French Corrective Phonetics Guide

Nasal Vowels (e.g.: /ã/, /õ/, etc.)

Overview of French Nasal Vowels

French has four nasal vowels: /ã/, /õ/, /ɛ/̃ and /œ̃/, all of which can be remembered with the phrase: Un bon vin blanc [œ̃bõvɛ̃blã] .

Image result for vin blanc

A nasal vowel is articulated with the velum lowered so that air passes through both the nasal AND the oral cavity. It's extraordinary when you think of it. Simply allowing air to pass through the nasal passage or not allows us to create different words, e.g.: bas/banc ([ba], [bã]), peau/pont ([po], [põ])!

Nasality in French and English

English vowels can be pronounced with air passing through the nasal cavity, but there's an important difference between nasal vowels in English and French. In English, nasality is something that happens to a vowel when a nasal consonant follows it. For example, some people will pronounce the word can't with a nasalized vowel, under the influence of the following "n" [kæ̃nt] . The only way English vowels become nasalized is in the presence of a nasal consonant. Furthermore, whether or not an English vowel is nasalized doesn't change the meaning of a word.

In French, however, nasal vowels are core phonemes. In other words, nasality is an inherent characteristic of the four French nasal vowels. It doesn't come from an adjacent sound (i.e.: assimilation). Contrary to English, French nasal vowels (almost) never appear before a nasal consonant within a word.

Spelling Cues for Nasal Vowels

It is relatively easy to know which words have nasal vowels in French. Here are the two main contexts:

a) a vowel letter + "n" at the very end of a word, e.g.: bon [bõ], fin [fɛ̃], un [œ̃].

b) a vowel letter + "n" or "m" followed by a consonant letter, e.g.: intérêt [ɛ̃teʁɛ], ombre [õbʁ].

It is important to note that when the vowel is nasal, there is no nasal consonant pronounced. Its only role is to indicate that one must use a nasal vowel. In other words, the combination "nasal vowel + nasal consonant" almost never occurs within a word in French. The word ennui is a rare exception in this regard since it is in fact pronounced [ãnɥi].

Keep in mind that if the "n" or "m" is followed by a vowel letter, the vowel is oral and the nasal consonant is pronounced, e.g.: fine [fin], initial [inisjal], imitable [imitabl], comme [kɔm].

Once you know there is a nasal vowel, be sure not to insert a nasal consonant. This is a bit more of a challenge when the next consonant is similar to a nasal one, e.g.: important [ɛ̃pɔsibl] where like /m/, /p/ is bilabial. However, as the transcription indicates, there is no /m/ actually pronounced in the word important. The letter is simply indicating that the vowel is nasal.

Correct Articulation of Nasals

The two main areas of difficulty that speakers of English face with nasals are:

a) wrongly inserting a nasal consonant after a nasal vowel.

b) wrongly nasalizing an oral vowel that precedes an actual nasal consonant.

Consider for example the following names Jean and Jeanne. What is the wrong pronuncation that should be avoided? In both cases, it is [ʒãn] . Make sure that for Jean, you do not insert a nasal consonant after the vowel: [ʒã] and that for Jeanne, you do not wrongly nasalize the oral vowel: [ʒan] (under assimilation by the /n/).

In order to ensure a correct pronunciation, we suggest you pronounce words slowly, one syllable at at time, then gradually speed up. Consider, for example, the following words: intéresse, important, maman, centaine, anana. First pronounce these as follows, to make sure the vowels are correct:


[ɛ̃-te-ʁɛs]

[ɛ̃-pɔʁ-tã]

[ma-mã]

[sã-tɛn]

[a-na-na]

 

Once you have familiarized yourself with the correct pronunciation, articulate these at a more natural speed.

 

 
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