Intonation refers to the rising and falling pitch that accompanies our pronunciation. Whereas the regular syllabic rhythm is French's percussion, rising and falling intonation is its melody. In order to understand what intonation is, consider the pronunciation of the following sentence:
Without intonation, it is impossible to know if this is a simple assertion (i.e.: a declarative sentence) or a question (i.e.: an interrogative sentence). In a way, intonation is like the punctuation of written French:
Generally speaking, a rising contour (↗︎) indicates continuation (i.e.: the speaker hasn't finished or is awaiting an answer), while a falling contour (↘︎) indicates finality (i.e.: the speaker has finished and it's the listener's turn to speak if they so desire).
Intonation is a complex subject and we will only provide a limited (and somewhat simplified) overview of French intonation in this guide (though it should be sufficient for you to use French intonation correctly).
Before determining the intonation pattern of a declarative (statement) sentence, you need to determine the number of syllables in the rhythm group. Let's consider the different possibilities:
One Group: Fewer than Three Syllables
Here, there is simply a falling pattern, e.g.:
One Rhythm Group: More than Two Syllables
Here, the peak is the second last syllable of the group, after which it falls, e.g.:
Be careful not to stress the second last syllable in such cases.
Two Rhythm Groups
When there are two groups, intonation rises and peaks at the end of the first group, then falls, e.g.:
Il nous a dit qu'elle était partie
Several Rhythm Groups
Here, the contour rises to the last syllable of each group, then falls during the last group, e.g.:
↗︎ ↗︎ ↘︎
Jean est parti hier soir
↗︎ ↗︎ ↘︎ ↘︎
Je pense que ton père est parti
↗︎ ↗︎ ↘︎ ↘︎
Marie fait ses devoirs avec son ami
The pattern generally used in interrogatives depends on the kind of question it is. Let's consider the possibilities ("Yes-No" questions, Question words, Est-ce que, Subject-verb inversion).
If the answer to the question is oui or non, then the pattern is rising, with the peak being on the last syllable, e.g.:
↗︎ ↗︎ ↗︎
Tu viens demain avec elle
Here, intonation is the only indication that it is a question since the word order used is the same as in declarative sentences.
Interrogative sentences formed with question words, i.e.: qui, que, quand, où and comment have falling intonation.
Où as-tu trouvé ton livre?
If the question is formed with Est-ce que, the pattern tends to be rising, e.g.:
However, it is not uncommon to find a falling pattern as well with Est-ce que, e.g.:
The last way one forms questions in French is to reverse the order of the subject and the verb, e.g.:
Here, the highest point of intonation is the last syllable of the last word.
Unlike English, intonation in French is applied to the rhythm group
(not the individual word). If involves changes in pitch (highs and lows). Consider the question Il est parti
? Here, the first and last vowel are both /i/, but the second is articulated with higher pitch because of the rising intonation contour.
Rising intonation tends to indicate continuation, e.g.: the speaker hasn't quite finished or indicates that a question is being formed with declarative word order. Many other kinds of patterns are found; our purpose here has been to provide an overview of the general patterns.