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Nasal Vowels in French: Pronunciation and Spelling

french nasal vowels

Are you struggling with the pronunciation of French nasal vowels?  From the different spelling patterns to the complex sounds they produce, understanding nasal vowels can be a challenge for learners of French.

In this guide, we’ll explore everything you need to know about nasal vowels in French, including their pronunciation, spelling, and examples to help you perfect your French accent.

I. What are Nasal Vowels?

Definition of Nasal Vowels in French

Nasal vowels are pronounced by passing air through the nose and mouth, in comparison to oral vowels, for which air passes only through the mouth.

French has a unique feature that sets it apart from other languages: nasal vowels. The nasal quality is produced by allowing air to pass through your nose while pronouncing a vowel sound.

In English, nasality occurs when a vowel follows a nasal consonant. For example, some people pronounce can’t with a nasalized vowel, under the influence of the following “n” [kæ̃nt].

The Nasalization of English vowels is only possible with nasal consonants. An English vowel’s nasalization does not alter its meaning, however.

Let’s take a look at examples of nasal vowels in French, along with their corresponding IPA transcriptions:

“Dans” (in)

/dɑ̃/ (IPA: [dɑ̃])

“Mon” (my)

/mɔ̃/ (IPA: [mɔ̃])

“Un” (one)

/œ̃/ (IPA: [œ̃])

“Ton” (your)

/tɔ̃/ (IPA: [tɔ̃])

“Gant” (glove) –

/gɑ̃/ (IPA: [gɑ̃])

“Mains” (hands)

/mɛ̃/ (IPA: [mɛ̃])

Remember that these nasal vowels are pronounced by lowering the velum (the soft tissue at the back of the roof of the mouth) to allow air to pass through the nose. Proper pronunciation of these vowels is essential to be understood when speaking French.

II Pronunciation of Nasal Vowels

French Nasal Vowels

Nasal vowels are the ones that make the French language so unique and at the same time difficult. While with standard oral vowels, air flows through the mouth, nasal vowels are produced by allowing air to flow through both the mouth and nose simultaneously.

That’s how the distinct nasal resonance is created in non-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].

A good white wine.

French Nasal vowels are any vowels followed by M/N at the end of a word. If the M/N is followed by another consonant in a word, the vowel plus M/N is nasal.

The first vowel is pronounced separately rather than as a nasal vowel when it’s followed by a vowel. As you noticed, there are 4 different nasal vowels in French, and they are all pronounced differently.

Take a look at the list of French nasal vowels with examples and their corresponding IPA transcriptions:

  1. /ɛ̃/ – as in “vin” (wine)
  2. /œ̃/ – as in “un” (one)
  3. /ɔ̃/ – as in “bon” (good)
  4. /ɑ̃/ – as in “pan” (bread)

How to Pronounce French Nasal Vowel /ɛ̃/

The nasal vowel /ɛ̃/ is a nasal sound that appears in many, many French words.

To produce the sound, start by making the /ɛ/ sound with your mouth slightly open and the tongue in the middle of the mouth. Next, lower the velum to allow air to pass through the nose, producing the nasal sound.

The result should be a sound similar to the English word “in.”

Examples of words containing the nasal vowel /ɛ̃/ include

  • “vin” (wine) – /vɛ̃/ (IPA: [vɛ̃])
  • “pain” (bread) – /pɛ̃/ (IPA: [pɛ̃])
  • “bien” (well) – /bjɛ̃/ (IPA: [bjɛ̃])
  • “vient” (comes) – /vjɛ̃/ (IPA: [vjɛ̃])
  • “tient” (holds) – /tjɛ̃/ (IPA: [tjɛ̃])
  • “rejoindre” (to join) – /ʁə.ʒwɛ̃dʁ/ (IPA: [ʁə.ʒwɛ̃dʁ])
  • “teint” (color) – /tɛ̃/ (IPA: [tɛ̃])

With practice and guidance, you can master the correct pronunciation of the nasal vowel /ɛ̃/ and improve your French language skills.

How to Pronounce French Nasal Vowel /œ̃/

The French nasal vowel /œ̃/ is similar to the English “un” or “uh” sound.

To pronounce this sound, start by making the /œ/ sound with your mouth slightly open, and the tongue near the front of the mouth.

Next, lower the velum to allow air to pass through the nose, producing the nasal sound.

Examples of words containing the nasal vowel /œ̃/ include

  • “un” (one) – /œ̃/ (IPA: [œ̃])
  • “parfum” (perfume) – /paʁ.fœ̃/ (IPA: [paʁ.fœ̃])
  • “brun” (brown) – /bʁœ̃/ (IPA: [bʁœ̃])
  • “lundi” (Monday) – /lœ̃.di/ (IPA: [lœ̃.di])
  • “mignon” (cute) – /mi.ɲœ̃/ (IPA: [mi.ɲœ̃])
  • “champignon” (mushroom) – /ʃɑ̃.pi.ɲœ̃/ (IPA: [ʃɑ̃.pi.ɲœ̃])

With practice and guidance, anyone can master the correct pronunciation of the nasal vowel /œ̃/ and improve their French language skills.

How to Pronounce French Nasal Vowel /ɔ̃/

The nasal vowel /ɔ̃/ is similar to the English “on” or “awn.”

To produce the sound, start by making the /ɔ/ sound with your mouth slightly open and the tongue at the back of the mouth. Next, lower the velum to allow air to pass through the nose, producing the nasal sound.

Examples of words containing the nasal vowel /ɔ̃/ include:

  • “bon” (good) – /bɔ̃/ (IPA: [bɔ̃])
  • “montagne” (mountain) – /mɔ̃.taɲ/ (IPA: [mɔ̃.taɲ])
  • “blond” (blond) – /blɔ̃/ (IPA: [blɔ̃])
  • “homme” (man) – /ɔm/ (IPA: [ɔm])
  • “orange” (orange) – /ɔ.ʁɑ̃ʒ/ (IPA: [ɔ.ʁɑ̃ʒ])
  • “longtemps” (long time) – /lɔ̃.tɑ̃/ (IPA: [lɔ̃.tɑ̃])
  • “raison” (reason) – /ʁɛ.zɔ̃/ (IPA: [ʁɛ.zɔ̃])

How to Pronounce French Nasal Vowel /ɑ̃/

The French nasal vowel /ɑ̃/ is a nasal sound that does not exist in English, but is similar to the English “awn” or “on.”

To produce the sound, start by making the open vowel /a/ sound with your mouth wide open and the tongue touching the lower teeth. Then, lower the velum to allow air to pass through the nose, creating the nasal sound.

Examples of words containing the nasal vowel /ɑ̃/ include:

  • “blanc” (white) – /blɑ̃/ (IPA: [blɑ̃])
  • “enfant” (child) – /ɑ̃.fɑ̃/ (IPA: [ɑ̃.fɑ̃])
  • “chant” (song) – /ʃɑ̃/ (IPA: [ʃɑ̃])
  • “grand” (big) – /ɡʁɑ̃/ (IPA: [ɡʁɑ̃])
  • “pansement” (bandage) – /pɑ̃s.mɑ̃/ (IPA: [pɑ̃s.mɑ̃])
  • “printemps” (spring) – /pʁɛ̃.tɑ̃/ (IPA: [pʁɛ̃.tɑ̃])

Practice French Nasal Vowels 

III Spelling of French Nasal Vowels

The question now is how should I know when to use nasal vowels in a word?

Well, in written French, there are spelling rules that you could easily follow to comprehend which vowel is nasal and which isn’t. Each nasal vowel in French has a list of spellings that correspond to this nasal sound.

Let’s now see how nasal vowels are spelled in written French.

/ɛ̃/ – spelled with the letters “in”, “ain”, “ein”, “im”,”aim”.

  • vin /vɛ̃/ – wine
  • main /mɛ̃/ – hand
  • peint /pɛ̃/ – painted
  • timbre /tɛ̃bʁ/ – stamp
  • synthèse /sɛ̃tɛz/ – synthesis
  • faim /fɛ̃/ – hunger

/œ̃/ – spelled with the letters “un” and “um”.

  • brun /bʁœ̃/ – brown
  • lundi /lœ̃di/ – Monday
  • parfum /paʁfœ̃/ – perfume
  • humble /œ̃bl/ – humble

/ɔ̃/ – spelled with the letters “on” and “om”.

  • bon /bɔ̃/ – good
  • montagne /mɔ̃taɲ/ – mountain
  • longtemps /lɔ̃tɑ̃/ – long time
  • compte/kɔ̃t/ – account
  • bombardement /bɔ̃baʁdmɑ̃/ – bombardment
  • promenade /pʁɔmənad/ – walk, stroll.

/ɑ̃/ – spelled with the letters “an”, “en”, “am”, and “em”.

  • grand /ɡʁɑ̃/ – big
  • chant /ʃɑ̃/ – song
  • plan /plɑ̃/ – plan
  • dent /dɑ̃/ – tooth
  • vent /vɑ̃/ – wind
  • enfant/ɑ̃fɑ̃/ – child
  • jambe /ʒɑ̃b/ – leg
  • champagne/ʃɑ̃paɲ/ – champagne
  • temps /tɑ̃/ – time

It’s important to note that the use of nasal vowels in French is not always predictable based on spelling alone.

Tips for Improving Pronunciation of Nasal Vowels

Certainly! Here are some tips for improving your pronunciation of nasal vowels in French:

  1. Practice listening: Start by training your ear to recognize the different nasal vowel sounds in French. Listen to native French speakers, watch French films, and try to identify the nasal vowels in different words.
  2. Learn the IPA system: IPA is a standardized system for pronouncing different sounds of any language, including French. By learning the IPA symbols for nasal vowels in French, you’ll easily find the right pronunciation for each word in French.
  3. Focus on mouth position: The position of your mouth and tongue is critical for producing the correct nasal vowel sound. Pay attention to two things: the position of your tongue and the shape of your lips when pronouncing nasal vowels.
  4. Practice with minimal pairs: A minimal pair is a pair of words that differ by only one sound. For example, “bon” and “bond” are a minimal pair because they differ only in the nasal vowel sound. Practice saying minimal pairs to help you distinguish between different nasal vowel sounds.

Pronouncing French Vowels is an Art

Be patient: Pronouncing nasal vowels correctly in French can be over the top for a beginner learner, so be patient with yourself and keep practicing.

With time and a multitude of French audio lessons or videos, you can improve your French pronunciation skills and master the nuances of nasal vowels.

Learn more about French Pronunciation.

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