Nasal Vowels

French and English both have nasal vowels.  These vowels are produced when you lower your velum (the soft palate) and allow air to resonate in the nasal cavity.  Put your finger lightly along the side of your nose and say: "mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm."  You should feel vibrations.  Now say: "ssssssssssssssssssssss."  There shouldn't be any vibrations.  Keeping your finger along your nose, say: "it", but really holding on the to vowel.  Again, there shouldn't be any vibrations.  Now, say: "in".  Notice the difference.

French and English nasal vowels differ in their distribution.  That is, they're found in different places.  In English, any vowel can be nasal and they appear ONLY before nasal consonants (m, n, ng).  In French, there are only three nasal vowels and they may NOT appear before nasal consonants.  The three vowels are:

  • <a href="../audio/misc/e-end.mp3">play</a> ẽ end
  • <a href="../audio/misc/e-NasalO.mp3">play</a>
  • <a href="../audio/misc/e-on.mp3">play</a> ã on

(The middle vowel is a mid-high, rounded, back nasal vowel.  Pretend you're saying the word "long" but with a New York accent.  Make sure your lips are very rounded.)

Vowels that appear before a nasal consonant in French are NOT nasalized, and that's exactly where we find nasal vowels in English.

The trick in pronouncing French nasal vowels, then, is to do the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you do in English.  When you pronounce a nasal vowel, make sure that you don't finish it with an [m] or [n] sound.  And when pronouncing a vowel before a nasal consonant, put your finger lightly along the side of your nose and make sure there are no vibrations.

Now, how do you know whether a vowel is nasal or not?  Look at the spelling. If the word is spelled with a vowel followed by a nasal consonant (the letters n, m, or gn) and then another non-nasal consonant or the end of the word, you've got a nasal vowel.  If the word is spelled with a vowel, one or two nasal consonants, and then another vowel, you've got a non-nasal vowel and a nasal consonant.  Compare the vowels of the following words:

<a href="../audio/m_fre/addition.mp3">play</a> addition <a href="../audio/m_eng/additionnel.mp3">play</a> additionnel

Notice that they have the same root.  However, in the first word, the bolded letters tell us that the pronunciation is that of a nasal vowel with no following nasal consonant.  In the second word, the bolded letters tell us that the pronunciation is that of an oral vowel followed by a nasal consonant.

In the following sections, try to pronounce the nasal vowels without producing a nasal consonant or try to produce an oral vowel + nasal consonant combination without nasalizing the vowel.  Remember, a good check of nasality is keeping your finger lightly against the side of your nose.  If anyone asks, you're thinking deep thoughts.

Introduction | Syllable Length | C'est passionnant! | Huffing & Puffing |
How Many Syllables? | Dipthongs | Say aaaaaah! | Know How to Whistle? | Grrrrrrr! |
Front Rounded Vowels | e-caduc | Nasal Vowels
Arizona State University Dept. of Languages and Literatures