French Language Blog

L’accent tonique (French Phonetics III) Posted by on Mar 23, 2015 in Grammar

Hello everyone! Today, as promised, we will be going over l’accent tonique, or the tonic accent, which has to do with stressing a particular word in a sentence for emphasis.

As you’ve read in the previous posts in this series on French phonetics, in French you don’t stress individual words to emphasize them. Rather, word stress follows a particular pattern, or rhythm, with the last syllable of words at the end of rhythmic groups (or regular phrases) being stressed. Word and syllable stress in French, then, does not alter the meaning of a word or of a sentence.

Rather, the way a French speaker emphasizes certain words in his or her speech is through using the tonic accent. There are three basic ways you can use the tonic accent in French. In the following examples, emphasized words are in bold. 

1. Put the word you are emphasizing at the beginning or end of the sentence.

This would be very repetitive in English, but is grammatically correct in French.

For example, let’s say you want to say something like: He didn’t say anything to me.

In French, you would emphasize the “he” by saying this: lui, il ne m’a rien dit or il ne m’a rien dit, lui.

The literal translation of the example above in English would be “Him, he didn’t say anything.” This is not grammatically correct in English, of course, but in repeating the pronoun in French, you emphasize it in the sentence.

2. Use the construction c’est…que/qui for emphasis.

Taking the previous example above (“He didn’t say anything to me”), with no emphasis at all in French, this would be: il ne m’a rien dit.

As demonstrated above, you could change this to: lui, il ne m’a rien dit or il ne m’a rien dit, lui

However, you could also totally change the construction of the sentence for increased emphasis using c’est…que/qui. The example sentence, then, would turn into this: C’est lui qui ne m’a rien dit.

Here’s another example: A purse was stolen! (un sac à main a été volé!)

Using the first rule above, you could place emphasis by repeating the word: un sac, un sac a été volé!

However, you could also completely change the construction of the sentence for emphasis, following the second rule: C’est un sac à main qui a été volé!

3. For very strong emphasis, combine both rules one and two above.

For example, Lui, c’est lui qui a volé mon sac! In English, this would mean “It’s him, he stole my purse!”

Check out the video below of the famous French comic Pierre Desproges’ sketch, called “Accents toniques,” and see if you can hear him using the tonic accent! Let me know in the comments below.

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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!