posted by Simon Kemp
The most distinctive thing about the sound of spoken French is its use of so-called nasal vowels. These are quite literally vowel sounds that come out of your nose: part of the air you’re breathing out as you speak has to go through your nostrils, rather than all through your mouth, as with the more common oral vowels. French is unusual in being so keen on them. English doesn’t have any, and nor do German or Spanish.
In fact, there are only three European languages — French, Portuguese and Polish — that actually make them part of the language to the extent that they have oral and nasal versions of the same vowel, and speakers and listeners distinguish between them.
So, in French, the words
use the oral and nasal versions of the same vowel.
There are four nasal vowels in standard French. The four vowels of the phrase in the title, in fact:
un (also in brun, humble and parfum)
grand (also in ampoule, encre and empêcher)
pain (also in vin and impossible)
rond (also in on, ombre and maison)
Here you can hear them pronounced and see the phonetic symbol for each of the four sounds:
And here are three interesting little facts about French nasal vowels:
- You can often spot people from the south of France by the way they say their nasal vowels. In Provence and the Midi, they often sound as if they have an English -ng at the end of it, so il vient sounds a bit like il vieng, le lapin like le lapeng. There are some lovely accents méridionaux in this trailer for the Provence-set film, Manon des sources. Listen, just before the one-minute mark, how the nasal vowels of destin (destiny) and bons à rien (good-for-nothings) come out in a strong southern accent, when the villain of the piece says: ‘Ce sont ceux qui sont bons à rien qui parlent d’un destin,’ (‘Only good-for-nothings talk about destiny’).
- While standard French has four nasal vowels, some French dialects distinguish five or even six different ones. In the Champagne region, for instance, some speakers pronounce pain and pin differently, even though the dictionary says they should sound the same.
- A more widespread and growing tendency, though, is to actually ditch one of the four nasal vowels, and make do with just three. Surprisingly, it’s the sound in un, which in the Paris region and increasingly across northern France is disappearing, replaced by the sound from pain. (Given that pronouncing the word un was probably one of the first things you had to learn when you began studying French, you’re within your rights to feel a little aggrieved at this.) At some point in the not-too-distant future, the two sounds are likely to be indistinguishable in standard French, making words like brin (a twig) and brun (brown) into homophones.
You can find out more about these and many other quirks of the French language in Henriette Walter’s wonderful book, Le Français dans tous les sens, also available in English as French Inside Out.
Plus, if you’re interested in how language works, how it develops, and how diverse it is across the communities which speak it, then you can explore some linguistics in a modern languages degree. At Oxford, linguistics courses are available as options within any modern languages course, or as half of a degree in modern languages and linguistics, which you can learn about here.