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When some native speakers pronounce “matin”, which is listed in most dictionaries as [ma.tɛ̃], the nasalized vowel is substantially more back and open than ɛ. This seems much more common than not in Switzerland and in many parts of France. The Wikipedia comments that this sound is [æ̃] in some dialects, but to me, it seems farther back: the characteristics of the two vowels in “matin” are identical except that the second vowel is nasalized (or, if anything, the nasal vowel is farther back than the oral vowel).

(However, in other parts of France I have heard [ma.tɛ̃] pronounced as given in the dictionary.)

My questions are:

Is my analysis of this vowel as being much farther back than the dictionary suggests correct? Do French speakers perceive that this is a significant difference in pronunciation? Which pronunciation would you recommend that a French learner adapt?

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2 Answers

The vowel sound you need for the nasalized vowel is given to you by the phonetic symbols.

  • ɛ̃ (pain, brin, …) ← ɛ (brève, bête, …)
  • ɑ̃ (entre, antre, …) ← ɑ (pâte, tâche, …)
  • œ̃ (brun, jeun,… ) ← œ (heure, œuf, …)
  • ɔ̃ (pont, pompe…) ← ɔ (pomme, motte, …)

Little difference is made between ɑ and a in many regions, so your suggestion of a nasalized version of the vowel a from matin would be closer to ɑ̃ than to ɛ̃, but ã is not a phoneme in French.

Parisian accent merges ɛ̃ (unrounded) and œ̃ (rounded) into a middle æ̃; it's for them actually impossible to distinguish brin from brun. (You can find the associated vowel æ on the vowel chart, but it should really be interpreted in this case as an open-mid that is exactly between ɛ̃ and œ̃). So you will be understood even if you don't make a distinction between those two, and I believe this is what your question was about.

Since ɛ and æ are English vowels, I'd say that for an English speaker ɛ̃ and æ̃ are the most easily accessible. So:

  • if you want to sound Parisian: you can use [æ̃] for both /ɛ̃/ and /œ̃/.
  • but if you are a respectable person: use [ɛ̃] for /ɛ̃/ (the one in matin), and you can use [æ̃] as a substitute for [œ̃], which makes them distinct. This way, when you'll learn the more precise [œ̃] sound later, you will already know which words use which sound.
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There is so many difference in the way to pronounce vowels...

I am not myself sure to pronounce matin in the same way at work or at home. What I am sure on the contrary, is that I will use the same phonemes for matin, cinq and calin.

I have counted 9 possible confusions: matheux, matou, maton and with conjugates of the verb mater (matant, mater, matait,...). Nothing that looks like a nasal central mid-vowel. So you can use any sound as long as it is nasal and non clearly articulated, something between in* (of brin) and un (of brun).

As a swiss speaker, I don't think I'll even take this as a regionalism differentiation, we have much more clear markers.

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