Thursday, 15 July 2010

French nasalized vowels

My formal learning of French ended at O Level (= today’s GCSE), though I later did a course in French phonetics as a postgraduate at UCL. So I can sort of get by in the language, but am far from being an expert on it. Nevertheless, I try to be helpful when people ask questions about it.

Rohan Dharwadkar writes
When I began learning French, I was initially mystified as to why a word like bon was transcribed as /bɔ̃/, and 'bien' was rendered /bjɛ̃/, since I heard words containing these nasal vowels being pronounced noticeably differently. Quite quickly, however, I realised that the postulation of these underlying representations facilitated the explication of alternations like bon/bonne or méxicain/méxicaine, by means of a denasalisation rule. ...
I think I must interrupt at that point. Rohan doesn’t expand on his claim that he “heard words containing these nasal vowels being pronounced noticeably differently”. The words are transcribed that way because they are pronounced that way, give or take. Admittedly, the vowel of bon is typically rather closer than cardinal 6 ɔ, and one could certainly justify the choice of an alternative symbol õ. The final vowel of mexicain, on the other hand, is typically slightly opener than cardinal 3 ɛ, and one could justify the choice of an alternative symbol æ̃ (which is what I write in LPD in such words). I’m referring here to the standard French of France — in Canadian French things are rather different.

And whatever the rule is that governs the alternations mentioned, it is surely not one of “denasalisation”. Back in the days of generative phonology, people analysed bon bɔ̃ as underlyingly #bɔn# and bonne bɔn as underlyingly #bɔn+ə#. The masculine form then underwent a rule changing Vn into a nasalized vowel: Vn → Ṽ / _{#,C}. How this is handled in these days of Optimality Theory someone else will have to tell us.

Rohan continues
However, this symmetry is broken when it comes to pairs like 'un/une' (œ̃/yn), 'commun/commune', etc.. Whence my first question — why is it that 'un', for example, is not analysed as being, phonemically, /ỹ/? Apart from possible historical reasons, what considerations have led to the retention of the /œ̃/ phoneme in French?

I am sure that some phonologists at least would argue exactly for /ỹ/. Likewise, they would posit /ĩ/ in a word such as fin (cf. finir). These [+hi +nas] vowels do not surface as such, because a late context-free lowering rule converts all high nasalized vowels to mid: [V +nas] → [-hi].

There are no reasons other than “possible historical” ones for the retention of the /œ̃/ phoneme (insofar as it has been retained — see next question). Everything in pronunciation that is, is so because of historical reasons.

Rohan’s not finished yet.
Another question is: I've read that many French speakers today pronounce the un of words ending in -un (commun, importun, etc.) as though the underlying phoneme were /ɛ̃/ instead of /œ̃/ . For those who retain /œ̃/, how is the vowel of the final syllable in such words phonetically realised?

I’m not sure what he means by this question. I would say that those who retain /œ̃/ pronounce œ̃, while those who use the now more general /ɛ̃/ in its place pronounce ɛ̃ (not just finally, but in all positions: lundi lɛ̃di). Am I missing something?


  1. The Wikipedia article on the history of French has a subsection on nasalization worth taking a look at. It says changes such as /ỹ/ > /œ̃/ and /ĩ/ > /ẽ/ > /ɛ̃/ > [æ̃] took place only in the Modern French period (18th C. onwards). These are recent developments, and things continue to change. I'm sure when /ɛ̃/, /ɑ̃/, /ɔ̃/, and /œ̃/ were first chosen, the intention was to represent the prevailing pronunciation of the day, not to artificially match the symbols for the corresponding oral vowels. The qualities of those vowels changed since then in various dialects, notably Parisian French, but the traditional symbols continue to be used, confusing learners like Rohan.

  2. I've read that Parisian French is among the varieties that merge /œ̃/ and /ɛ̃/, but as a non-native speaker living in Paris I'm not competent enough to tell if this is the case. I can tell you that /ɛ̃/ is indeed quite open, somewhat centralized and more like [æ̃], and /œ̃/ being also centralized and less rounded makes these two phonemes very similar in pronunciation. I just can't tell for sure if they are completely merged. Having learnt French as a foreign language, I myself make a distinction between these two phonemes. And /œ̃/, the way I was taught, is quite close to cardinal [œ̃], to answer Rohan's question.

    The symbols /ɛ̃/, /ɑ̃/, /ɔ̃/, and /œ̃/ were probably chosen around when the International Phonetic Association was founded more than a century ago. Today, perhaps /æ̃/, /ɒ̃/, /õ/, and /œ̃/ would be more appropriate for Standard French spoken in France.

  3. A point of order: ɔ̃, ɛ̃ and œ̃ have their tildes displaced to the right in the post, but the other nasals look alright.

    When I first tried (and failed) to learn French in the early nineties our books were old enough that they retained the ɛ̃/œ̃ distinction, but when I last tried (and failed) during a stay in England, our books and native French teacher didn't.

  4. Being a French native speaker, and living in France, it seems that now most people, especially journalists, do not distiguish these two sounds, and produce the unrounded one, in all positions.
    I do not distnguish brin and brun, but I know some persons who do. Yet I am not certain it is only a matter of the age of the speaker. Some young speaker maintain the difference

  5. Sili

    How well combining diacritics fit for any reader on this blog is determined by a number of factors — most of them in that reader's own computer.

    In this particular case, I happen to have a suitable font in my system and no perverse behaviour in my browser. So the tildes are in their proper place for me.

    This suggests John's opening post and Jongseong's reply were fine at the point of writing.

  6. Now I am trying to hear whether my French co-workers (in their 20s and 30s) distinguish the BRUN and BRIN vowels (/œ̃/ and /ɛ̃/). I just heard one co-worker saying "demain" (/ɛ̃/) and "lundi" (/œ̃/) with what sounded like different vowels (the latter slightly rounded), although that might just be me hearing what I expected to hear. With another co-worker however, I don't hear the difference. At some point I'll have to ask them directly whether they pronounce those vowels differently...

    (Though I think that transcription system of his, described here, is overly precise, as the range of possible pronunciations for the same segment in the same utterance by the same speaker is quite larger than it suggests.)

  8. army1987: Canepari's treatment seems quite unconventional, shall we say (it looks impressive, but I can't judge its merits). At least someone must have had fun coming up with all the different symbols!

    I found a detailed and highly interesting description of the ongoing BRIN-BRUN merger in the book Nasal vowel evolution in Romance by Rodney Sampson.

  9. As a regular listener to French radio, I have noticed that some speakers use a vowel "somewhat centralized and more like [æ̃]" for /ɛ̃/ and am pleased to have it confirmed by 'Jongseong' as a Parisian feature. I actually find if rather irritating, but then I'm old-fashioned!

  10. Interesting points about the evolution of nasalised vowels which I did not know.

    I have always found nasalised vowels immensely more difficult to learn than front rounded vowels - which is ironic given that front rounded vowels are among the most marked sound known in human language.

  11. @jpbenney,

    I do not find it ironic, actually. Most Englishes have nasal vowels, they just don't contrast them with oral vowels, rather, the degree to which a vowel is nasalized depends on its environment. That makes it hard for English native speakers to consciously deploy fully oral/nasal vowels and contrast them in identical environments (e.g. French "bon" vs. "beau").

    Front rounded vowels, on the other hand, are absent from most Englishes, so there can be no such confusion.

  12. As I said I might do in an earlier comment, I brought up this subject while having lunch with five of my co-workers, four of them French and all of them in their 20s. They seemed to agree that the vowels /œ̃/ and /ɛ̃/ are pronounced the same (pareil); when I said I heard some people pronouncing them differently, they said maybe these people were from the North or the South.

    The co-worker I heard yesterday distinguishing these two vowels was not part of this group, however.

  13. Yes, I was quite off the mark with the 'denasalisation' thing. I misremembered the rule in question.

    As far as the last question goes, what I meant was this: just as /ɛ̃/ is realised as [æ̃] and not [ɛ̃], I guessed that perhaps /œ̃/ isn't quite realised as [œ̃], but as something else. It's this something else that I was asking about.

    The Wikipedia article that Jongseong pointed to indicates that /ɛ̃/ is realised as [æ̃], but doesn't tackle the realisation of /œ̃/.

  14. "How this is handled in these days of Optimality Theory someone else will have to tell us."

    I'll take a quick stab at it:

    French has high ranked *Coda, which is the impetus for dropping so many ends of words and syllables. (*Coda doesn't apply in the case of liaison or feminine nouns/adjectives due to resyllabification.) The reason for the remaining nasal even though the <n> or <m> is deleted must be described autosegmentally: French also has high-ranked Max-[+nas] which prohibits deletion of a nasal autosegment even though its supporting segment is no longer in the output. Both of these constraints outrank Max-C.

    OT tableaux won't work here, since tables can't be posted in comments, but the final ranking is:

    *Coda, Max-[+nas] >> Max-C

    Thus, underlying /bɔn/ eliminates output [bɔn] by *Coda and [bɔ] by Max-[+nas]. The correct output [bɔ̃] violates Max-C, but only after other candidates have been eliminated. These constraints have no effect on the feminine form, since *Coda can be satisfied by a simple resyllabification: /bɔn+ə/ > [bɔ.nə].

  15. Rohan, those who merge /œ̃/ and /ɛ̃/ use [æ̃] for both sounds, and those who don't pronounce /œ̃/ as [œ̃].

    At least around Paris (among the non-mergers), the distinction between [æ̃] and [œ̃] is not clear-cut, with the rounding in the latter not very pronounced. Since the rounding is basically the only distinction between the sounds and this easily gets muddled, you can easily see why the merger is happening.

  16. "I am sure that some phonologists at least would argue exactly for /ỹ/. Likewise, they would posit /ĩ/ in a word such as fin (cf. finir)."

    ??? I admit I'm a French-speaking Canadian anglophone in the end, but I'm pretty sure that fin is only ever pronounced /fæ̃/ (as I do) or /fɛ̃/, never ever */fĩ/ with a high vowel. But perhaps you mean in a hyper-analytical, abstract sense far removed from actual pronunciation perhaps? "Finir" is however pronounced with /fin-/ as the high vowel isn't nasalized in that particular word.

    And I've honestly never ever heard the nasal vowel /ỹ/ in spoken Modern French on this planet. <;o) Of course it's not surprising for a language to have a reduced set of nasal vowels while the oral vowels are more nuanced, thus /y/ but no /ỹ/.

    As for whether to pronounce "un" as rounded /œ̃/ or unrounded /æ̃/~/ɛ̃/, I know that many Quebecois pronounce the latter while I enjoy being conservative. I wasn't aware that European francophones pronounce anything other than the former, yet the distinction is a subtle one and apt for merger over time. I'll have to keep my ears open.

  17. Glen G: no, no one has phonetic [ĩ] or [ỹ]. We're talking only about possible abstract, "underlying" representations /ĩ, ỹ/. We're talking phonology, not phonetics. After all, I did say: These [+hi +nas] vowels do not surface as such....

  18. I think Glen is right to think that [ĩ] sounds exactly like [i] nasalised (as in Portuguese) and therefore does not coincide at all with the pronunciation of fin.

    As for the disappearing [œ̃] sound, Jongseong, am I right in thinking (from listening to French speech) that this disappearance/merger into another sound has caused the indefinite article un to be pronounced almost de-nasalised even when not followed by vowel? I tend to hear it like a the very short a in English a lot. Am I mishearing?

  19. Gadi, I've never noticed a complete de-nasalization, but at least in Parisian speech the nasalized vowels are not nasalized very strongly in the first place.

  20. Gadi, I'm French, from Paris, and indeed I think that when I speak fast, I slightly tend to prononouce "un" as english "a" in "a lot".

  21. Gadi: "I tend to hear it like a the very short a in English a lot. Am I mishearing?"

    I think this may indeed be the case in some examples like un autre 'another' where nasalization is overruled by the eliding of the article's /-n/ to the next vowel-initial word. I'm sure I often hear /ɛnot/ in Quebec French despite the standardized spelling.

  22. I agree about the denasalization of un. And there's no reason why prevocalically it should be any more surprising than bon homme being as denasalized as bonhomme, both of which have been standard for as long as I have been around, and I would expect someone to confirm that they have been around a lot longer than that.

    But preconsonantally I would suggest the denasalized form is more allegro.

  23. I don't mean to suggest that the non-nasal bon is confined to certain locutions, like divin [divin] enfant, but it is lexically determined allomorphy: mon, ton etc are supposed to retain their nasalization in mon enfant etc., but they may be going the same way as un in un enfant.

  24. So even may "commun appel" etc.

  25. Jongseong, bli, thanks for the replies from location.

    Glen, mallamb: I wasn't referring to prevocalic loss of nasal sound but rather specifically the pronunciation of the article un as like the schwa sound of a in English about even before a word beginning with a consonant. I agree that it's used more often in rapid speech - but then, when is French not rapid? ;) - and would liken it to [ə̆] as the sound is thought of in English, without the French lip rounding one hears in, say, le.

    If, for example, a Parisien were to use every learner's favourite mnemonic device, un bon vin blanc, in a normal speaking environment he would probably pronounce it [ə̆ bɔ̃ vɛ̃ blã] and even if careful would probably not pronounce un with an [ɛ̃] but rather as something in the the spectrum between [ɛ̃] and [œ̃].

  26. Somehow a denasalized schwa sounds funny in, for example, "un cahier" where I'm very sure that no matter how fast I speak, I pronounce the article strictly with nasality. This is why I mentioned prevocalic examples like "un autre". Again, being anglophone, my opinion is lesser than that of a native speaker, but (*)/ə kaje/ even sounds funny to me in comparison to my actual pronunciation /ə̃ kaje/.

  27. I just had a quick thought. Assuming that this sort of denasalization doesn't really happen in proper French, is it possible that the mere presence of nasality (whether nasalization or consonantal /n/) in the article in itself subconsciously signals indefiniteness?

    Afterall, there are no nasal vowels in the definite articles (le, la, les). This may be why I find (*)/ə kaje/ 'un cahier' strange because it starts to sound too much like /lə kaje/ 'le cahier'.

  28. Glen, the indefinite "des cahiers" manages just fine without nasals.

    Also, the vowel in "un cahier", even when denasalized, is (in Paris) certainly more open and less rounded than the one in "le cahier".

  29. And is not caduc! I don't think even allegrissimi speakers have a zero allomorph of un!

    Gadi said...
    I wasn't referring to prevocalic loss of nasal sound but rather specifically the pronunciation of the article un as like the schwa sound of a in English about even before a word beginning with a consonant.

    Of course you weren't referring to prevocalic loss of nasal sound in general, and I only did so a bit, to point out that it's lexically determined, and that 'un' appears to be moving into that set for which that prevocalic loss is lexically determined. It certainly does not follow from that that the allegro preconsonantal denasalized allomorph would become established as canonical, any more than bon appétit has led to bo' voyage!

    I mentioned my suspicion that other words perhaps more susceptible to allegro reduction, like mon, ton etc, which unlike bon enfant are supposed to retain their nasalization in mon enfant etc., might be going the same way as the denasalized un in un enfant, and/or (if it is primarily a feature of œ̃/ɛ̃) sequences like "commun appel" might start behaving more like "divin enfant", giving kɔmœnapɛl etc. Any chance of a Parisian perspective on that?

  30. Luke: "Glen, the indefinite "des cahiers" manages just fine without nasals."

    Yes, in the plural but this doesn't necessarily negate what I say of indefinite singulars. It was just an idle observation.

    Still denasalization in mon or un in prevocalic environments is all so very subtle. The difference between /mo nam/ and /mõ nam/ (mon âme), particularly in rapid speech, is minutial and subconscious. In those cases, I doubt the average speaker could ever tell the difference. I'm not even clear about what this even tells us about Future French.