Nasal vowels

Nasal vowels are sometimes (but not always) marked by a ~ sign, as in irmã (“sister”), coração (“heart”), nações (“nations”). Nasalization can actually change the meaning of a word: pau (not nasal) means “wood”, but pão (the same vowel sound, but nasal) means “bread”.

Although nasals might seem exotic, they’re not unique to Portuguese. While they don’t exist in Spanish, they’re all over the place in French! You usually see them with vowels that come before an n or m, as in bonen passant or l’indifférent.

It’s the same thing in Portuguese — vowels that come before an n or m are always nasal, even if they aren’t marked by a ~ sign: entre (“between”), entender (“to understand”), implicante, eles compram (“they buy”). In these cases, the n or m sound shouldn’t actually be pronounced, it’s just a signal that the preceeding vowel is nasal. In fact, the Portuguese word bom (“good”) is almost identical to the French bon. You do not actually bring your lips together to form the m in bom, just like you don’t touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth to pronounce the n in bon.

The best way I’ve found to describe how to make the nasal sound is this: Say the English word “bringing” and notice how when you say “ng” your soft palate in the back of your mouth closes off. Once you notice what’s going on you can actually practice opening and closing your soft palate by saying “ng” over and over. When you close the soft palate, it lets the sound resonate in the nasal cavity instead of the mouth. Then practice saying the Portuguese word bom, but imagine that it’s actually pronounced with that “ng” sound at the end, like “bong”. Say the “ng” at the end very lightly, silently even, just enough to close off your soft palate so that the o sound becomes nasal. Again, it should sound similar to the French bon.

Now try another word: compram. Remember that the m at the end of each syllable should not be pronounced, it’s only there to make the sound nasal. Pretend you are actually saying “congprang” to get a nice nasal a at the end. Saying it this way also keeps you from closing your lips to pronounce the m‘s, which, remember, are always silent when they occur at the end of a syllable. It should sound quite similar to the French je comprende, except that the stress is on the first syllable: COMpram.

When you nasalize vowels, they change their vowel quality a little bit. The one that does this the most, to my ear, is nasal [a]. It changes from a pure open Spanish/Italian aah to more of a closed nasal uhh sound. The best example of this is Copacabana.

6 Responses to Nasal vowels

  1. Anikka says:

    This is a very helpful explanation of an essential but tricky feature of Portuguese.

    My question is: for how long — if at all — does one pronounce the “essential” sound of the vowel before making it nasal? If it’s 100% nasal from the beginning, how does the speaker differentiate one vowel from another? It seems to me there would need to be a little bit of enunciation of the actual vowel sound without nasality or the character of the vowel would be lost.

    Would you be kind enough to clarify?

    By the way, thank you for this extraordinary website. It’s an amazing resource!

    • Lauren says:

      Hi Annika! To my ear, the nasal vowels are indeed 100% nasal, and while the nasality does make them a little less distinct, it doesn’t obliterate the basic sound of the vowel, so it is possible to tell them apart. To an english ear, it almost sounds like the vowel is followed by the “ng” sound. It’s hard to hear/produce at first, but with lots of exposure to the language, it does become easier!

    • André says:

      Hello, I’m Brazilian and I can say that from what I hear nasal vowels are indeed 100% nasal from the beginning. We differentiate them by the acoustics produced by the nasalization, but the tongue position when producing the nasal vowels is the same for oral vowels (except for the nasal “a”, where the tongue is a bit higher than the oral “a”) and the air flows simultaneously through the mouth and nose. Some experts say that they are separate phonemes, some say they are variants of an oral vowel, but that does not disqualifies their vowel character. Either way, it is an important feature of Portuguese language, as there are many pairs of words that the only audible difference is the nasalization itself.

  2. neve francis says:

    Spanish does have nasal sounds in its letter ñ

    • Thoth says:

      “ñ”, “n”, and “m” are nasal consonants not nasal vowels.

      • Bruno E. says:

        Yes. But also, Spanish does have non-phonemic nasal vowels, that speakers do not perceive as nasal. Any vowel, diphthong, or tripthong in between two nasal consonants, or after a silence and before a nasal consonant is effectively pronounced nasal, ex:
        amamantar > ãmãmãntaɾ
        Moreover, Caribbean and other coastal varieties of Spanish have very strong vowel nasalization in words that end in a nasal consonant, ex:
        bien > biẽŋ or biẽ
        It is very hard for a Spanish native speaker to actually hear the nasalization here, just as it is for English speakers to hear nasalization in “Ben” as opposed to “bed”.

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