28 January 2011

English vs. French nasal vowels

So you know how many nasal vowels there are in French?

But first, do you understand what a nasal vowel is? The American Heritage Dictionary defines the linguistic term “nasal” as meaning:
“Articulated by lowering the soft palate so that air resonates in the nasal cavities and passes out the nose, as in the pronunciation of the nasal consonants [m], [n], and [ng] or the nasalized vowel of French bon.”
English is full of nasal vowels. Every vowel that occurs in the same syllable with a nasal consonant — [m], [n], and [ng], as the AHD says — ends up being nasalized. It's the nature of English phonetics. The nasalization of the vowel is “conditioned” by its phonetic position — in other words, it's automatic.

In English, nasalization is not meaningul, because you have no option. You can't say “ran” without using a nasal A vowel. How do I know that? Well, hold your nose — pinch your nostrils together — and pronounce the word “rat”. No problem, right. Sounds fine. Now pinch your nostrils together and try to pronounce “ran”. It's not the same, is it?

No other word in English is pronounced exactly the same as “ran” except for the nasal vowel. In other words, there is no word like “ran” where the A is not nasalized. The nasalized A is real and required, but it's not linguistically meaningful.

Many other words, however, are pronounced exactly like “ran” except for the first consonant — the words “ran”, “pan”, “fan”, and “tan”, for example. In linguistics, that proves that the R, P, F, and T sounds are meaningful. The meaning of a word ending in “-an” changes when you change the initial consonant.

The final N is also significant, because if you replace it with a T, an M, a P, or a Z, you get a different set of words, with different meanings. Words like “ran” and “rat” are called “minimal pairs” because a single sound, be it a vowel or a consonant, differentiates them and gives each word its particular meaning.

Will you be surprised when I tell you that French is just the opposite of English when it comes to nasal vowels? In French, nasalization is significant and meaningful. You probably know that intuitively, if you have learned some French. There are pairs (of words) that are distinguished solely by the presence or absence of a nasal vowel. I'm talking about pronunciation, not spelling.

Here's a minimal pair in French: beau and bon. If you say [bo] without nasalizing the vowel, it's beau (beautiful). If you say [bö], using a nasal vowel, it's bon (good). Notice that the N of bon is not pronounced at all. I'm using [ö] to represent the nasalized O.

In southern France, sometimes it sounds as if there is a hard G sound, pronounced very slightly, at the end of a word like bon. It's almost “bong”. But that G is not a meaningful sound. It's automatic. There is no minimal pair where the word pronounced without that hard G would be a different word from one pronounced with the G.

That's easy, right? Here's the kicker. In French, the vowel immediately preceding a nasal consonant — [n] or [m] — is never nasalized. So the pronunciation of the feminine form of bon is bonne, and it does not included a nasalized O. It sounds almost like “bun” in English, but the vowel is not nasal. All the nasalization is in the N, and the O is not “contaminated.”

I know, that's getting a little abstract. It takes some practice if English is your native language. And gives you an accent if you pronounce it wrong. Maybe it's impossible for a native speaker of English to pronounce it perfectly.

So how many nasal vowels are there in French? Some might say there are four, but really, there are just three that are meaningful in contemporary French (as spoken in France). One, the nasalized U of un has merged with another, the nasalized vowel of, for example, the prefix in-. Un père (a father) and impair (meaning odd, not even) are pronounced pretty much the same — [ëper]. There is no nasalized I vowel in the French spoken in France.

The meaningful nasal vowels in French French are [ë] as in bain (bath), [ä] as in banc (bench), and [ö] as in bon (good). You have to be able to distinguish those three sounds from each other when you listen to or speak French. Bon and banc are a minimal pair. So are bain and banc, and bon and bain.

Here are some other sets of words that can make minimal pairs:
  • thym [të] — temps [tä] — ton [tö]
  • pain [pë] — paon [pä] — pont [pö]
  • lin [lë] — lent [lä] — long [lö]
  • saint [së] — sans [sä] — sont [sö]
  • vin [vë] — vent [vä] —vont [vö]
A good expression for practicing the pronunciation of the three different nasal vowels is « un bon vin blanc ». That would be pronounced [ë-bö-vë-blä]. Over my shoulder, I just heard a woman say « un bon vin » on TV (the French cooking channel is on), and she definitely said un with the same nasal vowel, [ë], that you hear in pain, vin, and thym.

A lot of the time, context will make the difference in meaning between two different words clear, even if the vowels are not differentiated distinctly. You probably wouldn't mix up pain (bread), paon (peacock), and pont (bridge) in a given context. Or mix up anybody listening to you if you pronounced one of them wrong.

But you might have trouble with lent (slow) and long (long) if you weren't careful. Is the train [lä] or [lö]? Are you talking about [të], [tä], or [tö] — thyme, time, or color? You wouldn't want to confuse wine [vë] with wind [vä], would you?


  1. Love this one! Since French has more nasal sounds, does this explain why French nasalate (not a real word;) when they speak English? I think they put their nasal sound into our words that don't have a nasal sound? I can't think of an example right now, but when I'm around French native speakers I have heard these nasal sounds and wondered why it happens.

  2. Wow, wow and wow!! Amazingly interesting. Thank you, and I mean it.

  3. Great French lesson...thanks!

  4. This entry brought back memories of my days in the language lab when I was at college studying French (my college major). Thank you so much for the memory. I found your blog looking for a recipe for rillons and your page popped up! Thank you..I look forward to reading it every day.

  5. Hi Evelyn, I don't think French has more nasal vowels than English. Everytime you have vowel + n, m, or ng, for example, you have a nasal vowel. Maybe the French people you hear are overcompensating — trying to sound as nasal as they think Americans sound!

    CHM and Bill, :^).

    Ademarco, welcome. Thanks for the comment, and enjoy the rillons.

  6. I was taught there was a slight difference between "un" and "in" - the former being a bit more open, with the jaw dropped a bit, and the latter with the jaw up and the lips broadened out - so "Melun" and "Melin" would sound a little bit different. Or would there be a regional difference?

  7. I don't think it's especially regional, and I don't think the un/in distinction has been lost completely. But I do think there is an ongoing for the two sounds to merge. Autun vs. hautain is another example, or défunt vs. des fins. There are so few places where the distinction would make a difference in meaning that it is being lost.

  8. If you think it's difficult for us, imagine the poor Canadians. I worked with a Canadian guy when I first started visiting France. It encouraged he and his wife to travel there, but he was afraid the French were going to ridicule them because of their pronunciation. I did read a Frenchman's take on the Canadian French. He called it "the real French", the way it used to be spoken.

  9. These posts on French language and pronunciation are so very useful. Thanks much. Am thinking of printing them out and carrying around with me.

  10. chm beat me to it, Wow! You are an excellent teacher, thank you.


  11. Thanks so much for this information. My son came into my office to ask who I was speaking to. It was me sounding out your nasal vowels!

  12. This is really, and I mean REALLY helpful. Every basic French language book should have these necessary facts. Instead of just saying "well, you simply have to hear it to learn."


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