A nasal vowel is a vowel that is produced with a lowering of the velum so that air escapes both through the nose as well as the mouth. By contrast, oral vowels are vowels without this nasalization. As explained below, nasal vowels that are distinctive or obligatory are of far more linguistic importance than whether or not speakers of a language tend to redundantly nasalize vowels in some instances. Relatively similar languages in the same branch of a language family differ on this point quite frequently throughout the world. (For example, Spanish and Portuguese.)
In most languages, vowels that are adjacent to nasal consonants are produced partially or fully with a lowered velum in a natural process of assimilation and are therefore technically nasal, though few speakers would notice. This is the case in English: vowels preceding nasal consonants are nasalized, but there is no phonemic distinction between nasal and oral vowels (and all vowels are considered phonemically oral). However, the word "huh?" is generally pronounced with a nasal vowel.<ref>huh. Collins American English Dictionary. HarperCollins Publishers Limited. Accessed October 4, 2014.</ref>
In French and Portuguese, by contrast, nasal vowels are phonemes distinct from oral vowels, since words that differ mainly in the nasal or oral quality of a vowel exist. For example, the French words beau /bo/ "beautiful" and bon /bõ/ "good" differ only in that the former is oral and the latter is nasal. (To be more precise, the vowel in bon is slightly more open, leading many dictionaries to transcribe it as /ɔ̃/.) The Portuguese words rim ("kidney") and ri ((he) "laughs", or (I) "laughed") differ only in that the former's vowel is nasal. Although loan words exist from French which contain nasal vowels (e.g. "croissant"), there is no expectation that an English speaker would have to nasalize these vowels to the extent French speakers do. Likewise, pronunciation keys in English dictionaries do not always indicate nasalization of French loan words.
Diphthongs can also be nasalized. For example, the Portuguese pronunciation of the city of São Paulo uses the very common nasal diphthong ão (IPA: /ɐ̃w/). Its closest corresponding oral diphthong is au [aw] (found in the word Paulo), and is similar to the English ow, as in now.
Nasal vowel sections
Intro Suprasegmental and transitional nasal vowels Vowel height and nasalization Degrees of nasalization Orthography Example languages See also Notes
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