French Corrective Phonetics Guide

Nasal Consonants

Nasal Consonants

French has three nasal consonants: /n/ , /m/ and /ɲ/ . In this section, we discuss their articulation and the spelling conventions used to represent them in spoken French.

Articulation

The articulation of /n/ and /m/ in French is similar to what is found in English. The primary difference is that /n/ is dental in French and while it is alveolar in English, i.e.: the point of contact for the tongue tip is further back in English (we describe the articulation of /ɲ/ below).

When do I pronounce /n/ and /m/?

At the very beginning of a word, these consonants are always pronounced. The challenge is when they follow a vowel. In many cases, the nasal consonant is not pronounced. Its sole purpose is to indicate that the preceding vowel is nasal, e.g.: the "m" and the "n" of the word important [ɛ̃pɔʁtã] are not actually pronounced.

There is an easy was to know if the nasal consonant is pronounced:  if "N" or "M" (or "NN", "MM") is followed by a vowel letter within a word, then it is pronounced. If not, it is silent and the preceding vowel is nasal, e.g.:

fin [fɛ̃]

fine [fin]

intérêt [ɛ̃teʁɛ]

initial [inisjal]

tomber [tõbe]

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.: impossible [ɛ̃pɔsibl] where like /m/, /p/ is bilabial. However, as the transcription indicates, there is no /m/ actually pronounced in the word impossible. The letter is simply indicating that the vowel is nasal.

Mistakes to Avoid

The two main areas of difficulty that speakers of English face with French 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 pronunciation 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] (from assimilation by the /n/).

In order to ensure correct pronunciation, we suggest you pronounce words slowly, one syllable at time, then gradually speed up. Take, 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.

The consonant /ɲ/

The consonant /ɲ/ is a voiced palatal nasal. It is pronounced like the middle consonant of the English word canyon (and like Spanish words written with "ñ"). Note that it is different from the sound of English words written with -ing (in English, it is a velar nasal, not a palatal one). The symbol for the velar English nasal (/ŋ/) is similar to the French palatal (/ɲ/), so do not confuse the two.

The Spelling of /ɲ/

The basic spelling representation of the consonant /ɲ/ is "GN", e.g.: montagne [mõtaɲ] , enseigne [ãsɛɲ] , beigne [bɛɲ] , etc.

 
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