Through the Nose: French Nasal Vowels

Nasal vowels combine with nasal consonants

Close up of woman's mouth and nose with hand up as if whispering
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When we speak of "nasal" vowels in French, we are referring to certain characteristically French vowel sounds that are produced by expelling air through the nose. All other French vowels sounds are pronounced mainly through the mouth, with no obstruction of the lips, tongue or throat.

Nasal Vowels and Nasal Consonants

Vowels followed by m or n, as in the words un, on and an, are nasal. Try to say them and you'll see that air is expelled primarily through the nose, not the mouth.

This doesn't hold true, however, when the nasal consonants m or n are followed by another vowel. In this case, the vowel and consonant are both voiced. For example:

un   nasal
une   voiced

There are also nasal vowels in English, but they are a bit different than French nasal vowels. In English, the nasal consonant ("m" or "n") is pronounced and thus nasalizes the vowel that precedes it. In French, the vowel is nasal and the consonant is not pronounced. Compare the following:

French  on  an
English  own  on

French Vowels in General

Overall, French vowels share a few characteristics: 

  • Most French vowels are pronounced further forward in the mouth than their English counterparts.
  • The tongue must remain tensed throughout the pronunciation of the vowel.
  • French vowels do not form diphthongs, which is a sound produced by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, in which the sound begins as one vowel and moves toward another (as in coin, loud and side ). In English, vowels tend to be followed by a "y" sound (after "a, e, i") or a "w" sound (after "o, u"). In French, this is not the case: The vowel sound remains constant; it does not change into a y or w sound. Thus, the French vowel has a purer sound than the English vowel.

In addition to nasal vowels, there are other categories of French vowels as well.

Hard and Soft Vowels

In French, a, o, and u are known as "hard vowels" while e and i are considered soft vowels, because of certain consonants (c, g, s) change pronunciation (hard or soft), in agreement with the vowel that follows them. If they're followed by a soft vowel, these consonants become soft as well, as in manger and léger. If they're followed by a hard vowel, they, too, become hard, as in the name Guy.

Vowels With Accent Marks

Physical accent marks on letters, a required feature of French orthography, can and often do change the pronunciation of vowels, as in the scores of French e's with either accent grave (pronounced eh) or the acute accent aigue (pronounced ay). 

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Team, ThoughtCo. "Through the Nose: French Nasal Vowels." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Team, ThoughtCo. (2021, December 6). Through the Nose: French Nasal Vowels. Retrieved from Team, ThoughtCo. "Through the Nose: French Nasal Vowels." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).