French Corrective Phonetics Guide

French Syllables

French Syllables

A syllable is a rhythmic unit that corresponds to one "beat" (like in music, e.g.: a waltz has three beats in a measure: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, etc.). Consider for example the word aller. While it has five letters and three individual sounds (or phonemes), i.e.: [ale], it has two syllables: [a-le] or beats when it is pronounced.

Rules for Dividing Words into Syllables

Every syllable has a vowel at its core and may contain one or more consonants. In order to identify the parts of a given syllable, the following rules will be of help:

a) single consonants belong to the following syllable. Consider the word beaucoup [boku]. It has two syllables, and the /k/ belongs to the second syllable: [bo-ku] . If you pronounce this word slowly, you will see that this is the case.

b) if a word has consecutive vowels (that are pronounced), divide between them, e.g.: aéroport = [a-e-ʁɔ-pɔʁ]

c) if a word has two consonants in a row, divide between them unless the second is "L" or "R", e.g.: capsule = [kap-syl] or partir = [paʁ-tiʁ]

d) if the second consonant is "L" or "R", both belong to the next syllable, e.g.: caprice = [ka-pris] or problème = [pʁɔ-blɛm]

Open and Closed Syllables

For a variety of reasons (e.g.: the "Loi de position" and unstable "E"), we need to distinguish open and closed syllables. An open syllable is a syllable that ends in a vowel, while a closed syllable is a syllable that ends in a consonant. Let's consider the words from the previous section and see which syllables are open and which are closed:

beaucoup [bo-ku]: both syllables are "open"

aéroport [a-eɔ-pɔʁ]: the first three syllables are "open"; the last one is "closed".

capsule [kap-syl]: both syllables are "closed"

partir [p-t]: both syllables are "closed"

caprice [ka-pʁis]: the first syllable is "open", the second is "closed"

problème [pʁɔ-blɛm]: the first syllable is "open", the second is "closed"

Keep in mind that the distinction is based on the actual sounds (or phonemes) and not on the letters of the alphabet.

Stressed Syllables

In French, only last syllable of an individual word can be "stressed" (or "accentuated"), which means it stands out since it is a little longer than the other syllables. In English, stressed syllables are very different from unstressed ones since they are longer and pronounced with greater energy. Furthermore, English stress is unpredictable since it can be found at the beginning, middle or end of a word. Some English words may even have more than one stressed syllable, e.g.: aristocratic. In contrast, the French stress pattern is much more regular.

Consider the word Canada in English and French. In English, the first syllable is stressed: "CA-na-da" , while the last one is stressed in French: "Ca-na-DA" . However, that is not the only difference. Since English stressed syllables are pronounced with a great deal of energy, the vowels of the other syllables are "reduced", e.g.: the  pronunciation is actually [kæ-nə-də]. Only the first syllable has a true "A" vowel; the other two are diminished since they are much shorter and pronounced with little energy. Recall that stressed syllables in French are not much different than stressed one. As such, it is important that vowels in stressed AND unstressed syllables be pronounced in the same way, e.g.: [ka-na-da]. Remember, the only difference in French is that the last syllable is a little longer.

We provide more information about French stress in the section on rhythm groups.


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