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When I was a young boy I was taught that en and an were pronounced the same despite being spelled differently.

For instance in

pendant mon enfance > /pɑ̃.dɑ̃ mɔ̃n‿ɑ̃.fɑ̃s/

The same applied to ein and ain

peint à la main > /pɛ̃.a.la.mɛ̃/

At the time I received the teaching without much questioning. But since then, whatever little exposure I gained from reading linguistics articles tells me that when spellings are different then phonetics must have been different as well at some point in the past.

So I'm sure that this question has received savvy explanations from specialists. Finger in the air I'd say that this is the result a the nasalisation of vowels found in French.

  • Is this true?
  • Was main /mɛ̃/ pronounced /meɪn/ in Ancient French as in present-day English?
  • When did nasalisation happen and why?

Quand j'usais mes fonds de culotte sur les bancs de l'école, j'ai appris qu'en dépit de leur différence orthographique en et an se prononcent de manière identique.

C'est le cas par exemple dans :

pendant mon enfance > /pɑ̃.dɑ̃ mɔ̃n‿ɑ̃.fɑ̃s/

Et il en est d'ailleurs de même pour la paire ein - ain. Comme dans :

peint à la main > /pɛ̃.a.la.mɛ̃/

A l'époque, j'ai admis ces règles sans trop poser de questions mais depuis cette époque, le vernis de connaissances linguistiques que j'ai glané au détour des mes lectures m'indique que quand une langue conserve deux orthographes différentes pour un même phonème, c'est souvent le signe d'une différence phonétique effective dans le passé mais disparue depuis.

Je suis donc persuadé que cette question a déjà été savamment et abondamment traitée par les spécialistes.

Pour ma part, et sans avoir réellement approfondi la question je serais tenté de mettre ce phénomène sur le compte de la nasalisation des voyelles en français.

  • Ma supposition est-elle juste?

  • Est-ce que par exemple en ancien français on prononçait main comme en anglais contemporain (/meIn/) ?

  • Et quand la nasalisation a-t-elle eu lieu, et pourquoi ?

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2 Answers 2

Is this true?

In some case it is false, there are random changes in spelling, and normed spelling is a rather modern thing. But in most cases, especially since the orthography of French has been designed to reflect its etymology, different spellings stem from different origins, and thus likely different pronunciations.

Was main /mɛ̃/ pronounced /meɪn/ in Ancient French as in present-day English?

As far as I know: no. Latin for main is manus. Since then it has evolved roughly like this [manum] > [manu] (II) > [maɛnu (III) > [maɛn] (VII-VIII) > [maĩn] (X) > [mẽn] (Xe-XIII) > [mɛ̃n > [mɛ̃]

When did nasalisation happen and why?

Phonemic nasalisation in French is in most cases due to retrograde assimilation : e.g. vinum > vinu > vin [win] > [vin] > [vɛ̃] (I don't know if it is the actual evolution.). The tables linked below give you the when: essentially between the XI and XIII century.

If you want more details, here is a summary of the nasalisation process in French with a detailed timeline of pronunciations. The site itself is a really good source for historical study of French, apart from that I use Noëlle Laborderie's Précis de phonétique historique.

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In some part of France, people pronounce 'an' and 'en' in a slightly different way, yet the difference is perfectly audible. Same applies to 'main' and 'vin' or 'brun', the pronounciation is now similar in modern french, but people who still speak in an older fashion, or use local dialect, pronounce them differently.

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1  
In what parts? I've never heard of variations on /ɑ̃/ (unlike /ɛ̃/ vs /œ̃/ which are different phonemes). –  Gilles Aug 20 '11 at 23:14
    
i don't know about phonetics, but I thought about some parts of the dauphiné or around Saint-Etienne (parler gaga).. –  Smugrik Aug 21 '11 at 8:02
    
@Gilles There is not many minimal pairs for [ɛ̃] ~ [œ̃]. In informal French (except in the langues d'Oc area), they are now considered free variations. –  Evpok Aug 21 '11 at 12:00

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