True dental consonants are relatively uncommon. In the Romance, Dravidian, and Australian languages, n is often called "dental" in the literature. However, the rearmost contact (which is what gives a consonant its distinctive sound) is actually alveolar or denti-alveolar. The difference between the Romance languages and English is not so much where the tongue contacts the roof of the mouth, as which part of the tongue makes the contact. In English it is the tip of the tongue (such sounds are termed apical), whereas in the Romance languages it is the flat of the tongue just above the tip (such sounds are called laminal).
However, there are languages with true apical (or less commonly laminal) dental n. It is found in the South American language Mapudungun, where it is actually interdental. A true dental generally occurs allophonically before /θ/ in languages which have it, as in English tenth. Similarly, a denti-alveolar allophone will occur in languages which have denti-alveolar stops, as in Spanish cinta.
Some languages contrast laminal denti-alveolar and apical alveolar nasals. For example, in the Malayalam pronunciation of "Nārāyanan", the first "n" is dental, the second is retroflex, and the third alveolar.
Its phonation is voiceless, which means it is produced without vibrations of the vocal cords. In some languages the vocal cords are actively separated, so it is always voiceless; in others the cords are lax, so that it may take on the voicing of adjacent sounds.
It is a nasal consonant, which means air is allowed to escape through the nose, either exclusively (nasal stops) or in addition to through the mouth.
Because the sound is not produced with airflow over the tongue, the central–lateral dichotomy does not apply.
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