥ ʈ͡ʂʰɚ˥˥/ [naɳ˧˥ ʈ͡ʂʰɚ˥˥] nán chī
    天山 /tʰjɛn˥˥ ʂan˥˥/ [tʰjɛɳ˥˥ ʂan˥˥] tiān shān

Example of progressive assimilation

  1. /∅/ → [ŋ] / [ŋ] _ (= all /∅/ after [ŋ] become [ŋ]).

    Before After Pinyin
    嫦娥 /ʈ͡ʂʰɑŋ˧˥ ɤ˧˥/ [ʈ͡ʂʰɑŋ˧˥ ŋɤ˧˥] Cháng'é

Example of bidirectional assimilation

  1. /n ∅/ → [ŋ̟ ŋ̟]. It is as if the third and fifth rules are combined.

    Before After Pinyin
    專案 /ʈ͡ʂwan˥˥ an˥˩/ [ʈ͡ʂwaŋ̟˥˥ ŋ̟an˥˩] zhuān àn
    天鵝 /tʰjɛn˥˥ ɤ˧˥/ [tʰjɛŋ̟˥˥ ŋ̟ɤ˧˥] tiān é

Reference: Zhang Bennan & Yang Ruowei (2007). [普通話連讀音變]. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.

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