If you have taken any French diction course in your life, you know that in French there are 36 sounds to master and 15 of them are vowel sounds (and then you have 18 consonant sounds and 3 semi-consonant sounds). The most misunderstood of all French sounds is the “nasal” vowel sound. In the French language there are four:
- [ɑ̃] which is based on the french “dark a” sound as in the word “âme” (which means soul)
- [õ] which is based on a “closed o” sound like in the word “hôtel” (which means hotel)
- [ɛ̃] which is based on an “open ɛ” sound like in the word “mais” (which means but)
- [œ̃] which is based on the “o e” sound like in the word “chacun” (which means each)
When I say it is “based on”, I mean that the basic vowel takes up approximately 85 -90 percent of the nasal sound, depending on tessitura, and the rest is resonance which passes through the cavities that are found near the nose, in the yawn space, more or less in the center of your head, but not in your nose.
The reason a nasal vowel is called as such is because the consonants which follow the vowel in question are the nasal consonants n and m. In order to produce these consonants, you must pass through your nasal cavity. That being said, you should not pronounce the m or n in a nasal sound unless it is in a “liaison*”. The combination of a vowel plus the nasal consonant is why they are known as “nasal vowels” and not because they belong in your nose. The m or n that follows every nasalized vowel-letter is silent. A nasal vowel is just that, a vowel. It is not a vowel-plus-a-consonant, a sort of m or n, or the faint “ng” sound which is nonexistent in French.
While singing, if someone wishes to sound “as authentic as possible”, they tend to over-nasalize the French nasal sound which results in a much less resonant sound-actually it can cut your sound in half leaving you feeling stuck. Thinking of the appropriate basic vowel, and focusing your attention on it while letting the resonance take care of the rest, will be more conducive to proper singing and will sound much less stiff to the listener whereas exaggerated over nasalization sounds a bit comical.
Now that we have had a brief look at how a nasal vowel functions, when does the vowel loose it’s nasalization?
Rule: Any vowel-letter(s) followed by m or n is usually nasalized unless the m or n is followed by:
1. a vowel-letter or a vowel sound in the same word.
immense (which means immense) [imˈɑ̃sə]. The double “m” takes away the nasal.
2. an m, n, or h in the same word.
bonheur (happiness) [bɔˈnœr]. Although the word “bon” is most definetly nasalized, the word “bonheur” is not.
So whereas the vowel-sound of the word “sein” [sɛ̃] (meaning breast) is nasalized the name of the river flowing through Paris, the ‘Seine’ [sɛnə], is not, since the n is followed by a vowel-letter.
Denasalization usually does not occur between words or words in liaison: mon amour (my love) [mõn ͜ amur] As you can see, even if the n is pronouonced because it is in liaison, the o stays nasalized.
In these following instances, the nasal vowel stays intact even if the m or n is followed by another m or n:
emmener (to bring) [ɑ̃məˈne]-this word has a double m, but the nasal remains.
ennui (boredom) [ɑ̃ˈnɥi]-this word has a double n, but the nasal remains.
And remember what I said about this rule does not apply in liaison? There is an exception to that too (as there are exceptions to most French diction rules):
When you wish someone “Happy Birthday” in French, you say: “Bon anniversaire!”. The correct way to pronounce this is [bɔn ͜ anivɛrˈsair(ə)], without nasalization on the o or the a, but I notice that the pronunciation of this saying confuses the orthography and it is often wrongly spelled: bon
ne anniversaire. This of course cannot be, because “bonne” is the feminin form of the adjective “bon” and “anniversaire” is a masulin noun. So, we speak it one way, but it is written another way.
So the next time you want to write a message on your French friend’s social media, you can write “Bon anniversaire!” and you will know why we pronounce it differently than how it looks!🎂
*liaison: A liaison may occur only between a normally silent final consonant and an following vowel-sound. Ex: les ͜ amoureux (the lovers) [lɛz͜͜ ͜ amurø]