I know little about French, but I have a question about French phonology.

I saw that French has a rule of vowel nasalisation, which nasalises a vowel before an [n] in the same syllable. After vowel nasalisation, there is an n-deletion rule, which deletes [n] if it appears in the coda after a nasalised vowel. And finally, there is a schwa-deletion rule, which deletes foot-final [ə], so that the feminine forms do not have a schwa on the surface.

For example, the musculine "plein"[plɛ̃] and the feminine "pleine" [plɛn]. Their underlying forms are /plɛn/ and /plɛn-ə/.

However, it is said that there are also many words in French like "onde" [ɔ̃də], which only have a nasalised vowel, instead of an oral vowel following an [n]. Its underlying form is not /ɔndə/, like the "plein" does.

Then what is the underlying form of [ɔ̃də]?

1 Answer 1


The particular linguistic hypothesis to which you refer posits that nasal vowels are the result of an underlying /VN/ (where V is any vowel and N any nasal consonant, not just /n/) in the same syllable.

So plein in this analysis is underlyingly //plɛn// (one syllable) while pleine is //plɛ.nə// (two syllables). The nasalition process then affects the syllable //plɛn// but not //plɛ//, yielding /plɛ̃/ and /plɛ(ː)n(ə)/.

Applying this analysis to onde then, we'd start with an underlying //ɔn.də//, yielding //ɔ̃.də// after the nasaltion rule, then /ɔ̃d(ə)/ once the optional schwa deletion rule is applied.

I'll note that this analysis, like all hypotheses who try to posit that a diachronic sound change has become a synchronic phonological operation, is really vulnerable to exceptions to the sound change and to later changes or borrowings. Even ignoring newer loanwords, one issue are words such as hymne /imn/ (that was /i.nə/ at the time nasalisation happened, with the /m/ inserted later by reading pronunciation), that this hypothesis would predict should be pronounced /ɛ̃n/ (from an underlying //im.nə//). Another are pairs such as ennui /ɑ̃.nɥi ~ ɑ̃.nwi/ and innoui /in.nu.i/ or /i.nu.i). If you posit that the underlying form of ennui is /an.nʏ̯i/ (as you'd have to do to explain its nasal vowel by this hypothesis), then the absence of nasalisation of the geminate form of innoui becomes puzzling.

  • Thanks a lot! Then /ɔ̃də/ itself could also be a possible underlying form since people usually don't have access to the diachronic information and nasalised vowels also exist in the underlying inventory of French.
    – Phon
    Apr 8, 2021 at 21:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.