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Q&A

Why is “timbre” pronounced “tamber”?

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One thing that’s always bothered me about the musical term timbre is its pronunciation. The word begs to be pronounced “timber,” yet it’s widely pronounced “tamber” instead.

I understand the etymology of the word and why it’s spelled the way it is. My question is — why doesn’t the pronunciation match?

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French nasalized vowels were lowered from their original quality (i.e. in, im are pronounced [ɛ̃~æ̃~ɑ̃] instead of [ĩ]). In older borrowings (e.g. simple) the original close vowel is retained in pronunciation, but more recent words of French origin are borrowed from the contemporary pronunciation after the sound change. The same is true of the pronunciation of ingenue and sometimes absinthe.

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