In French, only the 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, higher pitched, 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 (which has stress on the second and fourth syllable). The French stress pattern is much more regular and even.
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", i.e.: 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 unstressed 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 saw in the previous section that French words have their accent on the last syllable. That is true of words pronounced in isolation. However, we speak with groups of words. In French, these groups of words, called rhythm groups, share an accent and form a grammatical unit.
Consider the following sentence: Il est parti avec sa soeur avant l'aube. We can identify three groups here that go together: a) Il est parti; b) avec sa soeur; c) avant l'aube. Each one of these is a rhythm group and only the last syllable of each group is stressed:
Il est parTI avec sa sOEUR avant l'AUBE
We see therefore that French rhythm is very regular and predictable (unlike the irregular rhythm of English).
Rules for Identifying Rhythm Groups
When determining which words belong to a given rhythm group, keep the following points in mind:
a) groups are fairly short, i.e.; 3-4 syllables, never more than 7.
b) divide between a non-pronominal subject and a verb, e.g.: Mes amis / sont partis.
c) never divide between a pronoun and a verb, e.g.: Ils sont partis.
d) never divide between a preposition and a noun (group) e.g.: de mon ami, pour Marie.
e) never divide between a determiner and a noun, e.g.: mon ami, les enfants.
f) never divide between an adjective and a following noun, e.g.: premier enfant, mon meilleur ami.
There is some flexibility on where one divides, provided that the rules listed above are respected.
Here are some examples of possible and impossible breaks between groups:
Nous avons compris / la leçon.
Richard / adore / le fromage.
Les petits enfants / chantent.
Il travaille / sans arrêt.
Nous / avons compris. (Rule C above)
Richard adore le / fromage. (Rule E above)
Les petits / enfants. (Rule F above)
Je l'ai fait pour / ta mère. (Rule D above)
Teaching/Learning the Rhythm of French
When speaking French, it is important to respect its "regular" rhythm. To facilate learning, we suggest you pronounce the following, making sure that each syllable is the same (tap the beat with your hand if you'd like or use a metronome
un, deux, trois
un, deux, trois, quatre
un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq
Let's try the same thing with other words and build a sentence:
mon père a
mon père a dit
mon père a dit qu'il
mon père a dit qu'il vient
mon père a dit qu'il vient tout
mon père a dit qu'il vient tout seul
When doing this, you should almost sound "robotic", given the regularity of French rhythm. However, once you add French intonation (or pitch), your pronunciation will sound natural.
Now, if we take the last sentence, there are four rhythm groups: mon père / a dit / qu'il vient / tout seul. Remember that only the last syllable of each rhythm group is stressed (i.e.: a little bit longer).
Using the regular rhythm of French when you speak will make you easier to understand and will facilitate a correct pronunciation of vowels.