L'accent tonique

A golden thimbleSome thoughts on the difficulties of understanding and speaking French.

I used to subscribe to the audio series "Champs-Elysées", Note 1  and on one of their tapes (yes, it was tape cassettes at the time), a word popped up which sounded like "dédor". It was in the context of an award being given in the fashion industry. With "Champs-Elysťes", you get a transcript of the tape, so I looked it up. The actual expression was "dé díor", meaning "golden thimble" (or, word for word, "thimble of gold).

My immediate problem was that I had not previously known that "" was the word for "thimble". But on a deeper level, a problem with spoken French is that, for various reasons, itís very hard to separate the words in a spoken stream. And separating the words is the first step in understanding a sentence.

One of the reasons is that most final consonants in French are not pronounced at all. Another is la liaison, which attaches the final consonant from one word, modified, to the beginning of the next (running them both together). But perhaps the major reason French words run together is the lack, in French, of what in linguistics is called a "tonic stress" (in French, "líaccent tonique").

In English, the tonic stress is very important. It moves around as a word is varied, and itís important for speakers to get it right. Thus, for example (showing the stressed syllable in bold capitals):

"Photograph" is pronounced /FOE-te-graf/

"Photographic" is pronounced /foe-te-GRA-fic/

"Photographer" is pronounced /fe-TOG-re-fer/

In every English word of more than one syllable, one of the syllables must carry the tonic stress. That syllable is pronounced at a higher pitch, slightly louder, and it's held a bit longer. Which syllable is stressed is a major part of distinguishing the above variations on "photograph" when you hear them, as the actual endings added, "ic" and "er", are themselves very short. And if, in a sentence, you hear two stressed syllables, you know thereís a word division in between somewhere.

Alone among all the languages I know, French has no tonic stress on individual words. Instead, in French, the stress falls on the last syllable of a group of words united by their meaning. Other Romance languages have tonic stress on individual words. In Spanish itís so important that if the stress doesnít fall in a standard position, the stressed syllable is marked with a written accent mark. In Italian, itís not marked (unless itís on the last syllable), but youíd better know where it is (as in English).

Only in French is it lacking, which can cause all the words in a spoken sentence to run together, as if they were one word. Showing the stress:

Je vais aller à líuniversité deMAIN. Note 2

If that were an English sentence, it would probably be read:

Je vais ALLer à líuniVERsité DEmain.

For all the above reasons, if in a spoken French sentence you encounter a word you donít know, then you donít know where it ends. Then you donít know where the next word begins, and you risk losing the entire rest of the sentence. In other languages, particularly Germanic languages like German and English, you have a better chance of actually hearing the divisions between the words.

Above, I've addressed some of the difficulties in hearing French - that is, in deciphering spoken French. In the other direction, French is not the easiest language to speak, for an English speaker. It has a lot more sounds than Spanish and Italian, and some of them, for a native English speaker, are very odd and hard to produce. There's the French "U" sound, a "front rounded vowel", of which English has none. There are the French "nasal vowels", "en" (or "an"), "in", "on", and "un", in which some of the air goes through the nose. There are other odd sounds, like "oeil". And famously, there's the French "R", a uvular trill which is basically gargled. I can produce it, but only on a good day, if my mouth is not too dry. The inimitable American humorist Dave Barry calls "R" "the French code letter". In one of Barry's pieces, when a waiter suspects that a client is American, he asks the client to pronounce the name of the French city "Rouen" (a name that starts with a French "R", and ends with a nasal vowel). The best the American can do sounds like "WOON".

Having studied French, Spanish, and Italian, I find them to be quite similar, and of about equal difficulty, in their vocabularies and grammar. But French, in my estimation, is much harder to understand when spoken, and harder to speak.

Note: I sent an earlier version of this entry to Kristin Espinasse, who is my blogging idol - she posts not once a week, but in fact three times a week, on her excellent blog "French Word-A-Day". Thus these thoughts were first seen on the Internet on June 24, 2009, when Kristin posted them at:



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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted January 15, 2010

Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   "Champs-Elysées" was a French language audio magazine published by a Nashville, Tennessee company of the same name. On a regular basis, subscribers received a tape cassette (and later an audio compact disc) with a recorded French audio program. It was accompanied by a complete written transcript of the program, with a glossary containing notes on difficult words and information about people, places, and events that might not be familiar to an American audience. It was a great way of improving your facility with French, although it took a fairly high level of comprehension to be able to understand it at all (the French was full speed).

The company eventually produced similar series in three other languages: "Puerta del Sol" (Spanish), "Acquarello italiano" (Italian), and "Schau ins Land" (German). They had a web page at www.champs-elysees.com/. But don't click on it - in May of 2010, the site was shut down, apparently due to a lawsuit prompted by a family feud over ownership. If you're interested, you can learn more about it here and here.   [return to text]

Note 2:   This sentence means (in case you care): "I am going to go to the university tomorrow."   [return to text]