French Language Blog

French Phonetics (Part II) Posted by on Mar 16, 2015 in Uncategorized


Last week, we talked about how stressing syllables in French is different from the stresses you put on certain syllables in English.

This week, we will continue our discussion of la phonétique with l’intonation.

Intonation is not very complicated in French because it follows French accentuation. Intonation refers to the “melody” of a language, or the different pitch levels of speech. In Chinese, because it is a tonal language, the pitch you use when speaking will determine the meaning of the word. In French and English, of course, this is not the case.

The basic rule for proper intonation in French is this: The last syllable of each rhythmic group in the sentence should be pronounced at a higher pitch than the rest of the sentence. However, the final syllable in the last rhythmic group should be pronounced at a lower pitch.  The only exception to this rule is when you are asking a yes/no question: then the final syllable at the end of your sentence should be raised in pitch.

What does this mean? Basically, this means that for normal (not lengthy) sentences that are not yes/no questions, your pitch will always start higher in French and then fall. This is not always the case in English. Take a look at the examples below, where the highest pitch of the sentence is in bold:

Yes/No Question Are you staying? Est-ce que vous restez ?
Information Question Where are you going? est-ce que vous allez ?
Imperative Do it. / Don’t do it. Fais-le. / Ne le fais pas.
Exclamation What a surprise! Quelle surprise !
Declarative I bought a sweater. J’ai acheté un pull.

As you can see, for sentences of this length (that only have one rhythmic group), the only example that ends at a higher pitch is the yes/no question. All of the other examples in French start at a higher pitch and then fall lower.

Intonation is a great example of a phonetic rule in French that is easy to remember, but that can really make the difference in sounding like a native speaker. The rule for intonation in French is actually easier than learning what pitches to use when speaking in English!

Next week we will continue our discussion on French phonetics with l’accent tonique. However, if you would like to practice French intonation in the meantime, try humming out the French sentences above before trying to add in varying pitch to the words themselves. Once you have the pattern down with humming, then try to speak the sentences above while keeping the same pitch pattern.



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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!