An excellent student challenged me on « européen » today. I had corrected his final /ɛ̃/ to /ɑ̃/ based on the spelling, but he wanted me to double-check.

Sure enough, WordReference claims it's /ɛ̃/! The Canadian recording also clearly aligns, though the French recording sounds a little more mid-mouth, perhaps halfway between the two (or maybe that's just the speaker's realization of /ɛ̃/). Other dictionaries agree: Wiktionary, Larousse, etc. But Forvo recordings present some variation, at least to my ears.

What's up? Is there one acceptable pronunciation or two? If it's /ɛ̃/, is that a modern change or has it always been thus?

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    Now that you have the excellent answer of Jiliagre: remember those lyrics by the singer Arno (not a native French speaker, though): putain, putain/c'est vachement bien/ nous sommes quand même tous des Européens: no doubt that that européen rhymes with putain... – Greg May 14 '20 at 5:42

To answer your questions, there is now only one acceptable pronunciation of européen in /ɛ̃/ but there used to be a pronunciation in /ɑ̃/ alongside the other one.

In the "langue savante", some words ending in -en or -ien were pronounced either /ɛ̃/ or /ɑ̃/ until the 18th century when /ɛ̃/ replaced /ɑ̃/ altogether. The words concerned were names of peoples or figures from the classical world that had anus in Latin. Européen, it seems, retained a dual pronunciation probably longer than the others.

We can quote Thurot in De la prononciation française depuis le commencement du XVIe siècle d'après les témoignages des grammairiens, published in 1883:

  • Nous avons vu ci-dessus (p.436) que les mots en ien dissyllabe, qui appartiennent en général à la langue savante, ne se prononçaient ian qu'à Paris. En ce qui touche les noms communs et les adjectifs, l'usage ne paraît avoir hésité que sur chrétienté et quotidien, mais il a longtemps été partagé entre ien et ian dans la prononciation des noms propres. La prononciation vulgaire ien [/jɛ̃/] tendait à l'emporter dans la seconde moitié du XVIIe siècle sur la prononciation savante ian [/ɑ̃/] ; D'Ablancourt (1654) dit dans la première des Remarques sur la traduction de Lucien : « Je dis Lucien et non pas Lucian, pour suivre la prononciation commune, puisque dans les langues aussi bien que dans la jurisprudence communis error facit jus. »

Thurot further cites Vaugelas (1585-1650):

  • Depuis peu d'années seulement nous faisons terminer en en [/ɛ̃/] la plupart des noms propres et plusieurs autres tirés du latin, où il y a un a et qui en latin finissent en anus, comme l'on disait autrefois Tertullian, Quintilian, Saint-Cyprian… mais aujourd'hui l'on prononce Tertullien, etc… Du temps de M. Coeffeteau [early 17th century], on disait les Pretorians, et il l'a toujours écrit ainsi, au lieu de dire pretoriens.

When it comes to européen, Hindret in L'art de prononcer parfaitement la langue françoise (1696) deals with exceptions to en pronounced as /ɑ̃/:

  • Exceptés aussi les dernières syllabes de ces mots, cananéens, caldéens, galiléen dont l'e de la syllabe en retient sa prononciation naturelle en latin, il ne faut donc pas prononcer caldéan mais caldéen. Le mot européen se prononce pourtant européan.

Voltaire, as late as 1755, has an interesting note in the dedicatory epistle to his play L'orphelin de la Chine. He writes in the dedication:

  • Comment les Chinois, qui au quatorzième siècle, et si lontemps auparavant, savaient faire de meilleurs poëmes dramatiques que tous les Européans, sont-ils restés toujours dans l'enfance grossière de l'art…

Here's his note:

  • Le Père Du Halde, tous les auteurs des lettres édifiantes, tous les voyageurs, ont toujours écrit Européans, et ce n'est que depuis quelques années qu'on s'est avisé d'imprimer Européens.

The issue was obviously contentious and the Académie felt it necessary to specify in its Dictionnaire (1762):

  • Européen, éenne. adj. Qui appartient à l'Europe. On ne dit point EUROPÉAN. C'est par cette seule raison que ce mot se met dans le Dictionnaire.

To finish, in view of one your remarks, I should also point out that there's a rather significant number of words with en or em in the middle of them that have /ɛ̃/ and not /ɑ̃/ as might be expected. Off the top of my head, appendice, Benjamin, pentagone and other compounds with the Greek root penta (but Pentecôte is /pɑ̃tkot/), benzène, benjoin (made famous by Baudelaire in the poem Correspondances), sempiternel (though /sɑ̃pitɛʀnɛl/ is probably heard more often), pensum, Gassendi, the philosopher, and probably other words as well.

  • A well-researched answer. For its thoroughness I'm going to accept it even after the fact. And I get to have my eyes opened a second time, this time in regards to "Benjamin"! Good grief... Ça va aller jusqu'à quel point avec cet /ɛ̃/ ?? :) – Luke Sawczak May 15 '20 at 14:48
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    On the prononciation of en in the middle of words with a Latin origin : bdl.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/bdl/gabarit_bdl.asp?id=4444 – Greg May 15 '20 at 20:15

I'm afraid you have to revert your correction.

The very large majority of the words ending in -en are pronounced /ɛ̃/ and the rest are pronounced /ɛn/ (e.g. amen, cérumen, golden, hymen, lichen, pollen). An obvious and possibly unique exception is the preposition or pronoun en always pronounced /ɑ̃/.

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    If so, this resolves a long-standing "knot" that had yet to come untied in my mind... according to the -en = /ɑ̃/ rule I had internalized, bien was an annoying exception! One day in a linguistics course, I remember my professor who happened to speak French (non-natively) corrected my /bjɛ̃/ to /bjɑ̃/. Perhaps that's why I've been inflicting this same mis-correction ever since. I'll leave this open a little longer before accepting only because of how surprised I am at missing such a basic thing, but thanks in advance. – Luke Sawczak May 13 '20 at 20:29
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    I guess a reason for the mistake is that when en is followed by a t like in argent, the /ɑ̃/ ending is no more an exception but very common. – jlliagre May 13 '20 at 20:39
  • Same for the other letters that can follow it (sens, tend). Not to mention it being pronounced /ɑ̃/ at the start and middle of words (entier, tendre, Cendrillon...) The end-of-word thing seems to me an odd phenomenon given the generally consistent behaviour of digraphs in French. – Luke Sawczak May 13 '20 at 21:44
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    @Greg There is also open pronounced either more an English way as /opən/ or a French one as /opɛn/. – jlliagre May 14 '20 at 13:14
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    I also thought of token, used in the IT industry - also pronounced /tokən/ or /tokɛn/. – Greg May 14 '20 at 13:24

Dictionaries are right to claim it's /ɛ̃/, but the realization of this phonem varies between France (where most francophones live) and Canada (also home to quite a few francophones, but whose variety of French shows quite a few distinct features that sets it apart from the cradle of the language).

The specific set of French phonems /ɛ̃/ and /ɑ̃/ were analysed by the French linguist Henriette Walter in some interesting ways.

Firstly, she mentioned that something quite striking for a French coming in contact with Quebeckers for the first time is the way they pronounce their “an” sounds: to the French ears, Quebeckers produce something very close to the way French people produce their “in”, i.e. vent from a Quebecker sounds somewhat like vin from a French, and similarly for pairs like sans/sein, temps/teint or plan/plein.

She then goes on to explain that Quebeckers also make the distinction between “an” and “in”, but that there's a shift between the two countries. She doesn't get into the IPA, but the more or less standard way of producing these 2 sounds for francophones in Quebec and Western Canada would be [ã] and [ẽ].

Secondly, she comments that the thickest French accents would tend to shift their realization of /ɑ̃/ partway (or even a good chunk of the way) towards [ɔ̃], which is a totally different direction than what it did in Quebec (again, [ã]). So a fair contrast exists between the two countries, opening the door to the interpretation of Quebecker's /ɑ̃/ as /ɛ̃/ (or vice versa from a Canadian point of view, but francophone kids in Quebec are usually much more exposed to France French than the other way around). In reality, the ear adjusts quickly to other's way of speaking, but the first contact can yield surprises.

Back to Européen: on both sides of the Atlantic, it rhymes with vin and not with vent. One way to force the rhyme with vent, if we really wanted to, could be to compose a song for two voices performing a dialog, one of which would be given to someone from France (producing Européen), and the other to someone from Quebec (producing vent). This is a bit of a setup, though, and while it could be made credible or plausible, this would be somewhat of a novel approach to the art of French poetry.

Ultimately, there's nothing wrong with pronouncing Européen the way it is pronounced in France, even as a French-language teacher in Ontario, but the whole discourse should also show clear signs of following this linguistic norm. Switching accent based on the word would be an unusual choice (...to say the least).

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