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I have two questions that has been bugging me for quite some time.

Q1. Is french consonant t,k unaspirated? Example of aspirated t is 'tale', unaspirated 'style'.

Q2. Are French nasal vowels completely bilabial and produced with the tongue touching alveolar ridge? Or do you produced them midway in your mouth?

I have read in a book that vowels are naturally nasalised when preceded by nasal consonants. Then, how does french vowels are nasalised when it's in the end of a syllable and a word?

  • Welcome to French SE! Feel free to take the tour and visit the Help Center and continue to ask questions. – Luke Sawczak Jul 28 '17 at 13:21
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(1) Correct: No French consonants are normally aspirated. In English, not only [t] and [k] are aspirated, but also [p]. This is the natural class of voiceless stops. They are usually aspirated at the beginning of a word or stressed syllable except in certain clusters. Because this behaviour is allophonic and therefore unconscious, it's hard for English speakers to unlearn it in French.

Note that if you were speaking French, the word aspiration often refers to another phenomenon (an h aspiré is one that blocks elision and liaison). It can also have the meaning above, but the short Wikipedia article gives you an idea of how little the English meaning is needed in French phonetics.


(2) I'm not sure exactly what you mean, but I'll try to answer your question.

(a) By "bilabial" I suppose you mean "with rounded lips"? French certainly does have more rounded vowels than English: [y], [œ], [ø] for example. One reason these vowels are particularly salient for English speakers is that they are all front vowels, and we do not have rounding on any front vowel.

However, it's clear that French has plenty of unrounded vowels. If you compare [i] and [y] (lit / lu), [e] and [ø] (des / deux), [ɛ] and [œ] (sel / seul) you'll find that the first in each pair is not rounded.

[ɛ̃] is an example of a French nasal vowel that is not rounded.

(b) A vowel never has the tongue touching the alveolar ridge; that would be an obstruent. If you mean a front vowel, French has those, as we've just seen. But there are also vowels pronounced midway in the mouth (schwa) and vowels pronounced at the back (e.g. [o], [u]), like any language.

[ɔ̃] is an example of a French nasal vowel that is not articulated at the front of the mouth.

However, all French back vowels are rounded. Therefore, every French nasal vowel is either front or rounded. But they don't have to be both.


(3) (I read your last paragraph as a different question.)

Nasal vowels behave differently depending on the language. In English, nasal vowels are often the result of contact with other nasal segments. They are not contrastive; that is, they don't change the meaning. They are allophonic.

But owing to the history of French, nasal vowels are often left where a nasal consonant once was. Compare sais /sɛ/ vs. sain /sɛ̃/. Now, despite the spelling, neither word phonologically has an /n/ in the present day, so we can't attribute the nasality to assimilation or context. The story involves the history of French.

During this history, these syllable-final consonants disappeared and left the nasality on the vowel as their only trace. In fact, when the nasal consonant is still pronounced, the vowel is not nasal, oddly enough!

For example, in the word don the "n" is not pronounced, so the /ɔ/ is nasalized: /dɔ̃/

But in the word donne the "n" is heard, so the /ɔ/ is not nasalized: /dɔn/

A more thorough examination of how this happened is not fitting here. But you can read about some interesting exceptions here and here. Also see the end of Circeus's answer.

  • Thank you for your answer. It was very informative for a beginner like me. – Victoria Jul 28 '17 at 13:55
  • And I’m terribly sorry for my second question. I was mightily confused but then you both covered most of what I meant. I vaguely understand that French ‘em an en etc,’ is vowelised and it doesn’t even pronounce n,m, as found in ‘Pardon’ [paʀdɔ̃]. Still the vowel is nasalised even without the nasal consonants following it. And I still haven’t figured out how to pronounce /ɔ̃/. I find it difficult to nasalised the vowel alone and out of frustration I end up pronouncing /n/ or /m/ to produce the nasal effect. But that’s not how you do it, isn’t it? – Victoria Jul 28 '17 at 14:03
  • @Victoria No need to apologize for something you're still in the process of learning. I'd say that inserting a nasal consonant probably won't get you very far. Instead, since so much of prononunciation comes from the ear rather than consciously using the tongue, I'd recommend watching videos, either with Francophones speaking slowly for the learner's benefit, or explicitly teaching you how to make the sounds. Here's a good example of the latter (in French, but not too hard). The first couple minutes are pronunciation. – Luke Sawczak Jul 28 '17 at 14:15
  • And here is an example of the former. Even in the first minute (after the intro) the guy very clearly pronounces a bunch of nasal sounds, such as in "un stylo à encre" around 0:40. Or "Ces plantes sont blanches" at 2:37. Try pausing the video and repeating after him. – Luke Sawczak Jul 28 '17 at 14:17
  • These clips are really helpful. If it's okay, I'd like to ask just this one last question just in case. Is there any chance French speaker's tongue touches not even the velar? Like in 'Mon ami'...If so, I really think I can try and practice with the clips you recommended. – Victoria Jul 28 '17 at 16:04
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Q1: Yes. There are no phonetically aspirated consonants in French (yhis normally also includes /p/, which you forgot in your question). Aspiration does appear in a few onomatopoeia, however.

Q2a: You seem to have consonants and vowel confused. Vowels are, by definition, sounds produced the mouth open and without the tongue touching anywhere on the palate. The only difference between a regular and nasal realization of any given vowel is that there is simultaneous airflow through the mouth and nose.

Q2b: You are now confusing the pronunciation of nasal vowels in French and English. In English, vowels preceding a nasal tend to be nasalized automatically (they are allophones of the oral vowels), this is very noticeable if you listen closely to yourself pronounce words like engine, hang, or rum. In Standard French, the default is to nasalise only the vowels that are phonemically relevant to nasalise (cf. bru, brun, brun: /bry, brœ̃, bryn/).

The nasalization in words like même (often pronounce /mɛ̃m/ in Quebec French) or the fact that in southern dialects of French, nasal vowels function like in English (hence the addition of nasal consonants after the nasal vowel of standard french) are nonstandard.

  • Thank you so much for your answer. So the consonants /ptk/ is definitely unaspirated! – Victoria Jul 28 '17 at 13:49
  • About the second question: yes, I was greatly confused. I intended to ask whether 'en,an,em,on' pronunciation such as 'pardon' /paʀdɔ̃/ has a nasalised /ɔ̃/,etc even without nasal consonants n,m following it. Because I certainly don't see /n/ in 'pardon' and how to pronounce a nasalised vowel without n and m following it is quite challanging to me.. – Victoria Jul 28 '17 at 14:03
  • I'm afraid I'm really not qualified to teach you via computer how to fix your pronunciation of a sound you find yourself incapable of producing (but then I have never in my life been able to produce a proper thrilled r in Spanish and most english speakers will never manage to produce anything like a proper /y/, so everyone has those issues, I'd think) – Circeus Jul 28 '17 at 14:39

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